It will hardly be the first company to try. Facebook's reported new service is yet another sign of how much the tech industry sees the workplace as fertile ground for innovation. Professional tasks like online recruiting and job hunting can be laborious and time-consuming. And many workplaces still relegate internal collaboration to e-mail, despite its limitations.
Even those companies that have adopted an "enterprise social network," as some of the newer collaboration tools are called, still struggle with getting workers to use it effectively. A 2013 report from Deloitte predicted that 90 percent of Fortune 500 companies would have partially or fully launched a social network for their business by the end of last year. Yet Deloitte's own research found that between 20 and 30 percent of employees don't sign up for it if registration is required, and that just 40 percent of those who do register will make a single post within an average month. Those numbers, the report states, "reflect the challenges companies have always faced popularizing internal networking technologies."
That could give Facebook something of an advantage, given how popular the site already is with consumers. The Financial Times reports that the new site will function much like Facebook already does, but will let users keep their personal and professional profiles separate, so that workers' posts about project updates and meeting notes won't mix with their Halloween costume photos and cat videos. People's familiarity with the original network, however, could make it less difficult for companies to lure them onto its sister platform. (Facebook declined to comment for this story.)
Even so, Facebook will confront plenty of competition from tech companies that have long been trying to revamp the outdated workplace with tools for collaborating and communicating professionally. There is the professional social network LinkedIn, of course, as well as a growing market of industry-specific professional sites. Google offers a host of widely used and well-known collaboration tools. Two years ago, Microsoft paid $1.2 billion in cash for Yammer, which offers private social networks for employees. Salesforce.com has Chatter. And there are several messaging tools aimed at business users — including Slack, by Flickr co-founder Stewart Butterfield, which has been getting lots of recent attention.
One of the earliest players in the market was IBM, which launched its first social network for business clients back in 2007, after years of using a proprietary one in-house. "A lot of our clients were coming to us, seeing these social tools on the consumer side, but needing additional levels of requirements that those consumer tools weren't hitting [such as compliance and data security]," said Suzanne Livingston, the senior product manager for IBM Connections. IBM, which has the largest market share in the industry, according to IDC, says its product is used by three out of four Fortune 100 companies.
There is a lot of interest in such products, and the tech industry is responding. Yet the challenge for companies that offer them won't just be getting past concerns about social networks at work, but making sure the tools actually help people do the real work that needs to get done. "You can make a piece of technology as easy to use with an many features as possible," Livingston said, "but if a company doesn't know what to use it for — how to change the work people are actually performing — that's where it can get into trouble."