Business Management

Facebook at Work and the Problem with Consumerisation of IT

Yesterday there popped up more stories about the Facebook at Work project: it appears that the service is being trialled in London, sparking much talk about its potential to displace traditional enterprise collaboration software. I don’t know whether FaW is a good service or not, having only heard the same morsels of information that you probably have. But I do think it’s time that some tougher questioning was applied to the notion that the consumerisation of IT is an entirely positive phenomenon.

There’s no doubt that consumer internet services have had a big effect on business software user interface design. You only have to look at SuccessFactors to see the way that using some of the tricks of social media can make for a very smart HR system or employee performance management tool.  It makes sense for business software companies to use elements of the look and feel of social networking sites as these sites have become familiar to people all over the world. Many of us now know how to share content, show approval and comment on content. Best of all, search tools have made it simpler to find sources of expertise in our organisations and across our networks thanks to search and potted biographies.

It’s also clear that taking inspiration from services such as micro-blogging to create Twitter-like business communications (Salesforce.com’s Chatter and Tibco’s Tibbr, for example) are sensible ways to blend the best of consumer and enterprise collaboration systems.

But it may be that some of the loftier claims for the consumerisation of IT are overcooked. The needs of an enterprise, hospital, school, university or social services system are very different to those of an individual. It is said that politics is about the art of the possible but that ‘art of the possible’ also applies more widely to many important activities where decisions need to be made through governance processes with peer reviews and person-to-person interaction involved.

This is doubtless dull and clunky for a generation brought up with instant verdicts and contempt for old ways of doing things. But it’s notably how the paradigms of consumer services fall down when it comes to deep argument. The tools as well as the participants often lead to the snap personal ad hominem attacks that are counterproductive and embarrassing for all involved. It’s not Twitter’s fault that people express loathsome, ignorant opinions, for example, but the 140-character limit and the binary option to share or approve of statements certainly doesn’t always encourage serious engagement.

A person’s opinion on parliamentary democracy, freedom of movement, the ability of a candidate to perform an important job can’t be reduced to a ‘like’ or retweet. An emoticon is not enough to convey sympathy when firing a person. A forum is not an ideal venue for complex decision-making such as a change of business strategy.

Too often, the old IT tools have been found wanting in enterprises, layering on tools with a scary user experience to match. Knowledge management systems rarely worked as intended, ERPs could be hostile in the extreme to non-specialists. But out of this environment came the need for people to meet to explain ostensibly arcane and obscure data.

Today we have systems that can get rid of lots of complexity and obfuscation but they are only tools and they are not a panacea to what was presided before. The movement towards consumerisation, distance collaboration, automated decision-making and so on can go too far the other way. Take gamification where employees are reduced to customers of a glorified arcade: a top-score on the board of sellers might appear good but what if that achievement has been gained at the expense of the broader company good?

Replacing one chaotic approach with a juvenile model that reduces decisions to single clicks, encourages selfish behaviour and prefers to keep employees happy at whatever cost to management, experience or common sense is ridiculous. What’s needed is a mix-and-match approach where consumer tropes inform and supplement the rigour of heavyweight systems, people and processes.

Often in technology, commentators use the word “disruptive” with the implication that disruption is desirable and the equation that ‘old stuff = bad, new stuff = great. In the real world, that’s not always the case.


Martin Veitch is Editorial Director at IDG Connect


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Martin Veitch

Martin Veitch is Contributing Editor for IDG Connect

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