The blogosphere is worked-up again, this time over recent changes to Facebook Groups. Although I am skeptical, Facebook Groups is worth watching because the opportunities it could enable are huge. Here’s why.
Many enterprises have been struggling to use their intranets for more than just pathways to applications or conduits for downloading documents (an intranet-as-plumbing approach). One of the biggest barriers to enabling a collaborative intranet has been the lack of a widely recognized online group interaction metaphor. In other words, many people do not see intranet-based group collaboration as something that is worth their time to learn. A big contributor to this attitude is that each product delivers a different online experience (SharePoint vs. Notes vs. eRoom, etc.). E-mail is popular because everyone knows how to use it (and most use it in their personal life). Even when e-mail first emerged, most people were able to figure it out because it is based on a familiar interaction pattern (a letter sent within an envelope).
Established group collaboration patterns are based on physical presence (like a meeting) and getting people to think beyond these patterns has been difficult. Groupware, workspaces, wikis, and even instant messaging have long been able to provide decent online group collaboration. There are no technical reasons why these products aren’t more commonly used on intranets. In other words, many IT curmudgeons will tell you there is nothing new in Facebook Groups (and they are right, up to a point).
For me, the biggest reason Facebook is exciting (from an enterprise perspective) is because it is establishing a new widely recognizable online interaction pattern (consisting of streams of status messages and activity notifications). Enterprise collaboration products that have been providing group-focused workspaces for many years are being refitted to tap into the broad familiarity of Facebook. If they can provide something that behaves like Facebook then people will be more comfortable using it and will more easily recognize its benefits. The rebranding of enterprise wikis as enterprise social software is just one example of where this is happening. If Facebook Groups succeeds then expect enterprise products to soon follow by providing similar experiences.
Personally, I would love to see Facebook Groups succeed. Not for the sake of Facebook, but for the sake of enterprises trying to use their intranets for something like Facebook.