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Facebook’s Workplace is probably dead on arrival

On October 10, Facebook debuted its long-incubated and much-anticipated platform for business: Workplace. But within days it was already clear that it wasn't going to live up to the hype. In fact, there's no way it could have.   

This is not meant as a snub of Facebook. It makes perfect sense that Mark Zuckerberg would want his platform to become as popular for work as it is for fun. It has even made some initial converts. Hootsuite CEO Ryan Holmes defended Workplace – which he has implemented at his offices – in a Fast Company article because it represents "part of a broader wave of the consumerisation of IT." 

And Holmes is right about that trend – one that can be traced right back to the introduction of email, which is the single most consumer-centric application of the internet age and the bedrock of enterprise productivity.   

Let’s get real: The odds of a company dropping email in favour of Workplace are…well… zero. Why? Because only other users of Workplace can communicate through that platform. Why would your clients, partners, prospects and other contacts toggle over to Workplace to write comments and participate in conversations when they are already in touch with you via email? It just ain’t happening. 

The enterprise collaboration roadside is littered with previous pretenders to the email throne: Google+, Yammer, Apple's Ping, several products from Cisco... the list goes on and on. 

A big tent where everyone is welcome

The reason boils down to universal access and standards: Email has become ubiquitous because of the SMTP standards that enable any vendor’s email server to work with any of its rivals. While you still have to pick an email supplier, you don’t have to bet upon a proprietary ecosystem of products that only work with your email vendor. It's truly a big tent where everyone is welcome.    

In contrast, this new generation of instant messaging platforms, social networks or even CRM providers are not trying to interoperate with rivals. Facebook Workplace won't talk to Slack, which won't talk to Salesforce, which won't talk to... you get the picture. Each of these vendors is offering connectors to consume data from other sources, but they want you to get all the information via their platform, so they can become the primary conversation cloud and, in effect, own your data. Email doesn't want that – it merely asks, "Who do you want to reach?" And then it delivers.   

In three years, Slack usage has blossomed from 16,000 to nearly 6 million weekly active users, with 1.25 million of them paid seats. So how do we explain the success of Slack, which is a proprietary collaboration solution? The reality is that Slack has tapped a niche of users who like persistent chat as a way of communicating in workgroup settings. But can that replace email?    

No. For starters, Slack's total users are still only a quarter of one per cent of the number of people who use email, which topped 2.5 billion the year before Slack launched. Furthermore, both Workplace and Slack lack the interoperability, the robustness, the ubiquity and the openness of email. We're just witnessing history repeating itself: Vendors will supply a host of online tools that purport to help people communicate, each one tailored for different workplace scenarios – and all the while, email continues to be with us, familiar but evolving into a much more intelligent, next-generation product that employs machine learning to help surface important information while suppressing the noise.   

  Here are a few more key reasons Workplace won’t replace email:

  • It’s missing a compelling reason why it’s better than email
  • Email is already the global norm in workplace communication, which makes teaching and adopting a new communication platform an unnecessary and costly hassle for businesses. Why is it worth the investment?
  • It's a consumer product that essentially has been ported to an enterprise format, which is usually a recipe for failure
  • It’s "advantage" – that it gives a perception that personal and work communication operate the same way – will create pushback from many people who don’t want to mix work with personal

Those are considerable obstacles not just for Facebook, but for any company that wants to make social conversation part of the business process as opposed to merely adjunct to it, which is all that has been offered to date.   

Gartner has studied this segment and lists 15 contenders in its Market Guide for Enterprise Social Networking Applications. These can be broken down into several groups: Those that are part of a greater enterprise infrastructure like Microsoft, IBM and SAP; those that comprise a social infrastructure like Jive and Slack; plus, a third group that Gartner doesn’t cover, namely startups.   

Microsoft has also recently announced Teams to ostensibly compete with Slack and also is trying to merge Groups into the Office 365 experience, but both are still removed from a worker’s daily work routine – they don’t incorporate the set of business apps users need to get work done. After all, it is a multi-vendor world; adding documents and Dynamics CRM won’t be enough. Slack is trying to add apps to its conversation, but their proprietary platform is a non-starter to big-time success. E

ven giant IBM, which has business apps aplenty, will struggle to gain traction with its social tool because it won’t fully integrate with other vendors’ platforms.   

A unifying factor

From the third group, I think a startup will emerge that will be able to overcome all these obstacles and leverage email to become the unifying factor that will bring in apps from many vendors. But that company hasn’t shown up yet, and nobody gets work done if they’re just waiting for the perfect new app to materialise.   

In the meantime, email is the global standard for electronic communication and document delivery, working across all platforms and languages, and it's evolving with the needs of that worldwide user base. Until something comes along that can match all of that at an even greater scale, email will remain the undisputed world champion of productivity tools for the workforce.

David Lavenda, VP Product Strategy at (opens in new tab)
Image source: Shutterstock/kpatyhka

David Lavenda is VP of Product Strategy at An International scholar for the Society for History of Technology, he focuses his research on information overload experienced by today’s workers.