Could Facebook replace your NGO’s Intranet?

Almost all humanitarian organisations and NGOs have an intranet. In most cases, they start out with lofty goals, such as “breaking down silos” or “information at your fingertips”. However, the reality tends to be different: poor engagement and clunky interfaces turn intranets into places where documents go to die and most staff only log in it to download expense forms or find contact details.

At the same time, many of us are busy posting on Facebook and other social platforms, showing that there is a real desire to share, even from remote field locations. Therefore it came as no surprise when Facebook announced in 2016, that they were approaching companies and organisation to purchase a modified version of (consumer) Facebook as an enterprise-level communications and collaboration platform. Workplace by Facebook is free of charge for non-profits, but is it a good choice for aid organisations?

Workplace by Facebook - NRC. Image: NRC

NRC’s installation of Workplace. Image: NRC

The Norwegian Refugee Council was the first humanitarian organisation worldwide to give Workplace a try. First limited to their NORCAP roster of experts, and later for the entire organisation. As a member of NORCAP, I was pleasantly surprised by how much more alive the Workplace platform feels, compared to other intranets I have seen in the past.

To find out more about why NRC/NORCAP decided to use Workplace and what their experiences were, I contacted Peter Schiøler, NORCAP’s special advisor on knowledge technology.

Peter Schiøler. Photo: NRC

Peter Schiøler, NORCAP’s special advisor on knowledge technology. Photo: NRC

Timo Lüge: How many active accounts do you have on Workplace and what percentage of the total NRC/NORCAP workforce is that?

Peter Schiøler: 79% of the 6,200 NRC staff and roster members have active accounts in NRC Workplace.  Of these, 2,000 users access Workplace every week.

TL:  What made you choose Workplace over other intranet/extranet solutions?

PS: Workplace is a chance for rethinking how we organise ourselves in organisations, and how to maximise the benefit of committed and dynamic staff.

At NORCAP we explored several options before settling on Workplace by Facebook. Our dispersed roster experts wanted to collaborate and share knowledge, however, they were also very busy, so the time cost/benefit ratio had to be right, and they especially did not want to learn yet another system. Consumer Facebook with its 2 billion users has proven effective in bringing people closer together, and as most roster experts already were familiar with Facebook, the step to using Workplace was relatively short.

We further looked for an environment where the experts could connect and collaborate with their peers, but also reach across silos and cross-pollinate different areas. We have found that Workplace is uniquely well suited for creating an organisation-wide social network that caters both to the small technical groups as well as to broader groups such as Field Stories with insights from NORCAP’s and NRC’s work.

TL: Most intranets/extranets have (at least) four main function: 1) static document repository, 2) repository for forms, 3) internal staff directory and 4) forum for knowledge management and exchange. Is Workplace able to cover all these functions and where do you see the strengths and weaknesses?

PS: Workplace has unique qualities where most intranets fail, namely to engage employees in sharing and collaborating. Workplace is an opportunity to do something different and to channel some of the energy and enthusiasm that people place in their private social networks into their professional life. Today’s organisations are very dynamic with lots of people and initiatives. The flexibility of Workplace allows for the system to adapt to the people, rather than vice versa. This goes against conventional ICT system wisdom and many have predicted it would be chaos, but we trust that we have good people who can self-organise and who make it work for themselves as well as for NRC and its mission.

As a rule of thumb, we say that on NRC Workplace information has a lifespan (and relevance) of about 1 year, after which reports or issues will probably be outdated. Workplace is not a full Intranet nor document management system. At NRC we are using Workplace together with Microsoft Office 365 and SharePoint.

TL:  Compared to other intranet/extranets you have worked with: is the activity level on Workplace higher, lower or the same? Why do you think that is the case?

PS: Workplace is much more inclusive than e.g. SharePoint and the threshold to share a post or engage in discussions is much lower. Some of the content is characterised as “social”, such as a book club, after work runners or a group to organise the social activities of a department. These group double as sandbox areas where staff can try out Workplace features. Social groups also help us understand what makes our unique organisation tick.

TL:  Many Workplace users also have a personal Facebook account and are familiar with the look and feel of the platform. How important was that for user adoption? Has that also been a disadvantage, for example when users don’t realize there are additional functions (like file upload) that are not available on the “normal” Facebook?

PS: It is a huge advantage that Facebook is a well-known platform. You may find more feature-rich systems, but if people don’t use them and instead revert to secret Facebook groups, then these are useless to us. Using Facebook at work will not suit everybody, but with Workplace we can accommodate the greatest diversity among our staff.

A few countries are currently blocking Facebook, which unfortunately includes Workplace. But internet domain blocking is not limited to social media. In one case a country decided to temporarily block all Norwegian domains, including NRC’s email system. In that case we could continue communicating using Workplace.

TL: What kind of concerns did internal stakeholders have about using Workplace and how did you address them?

PS: Adopting Workplace in early 2016, while it was still in beta, was a leap of faith. Using enterprise social networking was also a departure from our traditional controlled communication at NRC, and we were concerned that Workplace would be filled with irrelevant noise or be a place for venting frustrations about everything and everybody. We were also concerned that users in some locations would not have sufficient bandwidth to engage in a media-rich exchange.

To prepare ourselves for these uncertainties, we adopted a lean start-up approach trying a range of new ideas while being ready to pivot if they didn’t work out. In the beginning, we had a “no social” policy, but we soon realized that being social is part of being colleagues and an asset, so we changed this and now 7% of the content is characterised as social. We also made it clear from the beginning that this was a work tool, and that NRC’s code of conduct still applied on Workplace.

Our ICT department is working on connectivity in remote field offices since connectivity is vital for much more than just Workplace, and connectivity will eventually be less of an issue.

TL: NRC focuses on protection in humanitarian crises. How are you dealing with potential data protection and privacy issues on Workplace? Is NRC’s/NORCAP internal data stored on Facebook’s servers or does it run on a dedicated server? Does Facebook have access to the data?

PS: Protection of people forced to flee is NRC’s main concern and we have made it clear that sensitive information does not belong on Workplace. We have seen a few posts like “I will be landing in Kabul at 11 tomorrow”, which are benign between colleagues, but could be leaked to others and make someone a kidnap target. We are very focused on staff not sharing sensitive information in open Workplace groups which could put themselves or others in harm’s way.

The NRC Workplace data is stored on Facebook’s servers, however, Facebook does not have access to this data. More could be done to enforce the actual geographic location of NRC’s Workplace data, and we understand that Facebook is working on this aspect. NRC’s decision to store important files in Office 365/SharePoint and only link from Workplace further enables us to control the location of key data.

TL:  Were there any unexpected things? Either positively or negatively?

PS: Workplace is a journey, and there have been many unexpected experiences. To start with the negative, we had hoped that Facebook’s Safety Check function would be incorporated into Workplace allowing our staff to quickly state their status after an incident, however it seems this function will remain with a third party provider.

A very positive surprise is the wealth of energy and creativity Workplace has uncovered especially in the field. I believe that today, every employee on Workplace has a much better knowledge of our organisation and its people than before Workplace.

Another positive surprise has been that we were able to work together with other Norwegian Workplace users and collaborate at an inter-organisation level. This has enabled NRC to learn from a broad range of users, such as retailers, telcos, transport and public sector, and this learning goes beyond Workplace and enterprise social media.

Facebook is a young company with a focus on rapid innovation. As an early adopter, we work closely with the Workplace team at Facebook by giving feedback testing new features, thereby making Workplace by Facebook more relevant for NGOs.

What are your thoughts? Please share them below!