Confluence as an enterprise Facebook

10 December 2009

by PeterHilton

Large organisations are starting to consider deploying an internal Facebook clone, in their quest for Enterprise 2.0. This article considers what you need to achieve this, and how far you can get with Atlassian Confluence.

Facebook core functionality

What does Facebook actually do? Here is a high-level overview of its core functionality.

  • The name 'Facebook', a descriptive name that is an explanatory metaphor for the American university students who were its initial target users. It probably could have been called 'Yearbook'.

  • Search - find people, shown with basic identifying information and photo.

  • Friends list - maintain a list of your friends and browse the list of friends' friends.

  • Wall - an activity feed of statuses, notes and URLs

  • Events - linked to a group of people who are invited, and attendees.

  • Photos - share photos that are linked to events and to the people pictured.

  • Groups - arbitrary self-organising groups of people that extend other functionality from individuals to groups, and provide more choices for who to share data with than 'friends' and 'friends of friends'.

  • Applications that extend this core functionality with new social features, often in the form of mash-ups with other web sites.

If you consider how the applications work, then it becomes clear that the core functionality is to manage your profile and friends list, and to search and browse friends and groups; everything else is an application that uses this data.

Enterprise functionality

The interesting thing about Facebook’s social functionality is that if you find it useful, and do not think that it is 'just for kids', then it is fairly obvious how the same functionality would be useful within a large organisation. After all, employees are people too. Some of them might even be your friends.

There are some differences in functionality, once you translate it to the enterprise, although these are mostly cosmetic.

  • The name 'facebook' does not really mean anything in a business context. For want of a better name, we can call this a 'staff network'. Perhaps this would become so central to an organisation’s IT that it would just become synonymous with 'The Network'.

  • Search is the same, but the identifying information would include business information such as job title and roles.

  • Friends translates to people you are working with - 'team mates', perhaps.

  • Wall is an odd metaphor in a business context - 'company activity' is better.

  • Events are generally called 'meetings'.

  • Photos are less interesting; a useful business equivalent, for sharing finished work that people are not going to edit, would be PDF-sharing. For this to be more interesting than just posting links, the PDF should link to authors or people mentioned, in the same way that Facebook photos link to people in the photo.

  • Groups are generally called 'teams', as in departments or project teams.

  • Applications are then integration points for the rest of the enterprise’s IT systems. Mash-ups translate to Service Oriented Architecture implementations.

Confluence

Confluence is a commercial enterprise collaboration platform that is based on a wiki. You can purchase for installation in your own organisation, or subscribe to a hosted version. The ideal way to use Confluence is as the platform for an organisation’s intranet, for any size of organisation.

If you want to deploy your own 'staff network', the Facebook software is not available so you need to buy or build something else. Since we use Confluence as our intranet wiki, it is natural to consider how much of the staff network functionality it supports without additional development.

  • The name - you can set the Site Title and server host name.

  • Search - you can search for people, but search results only show name and photo, with a link to the profile.

  • Friends - you can 'follow' other users and view their recent activity. You can also see which users someone else is following.

  • Wall - the dashboard and the Activity Stream Plugin show recent updates, including status updates.

  • Events - partially supported - you can publish events with the Calendar Plugin, but it does not link to groups (invitees) or people (invitees and attendees).

  • Photos - you can attach files to pages and news items, although you do not see thumbnails in the recent updates lists (in Confluence 3.0 - but should work in 3.1).

  • Groups - partially supported - use Confluence spaces and user groups to group information and determine access. However, there is no group that corresponds to your 'friends' (i.e. users that you follow) when setting permissions. Moreover, although you can allow all users to create Confluence spaces, only administrators can control group membership: a normal user cannot decide to join or leave a user group.

  • Applications - write Confluence plug-ins.

On the face of it, Confluence, along with a few plugins, combine to allow you to deploy most Facebook functionality within your organisation. However, the weakest area is the list of friends, which is the central concept of Facebook: all of the other functionality is implemented in terms of the friends list. Following other users is a recent edition to Confluence, in version 3, and has not yet been integrated with other functionality.

This means that equivalent functionality works differently in Confluence. This raises the fundamental question of whether an enterprise-Facebook absolutely requires permissions based on 'friends lists', for example, or whether this is unnecessary within a company, where people are already grouped into formal departments and teams. The answer is probably that it does, given that ad-hoc groups may well be more important than the official organisation.

Conclusion

Social networking features are all the rage in collaboration software, and other enterprise collaboration platforms are no-doubt adding social networking features. However, a few tacked-on marketing features do not necessarily make a useful social platform: you may end up with a poorly-integrated attempt to reproduce Facebook, albeit with the advantage of using established off-the-shelf software.

At least this is less bad than collaboration platforms that seem to be based around proprietary office-suite documents, such as the various Sharepoint products, or suites that seem to have no central information type and are instead a more complex everything-platform.

Confluence’s social features are indeed well-designed and useful, but the application remains a wiki whose functionality is all based around 'pages', not around 'friends'. This means that there is real benefit to be had from using it as a social collaboration platform within an organisation, rather then 'merely' as a wiki, but the resulting experience is a less me-focused experience than Facebook.

For now, this does not really matter and is as good as it gets. Besides, perhaps large organisations are not ready to give up their assumption of a top-down hierarchical org-chart and acknowledge that each individual employee works with a network of concentric circles of trusted colleagues with himself at the centre.