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Social media platforms could save corporations from death by intranet

​If Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) succeeds at using Facebook at Work, the corporate intranet snake-oil purveyors of the past decade could soon be out of work. When a highly regulated and state-controlled bank moves to an internally hosted version of Facebook as the social media and knowledge sharing platform for its staff, smaller, less maligned businesses than financial services could well do the same.

RBS announced earlier this week that it is going to roll out Facebook at Work to its 100,000-strong staff community. Not only will CEO Ross McEwan use it himself, according to the bank, but RBS plans to use the social network to offer banking services to its customers. Precisely what these might be remain unclear at present.

Banks’ security requirements are diverse and numerous. For example, data have to be encrypted “in transit” and “at rest”. Data have to remain under the complete control of the bank. Staff have to be prevented from sharing information outside the organisation. Multiple levels of information security classifications need to be applied to keep some data within specific tightly controlled circles of “insiders”.

All this can stand in the way of efficient, innovative knowledge management. Email ends up being the channel of last resort for electronic knowledge transfer, adding to information overload.

Information security concerns are a huge roadblock when it comes to being able to provide efficient customer service using tools such as live chat, video conferencing or indeed even email. Customers who expect immediate and convenient help with their needs are put off when they try to sign up to banks’ so-called innovative electronic systems only to find they have to go through five or more security hoops before getting anywhere near a coherent answer to desperate questions. Risk management and compliance functions are viewed by customer-facing front office staff as “business prevention units”, yet have an important job to do to protect their organisations.

Facebook claims to have addressed all of RBS’ security concerns, and certainly must have satisfied the bank’s experts -- not to mention the British Government -- in this respect. It would seem that RBS’ use of Facebook at Work will provide it with a single global alternative to the many legacy intranets, the operating costs of which often run between USD20-50 million per annum for a good-sized bank. It will allow staff to communicate and collaborate via the familiar user interface they use in their personal lives, but will be completely separate from the external world of Facebook and their own private accounts. Future integration with Microsoft products such as Office 365 could potentially unlock even more value from knowledge held in documents created using the likes of Word and PowerPoint.

There are some who believe that banks are so beleaguered these day that they have little good news to share with the press and their investors. It may well be that the release of this news by RBS is just a case of such a bank giving the media a rare positive hook for a global news story.

If RBS is, however, serious, this is just as important as the news from 2012 that Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria (BBVA) would roll out Google Mail and Apps to its 110,000 employees globally.

At the time, the world’s biggest banks had long been notoriously bad at making use of the latest in social media technologies to connect their people and internal knowledge. The way employees could find, contact and collaborate with colleagues was disjointed at best. The bigger they were, the further behind banks lagged behind the the technology capabilities their staff enjoyed in their personal lives. Three main blockers were often responsible: information security risk concerns, sheer inertia, and the general lack of a culture of innovation. As recently as four years ago, some of the biggest brands in banking were busily trying to stamp out the use of social media practices for knowledge sharing within their organisations. We are not referring to the blocking Facebook, Google Drive and other external cloud-based platforms on office computers. Instead we are referring to the very notion of allowing staff to share knowledge -- and heaven forbid opinions that might differ from those of their leaders -- via collaboration platforms accessible by all employees.

Views in relation to the latter have shifted during the past three years. Management in corporates have come to accept that the old school style of knowledge management -- semi-forcibly attempting to scrape tacit knowledge from the heads of staff to form explicit, documented information -- was never going to be as easy a sell as allowing people to voluntarily share information and knowledge for quasi-social purposes. As federated information repositories and search capabilities gave way to consolidated cloud-based knowledge bases, employees’ ability to share knowledge internally began become marginally easier.

BBVA’s 2012 announcement prompted a raft of other banks to look at meeting their knowledge management, email and collaboration needs with cloud-based solutions. Information security risk concerns prevented most from going the route of BBVA. Some did, though, succeed at least in getting management buy-in to use internally hosted solutions, with Microsoft Exchange, Outllook, Sharepoint and Office 365 being slated as the most viable choice given the unique risk concerns of banks.

BBVA’s original plan called for the global implementation of Google Apps by late 2012. Unsurprisingly, “regulatory considerations” delayed roll-out in the US, where the bank has about 11,000 staff. In BBVA’s case, not only did it use the move to Google Apps to shut down diverse legacy intranets -- departments can create “microsites” of knowledge using Apps’ website builder Sites product for the intranet -- but also to move away from Microsoft Exchange, which was predominantly used in Spain, its home market.

Social media such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn are now already frowned upon by Gen-Z children as the tools of yesteryear. This is what their parents and grandparents use. The likes of Instagram and WhatsApp are now more popular among today’s teens. The office, meanwhile, has become the battleground for social media product vendors. Microsoft is banking on its install base of Windows and Office products and its multi-decade relationship with its large customers providing it with an edge for Office 365. Google is being adopted rapidly by small to medium-sized businesses the world over, but remains firmly rooted in the “external” cloud and the concept of Platform As A Services (PAAS). This often rules it out from being considered as a serious platform by most financial institution. LinkedIn, too, has shied away from selling organisations a version of its ​platform that can be white-labelled and hosted inside corporate networks.

Facebook’s ability to allow a bank to use all the functionality of its platform while being hosted within a company’s technology environment could make it a popular choice. Facebook’s multibillion-dollar investment into virtual reality and video delivery capabilities also gives corporate customers the possibility of unlocking exciting new knowledge transfer techniques for learning and development purposes, among other things. Facebook bought Oculus Rift for USD2 billion in 2013, has being ploughing money into virtual reality research and development, and earlier this year went on the offensive against Google’s YouTube by pushing its own video sharing capability. If all these developments can be made available to corporate customers in an internally hosted environment, the multitudes of intranets that polluted the information ecospheres of firms of all sizes could finally be euthanised.

Banks the world over are scrambling with varying degrees of success to find cost and operating efficiencies, improve employee engagement, consolidate and unlock more value from knowledge assets, and build up customer satisfaction … all at the same time. It remains to be seen if RBS’ use of Facebook at Work can do all of the above, as both companies hope. It should, though, at least provide a more streamlined means of knowledge sharing and collaboration, at a lower price point than legacy in-house information management technology.

We will watch this space with interest and await a competitive response from Microsoft and Google.

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