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Oxfam has rolled out Workplace, Facebook’s new communication and collaboration platform for businesses, and aims to add 8,000 internal users to the app over the next 12 months.

The decision follows a successful soft launch of the cloud-based communication and collaboration platform last August. The platform proved particularly suited to the global nature of Oxfam’s workforce, which covers 10,000 staff members across 90 different countries.

“You feel like you're very remote a lot of the time at Oxfam, so the challenge is how do you create an environment where you feel like you're close to your kindred spirits,” said Jim Daniell, COO at Oxfam America. 

“In the past if you really wanted to bring all the specialists of a certain type together you'd have to spend a lot of money and time to fly them together to a meeting point. Now we're trying to create a digital equivalency where people can feel like they're right down the digital corridor."

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Among the early adopters at Oxfam was the global humanitarian team, responsible for coordinating humanitarian responses all over the world which normally involve multiple affiliates of Oxfam International.

“One of the most important tools for them is to have a common set of collaboration spaces because time equals lives saved,” said Daniell.

“If you're busy in the middle of a response the last thing in the world you want is to not be able to find important files and not be able to pass information quickly. “

The mobile-first focus was a major selling point of Workplace. It was especially useful for the thousands of volunteers doing three-month stints in areas of the world where network links are often low, access to computers is limited and a car seat can be as common a workplace as an office desk.

Facebook familiarity

The ubiquitous presence of Facebook’s signature social network was one of the deciding factors when weighing the merits of Workplace against competitors such as Slack.

“To standardise we ended up picking Workplace, primarily because of familiarity with the application by so many people," said Daniell. 

“A big part of being a charity is you don't have the money to put in place lots of corporate training and tools, so when you roll something out you have to do it basically on a shoestring."

The familiarity also made staff receptive to the launch of the professional version. 

“It's not too often that you roll something out and you get kind of a cheer from your staff,“ he said.

"What people like about it is that with almost no effort they know how to post on the wall, put information up, form a group. They get it."

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Another advantage of the platform was the integration with Oxfam’s existing tools, the cloud-storage system Box and the content management system (CMS) Drupal.

“Getting the system to integrate into the systems you already have is key,” said Daniell.

“To make it simple with integrated it all through Okta, and then through Okta we integrated into Facebook. We use Okta to both login and to provision the accounts.”

Workplace security concerns

Workplace was chosen only after receiving assurance that data security and privacy would be fully protected.

“This is not a consumer app anymore, this is our data not yours. It's very important, some of the information contained in Workplace is sensitive," said Daniell.

“We worked very hard to ensure that not only did we own the data, but that it was consistent with EU/US privacy guidelines and we could substitute the Facebook privacy statements and ULA [User Licensing Agreement] with an Oxfam-specific one.”

Another priority was that access could be immediately granted but also quickly revoked. Oxfam was concerned that cloud-based tools such as Slack were being used by staff through their personal accounts rather than company ones, and when employees left Oxfam, the charity would also lost the the data. Workplace allowed Oxfam to control the data and the access to it through the charity's normal tools.

“When we provision you as a new employee, automatically we can provision all of your Facebook account. As soon as you leave we can automatically turn off your access to it, but keep the account," said Daniell.

Oxfam said the platform had increased productivity, real-time collaboration and decreasing operational inefficiencies. Daniell added that the data to statistically assess the improvements was not yet available, but the anecdotal evidence of the benefits was persuasive.

“The jury's out as to whether or not social tools will increase productivity," he said. "For me, hard productivity numbers will be measured over time, but the soft issue is the sense of closeness that most people can't get.”

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