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Facebook Groups Elbows Its Way Into Crowd

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- It's not news that business software heavies such as (CRM), NetSuite (N), Oracle (ORCL) and SAP (SAP)not to mention Google (GOOG) and Microsoft (MSFT), have been baking social media tools into their products with abandon. Brands including Google Apps, Chatter, OpenAir, and Microsoft Office Live bring Web 2.0 niceties -- think collaboration, open groups and document sharing -- to hardcore business apps such as customer relationship management and task automation. have been baking social media tools into their products with abandon. bring Web 2.0 niceties like collaboration, open groups, document sharing and the like to hardcore business apps such as customer relationship management, task automation and all the rest.

But Web 2.0 hipsters are hardly sitting by and letting these software geezers steal their digital lunch. Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter are adding business functions of their own. To wit, last week Facebook announced a significant upgrade to its Groups functions.

Groups has traditionally been the stuff of soccer moms and church breakfasts. Usually found on the left side of your Facebook page, it enables up to 200 people to organize around whatever ideas they want: reunions, meetings, whatever. The new Facebook Groups has stricter security, tighter administration and integrated business features such as document collaboration and calendaring.

I have been giving the new Groups the small-enterprise look-see here in my small business since it rolled out, and so far, so good.

WHAT YOU GET Facebook Groups is a surprisingly powerful business collaboration and work space.

Facebook as a small-business tool is easy to like: It's basically a super-simple Web-based work space built like a Facebook page. Content can be posted and commented on, events shared, chats held and information swapped. Access to content can be administered. In fact, there is even a "secret" mode for Facebook Groups, where nobody but those in your group can see what is what, that I liked a lot.

And Facebook deserves credit for making Groups easy to set up. Simply go to the Facebook Groups page, hit the Create Group button, fill out the information and tinker with the settings to get the needed level of security. Set your email and device notifications as you like 'em, invite in those on your team and start posting what is relevant to the group: docs, calendar dates and discussion. Very quickly you'll have a slick, common work space -- similar to a simple task tool such as Basecamp -- that even the technophobes on my team understood and, more importantly, were willing to use.

There is a fabulous, low learning curve to Facebook Groups. And it's free.

WHAT YOU DON'T GET Don't expect a legit work space with all the accompanying bells and whistles.

For all of Facebook's business power, it's most definitely not Salesforce. It cannot compete step for step with a real sales management, task management or other kind of business software solution. Content is still basically posted in reverse chronological order on the Group wall, which can totally suck after a while. And there are still the same old Facebook privacy issues: Are you sure everyone is seeing only what they should? And who knows what Mark Zuckerberg is doing with your company information.

Nothing will change the fact that Facebook is a public, consumer-oriented service that's just figuring out how play a role in the professional world.

BOTTOM LINE If you need to host a work group fast -- particularly with out-of-office contractors -- Facebook Groups is worth it. It's fast, cheap and gets folks out of relying on their email inbox to do their work.

But more importantly, people understand Facebook. They feel comfortable with it. And if you set your Group up properly, they will actually use it.

And that is the key to any office collaboration tool.

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Jonathan Blum is an independent technology writer and analyst living in Westchester, N.Y. He has written for The Associated Press and Popular Science and appeared on Fox News and The WB.

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