Startups, Technology

Workplace Collaboration is once again a battleground for tech companies!

Khurram Zia Written by Khurram Zia · 5 min read>
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Software giants and startups are competing to establish themselves as thought and product leaders in the workplace collaboration space.

Technology companies ranging from small start-ups like Slack or Asana to giants like Google/Microsoft and every size in between, are aggressively expanding from their base products and building overlapping capabilities to provide a complete solution for workplace collaboration.

A cursory sampling of news over the last few months gives a sense for the feverish activity in this space. There was the unexpected but far reaching move by Microsoft and Dropbox to establish a complementary partnershipto boost each other’s collaboration assets. A further expansion of the partnership was announced just a few days ago. Box finally went IPO. And Slack raised $120 million in funding at a whopping $1.2 billion valuation followed up by another raise five months later at a $2.8 billion dollar valuation.

Why the intense interest?

For many years, email has been the workhorse of workplace collaboration taking care of conversations, task assignments, file sharing, content drafting and everything in between. Email has proved to be an amazingly flexible solution and this flexibility has allowed us to overload every concept onto email.

On the flip side, this flexibility has also made email the jack of all trades and the master of none. But for all its limitations, email in conjunction with Microsoft Office has been the dominant workplace collaboration platform for organizations of all sizes and hues for many years. This ubiquity continues to this day though its hard to imagine sitting in Silicon Valley.

The renewed interest in this market seems to be coming from this collective realization that email/desktop office can be vastly surpassed in functionality and ease of use and that collaboration platforms 2.0 will likely be far more lucrative than the existing workplace productivity platforms have been for companies like Microsoft and IBM.

The rest of this post looks at how this head to head competition is setting up, how some of the canonical products are expanding from their core competency to cover bigger pieces of workplace collaboration, what are some of the recent chess moves in this domain and if all of these products are actually solving the collaboration problem.

Pieces of the collaboration puzzle

At a meta level, the basic elements of collaboration solutions are broadly the same across most of the products. Tasks, Conversations, Files, People, and Content are the key pieces of this puzzle. But various players in this market are differentiating themselves on how these elements are organized into a coherent whole and what is the central entity around which collaboration needs to be structured. Not surprisingly, individual companies are trying to organize collaboration around the piece that they excel at. But now they are also building functionality or partnerships along other vectors of this puzzle. And that will bring many of these companies, existing in adjacent spaces for a while, into head to head competition with each other.

Organizing around tasks

Asana and others like them seem to believe that tasks are the central node. Asana, the product, is organized around tasks or sets of tasks (projects) and conversations happen in context of tasks and projects. These in-context conversations have all the richness of social media conversations with @tagging and following built in. There is also the ability to attach files to tasks from Google Drive, Dropbox etc. So the task lists in Asana are much more than just a list of action items and are instead the central point of a collaboration solution with files and conversations baked in. But that’s only one way of enabling efficient workplace collaboration.

It’s all in the conversations

Yammer, Slack, Convo and others like them think that conversations are the central idea around which workers should collaborate. They are making it easy to have conversations sans email. The conversations in these services are as rich as email (minus the formatting), as immediate as IM and include all the bells and whistles of social media conversations like commenting and tagging. But on top of these conversations, these companies are layering in the ability to add files to conversations, annotate files, view them in-line etc. The elements of the collaboration puzzle are still the same but now they are arranged around conversations. Yammer was the pioneer in this space but things have gotten a little murkier as to where Yammer stands since it’s acquisition by Microsoft and Slack has taken a leap to become the flagship company with a conversation-centric point of view on workplace collaboration.

Microsoft and Google do have some advantage over Slack in the conversations piece since they both offer voice and video based communications that Slack still has not gotten around to building. Slack, on its end, seems to be actively working to plug this gap and recently acquired Screenhero to add some voice/video capabilities to its conversation product.

Files go round and round

Yet another set of companies like Box and Dropbox are approaching this space from the standpoint that files and the content within them are the central piece of the puzzle. Given their roots, these companies provide the richest interface in terms of file sharing and collaboration. On top of the file sharing interface, they enable conversations in context of those files in the form of comments and annotations. Box seems to be preparing for the future when content will no longer remain bound to files. Box launched Box Notes last year to enable authorship of documents in the cloud hence expanding into territory currently held by Google Docs and Microsoft’s Office365. Dropbox, on the other hand, struck a partnership with Microsoft to strengthen its weak position on the content creation side.

Generally speaking, there is a broad transition of content from files to streams taking place slowly over time e.g. mp3s being replaced by Spotify and movie files being replaced by Netflix. This is a really interesting topic in and of itself worthy of a separate blog post, that I will get to at some point.

Starting from content creation

And that brings us to Google that is approaching workplace collaboration from the angle of content creation. They seems to think that workplace collaboration will happen around content and if they can strongly own the content creation piece via Google Docs they will be in good shape. Google has strongly integrated its file storage solution Google Drive with Google Docs and GMail for some time now and the new movement seems to be in the direction of adding the remaining pieces of the collaboration puzzle. Google drive added activity feeds around files some time ago. Comments, tags and conversations are already part of Google Docs feature-set though the user experience is seriously lacking. I can imagine that tasks and projects are the next on the product roadmap. Add in Google Hangout and it becomes clear that Google is a serious contender in this space with perhaps the broadest set of assets including a powerful email solution to provide a transition flow for business users from the old world of email to the new world of specialized products.

And then there is Microsoft …

Screenshot from the Sharepoint site — Good example of the diversity of Microsoft’s products but lack of a coherent story

Microsoft, the erstwhile king of workplace collaboration and productivity, has by far the most pieces on this chessboard of workplace collaboration.

On the content creation side, Microsoft has its still dominant Office Suite bolstered by Office365 web apps and online document creation/editing capabilities. On the file storage side, Microsoft has Sharepoint (or is it OneDrive for Business now?). Microsoft also has massive product assets to cover the conversation piece of the puzzle with Lync/Skype for Business providing IM, Voice and Video capabilities. Additionally Microsoft owns Yammer that can compete directly with the new form conversations being spearheaded these days by Slack. And that’s not even a complete list of Microsoft’s products in this domain.

To top it all, Microsoft has a newly announced mission to be the productivity company for mobile and cloud-first world that puts workplace collaboration directly in the company’s crosshairs.

On paper, all of this seems very formidable but whether these pieces can amount to something together and whether Microsoft knows how to put these products together to form a winning combination is anybody’s guess given Microsoft’s chequered history.

What about Atlassian?

Atlassian is another large contender in the space with a specific focus on the software development market. Atlassian makes popular products for a good number of these use-cases including Jira for tasks, Confluence for organizing work and Hipchat for conversations.

But just like Microsoft, I can’t tell from the outside if they have a particular unique point of view on the collaboration space and what’s the central pivot for their products. It’s also not clear if they consider themselves contenders in the broader workplace collaboration market or are planning to stay focused on the software development vertical.

The next few years

This is going to be a really interesting space to watch for the next few years as all these players jockey for a bigger and bigger piece of how we work together. For a while, it seems, the net result is going to be a set of overlapping products each suited to a different set of use cases and audiences. But there might just be a knight in shining armor waiting around the corner to turn workplace collaboration into a seamless whole.

Of course it’s not necessary that creation of a holistic story is even required. It might just turn out in the end that all that was needed to win in the workplace collaboration space was the broadest array of products with vertical excellence to tackle each vector without an underlying story or pivot.

[The views expressed in this blog are my own and do not reflect the views of my previous, current or future employers]

Written by Khurram Zia
Khurram is a Stanford alum and a veteran product management leader with stints at Microsoft, Amazon and Dropbox. Profile