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Can I Get Some Collaboration Up in Here?

January 17, 2016

Collaboration in the Cloud is What It’s All About

The second most important word in corporate culture – Collaboration – gets its power from it’s role in the most important word – Innovation. Hard enough to accomplish with everyone in the same place, it can overwhelm companies who need to make it happen across the globe. Collaboration geniuses like Steve Jobs couldn’t even grasp the possibility. He built his concept of collaboration on people bumping into each other on the way to the bathroom, then designed an entire building around it.

The reality lost on Jobs and hundreds of other tech leaders is that even if you hire people from all over the world, once you put them together in one place you lose the perspective they could bring to a business challenge if they lived in another country. Companies large and small search for the Holy Grail, the collaboration tool that will make their teams productive, efficient and happy.

As workers try to balance work and family, who can now text you their urgent needs while you are in a meeting, even teams in the same town need help. The need to work from anywhere has intensified.

Things Have Changed Since I Started This Journey

When I first started my global mobile journey my technology challenged team had finally begun to feel comfortable with ÜberConference.   We used the call record feature to start meetings on time and hold late joiners accountable to listen to what they missed later. Poor call quality on cellphones ended the relationship, and the lack of interactive screensharing (which they have since address). Back then (only 2013) I was an early Cloud adopter. Now the whole world has joined me in the clouds. See How Can I Call You In The Virtual World?

Too Many to Choose From

What hasn’t changed is the overwhelming number of companies in the space. No two best of reviews list the same ten companies, or five.

It’s a tough job and one I tackled recently with Prague based art and finance startup ARTSTAQ. Team members, including the CVO and CEO, were either heavy on tech skills or heavy on art or finance industry knowledge. All sides needed to understand the other ‘s work, and quickly. Only the tech guys had run virtual teams, and the level of comfort with technology varied widely.

What My Experience Taught Me

I added three new apps to my experience databank with the Czech-based startup team, Trello, Podio, InVision, and took my Dropbox and Google Drive skills to the next level. I learned a great deal about how teams adopt technology – the biggest risk with a collaboration tool.

Trello Tragedy

TrelloWe started with Trello, which I had used successfully with another team. It was a disaster. The CEO struggled to translate his GANTT chart into an action focused structure.  Even our small team of ten people didn’t find it useful to keep track progress or communicate quickly. The problem, of course, wasn’t Trello. The problem was not being able to translate the project architecture of the startup to Trello.

So, I was sent in search of something better.

Podio Disaster

PodioI did an exhaustive search for a product management tool. We also needed a CRM, and would eventually need a knowledge management tool. Oh, and because we were pre-funded it had to be free.

I made a presentation to the team where everyone agreed that technically Podio was the best product to address both our product design and CRM needs, and I got a Startup deal from Podio that allowed us to add the entire team as users. The launch fell flat.

At the same time the tech team introduced SLACK, a crowd favorite. Nobody wanted to put the time into Podio setup, shared Podio how-to-videos, pleaded with the team. It just wasn’t intuitive. I spent hours learning the product.  Out of frustration I had to create the project architecture for the data, web and business development teams to hand over a turnkey Podio platform. That increased the group adoption rate by one, me. When I left, CRM was still done on excel spreadsheets.

The SLACK Success Story

SlackOn the other hand, Slack was a huge success. Practically idiot proof, people enjoyed real-time communication and moved projects forward faster. We used the random channel to share silly jokes. SLACK was really a bonding experience, with the less technically savvy excited and confident to use the app. But, without a real organizational tool our weekly team meetings suggested we could move faster with more coordination. The team felt a little lost and overwhelmed in face to face meetings. The experience highlighted for me the challenge of collaboration, even when people work in the same town.

SLACK is not really a project management tool – it is about communication and sharing; ideas, documents, video. You can’t track progress or assign to-do’s. Stay tuned. SLACK had a big presence at Web Summit 2015, and the team seemed buoyant. They can quickly build on functionality based on feedback from their community. Slack does support all of your communication in one place, instantly searchable, available on mobile. And it integrates with Dropbox, Asana, Hangouts, and ZenDesk.

Shout Out for Basecamp

BasecampBasecamp (formerly 37Signals), a company I’ve talked about before, but because they are an example of a company built with and for remote workers, is a product I’ve used and enjoyed. The challenge is always to get the team to channel all activity through the portal. It worked really well for the team located in six cities. Basecamp felt well organized and fairly easy to use, and offered collaboration advantages for both internal teams and our external client teams.

So How to Choose?

I did spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations to help my team understand the option. I looked at how the team worked and if the collaboration tool integrated with other apps we valued. But, given the dynamic nature of the industry these are really feeble evaluation tools for the long-term. Companies pivot or explode every day.

Since there is overwhelming data that companies with greater gender balance are more successful it may be strong predictor of the best long-term bet. We invested a lot of time when we set up and use these products. I applied this approach once before to pick a cloud storage tool.

Now the consumer cloud storage market has been disrupted by Amazon, OneDrive and GoogleDrive. My fan favorite in Dropbox vs. Box, with decent gender balance at 15%, survived the tidal wave (Box went corporate and JustCloud is just hanging in there). Here are Dropbox numbers from 2014: 34 percent female, 4 percent Hispanic and 1 percent black.

When I first did an analysis like this you could find at least the leadership team on the company’s website. Companies seemed to be less likely to post their employees photos and titles online – possibly because of the increased backlash against companies in tech for the lack of diversity. I was able to get some data.

Company Men % Woman % Total
Basecamp 35 76% 11 24% 46*
Podio (owned by Citrix) 8 89% 1 11% 9**
SLACK 14 74% 5 26% 19***
Trello 6 50% 6 50% 12+
Citrix Executive Team

Citrix Leadership Team

*This is all of the employees of Basecamp

** Executive Leadership Team Only

*** This is all the employees listed on CrunchBase – the Leadership Team is six guys

+This was the leadership team on CrunchBase

Both Dropbox and Slack were recently listed in Textio Top Ten: Tech Companies with the Most Gender-Neutral Job Listings. This is a sign that the desire for gender partnership is strong, given the numbers and the fact they even pay attention to gender bias in job descriptions.

The Trello numbers are unlikely current, so I can’t give them a fair assessment. Basecamp numbers look good, and they are leaders in remote work, an important factor for a company that builds collaboration tools.  That said my vote of confidence goes to SLACK. I trust that they will be able to build on their success and offer us the COLLABORATION product we crave in the Global Mobile World.



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