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Atlassian powers up Jira Align for enterprise work management

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright April 2, 2020
At day 2 of Atlassian Remote Summit, the digital teamwork vendor sharpened its work management credentials with updates to its Jira Align work tracking tool

Atlassian Jira Align OKR drilldown screenshot

Atlassian sharpened its credentials as an enterprise work management platform today with the release of new functions in Jira Align, its tool for tracking work and outcomes across an organization. Align can now track work across both Jira issues and the more informal Trello cards, and has gained its first AI-powered predictive analytics. It is also adding the ability to analyze objectives and key results (OKRs) and to match work activity to outcomes.

Coupled with Atlassian's earlier announcement of workflow automation — currently centered on Jira but likely to be extended to Trello in the coming months — Atlassian is extending its ambition beyond its roots as a developer teamwork platform into enterprise-wide work management. The Jira issue and the Trello card allow teams to define units of work that move throughout an organization. Jira Align, based on technology acquired a year ago when Atlassian bought Agilecraft, provides the framework for measuring and tracking those units of work, along with the resources they consume and the outcomes they produce.

Using Trello as an example, there is now a free power-up — Trello's name for add-on functions — that provides some of the tracking and reporting of Align, as well as deeper integration for organizations that already use Align to track work in Jira and other teamwork tools. Steve Elliott, AgileCraft founder and now head of Jira Align at Atlassian, explains:

We have the capability to take a team using Trello back to dollars and time and understand what outcomes the teams in Trello tie back to, just like we do for all of our other team execution products.

It helps us extend our desire to help not just tech teams, but also business teams do their work in the tool of their choice. But then roll it all back up into one spot so that we can understand what we're spending, what we're getting back, where we have bottlenecks, things of that nature.

OKR management and analysis

Align is adding new OKR management capabilities over the next few months. These will make it easier to define objectives, add key results, and then tie work in progress across the organization back to the OKRs. There's also a new dashboard to manage and track OKRs, and the ability to track progress and drill down into the underlying work items.

Large enterprises now have the ability to take Jira Align's normalized work data and bring it into an external BI tool, data warehouse or data lake to analyze against other datasets such as application data from Salesforce, SAP and other sources. That's always been a part of the product's 'secret sauce', says Elliott.

It takes those different data models and normalizes them so that we can track all of the work back to dollars and time ...

Regardless of what method you're using, which tool you're using, as long as you're on a team, we can track back and understand how much are we spending on a team and what kind of outcomes are we getting from the work they're doing?

In the final element of today's announcements, Jira Align is taking its first steps in using algorithmic AI for predictive analytics. This has been under development for some time, but has had a big boost since the acquisition because of the volume of historic data Atlassian can feed through the model. The first release of this capability will provide early warnings when projects are going off track, but there's a lot more in the pipeline, says Elliott.

We've had to go through a lot of customer data sets to figure out what's going to be most likely to help them look around corners, but that's exactly what we're trying to do ... The thing I'm excited about is, over the next couple of years, we're going to add a lot of firepower to that library.

How COVID-19 is changing teamwork

The need to digitally track and manage work has been thrown into sharp relief by the current COVID-19 crisis and the resulting change in many organizations from office-based teamwork to working from home in distributed teams. Where managers used to keep tabs on teamwork simply by looking out across an office, there's now a need for more automated ways of tracking progress. This is a working model that many Atlassian customers are already familiar with, says Elliott, and which Jira Align is designed to support.

We don't need people to be in their seats to understand if we're getting the work done. If you've really laid out the work in smaller batch sizes and you said, 'Hey, this is what we expect from this work and here's when that work will be done. And here's the outcome we're expecting from that work.' If you're measuring all that, you don't have to track some of the old-school stuff like timesheets, and did you go to the office and all that.

If we know the relative amount of work to expect from a team, and we know their past performance of what to expect from a team, then it's pretty easy to tell if work's slowing down or speeding up.

If we're hitting the objectives linked to the OKRs, then great. If a team can hit those objectives faster than they thought, that's great as well. Or if they slow down because of remote work, we should be able to tell.

Tracking work to react faster

One of the big differences about a more agile approach to teamwork is that it puts more focus on the work itself, rather than the trappings of work. And being able to measure work closer to real-time means that organizations can react faster when circumstances change, he explains.

In a traditional fashion, we do annual planning, we lay out some high-level objectives. We can't really link it to the work that's happening day-to-day. We're only going to do lagging indicators. So we're only going to measure stuff, usually way after the work's been done, or towards the end of when the work's done. And so we can't really react to it if we had a bad hypothesis.

All those old ways of working are really rough in a situation like this, where everybody goes home, because the work is not visible. It's harder to collaborate, manage dependencies, and manage all that stuff without all that tooled up.

Having mechanisms to track and monitor the actual work being done gives more visibility and also builds trust, he adds.

If you've already moved down the path of transforming digitally and towards a more agile approach, it's just not as big of a deal if people work in different places and they're not in the same room. The executives trust that the work's getting done because they can see it getting done, even if they can't see the people doing the work ...

When something like this happens, you're just a lot less fazed by it, because you're just used to focusing on results and trusting people.

My take

Atlassian is quietly building up a formidable set of work management tools that take it well beyond its traditional stamping grounds of shared work in development and IT teams. The evolution of Trello, which it acquired three years ago, is particularly interesting. This is a consumer-grade tool that is easy for non-technical teams to adopt, such as marketing, HR and finance. But by plugging in functionality like Align, this simple tool gains highly sophisticated capabilities that connect tasks in Trello directly into an enterprise-wide view.

In diginomica's model of the collaborative canvas for enterprise digital teamwork, the Atlassian platform provides the workflow fabric for mapping and connecting work across an organization. The capabilities of Jira Align already explore one of the most interesting side effects of mapping work in this way — the ability to collect and codify data that allows an organization to analyze how effectively its teamwork delivers its goals and objectives and discover ways of improving results. If Mazlow had specified a hierarchy of enterprise collaboration needs, this sort of capability would be at the apex.

In addition, Atlassian is starting to position Jira and Trello as vehicles for defining standardized units of work within an organization, which can then be measured and linked to goals and outcomes using Align. Some digital teamwork vendors talk about defining a work graph, which is a specialized database of definitions and relationships for mapping work within an organization. But Atlassian argues that this is overcomplicating the issue when it already defines units of work and offers an API that connects them into other systems. Somebody needs to standardize how work is tracked across organizations — perhaps Atlassian will get there first.

Overall then this is an intriguing set of announcements from this week's Atlassian Remote Summit. There's a lot going on here. Atlassian seems to have a very attractive offering for businesses that want to move quickly to manage distributed work more effectively.

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