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Boxworks: rethinking documents, reframing the enterprise

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright September 16, 2013
Box is championing new document models along with enterprise-friendly functionality such as metadata tagging and policy-based automation

Steven Sinofsky, Sam Schillace

Cloud collaboration vendor Box has launched a new phase in its campaign to target enterprise buyers at its annual user conference Boxworks 13, which opened in San Francisco on Monday. A set of announcements bolstered the Box platform with enterprise-friendly functionality such as the ability to attach metadata to documents and set policies and triggers to automate workflow.

At the same time, the company lived up to its carefully cultivated reputation as a disruptive force in enterprise computing, fielding speakers that looked beyond the era of traditional document-centric productivity apps.

The future shape of enterprise collaboration began to emerge amidst keynotes and interviews with CEO Aaron Levie, board advisor and former Microsoft Windows chief Steven Sinofsky and Sam Schillace, SVP engineering, who before joining Box had a pivotal role in Google Apps.

Most tech media outlets had greeted the launch of Box Notes, a collaborative editing tool, as the beginning of a competitive onslaught against Google and/or Microsoft (for the record, diginomica demurred: "That is to misunderstand its purpose."). Schillace revealed his irritation with the popular interpretation later in the day.

"Looking at this as us versus them is a very silly conversation," he told diginomica. "I think in the industry we have 30 years of habit, thinking of this productivity tools market as a zero-sum game." That habitual thinking dates back to a market landscape that has now changed beyond recognition with the rise of cloud and mobile connectivity, he said: "There's no choke point around the distribution channels and there's much less opportunity in a connected world to build proprietary file formats."

Documents in the enterprise

So if Box is not competing in the word processing space, what is its strategy? To answer that question you have to challenge your existing concepts of the very nature of a document.

Right from the beginning of the modern corporation, the notion of a one-time published document has been core to how an enterprise operates. "Word documents are artificial bundles of functionality that [is a concept that] derives largely from the publishing world," said Schillace.

Enterprise processes revolve around static documents simply because those processes grew up in a world of printed forms and reports. In an afternoon panel discussion, Sinofsky elaborated on the old mechanisms of collaboration that relied on distributing one-off snapshots of information, whether as print-outs with handwritten annotations or as email attachments. "It is all sort of analog," he said.

"The rise of mobile and cloud has finally changed the nature of what collaboration is," said Sinofsky. "This notion that you can truly collaborate rathar than automate the steps involved is really something. With Box Notes, you're actually working on one single version of the document."

"When you finally have one copy of the document and you're all just working on it, that's just collaborating."

Frictionless enterprise

Removing those barriers to collaboration — making it frictionless — has knock-on effects on how enterprises are organized, he went on.

"Technology's also changing the management structures that people use," he said. If dozens of people from multiple disciplines or geographies can work together on a single document, then the process is inherently transparent to all involved.

"Now management doesn't have to meet with you once a week. They can just go to the one document. Now you've skipped all of these steps, [including] the big weekly meeting you had to have to make sure everyone's still on the same page."

Because the communication is more direct, there's less need for formatting and contextual information, as Schillace had learned with his experience of Google Docs and its predecessor Writely. "Users were OK with a document that had less functionality in exchange for it being more connected," he said. "There's no functionality in an SMS text message and yet it's a really valuable business tool."

Additional automation can simplify processes even more, he added. For example, users can set triggers that send notifications at key points instead of having to manually check in on document status. Search can replace the need to set up classified filing systems.

"You can throw away even more workflow because you don't need it any more."

In this new world, the document no longer has to be a static snapshot that carries information from one person or team to another in a batch process or predefined workflow. Instead it becomes a connected collaboration canvas whose contents can change iteratively and at high velocity, and which includes functionality that can trigger or respond to events.

High-velocity business

Enterprises that adopt these new ways of working will gain competitive advantage, Schillace predicted:

"There's a lot of economic power in this high-velocity, more fluid way of working. The companies that make use of these tools and transform themselves will be more successful."

Working across enterprise boundaries will also be crucial, added Sinofsky:

"The ability to work with vendors as though they're employees within an organization, the ability to work with customers at very high bandwidth, is driving all of these things because it's the only way to stay competitive. The distinction between on your network and not on your network is just going away."

CEO Levie sums up Box's current mission succinctly in an interview published in the San Francisco Chronicle yesterday:

When we think about how work is getting done and what people are actually doing with their information, our job at Box is to reduce the friction between any individual in any team being able to share ideas and share knowledge. Previously we've done it mostly through documents and files you create on your desktop and upload into our system. But more and more we wanted to reduce that friction and increase the velocity of business, this emerging idea of information velocity.

Most important change

A significant set of announcements at the conference unveiled new features that build much greater sophistication into the underlying Box platform to better enable this vision of high-velocity collaboration. A blog post by Chris Yeh, SVP product and platform, gives more details on these enterprise-targeted tools:

New Admin Tools for Policies and Automation

The new Policies tab lets you customize security policies and alerts around uploads, downloads and sharing for powerful insight on actions happening throughout the company. It's easy to keep an eye on what information is shared outside the company, prevent restricted content (like documents with social security or credit card numbers) from being uploaded to Box, or even be notified when a user downloads an abnormal amount of files at once.

The Automation tab provides configurable content process automation tools for managing how data and content moves throughout an organization. Want POs added to a specific folder to automatically trigger a task for someone in finance to review it? It’s easy to do with the new rules!

Metadata for Files in Box

From appending accident details like photos and locations for insurance claims to adding patient information on medical records, you’ll be able to store, access, view and edit details that aren't constrained by standard file system parameters.

Yeh said the metadata feature was "the most important change we've made on the platform in Box for a long long time — the simplest way to add context to your content." Coupled with policies and automation tools, the potential to build highly sophisticated applications on the Box platform is huge and Box is already targeting a number of verticals with the functionality, including healthcare, construction, legal and insurance.

The announcements demonstrate a new-found seriousness from Box about the enterprise market opportunity. Although there are risks in adding extra complexity to what has been until now a relatively simple application, many of the new features are the result of studying custom add-ons that enterprises were already bolting onto the Box platform. If the company can keep the user experience simple at the same time as adding value with this kind of incremental functionality, it will prove a serious contender for connected enterprise collaboration.

Disclosure: Box is a diginomica partner. The vendor contributed to the author's travel expenses to attend Boxworks.

Photo credit: @philww

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