Dropbox knows more about how your teams work than you do

Profile picture for user pwainewright By Phil Wainewright May 24, 2017
Enterprise data analysts at cloud file sharing service Dropbox probably know more about how your teams work than you do - and how to help them work better

Dropbox visualization of file sharing in europe
Imagine millions of dots around the globe, some concentrated in conurbations, others scattered across continents, and all interconnected by a myriad of different paths, some wide and busy, others thin and sparsely used. This is not a map of physical trade in goods or people traveling to and fro. It's a visualization of digital connections and journeys as millions of Dropbox users share files with each other each day.

This virtual map is the work of the enterprise data insights team at the cloud-based file sharing and sync provider. Led by TJ Hannigan, the team's job is to bring Dropbox's data to life for its growing community of enterprise customers, to help them make the most of collaboration using Dropbox's tools. It's a role that gives Hannigan a privileged view of how work gets done in the emerging digital economy as he explains:

At a really high altitude, one of the things we do is visualize what an entire geographic region or industry looks like. We'll show all the connections on a 3D globe. That's agnostic of the organizations.

The connections track all of the ways that knowledge work is going on around the world.

The view shows the extent to which this work happens today across ecosystems of businesses, rather than confined to a single enterprise. Hannigan cites the example of an ad agency, which typically collaborates with a range of outside collaborators, including the client but also other agencies, freelancers, designers and tech companies, to orchestrate all the resources and materials they need to do their job.

An ad agency used to be one thing. Now everyone's becoming really specialized in what they do — and that needs to come together as an ecosystem.

When we try to mass up these ecosystems, we try to get a sense of what they look like and how they interact with each other.

Understanding how teams collaborate

This isn't just an academic exercise, although before joining Dropbox a year ago, Hannigan spent six years researching how companies collaborate globally for R&D and innovation. The goal is to show customers how they're collaborating and suggest enhancements — whether by enabling additional Dropbox features, adopting new workflows, or normalizing previously diverse patterns of behavior.

How can we leverage the data to be able to show that all this end usage is productive for the companies that we're talking to and how do we help companies better understand themselves the more they are deployed on Dropbox?

It opens up an entire door to customers to help them better understand themselves. What can we help you learn about your organization? All these workflows that bubble up into teams that make up your entire ecosystem.

For example, one customer is using the Dropbox API whenever they onboard a new client to automatically set up the necessary team folders for the relevant people in their ecosystem, saving time and speeding the onboarding process. In another example, a customer might discover opportunities to consolidate or standardize how different teams are working with third parties in the ecosystem.

It's not just geographic spread, it's also the types of work that are being done. We'll aggregate up the types of work relative to different content silos, eg Adobe Suite, or idiosyncratic data files, or Office files. We'll start to marry that with the geographic view, what types of companies they are collaborating with.

We'll get to a point where, with that snapshot of the company's collaboration network, not only does this verify what you may know to be true — but here's some things you may not know about yourselves already, or here's some shared connections to external parties you may not know.

Global collaboration network

There's also potential to benchmark the findings against norms across the Dropbox customer base, although Hannigan is cautious to make clear the constraints under which such comparisons can be done.

We are very judicious about how we use this data and very mindful of privacy. What we try to do is say, 'Yes, here's how you stack up against other companies,' but then drive into the business context of that specific organization.

The key point is to take what Dropbox has learned about how its customers and users behave collectively and apply that to the specific teamwork goals of each individual organization.

So much of our value at Dropbox is about our enormous network of collaboration around the world and how companies are using that network. We tie that to the product as an on-ramp to this type of network that is indigenous to the type of organization that's using it.

Hannigan's team is just at the beginning of that journey, still exploring how its talents in "building scalable tools and creating beautiful visualizations" can help Dropbox and its customers do more with team collaboration:

I love being a startup within a startup. I've got a very different team — a combination of consultative types and engineers — and we get to build some really powerful stories that have a wide array of applications.

You're using a bunch of really neat things and competencies to be able to generate new value.

My take

The art of digital collaboration in the enterprise is still evolving, and any new insights Hannigan's team can discover will provide a useful competitive advantage to Dropbox. While at first glance it may sound spooky that Dropbox can look at a customer's usage and discover things the customer doesn't know itself, that simply reflects how little attention enterprises have typically paid to how collaboration works across their organization.

Of course to some extent this is just a matter of identifying opportunities to upsell customers to functionality they're not currently using — earlier this year CTO Aditya Agarwal told me how machine learning is helping Dropbox identify organizations where individuals are using the product in a way that makes them a strong candidate to upgrade to Dropbox Business. Hannigan's team can make a similar contribution in finding prospects for the provider's enterprise functionality.

But it's also a classic 'customer success' strategy, a familiar concept in the world of enterprise SaaS. By helping customers understand how they can maximize the impact of using Dropbox to help their teams work more effectively, Hannigan's team will help those organizations get more value out of the product. If they happen to adopt functionality that will make it harder in the future to swap to a different provider, that's a useful byproduct for Dropbox. But the main goal is not so much lock in as loyalty — simply to have customers feel good about their use of the platform.