Workflow automation is a big trend among collaboration vendors at the moment. You only have to look at Dropbox's acquisition this week of HelloSign, largely spurred by the latter's workflow capabilities, or Slack's close partnership with Workato. Enterprise content collaboration vendor Box has also been on the acquisition trail, snapping up startups Progressly and Doculus last year to offer its own native workflow capability.
While the acquisition of Progressly, along with intelligent search tool Butter.ai, made the news last year, the purchase of San Francisco-based startup Doculus at the same time flew under the radar. Led by former Adobe and EMC Syncplicity product manager Varun Parmar, who is now VP of Product at Box, Doculus built technology that uses deep learning to automatically review incoming sales contracts and master services agreements, flagging up variations on standard terms and other exceptions.
The purpose of these acquisitions was to help Box offer its users the ability to easily automate processes without having to use a more complex external tool, Chief Product Officer Jeetu Patel told me on a recent visit to London.
The difference is that it's an automation that's lightweight, associated specifically with content system. And it's something that people don't think of going to a separate app for, because it's lightweight.
Lightweight process automation
The point is that there are many processes around enterprise content that have never been automated because they're not complex enough to justify investing in a sophisticated business process management (BPM) tool — even though they'd still save a ton of time if they were automated. He cites examples such as chasing up product teams every quarter to update a slide deck showing their internal roadmap, or updating and approving a sales training deck:
The challenge with workflows and automations is the processes in an organization that got automated typically tend to be the 15-20% of the most critical processes. The 80-90% of the workflows that we all engage in on a daily basis are completely manual, because the amount of effort it takes to go out and take one of the high-end BPM systems used to automate a lightweight process is tremendously high. So it's not worth the effort. The investment far exceeds the return. What we wanted to do was solve that problem.
The outcome is similar to the consumer tool IFTTT, which people use to automate 'if this, then that' sequences across their personal files, social media and other applications. It means people can automate these simple processes without needing any technology skills, he explains:
We wanted to do something like IFTTT but for business, centered on content ...
All those things now don't need a human to do it. It can all be done through Box itself, but it does not need any kind of development effort. It is just an operations person or someone who is a super organized person within the team, that might just say, 'I'm going to go build this automation.' It's no-code.
AI, security and integration
Automation is also an important theme in Box Skills, the AI toolkit launched in October 2017, which came out of beta last month. This packages up third-party AI services from Amazon Web Services, Google Cloud, IBM Watson and Microsoft Azure that can be applied to content in Box, such as finding keywords in documents, adding transcripts to audio files, or applying metadata tags to images. Customers can then add their own training to customize the machine learning to their own specific metadata needs. The point is to automate processes that previously would have been done manually, or else not at all.
The other big area of focus in product development is around security, says Patel. He highlights announcements such as the option of requiring two-factor authentication from external collaborators, and extensions to the Box Shield service, which uses intelligent automation to proactively apply security policies. It's not always malicious users who are the biggest risk, he points out:
We wanted to make sure that we put intelligent guardrails on negligent users. [This] is not someone who's trying to do any harm. They just might make a mistake and not realize what they're doing and it puts the organization at risk. Most of the things that go wrong in an organization are because of a negligent user.
The final theme is integration, with Box positioning itself as "the content hub for the market," says Patel. There's a security angle here, too:
Each one of those applications by definition get more secure and more compliant with the rules, regulations and policies as a result of integrating with Box — because all of the data that they're using is also persistent in Box.
Box invests "massively in integrations," Patel tells me:
Our integrations team is almost as big as our web app team of engineers. The reason is, we fundamentally believe that in the modern world, it's going to be very hard for users not to have choice in their client apps. But that doesn't mean that they need to have a fractured system of record. They need to have a single system of record that can tie into all the client apps.
Workflow goes with integration
The days of closed ecosystems are over, he argues. For Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) vendors, it's essential for vendors to connect as openly as possible to the other players in the market, he says:
If you're a tier-one SaaS provider, you can't afford not to integrate into Box, and Box can't afford to not integrate into other tier-one SaaS providers ...
The reality is, the customer doesn't pick one vendor. They pick a suite of vendors. Workflow doesn't remain contained within one system. It actually goes across different systems. And so they need to make sure that as they automate those processes, that they're working with the entire suite of vendors actually interoperating with each other.
Any company that believes that they shouldn't have that as one of their top priorities is probably just not going to be a credible company in the future.
Taken together, these four elements of security, integration, machine learning and workflow automation create a compelling story that Box takes to the market, he believes:
Essentially we help companies become more of a digital business because, from top to bottom, the way in which they work completely gets automated. That's the four part strategy. Build enterprise grade, take out the friction from putting content into Box, add intelligence to the content — and enable business processes that are just going to provide a massive return to people because those things just haven't been automated for decades and decades.
I'll reiterate the comment that I made on Dropbox's move into workflow automation earlier this week. Document-centric platforms have to add a workflow platform to stay competitive, because digital collaboration has to be channeled around some kind of structure for purposeful teamwork.
As diginomica contributor Kurt Marko observed a year ago, the different approaches of Box and DropBox set up an interesting dynamic. Box's emphasis on an "enterprise-grade" offering has served it well, even though it's not yet been able to deliver break-even financials. But if the fulcrum of the battle for the enterprise collaboration market is going to revolve around workflow, there are other contenders to watch out for too. This is a story that continues to evolve.