Harmon.ie and the great enterprise productivity debate

Profile picture for user jreed By Jon Reed March 29, 2017
A breezy PR email on workplace productivity ruffled my feathers. But my snarky response led me to a much more substantive debate with Harmon.ie CEO Yaacov Cohen. He shared Harmon.ie's latest machine learning/Outlook-based approach to easing worker distractions. Then we got into the problem of always-on workplace culture, notification noise, and what the modern worker is up against.

I think I'm getting better at arguing with PR reps. Lately, the arguments seem to jump out of my inbox, into debates worth sharing. Such was the case with Harmon.ie, a workplace productivity solution specializing in Outlook-based integration.

Hits and misses readers know: nothing gets my dander up more than inflammatory headlines, so when I received an email from Harmon.ie's PR rep with subject, "Cloud Apps Destroy Productivity,"  it was all snark on deck. The first line of my response?

Cloud apps destroy productivity? Hmm most of what I accomplish is due to cloud services. I'd argue modern corporate work culture destroys productivity.

And it was on. But I soon learned that Yaacov Cohen, the CEO of Harmon.ie, is just as passionate about extricating workers from notification hell and reactionary ping chasing as I am - though we differ in our response. It's a culture versus technology debate with very high stakes for individuals and their employers.

"This app economy has been a big productivity debacle"

Turns out Cohen is just as interested in the culture side as I am. The initial Harmon.ie email emphasized the technology aspects, which fueled my contrarian side. Harmon.ie's initial case was:

  • While tech advances and the exploding app economy aim to drive economic growth, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, year-over-year productivity growth has flat lined overall.
  • Employees often find themselves so overwhelmed with information that instead of becoming more productive, they grind to a halt.
  • An infinite array of notifications from multiple business apps and a mess of disjointed activity streams creates too much distraction, which becomes a major efficiency obstacle.

That's a well-stated view of the problem. I'd add to "efficiency obstacle" that the disjointed activity is a career blocker, if not killer, especially in the automation era where today's "busy" is tomorrow's "automated." Email whack-a-mole doesn't prove value or win business. On our subsequent phone call, Cohen added color to why he sees "the consumerization of apps" as such a big productivity problem:

We feel that something has gone wrong in terms of the way technology is being delivered to the enterprise... Overall, this app economy has been a big debacle from a pure enterprise standpoint.

I took the cheese. Why?

The core issue is that with "consumerization of IT" as the main design principle, I need to grab your attention. If I am an app, I need to notify you. I need to make sure you're going to listen to me, and I'm going to do a bunch of things to disrupt you, to distract you. The  consumer will want to stay up to date. The last thing you want is to miss an update. There is always something super interesting happening in my device - more interesting than anything else happening in the real world.

Anyone who has seen a group of teenagers silently glued to their phones - or a group of adults at an enterprise software keynote - knows what Cohen is talking about.

Maybe that's the way some people want to live their life, but that's definitely not the way businesses want to conduct business.

Which leads to this Harmon.ie talking point:

  • If people must use several apps to get their job done, it becomes too complex and cumbersome.

Hmm - I'm not sure this is root of it. Yes, switching between apps can be tedious, but I'd place the problem on the amount of incoming noise across email, mobile, and social networks - noise that is difficult to prioritize.

Harmon.ie's solution?

  • To combat this dilemma, people want solutions that aggregate together all the content and colleagues around a given topic, allowing them to stay focused and get their work done.

Now that's pretty intriguing. It's interesting to think about if you had one app, or portal, which gathered all your documents, workflows, and interactions by topics, in a machine-powered/intelligent way. I certainly don't have anything like that now.

Isn't "always on" work culture the real problem?

Before I get into how Harmon.ie plans to do that, here's some snarky bits from my email response:

You can easily protect yourself from pings, just put your phone in airplane mode and/or shut down your email. [Reader note: I regret saying "easily," it's far from easy in a corporate context, I was being a dork].

The problem is most workplaces don't respect an individual's space enough to let them set reasonable limits on their availability and time on these tools. But being "always on" is a mistake the individual makes under corporate pressure.

I don't honestly think cloud apps are to blame. If anything it was email that hurt productivity, or the "always on" approach to email. Not the tech, but the assumption you are now always available.

The Bureau of Labor study is pretty well known and I think the data there DOES support that workers are not making big productivity gains, though in my opinion that's partially because tech has enabled automation that reduces headcount and puts more pressure on existing workers, which distorts those findings.

I'd argue the bigger problem is burnout from folks now working all the time due to virtual technology and again, the inability to turn off their pings for whatever reason. But I'm not aware of a study on that, I've just seen so many folks burn out.

Granted tools like Harmon.ie's can help, but without culture changes to respect employees' need to unplug to get crucial projects done, I don't see how a tool will solve this.

Can "topic computing" quell the noise - and fuel productivity?

I received a diplomatic response from Cohen - more diplomatic than I deserved. Soon we were on the phone hashing it out. Harmon.ie addresses this employee distraction issue in a very specific way: turn Outlook from an email sinkhole into a portal for managing the workday. That means, in Harmon.ie's words, "Humanizing Office 365 and SharePoint by bringing them directly to Outlook."

Their approach seems to have traction. Brands the likes of Citi, Hilton, and Bearing Point are amongst Harmon.ie's 10,000+ worldwide customers (1,200 enterprise-level customers).  On the home page, their counter tracking "SharePoint links sent instead of document attachments" is getting close to 50,000,000.

Harmon.ie's latest offering, "topic computing," applies machine learning to the problem at hand. How? "By presenting enterprise events from cloud services, organized by topics, directly in the Outlook client."

And how will topic computing help ease our productivity blues? Cohen:

We're using natural language to analyze the email you're receiving. We might be analyzing a Salesforce opportunity which you just updated, or analyzing an Office 365 or SharePoint Online document which has been uploaded. We're trying to figure out how to categorize by topic, because the way our brain works is really by categorizing things by topics, getting a lot of signals, but ultimately saying, "Okay, this is about this customer. This is about this account, or this project I'm managing."

Topic computing is a new offering from Harmon.ie, dubbed Collage. Cohen told me they've been working with Collage for three years in the lab. They started testing on mobile devices, but Collage is now a cloud service available within an Outlook client while analyzing email. One nifty thing you don't see too often: all of Harmon.ie's existing customers will get access to Collage at no additional cost to their current license (Harmoni.ie has a per user per month license agreement for a minimum of one year, typically around $6 per user per month).

My take - we still have to change workplace culture

During our talk, I was disarmed by Cohen's humility. At one point, he said, "We are only scratching the surface. This is huge, and we are just trying to do our part." He even named the contradiction: "It's very difficult to fix the app economy with another app."

I like the idea of tackling productivity by biting off a chunk. No one vendor can possibly solve this. Harmon.ie isn't just trying to deepen the Outlook experience; plans for Gmail have been actively discussed. As a hardcore Gmail user, I'd certainly give that a whirl.

One problem: while there are still plenty of desktop/laptop corporate users, mobile is where work is shifting. Cohen conceded he doesn't yet have a solution for the app notification problem in the mobile OS. For Harmon.ie to thrive, they'll need to pull in some type of mobile ping integration, not unlike what MightyText does for me with Android on Mac/Windows.

Cohen and I diverged into talking points from my productivity, filtering and beating the noise series on diginomica. My views are influenced by the writing of "deep work' advocate Cal Newport. I'm with Newport: there are two kinds of productivity. One is getting-things-done productivity.

The other is value productivity, where the individual figures out how to apply the right filters/priorities to protect their time, in order to create differentiating assets for themselves and/or their employers. Employers can't solve for value productivity without a change in "always available" culture. Smart companies figure out how to empower individuals to protect chunks of project time. During that time, they should not be expected to respond except on a restricted "urgent" channel.

I don't think most companies have the fortitude to do this. Ironically, technology could help somewhat, for example a master scheduling tool that allows employees to block out do-not-disturb time. But individuals can't afford to wait on companies to get this right.

People need to fight to create protected time blocks inside and outside of work. I have friends in big companies who have worked out deals along those lines, such as "free Friday mornings" or "I'm on email only during these hours." But they are the exception, not the rule.

For now, Harmon.ie remains focused on their Outlook-based tools. But I think the concept of value productivity resonated with Cohen. Who knows, maybe down the road they'll take on a bit of that challenge as well.

For now, I'll keep urging modern workers to set limits on incoming noise to create things that freaking matter. Most folks will ignore me and get back to Facebook. I've won a few folks over to my way of thinking, and they've told me it's changed their careers. We'll see.