Is Quip Salesforce answer to collaborative document ambivalence? We think so.

Kurt Marko Profile picture for user kmarko August 16, 2016
Collaborative document working has been something of a Cinderella, but Salesforce with Quip could change that. Here's how.

When news broke of Salesforce buying Quip, makers of a suite of collaborative productivity software, it was met with some perplexity given the former's seemingly cozy relationship with Microsoft and the futility of trying to upend Office's hegemony on corporate PCs.

Diginomica's Stuart Lauchlan questioned whether this might transform the friendship into something more like co-opetition in which Salesforce opportunistically supports Office, but is ready with an alternative for customers not wedded to the Microsoft suite.

That won't be clear for a while, but Salesforce could do for enterprise collaboration what Google and the myriad others inhabiting various collaboration software niches have so far been unable to achieve: deliver a viable alternative to document-centric communication processes that are based on a back-and-forth of attachment-laden email messages.

This is no easy task and many have failed to unseat Microsoft Office and Outlook as the collaboration platform of choice in most enterprises. However, by already being core to many of its customers' business processes, Salesforce has the best shot yet at finally breaking the tyranny of the interoffice memo and bringing business communications into the era of social sharing and online collaboration.

If correct, Quip's $582 million purchase price will be a bargain.

Online document collaboration software has been around since the dawn of Wikipedia, which amounts to one gigantic corpus of interactively-developed content. Collaborative documents were supposed to liberate office workers from the torment of email ping pong in which multi-party email threads, bloated with attachments that get bigger every year, are the primary means of sharing information, gathering collective feedback and cooperatively creating office documents.

Yet email remains the most popular office communication tool. One survey found that U.S. workers spend over six hours a day on email and half think it will get worse. Those numbers are inflated by data that lumps personal and business email into the total, but another survey found that workers spend 12% of their week on email, with 40% of the respondents saying email gets in the way of actual work, second only to "wasteful", unnecessary meetings.

Ironically, the same survey group found email and meetings to be the most effective forms of business communication. Old habits are indeed hard to break.

The problem with collaboration-centric, mobile-optimized document software like Quip or Google Apps isn't the technology. It works great. Instead, it's human inertia that makes changing long-established styles of work nearly impossible. Indeed, organizations face a looming culture clash as millennials weaned on text messages, Dropbox, Instagram and Snapchat, collide with aging baby boomers clinging to communication processes that are the electronic equivalent of memos routed in interface mail envelopes.

The durability of email, which derives from its combined ubiquity and interoperability, will (almost likely) always be invaluable for external messages. Its versatility allows many workers to turn the inbox into a work dashboard that doubles as calendar, file cabinet and to do list.

Prying those same workers away from such a valuable tool to work on a new collaboration system, which represents just another thing to check for updates and messages has been an impossible task. Believe me; I've tried to get remote colleagues to work on a Quip document or Google Sheet and the effort invariably ends with one request: could you just email me a Word (or Excel) attachment?

Here's why Salesforce might succeed where others have failed — and I include Microsoft in that many of your colleagues will work on Word document shared via OneDrive using Office online?

Salesforce provides the software and shapes the user experience for business processes people have already incorporated into their workaday habits. By controlling the software and interfaces that are crucial to getting one's work done and have become part of an employee's daily routine, Salesforce can quickly and transparently incorporate collaborative document creation, sharing and editing.

It becomes a bonus feature of something they are already using rather than the onerous imposition of a brand new tool.

For example, as Den Howlett profiled earlier this year, City Year, a non-profit that supports students in K-12 schools, has built a student tracking system around Salesforce that includes all the data required to measure student progress and customize teaching sessions.

According to the organization's CTO, "Since everything is logged in the tool, corps members in San Jose can see what teams in Boston and Miami are doing differently to help students." One can imagine a Salesforce Quip module being incorporated into this system that would allow students to write papers, build spreadsheets and create classroom presentations that could be shared with other students and teachers for ideas, critique and editing and then archived as part of their permanent record.

Similar integrations of collaborative documents are natural fits throughout the Salesforce product line for customer service, sales and marketing.

My take

After years of trials from dozens of competitors, it's obvious that collaborative document software can't be imposed, it must be organically adopted.

Products like Quip can only flourish in business when brought in under the guise of some other software system that employees see as necessary and useful to their daily work.

As a standalone product, Quip could never do that, but it now has Salesforce to provide the Trojan Horse of business process software. My guess is that once people use Quip in one context, its benefits and convenience, including a respectable mobile client, will cause them to embrace it for others.

Organic growth is the most potent way to bring about cultural change, and have no doubt, changing document sharing software and practices is about mores, not technology; however, executive leadership can be a powerful catalyst. I'll echo the words of this Deloitte white paper,

The power of executives as role models should not be underestimated. Executives using desktop videoconferencing, presentation and document sharing technologies as part of their daily routine are likely to encourage and stimulate their direct reports and teams to try the same tools.  In the case of one organisation we interviewed, executives using video-conferencing in lieu of email or phone calls created a pattern of behaviour that quickly had development teams in several countries using the same tools to collaborate on complex tasks, measurably improving productivity and innovation across the business.


Quip isn't about to displace Office as the document platform of choice for most enterprises, however with Salesforce, it has a better opportunity to change how people work and bring document collaboration and sharing into the world of social software.


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Disclosure - Salesforce is a premier partner at time of writing

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