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We'll make work management as big as CRM says Asana co-founder

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright February 14, 2019
Work management brings oversight to digital collaboration and it's going to be as big in the enterprise as CRM, Asana co-founder Justin Rosenstein tells me

Big group business people skydiving teamwork © Mauricio Graiki - shutterstock
Most teamwork vendors have ambitious plans to seize a share of the enterprise collaboration market. Asana has set its sights far higher. It aims to dominate a broader category that it calls work management, and which encompasses not merely collaboration, but a whole range of other categories including workflow automation, project management, resource management and more. According to co-founder Justin Rosenstein, these old product categories are all destined to disappear:

I think they're just the old dinosaur way of doing things and we'll just replace them. All these things have been siloed ... and these things barely talk to each other when really they're all taking different angles on the same things, which is who's doing what when.

All these separate categories, we're going to make them all seamless experiences. If we can design it really well, it'll all feel really smooth.

When the company launched in late 2011, Asana looked very similar to a raft of other project management and collaboration vendors coming out of Silicon Valley and elsewhere with a mission to make teamwork simpler and more accessible. But its founders placed that mission in the context of the broader goal of advancing human progress, says Rosenstein:

All important progress depends on people working together ... What if we could enable every organization in the world that's doing important things to move 5% faster?

A survey of customers last year revealed that this original target has been blown away — the average response was that teams believed they were working an astonishing 45% faster. This kind of improvement can make an existential impact, says Rosenstein. He cites a local non-profit working with opioid addiction whose leaders have said that if they hadn't started using Asana, they would have folded because they couldn't keep up with their administration burden:

These are the kinds of things that get me excited to work on these seemingly abstract problems day in day out.

Dire state of work management

For now, such results probably say more about the dire state of work management in most organizations than any special advantage that Asana has over other digital collaboration products. Most customers will inevitably see a significant impact simply from leaving behind the many inefficiencies of paper-based processes, disorganized email chains and improvised, ad-hoc co-ordination. The convenience of a single, shared information trail — instantly accessible to any participant in a joint endeavor, wherever they happen to be — is common to all cloud-based digital collaboration tools.

But while many manage to achieve the ease-of-use that's essential to widespread participation, few manage to combine that with the behind-the scenes sophistication that large organizations require, says Rosenstein:

Building an easy work management system is hard. Building both easy and powerful at the same time — and loved by both end users and the IT professionals administering it on the back end — is incredibly difficult.

What's more, Asana is still at an early stage of its intended roadmap. So far, the main focus has been on capabilities that help to manage work within a single team, such as a shared view of progress on each task, the ability to define workflows, a project calendar, easy access to shared files, and integrations to other collaboration aids such as file sharing, messaging, email, issue ticketing and so on. Last year saw the addition of project timelines, which provide a drag-and-drop visualization of a project plan and show dependencies between tasks within the plan.

There's much more still on the roadmap at the level of co-ordinating work across different teams and projects — whether that's more oversight of the work going on across an individual organization, or gathering learnings across the entire user base that can feed back into improving the effectiveness of teamwork for all. One important building block there is the growing library of templates created and shared by Asana users that make it easier to get a project started. This is a first step towards analyzing what works best, says Rosenstein:

Templates is a baby step toward packaging up workflows and getting people using those. End users can publish them, AIs can analyze them. There's a huge opportunity to marry human intelligence with computer intelligence — automating work about work, and helping people understand how to do things they hadn't thought of before.

We have very ambitious visions and long-term goals — but how we do that in baby steps is how we keep proceeding.

Enterprise oversight

The first step towards providing more organization-level oversight was the introduction a few months ago of portfolio functionality, which rolls up multiple projects into a single high-level view. The next step will be a meta-portfolio capability to gather together a number of different portfolios of projects — for example, bringing together all the different portfolios within a specific department or business unit.

Ultimately, the idea is to roll up multiple tiers into an executive dashboard of all the work going on across an organization, still with the ability to drill down into individual portfolios and projects to see the underlying detail as needed. Rosenstein is thinking even further ahead:

You can imagine the CEO would have a mega portfolio and zoom up and down. Long term, I want to have a Google maps-style UI, where the size of different blocks represents the amount of work, and the color represents its health ... Long term, I want to do that in augmented reality.

The strength of Asana's ambition stems from its origins. Rosenstein was an early product manager at Google, where at one time he led the development of Google Drive and was also involved in the creation of Google Talk, now known as Hangouts Chat. He then joined the engineering leadership at Facebook, where among other things he created the Like button. With Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz, he built an internal collaboration tool to solve challenges they were facing within Facebook, and that became the basis of Asana, which the pair co-founded in 2008:

I felt we were spending so much time not on real work but on this work about work. We didn't have the telepathy we needed to be in sync ...

The more we thought about it, the more we felt this was a Facebook size opportunity on its own.

It was not until 2012, four years later, that Asana came to market. With its Facebook pedigree, the company attracted a lot of initial attention. But its progress since has been somewhat overshadowed by the subsequent launch and rapid rise of another Silicon Valley poster child, the messaging platform Slack, which made its debut in 2013. But Asana is also growing fast, with one million organizations signed up for its free edition and around 50,000 on paid plans. It raised two rounds of venture capital last year, bringing its funding above $200 million, and ending the year with a $1.5 billion valuation. That valuation is justified by the metrics, Rosenstein tells me:

At the scale of revenues we're at, it's unheard of to still be accelerating. We're at more than 90% growth year over year, we've had eight consecutive quarters of growth, we're now at 425 teammates ...

I feel really good about our trajectory.

The emergence of work management as a significant category of enterprise applications also bodes well for Asana's continued success, he explains:

We're in this new category called work management. We're seeing these same trends you've seen with CRM and similar categories in the past. Suddenly it starts to go mainstream — everyone realizes it's what they need today.

So the category is exploding and we're the fastest growing at scale.

Asana aims to consolidate its position with a platform play, he tells me, opening up its system so developers can build their own software while taking advantage of Asana's existing workflow and teamwork functions:

That is much easier for a developer. And everything will operate seamlessly. You'll see a bunch of that in the next year ...

We see this evolving as Asana becomes the core architecture for the future of work.

My take

I've long argued that collaboration will become one of the core pillars of enterprise applications in the digital enterprise, on a par with other more traditional categories such as ERP, CRM and HCM — bearing in mind too that the make-up of those other pillars is also changing. So I'm not going to argue with Rosenstein's contention that work management, if that's what you want to call it, becomes as important and fundamental to enterprise operations as CRM or HCM.

I've also come to the conclusion, after watching the emergence of the digital collaboration sector in some detail, that it will coalesce around an application that acts as a hub for tracking teamwork:

At the core of this architecture there should be some form of collaborative canvas — a flexible, connected framework for participants to digitally share, organize, track and progress the work of a team.

What is more contentious is the claim that Asana has already established leadership in that new category. Though I must admit, it is striking how closely Asana fulfils the eight characteristics I listed as core to that collaborative canvas, including this observation:

Amidst all this technology, it’s important to remember that teams are people, working together to achieve outcomes ... The crucial point is to have visibility into what needs doing next and who is responsible for making it happen.

Other vendors have recognized this too, and that is one explanation why many are rapidly expanding their functionality to include workflow automation and management capabilities. Only last month, DropBox acquired HelloSign for its workflow automation capabilities, while document collaboration vendor Box has also been acquiring workflow capabilities. I've also highlighted the collaboration between Slack and workflow automation startup Workato.

What is distinctive about Asana when compared to these digital-era rivals is that it focuses much more on tracking and managing the flow of work rather than simply automating it. At the same time, Asana distinguishes itself against conventional project management tools by its ambition to extend its reach across the entire enterprise, rather than confine itself to managing projects one at a time.

I think the challenge for Asana — indeed for any vendor seeking to be successful in this category — is figuring out how to help people understand how to get the most out of their offering. This is an emerging market that isn't fully defined and therefore people don't yet appreciate the full extent of what it's capable of. I find that intriguing and I think there's an interesting story to be told here about enterprise adoption of this and similar tools. I'm therefore putting Asana on my list of vendors to watch and will be returning to this topic again in the coming weeks and months.

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