Box used its annual BoxWorks event to showcase BoxRelay, its latest iteration in collaboration technology that has been jointly developed with IBM and which focuses on the workflow element of processing documents. The trajectory is clear, knock out Adobe and OpenText with an offering that is easy enough for anyone to use and at an irresistible price point.
This is what the company said in its official press release on the topic:
The offering will make it easy for any employee in a business to build, track and manage custom or pre-built workflows that leverage all of the security, compliance and collaboration features of Box.
Hang on though - haven't we been here before? Kind of. In 2014, Phil Wainewright noted from BoxWorks in that year:
This year, building on technologies acquired at the end of last year, the metadata has been folded into a full-blown workflow framework that includes some very clever machine learning algorithms to apply rules to documents instead of relying on humans remembering to do it.
And just to make sure prospects understand how to make use of this technology, Box is going to provide templated solutions tailormade for specific industries. If you think that sounds rather like the ‘bowling alley’ phase of new technology adoption described in Geoffrey Moore’s Crossing the Chasm, then you won’t be surprised to learn that Moore has been advising Box.
So what's the issue and why would you care when there is a pre-existing workflow capability? After all and from what I could gather in the extensive product Q&A, customers are not unhappy with what they already have. If anything, they're saying that from what they've seen in advance documentation, BoxRelay lacks certain functionality that already exists.
Box product people were quick to point out that this is a beta product right now and that there are numerous requests flowing through the development process. BoxRelay won't go into general release until early 2017 so there is plenty of time to get the solution fleshed out.
Simple enough, powerful enough?
Key to this announcement Box is trying to eliminate the need for users to engage with IT to create workflows. Once again, they are talking about templated solutions but this time they're being specific - there is no developer (IT) version. This is configuration only. In that sense, this IS for everyone.
I am slightly skeptical. Based upon my own experience, templates have a habit of getting you around 80% of required functionality and then you're in head scratching territory.
An alternative approach is to use lightweight workflows of the If...Then variety that have become popular with tools like Zapier and IFTT. This is where Box is heading. It is making the assumption that in order to get workflow and collaboration into everyone's hands then you need to have simple drag and drop integrations for different content types and workflow steps that are intuitive. Having used both Zapier and IFTT for a variety of tasks, I can see how this could deliver significant benefit.
Real world use case
For example. I use Zapier to connect Gmail, various elements of our CMS and Twitter notifications that are dropped into a Slack instance. Slack automatically notifies me of different business activities in real time. What I cannot do is collaborate directly upon the content without hefting a variety of document formats, email and the CMS. Even then, collaborators only see parts of the process which are handled in different ways by different people in our organizations.
I could imagine BoxRelay receiving an Office 365 Word document that is subsequently edited, where the changes are noted and annotations applied that explain the reason for changes. That in turn could then be notified back to the content originator. This in itself would then serve as both a production facilitator and learning mechanism for external producers in our editing process. Why not provide access directly in the CMS?
That's a great question and one we have debated internally on occasion. There are multiple CMSs in the world and we have no way of knowing who is using what and whether they require training. Some of our team are nervous about allowing collaborators access to the CMS. BoxRelay could solve that problem because we can establish rules about how the CMS is populated but can take content into BoxRelay in Word or, one assumes, a Google Doc. Taken together, these would likely represent close to 100% of all inbound content and require no training.
Edits are already explained via email but using BoxRelay would allow us to send notifications for collaborators to view what has happened to content. We could even insert an approvals process so that when we have completed our edits, our collaborators give final sign off.
In my mind, this is a far simpler and smoother way to work on content among many different collaborators. Whether it is possible remains to be seen but my conversations with the Box product team are encouraging. So far, so good. But what about licensing?
This is slightly tricky because Box told us that the content end of things is managed by them while the workflow is managed by IBM. Box has not released pricing information either although the hint is that as an add-on, it will run '1-for-1.' I was clear that as a customer, I want one throat to choke. Box said they will work with customers to make licensing as painless as possible. Will that work for an organization like ours where we have a modest core team but have many collaborators?
The answer is yes because we are told that those collaborators, who are often infrequent users can be assigned an account free of charge. I want some firmer assurances on this because in my scenario, these occasional users will need to perform tasks using BoxRelay capabilities. That would seem to put them in the same 'class' as a regular user.
The quality and depth of question from the floor in the Q&A was impressive. That's a good sign because it demonstrates to me that customers are more than curious about the solution. I certainly am.
Right now, I see tremendous opportunity for streamlining and standardizing many document or file based processes across multiple industries.
Equally, I see a genuine opportunity to get Box into the hands of an extended community of content providers and consumers as outlined in my use case above. If the solution achieves the ease of use Box and IBM are claiming then I sense BoxRelay will have solved an age old problem that continues to cause friction inside the enterprise.
My other main takeaway is that if BoxRelay delivers then it opens up the world of collaboration for all of Box customers, small, medium and large. The cost issue needs careful addressing but in my mind a few dollars per named user per month is far outweighed by the potential productivity and quality gains.
We shall be watching this one very carefully because if BoxRelay meets expectations, then it brings into question why I would ever want to consider solutions like those from OpenText and Adobe. When I put that point to Box I got a knowing wink.