Back in the 2007-2009 timeframe, there was a lot of excitement about the potential for collaboration in the cloud. This was the era of Web 2.0, which in turn begat the concept of a cloud-based Office 2.0 and an Enterprise 2.0 fueled by social media applications, but sold to management as a gossip-free collaboration tool. A dozen years has been a long time to wait, but this year the value of connected digital teamwork has finally hit home.
This has been a long journey for Zoho, which back in 2007 introduced a suite of cloud-based business applications at that year's Office 2.0 conference. Billed as a competitor to Google Apps, as G Suite was then known — and around five years before Microsoft put Office properly online — Zoho was way ahead of its time. At the time, Zoho found more traction for its CRM offerings, but it still retained its digital teamwork capabilities, which are now coming back into the limelight. Chief Evangelist Raju Vegesna recalls:
We were known as a web office company, or a collaboration company, and we had to pivot to CRM. And now we are trying to convince people that, 'Hey, we also have a collaboration story there.'
More broadly, I think the lines between each of these categories are blurring. That I believe puts us in a good position where I'm excited about what we can build — and we are building — with this as the base.
This week has brought the latest release of Zoho Workplace, a suite of online applications for digital teamwork. It incorporates last year's significant re-engineering of the Zoho Workdrive file sharing platform, now updated with comprehensive sync capabilities. There are various other updates to the suite, which also includes email, messaging, video and voice conferencing, as well as the latest versions of the original online office applications — spreadsheet, word processing and presentations — plus online training and an intranet platform that integrates with Zoho's HR suite.
Workplace is offered at the highly competitive price of $3 per user per month for the entry level Standard version, or twice that for the Professional version, which offers higher storage limits and other advantages. It's also available as part of the broader Zoho One package, which includes Zoho's full range of business applications at a cost of $30 per employee per month.
Collaboration in context
With more than 50 million users, privately owned Zoho is a big player but doesn't get the same profile as venture funded or publicly listed rivals. Nevertheless, just as it did back in the late 2000s, it still provides robust competition for industry giants such as Google and Microsoft, alongside newer contenders including Slack and Dropbox.
Zoho's key differentiation is that it offers business applications as part of the same stack as its digital teamwork capabilities. Crucially, this makes it much easier to present all relevant content to users in the midst of their work processes. Vegesna explains:
Ideally, you should also bring in the business context. When you receive that email you should know whether that email is from a customer or an employee or a partner. That is only possible when the context is attached to the collaboration and other tools out there.
The same thing happens when you receive a document. Where is it coming from? Who is it for? Whether it is signed or not? — and the path that document has taken — should also be available as part of the context. No matter where you are, the collaboration tools should receive the context from the business tools and vice-versa.
That plays a crucial role, particularly in a non-office environment, and is needed even in an office environment. Adding that additional context means you don't have to go through multiple clicks and do some research to get that.
Much of this depends on having automation built into the underlying platform, says Vegesna, such as AI-powered predictive suggestions and various workflow automations. These systems must evolve to provide better automation of repetitive tasks, he believes:
The problem is, today's systems don't work as they're supposed to. If they work seamlessly, and if they do this automation of everything, and contextually everything seamlessly works, then people get to focus on what they're good at. Today, we have to put in a lot of effort to even make the tools work. And that is the problem ...
That is the focus of relying on a platform that stitches everything together. We are still in the first innings here, frankly, and there's a long way to go. But automation plays a critical role.
Embedding collaboration in the flow of work
I've said before that Zoho is pretty unique in providing all four patterns of digital teamwork, along with all of the technology capabilities that add up to a fully integrated collaborative canvas. It's the only vendor that embeds the collaborative tooling directly in the same fabric as the applications. Vegesna uses the example of analytics to show how important this embedded approach is for business efficiency.
The best practice of the product is, it gets a lot of usage, but the product will not be recognizable. It is embedded as part of the workflow, not a separate independent product, where you will not be able to tell the boundaries of the applications ...
If you have to go to another tool to look at analytics, then that means that is a failure. It is like [when you're driving] going back, opening your trunk, to see the speedometer reading for your car. And the same thing for an email campaign system. There is no reason why you cannot send an email campaign from the compose window of your email system.
Workplace at the end of the day should be so embedded with the rest of the system that each of these applications should be unrecognizable [as separate applications].
The digital teamwork market is a battleground between single-vendor suites and best-of-breed ecosystems. There are lots of pieces that enterprises have to stitch together to achieve a truly efficient collaborative canvas, and there are few fully integrated solutions to choose from.
Zoho, in part because it got into the online teamwork game a long time ago, is an exception. Its integration of applications, along with the inclusion of email in its collaboration portfolio, puts it ahead even of giants like Microsoft and Google. The goal of embedding each teamwork component invisibly into the user experience is fully aligned with where the market is trending. Zoho may be a less well known player but it is a worthy challenger with plenty going for it.