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Collaboration in [email protected]'s Wake

If Facebook “does it right,” [email protected] could ease the way for lesser-known collaboration tools to integrate and improve how work is done.

After the soft launch of Facebook at Work in mid-January, industry analysts chimed in with their thoughts on the move, many expressing uncertainty about the viability of enterprise social overall. Nemertes Research's Irwin Lazar wrote, for example, that while Facebook has the opportunity to really disrupt the enterprise collaboration space, in order to be truly successful with [email protected], it will need to address items like security, extensibility, and interoperability.

Working off Lazar's perspective, I recently spoke with Brent Frei, CMO, chairman, and co-founder of Smartsheet.com, to gain a little insight on how interoperability could come into play with Facebook's move into the enterprise and how it could impact the use of other work collaboration tools.

First, having never heard of Smartsheet myself, I thought a bit of an intro might be in order. The SaaS company, which has been around since 2006, provides a cloud-based, spreadsheet-like application for online project management, collaboration, and file sharing.

"The basic thesis for our product is that of all the available tools to plan and manage and coordinate work, the one that has been the market leader for the last 20 years is the spreadsheet," Frei said. "And while there are 400+ versions of Microsoft projects out there online and 200 team task management tools out there like Basecamp, a bunch of social collaboration tools for file sharing's sake, and thousands of purpose-built apps, still the market leader by a long shot is the spreadsheet."

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How Smartsheet Works
Smartsheet does for work coordination what Apple did with personal tools, Frei said. Apple selected the phone as the platform and rolled in other components like a camera, email and MP3 player. Because these various technologies work so well together, we now only need to carry one device with us.

"We're not a replacement for spreadsheets, but what we did is we looked at the way people use spreadsheets for work and it turns out that 60% of spreadsheets have no formulas. So people are using it to track lists of things, priorities and data, and we wove in the other productivity tools they need," Frei said.

While tools like Google Sheets and Excel are popular, they can fall a bit short when it comes to a few different functionalities, Frei said. For example, even good macro programmers struggle with creating dependencies (i.e., row 5 is dependent on row 2), so Smartsheet enabled an easy way to do this within the application. Smartsheet additionally enabled the ability to establish hierarchy among a user's various lists. With Smartsheet, if you have dates in your lists (such as "start on this date"/"end on this date"), you can turn on a Gantt chart function to organize projects accordingly. Further, the dates input into Smartsheet publish in that user's calendar.

Regarding its collaborative capabilities, Smartsheet allows a user to send certain rows of a spreadsheet to people, rather than sending an entire file. A user can select "send an update request" when sending out a couple of rows to someone, and the recipient will get two live rows in his or her Inbox. This means that the recipient can edit those two rows within his or her email client and all of the edits are then live in the master sheet.

The ability to collaborate is very different than the spreadsheet, Frei said. Smartsheet does not aim to replace tools like Google Sheets and Excel, nor are these products substitutes for Smartsheet. One point that illustrates this is that Google is actually an enterprise customer of Smartsheet; it's an approved app for the whole company, Frei said.

Can Facebook Get It Right in the Enterprise?
To me, it seems that much of Smartsheet's value to the enterprise comes from its ability to integrate with existing tools like email and calendar -- that's essential for the product's success. In the same way, I think Facebook's success in the enterprise will be tied to how well [email protected] plays with other tools.

"This Facebook announcement, for us, was particularly interesting," Frei said. "I love watching all these big guys take a whack at solving this problem, and we are internally continually hopeful that someone will actually get it right -- because if they do, it's going to be huge for certainly our market but also just basic productivity in general."

For Facebook to "get it right" with enterprise social, it must clearly explain how it will handle content security, which is a big deal to any sort of reasonable sized company, Frei said. Second, Facebook needs to have a robust API system so that it can integrate systems of record and systems of work to discussion threads. If this is not the case, [email protected] is going to be just another "noisy spot" for people to go, he added.

"And then another one -- and this has been particularly fascinating to me because even Microsoft has taken a long time to sort of come to this realization -- is collaboration outside the domain," Frei said. "Mostly what everyone has done -- whether Google or Yammer -- is just enabling that social interaction in their domain, inside their company. But it turns out in today's world, so much of what we do is with other people. If they can't play on our systems with us, then you've probably reduced the efficacy of that tool by more than half; and people will resort to something else or whatever tool allows them to interact with outside parties."

Facebook will need to make [email protected] the preferred place to go because of how good a job it's doing in determining relevance and intent of incoming content. In other words, it has to do a superlative job of filtering out the noise for people for participants, Frei said.

While that's hard to do, Frei said he feels Google and Facebook have an advantage. "At least they've researched in that area so they have a better chance of being the ones who get it right."

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