Making Sense of the Work Processing Market
Work processing (WP) tools — also known as journaling tools, tools for thought, second brains — are a relatively young branch of the larger market for work technologies: the tools we use to get our jobs done. They are an outgrowth from a wide set of sources, including notetaking tools (such as Evernote and Apple Notes), wikis (e.g., Wikipedia and Confluence), and document editing and management tools (think Google Docs and Dropbox Paper).
I explained work processing tools in some depth a previous article. If you aren't familiar with tools like Obsidian or Notion, I recommend your read that before proceeding.
The world is a blurry place, and the landscape for WP is intertwined with other work technologies in an evolving and messy way, which is the subject of this installment.
The Messy, Evolving Work Processing Market
The figure below can help give a sense of the different adjacencies between work processing and competing technologies, how they are similar and how they differ. Note the size of the circles does not indicate the range of capabilities or market sizes of the contenders. The spheres are positioned based on two dimensions: top-to-bottom ranges from communication-centric technologies to content-centric, and left-to-right ranges from complexity and scale to flexibility and scope.
These technologies share a focus on organizing the information and techniques related to work management: a term used to denote team task management with the incorporation of social communication capabilities. These technologies may accomplish work management in different ways, but the overlap is largely due to work management principles, such as task creation, and the manipulation of various task attributes — e.g., ownership, assignment, due dates, priorities and so on — and their use in the context of frameworks like Gantt charts, Kanban boards, and task and project dependencies.
Pure-play work management has been decreasing in use and evolution, principally because of people's migration to alternate approaches to instrumenting work processes and a shift in where users are spending time in the universe of work technology alternatives. Several trends are at work here:
- Very large organizations have found that pure-play work management tools have difficulty scaling up to the complexity of their operations. Large organizations can have tens of thousands of ongoing projects with dozens or hundreds of active tasks. Something more than project-oriented and small team-oriented solutions — like Asana and Monday.com — are needed in that domain, so tools like Smartsheet are gaining traction in those large organizations.
- The rise of work chat — think Slack and its knock-off, Microsoft Teams — and the continued dominance of email displaced work management from the foreground of group interaction into the background. Work management still exists, but now in the context of business operating systems, like Microsoft 365 or Google Workspaces.
- The emergence of a new domain that I call spreadbases (for spreadsheet-like databases), and the many companies in that domain — like Coda, Notion, Airtable and others — has attracted a great many smaller organizations. Some spreadbases include a large number of the content-centric capabilities of more pure-play work processing tools. For example, Notion can be a substitute for Obsidian, and vice versa.
- Work processing tools are attracting a great deal of attention in recent years, perhaps as the result of a growing interest in content-centric work coordination, an outgrowth of the immense impact that Google Docs has had on modern work. That engendered other, more hypertext-oriented solutions, like Dropbox Paper and Salesforce Quip. Cross-pollination of ideas from authoring tools like Scrivener and Ulysses, outlining tools like Workflowy, and notetaking apps like Evernote, have all surfaced in work processing tools, as well as various approaches to work management.
Related Article: Too Many Collaboration Apps Are Bogging Employees Down
The Overlap Between Spreadbases and Work Processing
The overlap between Obsidian and Notion (as shown in figure 2, above) can stand as a proxy for the stresses and opportunities in this area of the adjacency landscape, where WP and spreadbase tools overlap.
Spreadbases excel at their flexibility. If an organization has highly specific notions about defining their work processes and the information flowing through them, spreadbases offer a great capability. In spreadbase applications, individual spreadbases can be defined for purpose that emulate a database table, with each row in the table using the same attributes, representing the columns of the table.
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Obsidian doesn't have a built-in capability comparable to Notion's spreadbases — at least not yet. Yes, I can model a kanban in Obsidian through a variety of ways — the Obsidian Kanban plugin created by a member of the Obsidian developer community, for example — but it will not provide the richness of a Notion spreadbase. For example, I can use spreadbase capabilities to calculate mathematical results in Notion, create alternative views over the same data (such as a table or calendar view), and most powerful, I could create a second linked spreadbase linked to the first that only pulls some of the columns in, which I can then add additional columns to.
These capabilities mean that users can build sophisticated and highly specialized data models and business processes. Consider an example where a media organization develops a dashboard for all its authors’ in-process and pending articles, building on the kanban model above, but aggregated into a compilation of each individual author’s kanban.
The future for Notion and its immediate competitors (such as Coda) is the continued development of spreadbase capabilities, which Obsidian currently lacks. Notion supports a great many integrations with third party tools, making it an attractive hub for an organization's workflows.
Notion is already a substitute for Obsidian's work processing capabilities, although it is an inferior experience for the journaling and writing aspects of work processing. However, Notion supports a rich social model, where for example, a row in a kanban representing a task can be assigned to a colleague, and co-editing of documents is a foundational capability. Obsidian, on the other hand, is principally a single-user tool, although Obsidian file systems (or "vaults") can be synchronized between members of a group, which would allow for a simple form of sharing. This approach is the outgrowth of the single-user journaling tools of old.
Related Article: Finding the Balance Between Deep Work and Collaboration
Next Up: Who Needs Work Processing and Why?
This quick-and-dirty comparisons of Obsidian and Notion as exemplars of the work processing and spreadbase domains are just a taste of the analysis coming in the third installment in this series. In that final installment I'll try to address the question "who needs work processing tools, and why?" and consider scaling from personal, to group, to organizational use, as well as how a collection of documents can become a repository of knowledge, and an active source of shared understanding: a system of record and a system of truth.
About the Author
Stowe Boyd has been studying work and the tools we use to adapt to the future for the past three decades. He is the chief scientist of Work Futures, a research group. In the past he was the head of research at GigaOm, president of the social media pioneer Corante, a software entrepreneur, a computer scientist and a magazine columnist.