Who Needs Work Processing Tools and Why
Work processing (WP) tools — think Notion, Coda, ClickUp, Obsidian, Roam Research, Loqseq, Nuclino and Microsoft Loop — 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 (like Evernote and Apple Notes), wikis (like Wikipedia and Confluence), and document editing and management tools (like Google Docs and Dropbox Paper).
In the two earlier installments, I explored the history of notetaking, from ancient history to modern digital approaches, and laid out the landscape for work technologies and work processing's place in that terrain. In this installment, I will explain the critical criteria for matching today's tools with their possible application in the workplace. In particular, we will focus on 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. This includes many of the concepts that originated in work management — a term that denotes task management plus integrated social communications — and document management solutions.
First though, a quick review of the lay of the land for work technologies and how Notion, Obsidian and the like have emerged in recent years as an alternative to other tools, such as Asana, Trello and Monday.
The Adjacency Landscape for Work Processing
The figure below represents the work processing tools and various competing technologies in an adjacency landscape mapping out their similarities and differences. Note that the size of the circles does not indicate the range of capabilities or market size of the contenders, rather they are the same dimensions in an effort to show neutrality. The spheres are positioned based on the 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.
About the spheres:
- Business Operating Systems — Microsoft 365 is the defining product of this work technology sector, oriented around various communications tools like email and work chat, and a growing list of workplace applications, especially Word, Excel, Powerpoint, and task and project management capabilities from To Do, Planner, and Project. Google Workspace and Zoho are also business operating systems. As work processing tools mature, they are impinging on the domain of business OSs, and as established business OSs add work processing capabilities (as Microsoft is attempting with Loop) that overlap will become more pointed.
- Project Management — Work processing tools offer many capabilities that can be applied in the project management context. However, long-established pure-play project management systems such as Smartsheet, Workfront and Planview are geared toward highly complex and detailed project management requirements, often with large project management offices and professional services companies in mind.
- Work Management — Conventional work management solutions — e.g., Asana, Tello, Jira — are strongly oriented toward task management with a layering of social sharing. However the handle content such as documents, tables, diagrams and images minimally or not at all. Work processing solutions are a direct substitute for work management tools, therefore, and represent a threat, as do spreadbases.
- Spreadbases — Spreadbases are application platforms with a user experience that presents spreadsheet- and document-like views over the information in an underlying database capability. These spreadbase tables can be as sophisticated as spreadsheets, but some spreadbases also present the hypertext capabilities or work processing tools. These can offer point-for-point compatibility with work management tools, and overlap to a great extent with the work processing domain. As a general rule, spreadbases are targeted toward enterprise use, such as Notion, perhaps the defining company in the space, now valued at $10 billion. Pure-play work processing tools — like Obsidian — are primarily oriented toward individual or small team use.
- Work Processing — The fundamental concept of work processing is that of writing and editing 'pages' — individually named and addressable containers of information. WPs have to support digital writing with styling, headings and other capabilities inherited from word processing, along with embedded images, tables, charts, diagrams, Kanban boards, checklists and other useful content management elements. These capabilities are defined in depth in part 1 of this series.
It is critical to remember that these spheres are not exclusionary. Many spreadbase solutions incorporate all or nearly all the capabilities of work processing tools, and vice versa. Likewise Microsoft Loop, while part of a business OS, is clearly a competitor as well. Almost anyone searching for an enterprise work processing solution will have to look across these spheres in their search.
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How to Assess the Different Offerings?
So how do you go about assessing the various solutions that play in the work processing arena? This is in effect a two-part process: establishing the requirements for use, based on your needs, and then, evaluating the various alternative offerings relative to those needs.
3 Sorts of Work Technologies Users
Work management tools share great similarities with other workplace software with regard to their various users. In general, we can deal with three possibly overlapping classes of users: administrators, content developers and end users.
- Administrators — Generally IT staff, principally interested in enterprise considerations (such as security certifications, single sign-on, identity management, and internet, application and information security). As a general rule, deploying software for the enterprise requires that security and user management issues must be met prior to adopting and rolling out enterprise software.
- Content Developers — The flexibility and fluidity of work processing systems lead to a class of users who design and develop elements of the work processing solution, such as a set of documents and components to manage marketing activities, or sales campaigns, as only two examples. These capabilities can merge both documents and active components, such as spreadbase-like tables, or database-like searches and rendering of results. As a result, these users' requirements are focused on the ease of use around such development.
- End Users — The user experience of end users is the central issue for most work technologies, and this is perhaps even more important for work processing tools. Given the degree of divergence from other sorts of work technologies, the degree of intuitiveness of the experience of users, especially at the outset, is critical. Note that in many cases this relies to a great extent on the work of content developers who will configure the capabilities of the system to support the needs of specific groups of end users. So for example, end users who are involved with product management will be much happier when a well-developed product management capability has been devised, whether by emulation of project management approaches, like Kanban, Gantt charts, or product roadmaps, or through integration with third-party product management tools.
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Categories of Evaluation
The first consideration relative to business use of work processing tools is social sharing: does the solution support sharing content? We have come to expect a certain model of shared use — often called collaboration — where users can log in to a shared account, create and modify content, co-edit documents, communicate with each other through various capabilities such as comments, messages, and task assignment, for example, and participate in organizational units, like teams, departments or project membership.
For larger organizations, a rich and well-developed social sharing infrastructure across work processing tools is a must-have. Individuals and small organizations may be willing to accept an offering with less capability in this regard, but in general, for a solution to find widespread adoption in the business context, collaboration is essential.
For each of the three classes of users, there are four additional categories of evaluation factors:
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- User Experience — Are the affordances of the tool well-matched to the specific needs of each of the three kinds of users? Is there a consistent and comprehensive user experience?
- Complexity and Scale versus Flexibility and Scope — No tool does everything conceivable, and matching the needs of any organization with a work processing solution requires a triangulation between these endpoints of the CS/FS dimension. How well does the solution scale up to the organization's size, and what are the functions and structures that support scale? If a company is running thousands of projects or activities, how is complexity managed? Similar questions need to be asked regarding flexibility and scope: can changes be made to systems already in use, and how? Just as with scaling up to support large groups of users is needed, just so users will want to break down projects into tasks and subtasks, or complex documents into atomic subpages. And, although an enterprise evaluation might hinge on scaling up to the entire organization, it is just as critical (and perhaps more critical on a day-to-day basis) that the solution support team-level use, and for each individual to find that the solution supports their individual work (or adoption may prove a problem).
- Content-Centric versus Communications-Centric — The materials managed within a work management system are both a means of communication and the subject of communication. I create an active table in a document, share it with team members, and create a comment about the table. The table has to be managed, and its contents may change over time, and the discussion about the table can become a thread with participation with team members over time. How are such communications handled, and how intuitive is the link between the subject discussed and the discussion itself? It's essential to understand where any solution falls along this dimension.
- Integration — How does the tool integrate with other enterprise software, and how? What degree of integration is supported? For example, can an external CRM solution connect to a campaign management app constructed on the work processing platform?
Organizations undergoing such an evaluation for each of the three classes of users will want to create a table, listing the various features needed, and a weighting factor based on the level of criticality. For example, here is a small section of the evaluation for a hypothetical solution zooming in on end-user commenting, which is only one small issue out of hundreds.
Clearly, the creation of such an evaluation requires a deep understanding of the kinds of functionality available in today's work processing offerings and what your specific needs. Analysts typically approach such evaluations by creating model requirements, for example for enterprise, team and individual use, or for large, medium and small businesses.
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The Last Part Is the Hardest Part
The reality is that work processing tools are quite young, and the knowledge needed to create a fully realized evaluation of the sort hinted at in the table above is quite rare. As a result, those interested in such an evaluation will likely have to turn to analyst firms and access any reports they may have created on the domain, which can be quite expensive.
Numerous "reviews" of work processing tools are available by self-professed experts on platforms like Medium and LinkedIn, but many are astonishingly superficial, and others focus exclusively on one offering without consistent comparisons across tools.
Alternatively, a shortcut may be to start with a few — perhaps three — leading vendors, and generate a first-order evaluation along the lines sketched above by aggregating information and comparing the vendors' offerings. Often, the vendors themselves do part of the job on their websites. However, in my experience, that information is often too limited for a true evaluation.
In the final analysis, it may be necessary to prototype a subset of desired functionality in the three selected tools, building up the evaluation matrix from the bottom-up, from hard-won knowledge arising from the process. This will likely involve a great deal of time actually exploring the tools if the goal is to avoid a disastrous and failed adoption.
However, the end goal — building an active source of shared understanding, a system of record, and a system of truth — is worth the work, especially since other approaches such as project management and work management solutions are increasingly viewed as falling short on the shared understanding criterion.
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