This week, Asana previewed a demo of their solution for collaboration to an open house. Who is Asana? It was an idea conceived two years ago by Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz and colleague Justin Rosenstein. Moskovitz and Rosenstein decided to start Asana after being frustrated with existing collaborative tools to get work done.

Asana’s Frustration with Collaboration

Here's how Rosenstein describes his frustration with existing organizational collaboration:

  • He described 90 percent of his time dealing with the "friction overhead of coordination" and the "work about the work".   
  • He noticed knowledge workers using low-tech tools such as Notepad or Post-it notes to organize their work lives only occasionally updating a central repository.  He said “The effect is that you can’t trust the information stored in that centralized repository,” 
  • He also talks about his experience at Google (former employer) of trying different processes, tools, blogs or wikis, or whiteboards.  However, something always seemed to fall through the cracks in spite of working with smart and highly organized individuals.
  • He also talked about after joining Facebook, Dustin as head of Facebook engineering didn't have a clear picture of what's going on in his organization.
  • A few times he also mentioned how organizations seem to be reinventing the wheel over and over again when it comes to these tools.

Many of us can identify with the frustrations of Rosenstein and Moskovitz.  Passionate young energy zapped by organizational friction and lack of timely and free-flowing information.  I share the same passion and frustrations as they do having spent the last fifteen years as both a certified Project Manager and consultant (specifically on collaboration technology) who has continually preached and evangelized that there is a better way to work with distributed teams of people.  So what's the real problem Asana is trying to solve?  

The Collaboration Problem

My interpretation of the problem Asana is trying to solve is that collaboration continues to happen via email. Email makes it incredibly difficult for anyone at any level to put some context around specific tasks, take the appropriate actions and ensure some coordinated effort exists towards whatever objective or deliverable the team is trying to achieve.

It doesn't matter if you're chair of the social committee or a certified project manager. Creating a task list is a no-brainer in any collaborative tool or Microsoft Word. However, in most cases, the real conversation happens independent of that task list -- i.e. synchronously within email or conference calls or face to face meetings. As a result, much of the live discussions go unrecorded which creates more email and more confusion and more face to face meetings.

While a strong experienced Project Management Lead helps the overall coordination of effort, the fact is that many of us are project managers by accident. Even experienced PMs are on information overload most of the time.

Asana's Solution

Asana's approach to this "email and information overload problem" is a SaaS solution offering a simple task management tool for small teams or organizations. The Asana product focuses on what Rosenstein calls "speed and structure" which can be loosely translated as efficiency AND context of the information flow among the team members. And the intended results are more accountability and transparency in managing tasks.  

Collaboration "In Context"

What sets Asana apart from other collaboration tools is what I call "collaboration in context". Their formula is simple: Asana = Projects + tasks + people + conversations. Think task management meets CRM.

The Asana product attempts to address the "email problem" by offering a simple list of projects with related tasks/owners combined with associated conversations about those tasks. Based on their demo, I would definitely agree that if an entire team commits to using Asana, it's difficult for any team member to "hide" -- as long as everyone agrees to use the tool as intended and doesn't rely on good old email as comfort food.

Asana's Vision

It's really unclear what Asana's ultimate vision is. What is clear is the product as demoed provides a basic tool for task management with "mobility" baked into the overall design.  And it's reasonable to assume that Rosenstein and Moskovitz both recognize the fact that the fundamental element of knowledge work in business is a project.  

Of course if you view things through the same lens, just about everything in life might be considered a project both large and small -- shopping at the grocery store, applying for college, buying a house, having a baby or planning a wedding. In fact, Rosenstein talks about "Beyond Business" and planning a wedding as a non-business use case. I can definitely see this integrated into Facebook or Evite where I plan my party, invite my guests, create my tasks and the integration of alerts and such is tied to my Facebook news feed.

Is Asana Reinventing the Wheel?

Asana's grand vision as "beyond tasks" for businesses include being used as a communication infrastructure expanding to meeting notes, agendas, calendaring, performance reviews, applicant tracking, bug tracking, etc...Furthermore they allude to ending the "reinvention of the plumbing" and providing a "uniform newsfeed" of notifications and subscriptions all from one structured data platform.

While the grand vision sounds fantastic, it sure seems like Asana is reinventing the wheel themselves and have a grand vision to build a unified information management platform exactly like Microsoft SharePoint.

Acknowledge SharePoint

Microsoft SharePoint already provide similar capabilities as Asana in a unified platform where teams can easily create shared lists and related project deliverables within a team site. With that said, SharePoint does lack collaboration in context as there's no linkage or capture of chat or conversations or activities within an associated issue/task list (one of my pet peeves with SharePoint).  

However, SharePoint is a standard in many organizations and there's nothing unique about what Asana offers that can't be copied.  Additionally a SaaS offering like Office 365 provides an economic bundle of collaborative capabilities beyond Asana for supporting organizations of any size. 

Asana Won't Fix Your Organization

The fact is that Enterprise Collaboration tools don't solve cultural or organizational problems -- they simply force the conversation and raise the visibility that those issues exist. Technology is not always the issue nor is it always the answer....it's the process or lack there of.  

It's the lack of ownership or the inability of a group of people to agree on what the status should be or who should be alerted or have ownership. It's cultural, performance, incentives and politics. It's leadership or lack there of. It's the fact that the highest person in the collaboration often dictates how the group collaborates.  

I suggest the team at Asana consider gaining a perspective outside their limited work experience at "bubble tech organizations" like Google and Facebook and study the success or failures of other leading collaboration applications like Lotus, eRoom or SharePoint within organizations that the rest of the world works in.   

Asana is not a Project Management Tool

Asana is neither a full project nor portfolio management solution. They occasionally used the term “Project Management” to describe the product and on their website they describe what they're building as "collaborative task and project management software". My suggestion is to stick with "Task Management" as the marketing byline for now. There's a big difference between structured project management vs. project management (PM) "light" vs. task management. And Asana might be useful for task management or "PM really light".  

Projects are not just about tasks and there's a whole lot more to project management as a discipline. If they do plan to expand beyond tasks, they need to recognize what project managers do day to day and provide a means to track in scope/out of scope, risks, contacts, requirements, deliverables, issues, action items, budget vs. actual, etc... 

Asana Offers Nothing Innovative to Large Enterprises

Asana seems to work well for small work groups in its current state. To be fair, both Moskovitz and Rosenstein were forthcoming and honest about the intended audience of the product with this initial version. However, it does not appear Asana is doing anything really new or innovative in spite of the passion both Moskovitz and Rosenstein exhibit.  It doesn't seem likely that a large organization who receives thousands of applications per open req would use Asana for applicant tracking (or performance reviews for that matter).  

Having worked with tools like SharePoint and eRoom for over a decade, you always had the ability to manage both projects and process. In fact, you always had the ability to nest discussions inside an eRoom list (be it a task or issue list or document library) to capture the complete conversation "in context". In the bubble of eRoom as a 200+ person startup company in the year 2000, capturing the conversation inside the eRoom platform worked fantastic because the entire company ate their own dogfood. However, in the field working with an established organization of 10,000 or 100,000 people, it was and still is hard to change organizational culture and the way people work. There's a whole lot more to supporting "collaboration as a service" to tens of thousands of corporate users.  

Final Thoughts...

The one thing I do agree with is Asana's viral bottoms-up approach to their vision in order to gain mass adoption. SharePoint grew with the same viral effect as did eRoom before it and Notes before eRoom. Bottom up and viral are the only way new collaboration products will gain adoption in a large organization.

And my advice is to solve the problems associated with the discipline of project management and team collaboration before anything else. While I applaud their passion and am encouraged by what I see so far, I want to see a more defined strategy and vision -- especially if they want to tackle the "enterprise" market.  

That means addressing Microsoft SharePoint (as well as IBM/Lotus and Oracle) head on….if that is indeed what they plan to do. Asana has potential but the question is does their growth happen in business or in the consumer space?   

Check out the full 50 minute recording of the session:

Asana Open House from Jerry Phillips on Vimeo.