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Phil Wainewright

Can Facebook Alumni Remake Enterprise Collaboration?

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Yesterday saw the long-awaited launch of a collaboration tool that's been two years in development at stealth-mode startup Asana. What makes this launch notable is that the company's two founders are alumni of social networking giant Facebook, and one of them is Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz, former college roommate of Mark Zuckenberg, and thus one of the characters depicted in the recent Aaron Sorkin film about Facebook's creation.

Asana is out to fundamentally change how people collaborate at work, primarily by doing a much better job of automating and simplifying collaboration than every existing enterprise collaboration tool. Why will it succeed when hundreds of prior start-ups have failed to achieve a similar aim? Techcrunch's Sarah Lacy explains that at least it will bring some fresh thinking to the problem:

"Asana is one of the first business software products re-thought from the ground up by twenty-somethings with no background in old-style enterprise sales and frankly, not too much experience using enterprise software in the workplace."

Whether that is really so unique, Asana's ambition (some might say hubris) is stereotypically youthful. In a video recording of a recent open-house presentation at Asana's offices, co-founder Justin Rosenstein explains how he and Moskovitz realized they were working on "problems that are basically fundamental to all human endeavor:
"Whenever you're working with a group, you always have this problem of, how do you manage logistics, how do you stay on the same page, how do you stay co-ordinated? It occurred to us that, if we could solve this not just for Facebook but for the world, at web scale, that would be an immense way to help out ... we could potentially make all organizations faster."

In truth, Asana is tackling the age-old problem that every other business collaboration and knowledge management product has tried (and so far failed) to solve ever since computers were first invented. Its founders have noticed that people at work don't often use the complex enterprise software they're asked to use, falling back instead on much lower-tech solutions. "The effect of that is, you can't really trust the information that's in that central repository," says Rosenstein.

Asana tries to solve that by providing the necessary underlying structure, but framed within a user interface that is designed to be as fast to use as a text editor, with a panoply of rapid shortcuts, so as not to slow people down and thus switch them off as users. "Like an iTunes for your task list," says Rosenstein.

Perhaps because the UI is so simple, the product demonstration looks disappointingly anodyne. But there is some interesting technology under the hood. A big section of the two-year development process was devoted to creating a simplified technology framework called Luna to provide a streamlined interaction between JavaScript in the browser-based user interface and the back-end data model. Luna is described in a fair bit of detail in this Quora answer posted by Asana's Jack Stahl.

Asana's objective is not merely to become another collaboration app. Rosenstein's pitch talks about becoming the collaboration foundation for just about every enterprise team activity you can think of, including support ticketing, applicant tracking, performance reveiws, calendaring, discussion and meetings. That ambition may sound hubristic but it's also aligned with the need I've alluded to in previous postings here for collaboration to link in with process as well as content. So maybe it's too early to dismiss Asana just yet.

Phil Wainewright blogs about how businesses are using the Web to get better plugged into today's fast-moving, digital economy.

Phil Wainewright

Phil Wainewright specializes in on-demand services View more

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