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IT Directions

Keith Harrison-Broninski

Zoho vs HumanEdj

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This year, we are told by the analysts, the big thing is the complex, dynamic processes of knowledge work:

One of the major concerns among practitioners, researchers and vendors, in 2011, is going to be how organizations deal with complex, dynamic processes.
BPTrends, Jan 2011

If you are trying to form a strategy for technology to support such processes, you have a number of issues to deal with.  In particular, you will quickly find that there is no magic bullet - no software application that, on its own, solves the entire problem.

From a management perspective, the varied nature of human interactions in the workplace mean that there can be no single solution to meet all needs.  Organizations typically have processes of all the standard types: straight-through (BPM), unstructured knowledge work (Adaptive Case Management, or ACM), and structured knowledge work (Human Interaction Management, or HIM), so one needs to find an overarching management approach that integrates all 3 types of processes.  Some are best handled using flowcharts (BPM), others as cases (ACM) and some as collaborative Plans (HIM).  To claim that any software solution handles all these forms of work is simply to invite disbelief.

From an IT perspective, most enterprises have legacy of various kinds, and even new ventures are unlikely to place all their eggs in one software vendor's basket.  For instance, many organizations already have Enterprise Content Management (ECM) systems in place, as a strategic IT investment that cannot be bypassed or sidelined, so one needs to provide an integrating approach that leverages existing ECM systems.

My assertion is that collaborative Plans (HIM) are better placed at the top of the IT stack than cases (ACM) or flowcharts (BPM).  This is because the strategic and executive work that defines the aims of an organization (or department, team, venture, consortium, ...) and manages its resources to create value is more easily conceived of in terms of Plans than in terms of cases or flowcharts.  HIM Plans provide knowledge workers with the ability to initiate, monitor and support BPM processes and ACM cases via high-level HIM Plans.  This solves the management problem immediately.  Further, HIM Plans can make use of ECM documents as well as data from other sources, and can communicate in both directions with BPM and ACM systems, so it also solves the ECM integration problem.

No one solution meets all needs for supporting dynamic, complex processes - rather, you must use HIM to unify and integrate ACM, BPM and ECM.  There was general agreement on this approach from leading ACM vendors, including authors of the MtU book such as Keith Swenson and Dana Khoyi, at the ACM Mentor Camp panel, for which I gave the introductory presentation (http://bit.ly/acm-panel).

Having said all this, some software vendors are adopting a bottom-up approach to the problem - rather than providing one or two pieces (say, an ACM system plus an ECM system) and expecting to integrate with other enterprise software, they are assembling huge application platforms from small Web 2.0 application components.  The key player in this field is probably Zoho.  Zoho started as an online office application suite, but is now moving into collaboration territory:

While using Zoho your documents and data are securely stored online on our servers and can be accessed from anywhere. This means as long as you have Internet access you can access your Zoho data from any computer and enjoy a productive and convenient working experience wherever you go without the hassle of bringing your computer with you. In addition, Zoho helps people collaborate on projects and share information with a simple mouse click. For example, in Zoho Writer, there are several ways to share documents in private, make them public or even perform collaborative editing in real time.

In other words, Zoho is hoping to expand out of its successful ECM origins in collaborative document editing into work process management.  Certainly, their Web site boasts an impressive range of applications, listed under the 3 categories of Collaboration (chat, document sharing, project planning, etc), Business (CRM, invoicing, HR, etc) and Productivity (calendar, notebook, word processor, etc).  But will this belt-and-braces approach really scale to enterprise level?

I evaluate any software solution to collaborative work by assessing it against the 5 principles of Human Interaction Management, and on this basis, it must be said that Zoho fails rather miserably in a comparison with the Human Interaction Management System (HIMS) HumanEdj:

 1. Build effective teams

Zoho Project Management has a pre-defined set of Roles.  Each member ("user") in a project can be an Employee, a Manager or an Admin.  It is not possible to define responsibilities for team members or to give them RACI roles (Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, Informed).  Neither is it possible to specify for a team member the skills, experience, or personal characteristics required.  Furthermore, each project is an island, so it is not possible to identify, maintain and improve the way in which individuals are grouped together to carry out collaborative work.

By contrast, HumanEdj has a clean, simple interface for defining all these aspects of collaborative work, and using them to build teams that work together well, and in the manner intended.
 2. Communicate in a structured way
Zoho allows any user to start a "chat" by specifying a new topic.  However, these chats are unconnected to anything else in the project, and involve people selected essentially on a whim.  From a management point of view, such communications are as likely to cause disruption and time wastage as to encourage helpful and positive information sharing.

By contrast, HumanEdj instant messaging is an integral part of every Plan.  Chat messages are always sent as part of a Stage, so are "about" the clearly defined purposes of that Stage.  Further, the messages automatically go to all participants in the Stage.  Not only is it quick and simple to chat in HumanEdj (since there is no need to create a new "topic"), but the chat messages form a natural part of the work itself.
 3. Create, share and maintain knowledge

A Zoho project lets you upload documents that can then be collaboratively edited.  However, such documents are not connected to anything in the project plan itself - there is no relationship between the tasks of the plan and any documents that the team members happen to upload.  There is no reason to suppose that the upload section of a project will provide a reliable and meaningful repository for the deliverables of the project.
By contrast, HumanEdj documents (and other data, links, etc) are defined as part of the Plan itself.  Doing work in a HumanEdj Plan involves creating, updating and reviewing these items.  If you need new items, you add them to the Plan at runtime (which can be done by anyone in the Plan).  Like communications, the knowledge maintained by the Plan is a natural part of the work itself.
 4. Align your time with strategic goals

Zoho provides no way to identify the goals of a project, or to measure the extent to which they have been fulfilled.  It simply provides a task list and associated breakdowns such as a GANTT chart.  What is more, the task list is rather hard to create and update for any real-world plan with more than a few tasks, especially as task definition and task scheduling are separated.  The Web interface forces you to submit a new page for every single change to every single task.  This must drive any project manager attempting to manage work via Zoho insane with frustration and boredom.
By contrast, HumanEdj plans and the Stages they contain are based firmly upon goals, and have statuses that dynamically reflect the progress towards achievement (or otherwise) of those goals.  Further, there is a simple AJAX interface for Activity definition in which the work done, the effort required, and the schedule expected are all created interactively.

 5. Negotiate next steps as you work

As described above, in Zoho task and milestone creation are not only separated from each other and but also from any deliverables of the plan (which find no place in Zoho).  Hence the usual changes to the nature of deliverables that occur in collaborative knowledge work are divorced from the planning process, and there is no simple basis for team members to evolve new and more optimal ways to meet targets.

By contrast, HumanEdj calculates continually updated dependencies from deliverables and their statuses.  So as the expected outputs of a Plan change, and work proceeds, the schedule and work breakdown structure changes automatically.  The project manager can still view a Plan as a Gantt chart to gain a conventional overview, but there is no longer any need to laboriously maintain the Gantt chart by hand - rather, it evolves as a natural product of the work being carried out by team members.


These comments on Zoho apply equally well to BaseCamp, MS Project, or any other conventional project management software.  If you are seeking to manage collaborative human work, such tools will only waste a lot of time and cause a lot of frustration.

What you need is the ability to create and run more dynamic Plans, that let people collaborate flexibly across organizational levels and boundaries, and in which changes to work being carried out automatically generate changes to work schedules and resource allocations.  Do you want to seamless integration between content, cases and routine processes?  Do you want your knowledge workers to engage both with each other and with the IT backbone via your Intranet?  Then you need a Human Interaction Management System (HIMS).

Keith Harrison-Broninski cuts through the hype in his hands-on guide to where enterprise IT is really going

Keith Harrison-Broninski

Keith Harrison-Broninski is a researcher, writer, keynote speaker, software architect and consultant working at the forefront of the IT and business worlds.


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