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Asana, which offers a task management tool based on one used to keep Facebook's engineers organized, is adding an Inbox that looks a bit like a social feed--but Asana is quite insistent on distancing itself from the idea of social software for the enterprise.
"Social business is an oxymoron--I'm not sure why people haven't noticed that," said Justin Rosenstein, a former Facebook engineer who co-founded Asana with Dustin Moskovitz, Facebook's original chief technology officer. "We joke that if Facebook for the enterprise is what people needed, we would have stayed at Facebook. Instead of a social graph, we want to give you a work graph, a task graph of all the things you're working on or have worked on--where you can see at a glance what things you need to accomplish, and the next goal, and the next goal after that--all that management of work driving to the successful completion of projects."
Unimpressed with the buzz over Microsoft's acquisition of Yammer, Rosenstein also sees no point in integrating with enterprise social networks like Yammer or Jive. "I'm sure there is some use of them, like to organize getting a beer after work," he said, "but work itself is not social."
[ Do you know what you want--and what you need--when it comes to social media tools? Read Beware Slippery Requirements For Social Tools. ]
Asana does include social-style profiles and commenting, but it's all business, according to Rosenstein. One shortcoming of the early releases of the software was that it relied on email notifications to remind workers of tasks they need to follow up on--not good, Rosenstein acknowledged, given how overloaded most of our email inboxes are already. "For most organizations, email has become a counter-productivity tool."
Asana's answer is to reinvent the inbox around the work that needs to be done. It's tempting to use the word "social" to describe the messages, but Rosenstein notes the headlines are all the names of tasks, not subject lines. A blog post announcing Asana Inbox explains it this way: "In developing the Inbox, we've taken inspiration from the best parts of email, activity feeds, and other notification systems, and reimagined what they could be if they were focused completely on effortless coordination."
"[The inbox is designed] to make it easy for me to see all of the things that have changed about all of the tasks I'm following," Rosenstein explained. "Everything here is something that I have expressed interest in getting updates on or [that] someone else has assigned to me. This keeps your communication directly connected to the shared tasks your team is working on." Users can also alter the flow by reassigning tasks right from within the Inbox, and all collaborators will see updates, he said.
Rather than setting elaborate rules about who can reassign tasks, or under what conditions, the Asana software is designed to act more like a whiteboard, according to Rosenstein. Asana does preserve the history of those interactions, so you can see who made what changes.
Rosenstein also dismissed common project management tool requirements like Gantt chart views of project timelines as "very old school, inflexible, and out of date." Asana provides an API customers could use to do that kind of analysis if they really want to, he said, but he doesn't see the point.
Asana is one of many social and cloud software vendors that claim to have discovered a new, improved way of getting work done within the organization.
As for the competition, it doesn't faze Rosenstein. "It kind of reminds me of search engines circa 2001, or social networks in 2004. There was a time when there were all sorts of different search engines out there--so many that we needed meta-search engines. When Google started, people said, 'Oh, we don't need another search engine.' But the fact that so many people were working on it meant it was really important. It took Google coming along and doing it right. The same thing happened with Facebook," Rosenstein said. Now he plans to make something similar happen with Asana.
Rosenstein's skepticism about social software echoes a message that came across in a May New York Times article that appeared in the runup to Facebook's IPO.
"The first time I looked at Yammer, I thought I was on Facebook," Asana co-founder Moskovitz told the Times. "Work is not a social network, with serendipitous communications and photo collections. Work is about managing tasks and responding to things quickly."
I had a chance to ask Yammer co-founder Adam Pisoni for a response a few weeks ago. "What I think Asana missed was a critical point about where they started--with a system for task management used internally at Facebook," Pisoni said. "What Facebook already had was a social platform they used internally."
Facebook operates a private version of its social software with groups and profiles and activity feeds, plus integration with products like Rypple's employee performance management tools, which Facebook helped design. Pisoni's point was that base level of online social interaction between coworkers was never missing at Facebook the way it is in other companies. "I think they [the Asana co-founders] kind of missed the internal communications they already had in place," he said.
"I don't want to knock them; I think they're bright guys," Pisoni continued. "But they need to watch out for the second company phenomenon, which is what we see when people spin off from a successful company and they think it's easy. It's not easy."