Work Management Software 2013 – toward a richer understanding of this emerging new category

A new business software category is emerging called “work management”.  We are eager to make 2013 the year where this new category really gains a foothold. We are concerned with closing the execution gap between goals, tasks, and results.  This article is intended to help develop a richer understanding of this new software category.  How we get more done is suddenly sexy and all kinds of functionality and vendors are eager to be included in the new buzz around “work management” software.  Unfortunately, this has tended to cloud the new field with a wide-ranging set of features and capabilities to the point where there is no succinct definition of what constitutes “work management” software.

The following is a primer on some of the distinctions across various work management software offerings.  Vendors will begin to stake out their differentiating features along the following dimensions:

—  Function-specific tools vs. general tools.  Some tools are designed to support managing the work of specific users.  For example, call centers or IT support desk users might use a support ticket system that integrates inquiries created via email, phone and web-based forms in order to manage, organize and archive support requests and responses.  Professional project managers could also be considered functional specialists who use project management software as a “work management” tool.  These function-specific tools are built around a specific set of features tailored to the activity of that function.

By contrast, generalized tools are designed for a broad user population. These “tools for the rest of us” (e.g. calendar apps) can be used to manage work in virtually any function or environment, small groups or large.

—  Individual vs. Group ware.  Some “work management” tools are designed primarily for single users; others for groups.  Most task management systems, for example, are fundamentally single user applications.  I make lists of “to do’s” for myself and then I work down the list.  Similarly, many project management tools are also designed primarily for input by an individual user.  Yes, tasks can be shared with others in the group, but interactivity between members is limited.

The term “group ware” was popularized in the 1990’s.  In contrast to “standalone” applications, “group ware” referred to messaging and workflow solutions designed to improve coordination across many users.  The new breed of “social” tools have many of the same attributes – sharing information with others to get work done.  See further comments on “social media” below.

—  Goal and Task management.  Managing work certainly involves setting goals and accomplishing tasks.  Goals are typically “bigger” and have no specific deadline, but, other than that, there is significant functional and practical overlap between managing goals and tasks.  Perhaps to oversimplify a bit, the distinction can be reduced to the size of the outcome (e.g. what’s the difference between a weekly goal and a task that’s due next week?).  Task management tools, of which there are dozens, can help manage an individual’s work, and they are generalized, but how are they to be included in the new “work management” category?  I can create Goals and Tasks for myself with or without conversation with others.  What is new is sharing (i.e. broadcasting) my Goals and Tasks with others in the group along with progress updates.  Tracking delivery commitments I have made to others and that others have made to me are essential for effective coordination of group work and resource allocation.  So goal and task management have shifted from being individual-ware to being group-ware; this is a significant shift in a familiar tool.

—  Collaboration vs. document sharing, videoconferencing, chat groups.  Unfortunately, the term “collaboration” is no longer a very helpful descriptor.  In the beginning, the term was hi-jacked into meaning shared documents (along with content management and searching).  A recent white paper by Info Tech Research Group, for example, gave high marks to one vendor’s “team collaboration portal” which boasted permission controls, voting by group members, and micro-blogging in addition to sharing content. Co-laboring clearly involves much more than managing shared content.

More recently the term collaboration has come to include an expanding range of features.  A recent Forrester study of “Collaboration Software Vendors” included eight companies with very different capabilities that ranged from file sharing and synch (e.g. Box) to video conferencing and instant messaging (e.g.Cisco/Webex, Citrix/GoToMeeting) to online chat groups (e.g. Salesforce Chatter and IBM’s SmartCloud Social Business Toolkit and Yammer).  Given this wide variety of features, the term “collaboration” no longer contributes much precision to the discourse.  I suggest we drop the term collaboration and use the actual features (document sharing, videoconferencing, chat groups, etc.) instead.

For a further discussion of the distinctions between document sharing and collaboration see my blog “Collaboration 2.0 – More Than Sharing Documents”.

—  Social media.  The word “social” has crept in everywhere.  We have: social media, social enterprise, social strategy, social collaboration tools, social work management, social workflow, social performance management, and social goals among others.  Let’s be clear that the term “social” has now been pretty much defined to mean a one-to-many communication pattern.  While it is possible to have one-on-one conversations, the “social” tools are designed primarily to enable an individual user to broadcast a question or a “posting” to the larger forum.  The term “social” has come to mean “shared with the group”.  The “group” can be a predefined group of limited members or a public, undefined group.  Familiar examples include Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Chatter, Yammer. These are generalized tools without a functional focus.  Facebook and have begun promoting the value of individuals posting entries and updates to help groups get work done.  See blog post about Facebook’s new group features (

At the “Dreamforce” convention last fall “social performance management” was the rage.  A number of sessions promoted “new ways to work”, “working together better”, “rebooting work”, “fixing work”, “new management practices”, “openness”, “transparency”.  As represented by Rypple/, “social performance management” emphasizes broadcasting individual goals, awarding badges in a public forum, and then cobbling together the badges and coaching notes for individuals into a performance review.  Interaction is primarily only one-way – one person awards a badge to another and your manager writes your review.  Social media adds value and can set the background context, for example, by aligning shared goals. Recognition and rewards add positive energy to the workplace.  Feedback, recognition, coaching, and rewards are motivating, but it remains to be seen whether changing how we write performance reviews, and how often we write them, will actually have any real effect on productivity.  Even Salesforce execs at the convention reported that “70% of all sales reps leave because of poor relationships with their boss”.  This problem cannot be fixed with purely social media tools.

—  Messaging/dialog.  In contrast to the new “social” tools, stand the old personal messaging tools, i.e. that support two-way dialog.  Email, IM and SMS are still the dominant ways two people communicate about getting work done (i.e. one-to-one communication pattern).  Emails can be shared with the group with cc’s to others, but the primary function is one-on-one conversation. This is the most personal, the most urgent, and still the most effective means for actually getting work done.  Just because these tools lack a modern marketing spin does not mean they are any less effective than they were 10 years ago.  The buzz around “work management” should not delude us into thinking that the new “social” tools come anywhere close to the power and effectiveness of such interactive media.  One can, of course, communicate one-to-one in Facebook, and emails can be shared more broadly using CC’s and blasts, but the dominant distinctions hold – Facebook is mostly a social media, email is primarily a personal messaging tool.  Read more about the distinctions between the one-to-many vs. one-to-one tools in my blog post “Bringing The Social Model to Human Capital Management“.

—  Metrics.  There is no question that measurement and feedback drive behaviors and, in turn, productivity.  Let’s be clear, however, that there are important distinctions regarding the metrics that can be obtained from social vs. interactive tools.  Tuning in to the social buzz around what has been called the ‘enterprise social water cooler’ can certainly provide a more real-time picture of employee concerns than a survey.  Employees can share comments and suggestions in an open forum that can result in improved operations.  Badges awarded to colleagues can be accumulated (even counted) at review time.  However, while creating a “social enterprise” can render new information and even insights, meaningful metrics require something more.  Social media has very limited data potential for actually informing/improving how work gets done.  Meaningful metrics rely on facts that are documented and comparable.  The system for collecting data must be structured and consistent across the entire enterprise.  These are not typically the qualities of a purely social, one-to-many network. The inherent diffusion of a large social group, coupled with its anonymity and randomness of participation severely limit meaningful metrics.  On the other hand, messaging media has the potential to be a rich source of data for tracking who is speaking to whom, how long it took to get what done, and when was it delivered.  A new era of work management and productivity metrics is emerging which will include such measures as an individual’s (or department’s) on-time delivery record, average amount to time to complete a certain standard task, or total resources expended in completing a goal to name a few.

Summary Discussion

So how does each category of tools mentioned above relate to actually improving how we “get work done”?  Which features and capabilities will actually improve execution?  In my view, the best “work management” tools will be a blend of the capabilities discussed above.  They will be generalized tools that capture and expose individual goals and tasks, that enable sharing of documents, that incorporate both social media and one-to-one dialog in real-time, and that provide a new class of productivity and performance metrics (See my blog “Nine Part System for Effective Business Execution“).

Beyond the features, the new tools will affect behaviors and practices and ultimately the culture of the organization.  New visibility into work activity will drive new approaches to accountability.  New ways of relating person-to-person will emerge that can increase trust.  The new tools will effect who speaks to whom, how they speak to each other, and even the words they use.  Organizational hierarchies will become less relevant as information sharing increases across departmental boundaries.  Personal networks with an ever-expanding number of respondents will need to be tempered with tools that clarify individual delivery commitments.  Network management will eclipse matrix management, and working in an egalitarian workplace will take on new meaning.  In the end, we expect new “work management” tools will dramatically improve productivity in the years ahead.

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