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Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Re-Reengineering the Corporation

Could we be on the verge of another workplace revolution?

Asana, the workplace social media company co-founded by one of Facebook’s founders, is stepping up from helping little companies and teams organize work to structuring the output of the biggest companies around.

Asana, based in San Francisco, helps companies organize by dividing work into tasks carried out by different teams. The idea is to closely link the functions of e-mail, the center of collaboration and communication, with data repositories, where things like software projects or marketing campaigns are created, worked on and stored. The company calls the result a “team brain” that enables work to move quickly.

First versions of the Web-based software were introduced 18 months ago, at no charge, and were meant for teams of 30. The idea was fairly simple: name a task the company has to do, then subdivide it into parts that can be assigned and tracked.

This was primarily used by small companies, like a bicycle shop, or groups inside a company, like a newspaper’s online news department. It was particularly popular with engineering departments, and a paid version that allowed for more people attracted companies like Airbnb and Dropbox after it was released a year ago.

On Wednesday, Asana introduced a version called “Organizations,” designed to be used by thousands of employees at the same time, across different parts of a large organization. It works like the original Asana, but includes management capabilities like being able to view multiple tasks, access controls over who can see and work on something, and automated sign-up of new employees.

“We’ve had to think about the needs of information technology managers, and the work processes at older companies,” said Dustin Moskovitz, the company’s co-founder. “Unlike e-mail, you don’t have to read every note, and you do less running around trying to coordinate things.”

Mr. Moskovitz, along with Mark Zuckerberg, Eduardo Saverin, and Chris Hughes, created Facebook in 2004. He left Facebook in 2008 and with a veteran of both Facebook and Google named Justin Rosenstein started working on Asana in 2009.

No one at the 40-person company has titles, but the two men are presumably something like technical and operational bosses. Coming from freewheeling, fast-growing companies, it took them awhile to realize that some traits of Asana needed adjusting for the rest of the world.

“When we started I was most naïve about the needs companies have around access control,” said Mr. Rosenstein. “I think we’ve corrected that.” Now, a boss at a company where people are quite protective of their titles can see what subordinates are working on which projects, and open up all the related work in the project.

Mr. Rosenstein said Asana has “hundreds” of paying customers, including accounting firms, automotive companies and retailers, as well as tech companies. The free version, he said, is used by “tens of thousands” of organizations.

That is hardly enough to declare victory, but there are other social software companies for organizing work, including Yammer, which in 2012 was purchased by Microsoft for $1.2 billion, and Jive Software, a publicly traded company with a market capitalization of about $900 million. These firms say work is done faster when people can collaborate closely, inspect work while it is in process, bring new people into the group as needed, and easily call up new versions of a project. In every case, the social software companies say fewer people are needed to track work.

All of which raises the prospect of another management revolution in the offing, similar to those described in the 1993 book “Reengineering the Corporation,” written by Michael Hammer and James Champy. In “Reengineering,” the idea was to change workflows to more closely match desired outcomes. Much of the effect, however, was owed to newer communications technologies like e-mail, which ended the need for large amounts of middle management. The “social” corporation could wield its own ax, as soon as the right theoretician comes along.