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Navigating Cloud Collaboration: What I Learned From the World's Most Productive Companies

by Mark Mader

As CEO of Smartsheet, I’ve spent the last decade helping enterprises work better. And by “work better," I mean helping information workers, teams, and entire organizations get more done, more transparently, with information that’s easier to access, update, and deliver results with.

From thousands of hours of conversation with the world’s most productive companies, I’ve learned one thing above all: while universally desired, managing and automating collaborative work at scale, in the cloud, is more complex than most realize and demands a multi-faceted approach to shape an effective solution. Any simplistic notions of a “one-app-to-solve-all-needs” dynamic in this space will inevitably lead to wasted time, wasted money, and, ultimately, to frustration with disappointing results.

Tremendous value waits to be unlocked for the organizations that can fit together the pieces of the “collaborative work in the cloud” puzzle. But first, let’s take a look at a few issues we should examine before defining a solution.

Enterprises Must Begin a “Transformation from Within”

The shift of enterprise applications to the cloud, and connectivity via mobile devices, has fundamentally changed how we consume, store, and share information. Despite that, for many of the Fortune 500 (and beyond), the reality is that cloud and mobile have had far less impact on their internal processes and operations than they have externally, by digitally transforming customer-related apps.

Ask a CEO or CIO to fund the purchase of a familiar, cloud-based CRM app (like Salesforce) that enhances the company’s relationship with their customers, and you’ll likely get a quick “yes." Ask them to migrate well-understood “old world” systems like email, help desk ticketing, or ERP to the cloud, and that’s also an easy choice for them to make. They will green light the investment for ServiceNow, NetSuite, and O365.  “Old world” systems benefit greatly from being in the cloud, but are often simply close analogs to their on premise, non-cloud predecessors.

Less familiar, though stacked with potential value, are next-gen productivity, process, and collaboration apps that do not exist simply as cloud versions of familiar “old world” apps. They are fundamentally new and exist only because of the cloud. Their ability to transform internal processes and operations is enormous, but require an understanding of the “new possible” in a cloud-based world, and a willingness to explore less familiar territory. Rapid and often viral adoption of these apps by individual users and teams clearly demonstrate that this “new possible” is being embraced by front-line information workers as they search for effective ways to manage the ever-increasing volume and velocity of today’s collaborative work.

That said, the C-suite execs mentioned earlier, who are ready and willing to fund cloud-based versions of the “old world” on-prem apps, may hesitate when presented with the chance to endorse these “new possible” productivity, process, and collaboration apps.  Why? Because new concepts are hard. Really hard. Are they willing to provision a corporate-approved application that would allow an information worker to define and initiate a collaborative process, enroll colleagues in that process, and automate that process without the need to build a “system” from the ground up? For some forward-thinking types, the answer is yes. They see that the cloud and mobile can transform their businesses from the inside out, they’re watching their users “vote with their wallet”, and they realize they can no longer stand still. Perception has reached a tipping point, and the laggards among the Fortune 500 will soon be running to catch up and build an intentional strategy that meets both user needs and corporate requirements.

The Cloud is a “Prove It to Me” World

At the core of this cloud revolution is collaboration. As cloud services mature and adoption increases, so too will the need for technology leaders to facilitate ways for their information workers to collaborate and gather insights more easily. I believe that we are in the early days of a revolution in terms of how organizations operate and get work done.

But it’s not just a revolution in terms of the specific tools used to effect that change – it’s a revolution in how the value of those tools are measured. Unlike transactional systems of record (like ERP, SCM, HRM, etc.) where there are relatively few users relative to company size, the applications that will make up a robust framework for successfully accomplishing collaborative work in the cloud will be used by virtually everyone in the organization. Thus – and because of the ability to measure (at a very granular level) engagement and acceptance by users – these applications will need to have a dynamic combination of efficacy, capability, and usability.

In this new cloud-based world, the old mindset of “buy it and mandate its use” will be replaced by a philosophy of “prove your value or perish”. How much should you pay for that application? Depends how many seats, right? Not so fast. What if most employees use it only one day a week - if ever? What if they don’t even like it? In 2017, the amount companies are willing to pay for software will be determined by levels of engagement and number of users. Cloud and mobile apps provide unprecedented visibility into these usage patterns, and smart companies are waking up to the reality that they should only pay for what delivers demonstrable value.

So Where Do We Go from Here?

A meaningful strategy for accomplishing collaborative work in the cloud can only be achieved by thinking of the challenge more holistically than has traditionally been the case.  Wishful thinking about the emergence of a “one-app-to-solve-all-needs” ignores the reality that collaboration in a cloud-based world is a multi-faceted endeavor.  IT leaders must understand the role that five distinct but interrelated product categories (listed below) will play in delivering a collaboration strategy that provides meaningful competitive advantage.


Applications that aid in the creation of content or digital assets, often shared, sometimes co-authored. (Think: Google Docs)

Store & Sync:

Applications that enable users to organize, access, secure and share files. (Think: Box)


Applications that enable visibility, action, status, and automation for process, programs, or projects. (Think: Smartsheet)


Applications that facilitate text, voice, and video from one person or group to another, often feed based and searchable. (Think: Slack)


Applications that create structured websites that people reference for knowledge, instruction, and navigation. (Think: SharePoint)

In my next post, I will dive more deeply into each of these categories and discuss how each one needs to be considered as an essential piece of a much larger collaborative work management strategy—bringing together conversations, data, and business processes into a composite solution.

This post was originally published by me as an article on LinkedIn.