Future of WorkI was at a demo of Office 365 last week.  I have some affection for Office. I once wrote a billing system in Excel. In a 24 hour sprint. (Long time ago).  It was interesting to see the latest version in action.

A fair bit of thought has gone into the product looking, particularly from the point of view of  individual productivity. Word and Powerpoint open smarter, Excel does some very clever things, and it comes with 27GB of Skydrive space. Either way the €100 annual cost for Office365 for 5 people to use across multiple devices in the home with 60 Skype minutes thrown in isn’t bad value.

Office365 Online is competing directly with Google Apps. The comparisons are interesting. The 27GB of online storage is likely a way of getting one up on the 25GB that Google offers.  Google has been offering Google Apps for a number of years and it has evolved, particularly with the addition of Google Drive, and Google Hangouts through Google+ integration.

What’s interesting in relation to Google and Microsoft is their mental models and how they’re embedded in their software. Google has always been about collaboration and Microsoft has in my mind always been about individual productivity. Even the companies respective mission statements reflect this divide. ( ”organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” v’s “help people and businesses throughout the world to realize their full potential” ).

Just over 3 years ago when we started to build Storyful there was no Office365. So we bootstrapped on Google Apps. Bootstrapping is the technical term for getting by with little cash burn.  One of the important things in a Startup is spending as little money as possible. You learn very quickly how to string a lot of lightweight tools together at little or no cost to do all the key jobs. And without building a need for an IT support function.  The decision to use Google apps evolved from  running everything from our own individual email account for the first few months, before we even had the name for the company.  As we built the team and the technology and the workflows we bootstrapped on cheap (and free) tools.

As we grew we had a tendency to break some of the tools that we used. For a long time we kept an open team chat going in Skype. Unfortunately we broke Skype. It really wasn’t built for 20-30+ people running a continual chat for months on end. Even starting new conversations each month didn’t resolve the problem. We switched to Yammer, which became the default tool for rolling group chats.  We didn’t break Yammer, though we did get described by Yammer as an “edge case” in how we used the product, and we did give it a fair battering at times.

Continual communication is critical in any organisation and its becoming the default way that people work. Look at the number of chat windows teenagers have open when doing their homework, how they share their study notes over Facebook and chat while watching YouTube videos. It’s the natural way the people learn, we are fundamentally a social species. The monkish individual isolated contributor model has in part been an artifact of the lack of good technology to help people share and work together.  And productivity is improved by lowering the communications distance between people and teams.

When we started Storyful, Skype was the essential tool for 1:1 video chats, and for having a group of people on an audio call. We ran our daily editorial calls through Skype.  Once Google Hangouts came along it enabled a new level of team integration with the ability to have multiple people on a video conversation. For free.  People found Hangouts so valuable they kept a rolling hangout open 24×7. It’s good for productivity, communication and for morale.

That’s the power of the tool and the power of collaboration. It’s the piece of the puzzle that I think that people miss when they dismiss Google Plus as the also ran social network to Facebook.  Google is playing a long colloborative game. Their tools and their technologies are collaborative by nature and they’re becoming more integrated - switch from email to gchat to Google Drive to Hangout to YouTube to G+ and back again.  Microsoft still beats Google in terms of individual productivity. It’ll be a long time before you pry Excel from the cold dead hands of Accountants and Finance people in most organisations. But the next generation is growing up collaborative.  I think Microsoft knows that. Microsoft spent a fair bit of cash buying both Skype and Yammer. And it’s going to be very interesting to see how this develops over the next few years.

In the meantime, we all benefit from some excellent tools at marginal cost with which to build our businesses.