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Social task management can replace spreadsheets for business projects

The emergence of social task management can foster collaboration on projects, according to a Constellation Research analyst.

Word documents and spreadsheets may be the near-universal formats for following the progress of organizational projects, but that needs to end, suggests Alan Lepofsky, an analyst following social networking trends in the enterprise.

Instead, Lepofsky recommends that businesses go social with their projects -- that is, try social task management. This emerging practice lets employees instantly share new ideas and see changes, giving a project life, he said.

"Social has become the norm," said Lepofsky, an analyst at Constellation Research Inc. in Monta Vista, Calif. "Facebook, Twitter -- everything is moving into that activity stream. People like to see an object and click on it, whether it's watching a YouTube video or replying to a tweet."

Social task management tools use dashboards and activity streams that engender conversation, ideas and teamwork, Lepofsky said.

Some software vendors, such as AtTask, Do and TeamBox, provide social task management tools that function as standalone products for specific departmental needs, he said. Employees, though, may view such an offering as yet another computer program to worry about and not use it, he said.

Other vendors, Neodesic, SAP StreamWork and Sparqlight, provide tools that connect to social silos, allowing new events to be broadcast into the activity stream of the larger social platform, Lepofsky said. Still, others, including HyperOffice, Huddle and IBM Activities, offer these capabilities as all-in-one packages, creating the "most seamless collaboration experience," but at the same time failing to provide as many features as, say, a standalone product, he said.

While businesses recognize they must implement software to read, analyze and respond to customers' social media messages, they draw a line at integrating them into their work processes, Lepofsky added.

Most companies instead have employees collaborating on projects in two different ways, according to Lepofsky. They either work on them with ad hoc offerings -- email or a free, Web-based product such as Google Documents, for instance -- or with professional-grade management tools such as Microsoft Project, Clarizen and Tenrox.

But those methods can't integrate social collaboration, even if they have other benefits such as the sharing of documents, analytics and budget tracking, he said.

For instance, in a typical project without social collaboration, one manager schedules meetings to assign tasks and check statuses, Lepofsky said. Progress is recorded in a project plan or spreadsheet. That plan is then shared by file, or emailed. If anyone has a suggestion, another email or instant message is sent. The plan is updated and shared again. The process repeats until the project is finished.

This type of project management creates a bottleneck (because only person is charged with supervision), inadvertently or mistakenly keeps people out of the loop, limits collaboration, and can even cause confusion when an email is taken out of context, Lepofsky said.

Companies talk about adopting internal social tools, but shy away from introducing them because of a fear of change and what they could do to longstanding practices, he said.

Lepofsky, though, pointed to five benefits of social task management software:

  • Activity streams display everything happening in a project.
  • Conversations are in context with the proper subjects, allowing people to remark on the overall project or a specific item, preventing confusion.
  • Media can be integrated into tasks and comments. For instance, someone can attach a presentation to a particular task.
  • Employees can hit a Favorite or Like button, which can serve as barometers.
  • Words and phrases can be tagged so employees can locate the item later.

With such capabilities, Lepofsky said, social task management informs employees about each project update. He believes it also keeps workers focused and productive, stops them from wasting time, and promotes cooperation.

However, these social tools don't talk to one another, Lepofsky said. For example, an employee using Skype can't connect with someone using Google Talk.

Additionally, this type of collaboration allows employees to see exactly what others are working on. Realizing that a colleague's status is rising with a greater workload may cause resentment, he said.

But those downsides shouldn't detract businesses from using social tools to manage projects, said Lepofsky.

If employees don't share, they will miss out on promotions and fall behind, he said. "If you are good at only one thing, you are going to be known for that one thing. Social task management is a way to open that up. Hopefully it leads to good discovery."

Follow Albert McKeon on Twitter @TechTarget_Al.

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