Recipe for the secret sauce of Facebook

22 May, 2012

Dustin Moskovitz, an early employee of Facebook, is worth $5bn, give or take the odd million, after last week's initial public offering. He could now apply his technological knowhow and abundant new wealth to solving the world's loftiest organisational problems. Instead, he and his partners are hunkered down in a dark ground-floor office in San Francisco's Mission district working out how to liberate office workers and middle managers from the tyranny of lengthening to-do lists, overflowing email and meetings about meetings. Dilbert, meet Dustin.

Unblocking the plumbing of modern management may not be glamorous, but it is vital. Not only does a disorganised approach to task-handling reduce the efficiency of organisations, it distracts worker-managers – doctors who run surgeries, designers overseeing production teams, and so on – from the more productive portion of their jobs.

Justin Rosenstein, co-founder with Mr Moskovitz of Asana.com, told me last week that smooth internal co-ordination was "the secret sauce" at Facebook, where he also used to work. Without it, even Silicon Valley's most brilliant engineers are "spending a huge amount of time on work about work".

Asana, which integrates task collaboration, fulfilment and communication in a single online tool, is not alone in trying to bring the lubricant of social networking to the workplace. Salesforce.com is expanding aggressively with its Chatter collaboration application, exploiting the fact, as Kraig Swensrud, chief marketing officer, puts it, that "Facebook is training 900m of us how to engage".

The potential for efficiency improvements is clearly enormous. T-Mobile, the mobile phone company, used another software tool, Jive, to condense more than 10 knowledge management and customer relationship management tools into two "communities" for sales and support staff and employees. Jive claims the ability to share answers to common problems more easily means 96 per cent of T-Mobile's issues are now resolved within three days, when they sometimes took a month to deal with using the old systems. What's more – to Mr Swensrud's point – training sales staff on the Jive system took 15 minutes, rather than 90. But legacy systems are not easily swept away. Often they are embedded in the infrastructure of production and sales and, increasingly, tied into systems used by suppliers and customers too. All the new applications must mesh with, or at least overlay, the old ones. Chief operating officers and finance directors may also be wedded to the established systems. They selected and paid for them, after all. (Asana cunningly aims to get around this by allowing its tools to be used for free by small teams and then to spread virally through the organisation until the sheer enthusiasm of liberated middle managers wins over the sceptical chief financial officer.)

It's also human nature to resist change or, at any rate, to stick with the ancient ways that appear to serve us well, however enticing and addictive new solutions are. Look around the office. The Post-it note and whiteboard still appear to have a firm grip. All the entrepreneurs I met in Silicon Valley last week reluctantly confirmed, when pressed, that what one described as "the dinosaur technology" of email was unlikely to be slain by a single comet-strike from social networks. I fully endorse their goal of eliminating all but the few vital face-to-face meetings or occasional group emails. But remember: as the technology improves, so will the potential to add more collaborators. Those additions will in turn create new co-ordination problems that need solving, often across borders and time zones.

It is 10 years since David Allen's book Getting Things Done – with its "do it, delegate it, or defer it" mantra for in-tray management – spawned a cult-like following. Office control-freaks strove to become "GTD ninjas", ruthlessly eliminating procrastination and clutter. Yet Mr Allen wrote in the New York Times recently that "our attraction to a world of infinite possibility, information and complexity is here to stay". The fact that simplifying task management is itself a never-ending task is good news for Mr Allen's GTD empire and the creators of Silicon Valley's sharper, slicker organisational tools; it's probably bad news for the rest of us.

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