The arrival of Cloud Computing technologies in the past few years has been a boom for online collaboration tools. From Google Apps, that bundles email and calendar with common office productivity apps to Dropbox and other file-sharing tools. These “first generation” tools have been widely adopted, and have definitely increased the productivity of your typical office worker. Now we’re ready for the second generation of tools, that try to apply the the online-collaboration paradigm to new problems.
Review19 is one such product that is addressing an interesting area: Collaborative Decision Making.
Too often, decisions are made over lengthy email chains or in long, endless meetings. These decisions tend to be biased and not well-thought out, and have a lot unseen variables that end up influencing the decision. What this product does is that it puts a framework around how decisions should be made, and has created a nifty little webapp that can help teams collaboratively make decisions using a simple but effective process.
So, you start off on Review19 by creating a “decision” - “Which restaurant to go to for the team dinner?”, for example. You then go ahead and invite collaborators that will contribute to the decision, who will recieve their invites over email. The next step is to share the associated collateral that will help with the decision making. This includes Documents, Images, References, Videos etc…, which will help your collaborators arrive at a decision.
Now comes the interesting part. Participants can publish their opinions to the rest of group. You can even create polls, where participants can vote on various options. In my case, it was a simple “What cuisine should we pick?”, with several options. You can also create a “Pros & Cons” list, and share it with the rest of the group. For the more hardcore decisions, participants can collaboratively do a detailed SWOT analysis. All these analysis and lists are shared with all the participants, so everyone is aware of what is happening. There’s a nice little activity stream as well that you can use to keep yourself updated with how the decision is coming along. After the necessary rigor and discussion, you’ll hopefully arrive at a decision and share your conclusions.
Review19 is well designed, and everything is where you’d expect to find it. The Pros & Cons screen, for example, helpfully has two textboxes next to each other, so you can see your pros & cons side-by-side. Similarly, the SWOT analysis screen has 4 lists, where you can (collaboratively) add items to each of the sections. The app is quite easy to use and also has that slick quality to it. There are a few rough edges, though. At several points in my testing, duplicate entries got posted, and my activity stream had suspicious-looking updates like “null starts pros & cons list”. But I’m sure the team will work out these bugs and rough edges soon enough.
The bigger risk, though, is that this product goes the way of Google Wave. I remember the first time I saw the demo of Wave at Google. The technology was very impressive and it had a very ambitious goal – To replace email as the primary collaboration mechanism between people. However, people have been using email forever, and moving everyone to a new tool is hard. The most expensive learning for any product manager probably is that it is very hard to get users to change their behavior, especially when they’re used to doing something in a certain way. While the Wave UX was slick and it worked great, people refused to use it beyond “Planning a team lunch!”. Awesome as Wave was, it could not really articulate, exactly the various use-cases where it ought to be used. Eventually, Wave was shutdown, roughly 12 months after launch.
While Review19 is undoubtedly a useful framework, getting people to use a structured decision-making framework is going to be a challenge, especially because people are so used to making decisions in meetings (and to a lesser extent over email)
But you know what would be really awesome? If Review19 had a “live meeting” mode, intended to be used during a real-world meeting for making a decision. Someone would open up Review19 in a browser, and project it on a screen. As people in the room discuss the decision, they can live-update it on the tool (or maybe a designated note-taker could do that), and the screen shows the current state of the decision-making process and what arguments/opinions have been expressed. Polls, Pros & Cons and everything else gets captured and is immediately available for everyone to review. And at the end of the meeting, there is a one click “Export to PowerPoint” button that produces a nice PPT that has captured the whole decision and how it was made. I would then mail out this PPT to the whole team or present it to my bosses. And save it for the guy that invariably comes around looking for me 6 months later asking “Why the hell was this decision made?”
Anyhow, Review19 is quite useful in its current state as well. If you don’t have a formalized process for making big decisions, or you feel like you and your team don’t have that rigor while making decisions, you should give this product a try. Actually, even if it is only you that has to make the decision and don’t have any collaborators, this tool can still be helpful to articulate your thought process to make sure you’re making the decision rationally.
Review19 has a free version for teams, with hosted enterprise versions available as well.