How Airtable, Notion, and Coda are empowering people to create their own collaborative spaces with new digital building blocks.
Organizations are finding digital and collaboration solutions as teams look for new ways to work together and businesses become more agile and efficient. There are also new structures being born with distributed operations: can’t share office paper notes or stand around whiteboards with a remote team across multiple time zones.
The flat organizational artifacts — things that can print on a flat piece of paper — that gave form to in-office ops are moving to the cloud. Microsoft Office 365 revenue grew 19% YoY (still 90% of the business productivity software market) and Google Workspace (previously GSuite) has grown 38% YoY (at least within the Okta ecosystem). New digital systems are allowing teams to seamlessly collaborate live and distribute processes, information, and ideas fluidly.
While these tools have grown considerably, they share many of the same structures—and limitations— of the previous generation of tools: MS Word Online and GDocs are the cloud versions of the desktop originals and have bolted on additional functionality as new distributed user needs emerged. Companies and solution makers have been hacking docs and sheets to make them work for their unique needs. Makes sense: we use the approachable, flexible tools we know best.
But these tools aren’t leveraging the digital-nativity of being a web tool. Namely, giving creators the building blocks to create interaction, relations in the process, and automation of information flow. There are 3 new tools that I’ve been using and watching closely over the past 5 years in this newly forming space of “a bit more than a doc/sheet” and a “bit less than a full application” and they are starting to catch on in all sorts of orgs: Airtable, Notion, and Coda.
While we may not have an official name for this space just yet, we are beginning to see a few communities forming around these sets of building blocks and solutions:
No-code: Coming from the insight that coding a full application isn’t accessible to the majority of the people who want to build tools for themselves and that people are done buying off-the-shelf rigid SaaS, this describes the edge where one doesn’t have to code (hence no code) and have LEGO-like building blocks that traditional Office Suites don’t provide.
WorkOS: Work(flow) Operating System is the combination of business operations, automations, and the people and tech that support it.
Anchor buzzword + horizontal + platform + vertical: Because these tools can do so many things (and can often replace specific SaaS apps), many folks are communicating the frame and function using pre-existing concepts: “Salesforce” CRM clone, digital marketing platform for goat farmers. The communities are often __Ops that are forming around the tooling. SalesOps for CRMs. SupportOps for ticketing systems.
While we focus here on Airtable, Notion, and Coda, it’s important to call out that the two biggest players are noticing the shift and have launched products to compete. Google made significant improvements to Workspace with Smart Canvas, launched Tables, and bought AppSheet. Microsoft launched Loop and the Fluid Framework.
What are these tools?
The product fundamentals that you'll find in Airtable, Notion, and Coda are:
Synchronous collaboration: You login through an internet browser, invite collaborators, and the changes that one person makes updates live for everyone else, regardless where you are in the world because everything is cloud connected. A completely synchronous, hive-mind working style. This means quicker turnaround times with less waiting, clearer shared priorities, better collaboration with a wider range of partners.
Coordinate around workstreams: You can build a variety of flexible trackers that bring together processes and people. The most common use cases are a repository of meetings, a list of clients, a group of projects, onboarding steps, information about properties, finals schedule, upcoming marketing campaigns, and product launches. Anything that needs to be organized, rolled up, communicated out, updated progress. Structured columns in tables such as people, select list, dates help with organizing.
Relational: Everything connects to each other, because it’s all part of the same tool workspace. The things you’re tracking can “talk with each other” which saves an amazing amount of switching cost between tools, and allows folks to automate processes. For example, a client can connect to a project so that you can add info about one another all from the same interface. Because the data isn’t locked into just one structure like a spreadsheet, folks can create views for different stakeholders: teams who want to just see their info, people who like to see things one way (timeline, board, calendar).
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This space is evolving and building quickly. What does the future look like? What are the experts in Airtable, Notion, and Coda building today -- excited about?