My “Aha Moment” at Slack Frontiers
I recently spent a couple days at Slack’s annual user and customer conference, Slack Frontiers, learning about how Slack stands out from other vendors. I don’t usually get “aha moments” at conferences, but this one was different. I finally understood why Slack wasn’t like other team collaboration companies, and why my colleague Dave Michels came up with the term “workstream collaboration” (although I prefer workflow to workstream) to describe this market segment.
Slack isn’t just a team collaboration vendor. The company certainly enables team collaboration, but goes beyond that and provides a teamwork engagement model and integrated workflow collaboration. As Stewart Butterfield, CEO & Co-Founder, told a group of analysts, “It’s more than collaboration – it’s a new way of working.” And this new way of working doesn't just apply to developers and knowledge workers – Slack is used by farmers, police detectives, students, restaurant owners, and workers across all types of industries and professions. These workers use Slack to not only communicate and collaborate, but to get work done.
By integrating into business applications, including 450,000 custom applications, Slack makes it easy to share information and collaborate from within applications and workflows. Integrating communications into applications and business processes isn’t new, and unified communications solutions have been doing this for a while to some extent (remember the UCStrategies/BCStrategies definition of UC: communications integrated to optimize business processes). What’s different is the way Slack really becomes a part of the workflow and the workflow becomes part of Slack.
How Legos and Ice Cream Led to My Aha Moment
UC vendors such as Microsoft, Cisco, and others integrate into business applications, so initially I didn’t understand how Slack was different – until I walked around the showcase at the conference and saw various customer displays and exhibits. Several customers displayed how they use Slack and how it’s tied in with their workflows to help them do business. As you can see below, Slack is used by Molly Moon’s Homemade Ice Cream (which was delicious) to manage operations, inventory, and deliveries, and much, much more. By learning about how Slack helps businesses go beyond communication and collaboration to actually making their operations run smoothly, I had my “aha moment.”
During the event we heard from a range of Slack customers, including Kyle Connaughton, chef and owner of SingleThread Farm-Restaurant-Inn, a three-star Michelin-rated restaurant in Healdsburg, CA. You wouldn’t normally think of a restaurant as being a great use case for Slack, but Connaughton and his team rely on Slack every day. For example, farmers send Slack messages with information on what they’re currently harvesting and which items will be fresh and ready for the next day’s menu. The fishmonger, forager (yes, they have a forager), and others send information and photos through Slack to let the chef know what he can prepare that night or the next day. The Inn uses Slack to provide an exceptional guest experience by sharing information on guests’ dietary preferences, wine preferences, special celebrations, etc. Connaughton notes that to the guests, this level of attention seems as if it happens effortlessly, but in reality it’s due to all of the information being shared in Slack behind the scenes.
Throughout the Slack Frontiers event, I heard customer story after story about not just how Slack provides a hub for collaboration and communication, but how it’s tied in to the business.
Slack is NOT UC
It’s important to note that while Slack offers basic voice, video, screen sharing, and other UC capabilities, Slack isn’t trying to become a UC provider. According to Butterfield, focusing on UC would be a disadvantage for the company. While he wants to make it easy to initiate a call on a Slack channel, Butterfield notes that there’s no incremental value in having this capability natively as opposed to having a tight integration with Zoom and others.
At the Frontiers event, Slack announced a deeper integration with Zoom, as well as a bridge between email and Slack to let people send and receive messages to anyone within their company regardless of whether or not they’re on Slack. Slack also announced Shared Channels for Enterprise Grid to “bring the power of collaborating in Slack to the work you do with your outside network.” Rather than providing its own video and UC capabilities, Slack is partnering with Zoom, enabling users to use Zoom Phone to make calls to Slack users, with additional features and integrations being added.
While Slack users are less reliant on email, there’s no denying that email is still a ubiquitous and useful tool, especially for communicating with people outside of your organization. To that end, Slack is integrating more tightly with Microsoft and Google, making it easier to tie in with email and productivity suites. With Slack’s Outlook add-in, users can forward an email from their Outlook inbox directly into any of their Slack channels or send a direct message to a Slack user. The Slack Add-In for Outlook “helps you move conversations along by bringing context from an email into a Slack channel or direct message.”
I spoke with Ilan Frank, Director Product, Enterprise, about some of the new announcements made at Frontiers, as well as key integrations and partnerships. Frank also discusses Slack’s approach to unified communications.
Slack’s use of channels and the integration with workflows was emphasized throughout the event. When discussing how Slack is different from competitors, notably Microsoft and Cisco, Tamar Yehoshua, Chief Product Officer, stated that “it’s all about channels.” She noted, “The way we communicate today is fragmented. Emails are only visible if they are sent or received to an individual or group. In channels, the information is accessible to anyone.” She added, “The shift from inboxes to channels is profound. Channels is all about teams. Slack gives easy access to conversations and context. Communications at work doesn't just happen between people, and we need access to data and workflows.”
For example, Yehoshua stated that an average company uses 1,071 cloud services, and that Slack wants to make it easier to connect to the critical tools used in businesses. I spoke with Yehoshua about how Slack helps bring teams together, the difference between channels and inboxes, and Slack’s new “shared channels” that let people collaborate across company boundaries. She also discussed application and workflow integration, and why Slack is “where work gets done.” Yehoshua also talked about the new Workflow Builder for building workflows with no code, and the new add-in for Microsoft Outlook or Gail to make it easy to communicate via email to Slack users.
There’s Still Work to be Done
While I was very impressed with what Slack is doing in the workflow collaboration space, there are still challenges that Slack needs to overcome. Slack is clearly working to remedy the limitations when it comes to interacting with users outside of the Slack universe, but for now, there is still an important role for email and Slack is not going to replace it any time soon. In addition, despite the new Workflow Builder that makes it easier to automate routine tasks and bring work into Slack without needing to write code, for the most part Slack relies on developers to do a lot of the heavy lifting. Someone has to do the work in the backend to make the workflow work, and to provide users with the information they need. For example, I saw a great presentation from Hearst Magazines about the Hearst Answers bot named HANS that brings information into Slack to surface the right data to the right people at the right time, making it easy to find trending topics, for example. However, a good deal of work needs to be done on the back end to make this happen.
Another issue is managing channel overload. For example, Toby Sun, the CEO and Co-Founder of Lime (electric scooter and mobility sharing) has over 100 Slack channels personally. Navigation and search tools are helpful, but at some point users can get overwhelmed by so much information.
For Slack to become the de facto workflow collaboration tool, it will need to find ways to overcome or reduce these challenges. That being said, I believe Slack has done a great job of setting itself apart from team collaboration vendors, and should continue to be very successful. With over 10 million active daily users (defined as those actively using Slack for several hours a day – not just having the app opened or in the background), Slack is changing the way work gets done. The future clearly looks bright for Slack.