Are you Slacking yet?

Profile picture for user gonzodaddy By Den Howlett March 2, 2016
Summary:
Is Slack the magic bullet with which to solve your enterprise email problems? That depends but there is evidence that institutional issues are exacerbating or repeating past problems.

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For the 99% of business that has never heard of Slack, it's worth reviewing this alternative to email if for no other reason than the fact it has entered the popular Silicon Valley discourse as a so-called email killer.

Email as a daily time sink is well understood but just as the spreadsheet is the crack cocaine of the accounting world, email is everyone's crack. Or so it seems. The endless stream of 'cc' or 'bcc' messages, ensure that no-one gets inadvertently missed. That alone is enough to drive people nuts.

I remember some years back when Luis Suarez, then a consultant at IBM, became so sick and tired of email that he simply refused to deal with the internal email content he was receiving. If you search Suarez site, you'll find 293 references to 'email.' It was one heck of a journey and I admire his dogged work on this thorny topic. He was and remains a pioneer in communications. Six years in and he got the volume of internal email down to about 30 per week. That's stunning by any standards and especially for a person working inside such a large, process driven organization. Suarez answer was to use social tools. I got that but could never quite see how it would work. He managed it somehow but it took years.

We all have different use cases for the likes of Twitter and Facebook for example. LinkedIn is never going to cut the communications mustard and Facebook for Work? I can't think of too many orgs prepared to trust internal data to Facebook. We have Jam (SAP) Chatter (Salesforce), IBM Connections and Yammer (Microsoft) but they both suffer from fundamental flaws in terms of search and noise levels. And regardless of anything else, the world has yet to spin to a point where all your or my contacts are going to subscribe to yet another service when email is so well understood and ubiquitous, if downright irritating at times.

Slack was supposed to solve the problems that Chatter and Yammer tinkered with and provide a way to cut back substantially on email clutter. Based upon the metrics, you'd be hard pressed to argue Slack's success. Check this from an infographic the company recently prepared:

Slack progress

Impressive isn't it? When you run the numbers to appears that something around 80% of those who are paying for Slack are on the Basic plan of $80 per user per annum when paid annually. That's not a huge amount on its own but Slack costs don't stop there. While the company has an ecosystem of more than 280 other service integrations, there is for example no direct integration with Gmail or Outlook. You have to build those using a service like Zapier and even then I've found that the API connections are clunky. That's going to cost extra, depending upon the number of 'zaps' you create and the volume of 'tasks' that Zapier processes. It is possible to build generic email integrations with Slack but that starts to defeat the object of the exercise in my view.

Our Slack use

We looked at Slack in 2014 but decided it was too crude for our purposes. I looked at it again towards the end of last year and got excited at the possibilities. Not everyone in our team agrees. I personally like the fact I can get a slew of notifications on topics like:

  • diginomica content additions
  • diginomica content updates (changes)
  • Email subscriber updates
  • New site user adds
  • Twitter activity
  • Facebook activity
  • Development changes to diginomica
  • Direct messages from colleagues either as private messages or 'public' (to us) blasts

In time I will be able to get marketing automation updates.

All the items listed above are notifications. They're not meant to be communications requiring a great deal of back and forth. The beauty of this way of working is that it saves me  having to dip into at least four different services and allows me to stay away from email except for things that matter. In that sense, Slack has definitely improved my productivity and helped me focus on things that matter. But - Slack is not the wunderkind some would have you believe.

Weaknesses

Some of our team remain comfortable working inside email. Their use cases are a bit different to mine and I see that but it does mean there is a question mark over whether we're optimizing our resources. Outside the business, I've spoken to a good number of people who use Slack and they fall into two distinct camps. Those who love it and those who love to hate it. There is no middle ground. That makes Slack a candidate for polarization which can be dangerous in any business.

Another weakness I see with Slack is the lack of threading. Notifications should not require any further elaboration but there are cases where this is necessary. Take the example of content deadlines where I may be working on something in the expectation I will publish in (say) an hour. What happens if a colleague needs me to dial back that time? That's a thread. Slack has no way to elegantly manage that in my view.

Posting on Medium, Samuel Hulick has publicly pointed out a number of the problems he has experienced with Slack. The issue of it becoming the de facto water cooler is there but I see that as an issue of discipline. More worrying is his concern that Slack infiltrates the social fabric of those who use it, creating what sounds to me like Slackaholism:

I belong to roughly 10 different Slack teams. People are very used to messaging me (directly or publicly) whether I’m online or not, so there’s a heavy social expectation for me to keep those conversational plates spinning on an ongoing basis, even if I’m signed out of all your clients.

I really don’t want to leave the people I care about hanging, but I haven’t seen any native way to let them know I may be gone for a while, and to perhaps try me elsewhere. This all seems a bit possessive on your part, whether you meant it to be or not — how do I take a vacation without taking you with me? How would you help me if I wound up in the hospital?

For better or for worse, you’ve gone from a novelty to a supernova in the blink of an eye. It’s only been two years, and many already act as if it’s impossible to remember what life was like before you came along.

Comments to the post are interesting. As an aside, I can see how Slack is terrific if you have the discipline to use it as a notifications platform, can work with the integrations it offers and/or develop zaps. That is likely to be fine for small teams but I can see how it can run out of control for larger groups. I don't know where that cutoff point might be but I remember speaking with the CEO of a company running Chatter who found it almost impossible to follow what was going on inside a business that at the time was a mere 100 or so people. I suspect Slack has the same innate problem. In the comments, one person demonstrated how Slack got out of hand pretty quickly.

Hulick has cut the cord with Slack and says that he is more productive. This doesn't jibe with what Slack says. when it claims that a survey last year demonstrated 32% increased productivity, 48% reduction in email, 25% reduction in meetings and 79% improvement in team culture. I can see something in the first stat but the others look dubious to me and I'd want to know how the questions were phrased before making any further judgment. For example, my inbound email hasn't really reduced but I can safely ignore a good chink of that.

My take

Those with whom I've spoken who are in the 'love to hate' camp can't see a way of voicing their concerns without feeling as though they are in some way letting down the rest of the team. I get the sense this is something Hulick's words reflect. I am betting that if those same people spoke up then they'd quickly find allies. And therein lies one of the great problems with technology.

Very few people are prepared to put their heads above the parapet and say: 'Heh - this sux.' I see this as particularly problematic for a solution like Slack which is making a valiant effort to solve for email overload but which has its own addictive qualities and overload problems that absolutely require levels of discipline that are not well addressed in the workplace through guidelines or simple training.

I suspect the discussion around the culture of communication and the tools we have will continue for some time to come. In the meantime, I am maintaining a disciplined approach to Slack, using it only for the notifications that are essential for what I need to know and leaving the rest in email. Let's see how it goes.