Five ways Slack is getting sticky for enterprise collaboration

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright July 13, 2017
Five ways messaging vendor Slack is building up its platform credentials in a drive to get sticky adoption in enterprise collaboration

Composite of melted glue dropping out of glue gun on wooden worktop © nanantachoke -; with Slack Enterprise Grid logo
There are literally hundreds of digital collaboration products in use in enterprises today. But as this market matures, only a few will come to dominate. Fast-growing messaging platform Slack hopes to be one of those market leaders, but while it's proved adept at gaining viral adoption, many observers are doubtful whether it can make its presence stick.

I've been among the doubters, making a case back in February that, in enterprise collaboration, content bests messaging. Then in April, diginomica contributor Kurt Marko argued that Slack doesn't offer enough to capture the enterprise market:

Slack is billed as the future of work. The problem is there’s no guarantee that Slack will be part of that future since it’s hardly the first to use the news feed paradigm and lacks a defensible moat of unique technology that competitors can’t easily replicate.

Slack supporters, of course, take a different view, and I'm starting to feel they may have a point. Around the same time that Kurt filed his copy, I met with the company's EMEA head of customer success, Rav Dhaliwal. The fact that such a role even exists tells you that Slack is serious about getting sticky in the enterprise. My notes of that conversation reveal five ways the vendor is working to build durable customer loyalty.

1. Adoption is about platform leverage

Getting people to start using the product has no value if they soon drop off again. The challenge for any collaboration vendor is to become part of the user's daily routine. Slack is acutely conscious of this, says Dhaliwal, and therefore positions itself not merely as a messaging tool but as a platform that structures and streamlines common collaboration patterns.

Adoption is much more [than] simply numbers. It's actually about the maturity of that use. Where we have very strong adoption in organizations and growing adoptions, we spend a lot of time helping the organizations make the most from Slack itself.

Messaging is most people's entry point, but the real power of Slack comes from the platform. We spend a lot of time with customers looking at workflows and looking at how their businesses actually operate. And then working out ways that we can use Slack and the platform in order to make that more efficient and for people to be more productive.

For example, Slack can be used to co-ordinate all the notifications and actions that take place around document processes much more effectively than using email alongside a content management system, which is how enterprises typically operate. Slack can also pull in notifications from other tools, collating all the workflow in a single system.

Content-specific actions such as version control are still handled by separate content management platforms such as Box or Dropbox, but the integrations make the content available within Slack, says Dhaliwal.

You can obviously manage files in Slack but we integrate with all of those major file suppliers. What our customers are telling us is, that works for them because those tools provide that structure that they need, whereas Slack is actually providing the ability to engage with those files in an easier way.

2. Slack connects across disparate silos

Traditionally, collaboration has been built within the individual silos of traditional enterprise applications, whether that's ERP, CRM so on — content management being another silo. Slack can transcend those disparate silos and link everything together, he explains.

The platform approach that we've taken is to be that engagement layer, and go for that right over the top. In other words, we're abstracting away from the user the complexity of what's underneath. They're just getting their work done, in a way that's engaging and pleasant for them, without having to worry about context-switching between applications, learning different UIs, and having to manage multiple things on multiple logins.

This allows Slack to become central to the user's daily routine, he says, without disrupting the existing IT estate.

What Slack's been able to do at a really big scale — we have customers that have 20,000 users — is make Slack into a hub of where people get their work done ...

Our mission is to make people's working lives simpler, pleasant, and more productive. Our philosophy is to work with the stuff that's best of breed and that people already have, and actually make the experience of using that better and easier.

Customers don't want to rip and replace a lot of stuff. They just want a way to interact and work with it in a more productive and an easier way.

3. Messaging becomes the front end to functionality

All of this fits into an emerging trend towards messaging acting as a conversational engagement layer that allows users to interact with multiple apps without having to visit each one. Slack has recently launched partnerships with Salesforce, IBM, SAP and Google, says Dhaliwal, to integrate notifications, alerts and responses back into their applications.

It's not necessarily just about surfacing notifications for products, it's about being able to action things. Imagine if you were getting a notification from an SAP system and then being able to update a text field in Slack and then pushing that back into SAP. That's really where those enterprise partnerships come into play ...

Essentially, I can action things in other systems without having to go to those systems.

As we've noted elsewhere, becoming the preferred platform for the user's conversational interface into enterprise applications can be a very sticky proposition, because it makes the vendor a core component of everyday workflow.

4. Enterprises have to move faster

Enterprises today need speedier workflow, faster access to information and more immediate messaging because the pace of business is accelerating. Their existing mechanisms for collaboration can't cope any more. Dhaliwal cites IBM as a standout example of widespread Slack adoption.

IBM is a really good example of someone using Slack at scale. It's gone way beyond their vision for teams and out into the core business, where people are not using it just to communicate, they're integrating it with the hundreds of other tools, products and services that they use.

Like a lot of businesses, they are having to constantly re-invent themselves. So they need tools like Slack to be really flexible. They need to be able to communicate in a very shifting landscape.

Dhaliwal knows IBM well, having spent almost a decade there prior to joining Salesforce in 2010. He then worked at Yammer and Zendesk before joining Slack last year. There's a stark contrast in the pace of business now compared to 20 years ago, he says.

Back then, technology wasn't as big a disruptor as it is for businesses now. You could move at a slower pace, because the idea of two people in a garage building an app which is going to up-end the taxi business didn't exist. That happens all the time now.

So businesses need to be able to communicate much more efficiently, make the best use of their tools, and have some intelligence go into that in order for them to be able to move very quickly.

Our experience has been that really what a giant enterprise is is a team of teams. It's a collective team, so if you can provide capability that makes a team's life more productive and then scale that out to the enterprise level, which we're doing now then overall, it's a win for the employee and it's a win for the business.

5. Building an intelligent graph

The fifth element of stickiness comes from Slack's Search, Learning and Intelligence unit (SLI), set up early last year under the leadership of Noah Weiss. This is gradually building up intelligent analytics that can understand the relationships and knowledge that an organization connects via Slack — other vendors call this a 'graph' although Slack has not used the term. It enables the platform to help surface the most relevant messages or identify the best go-to sources on specific topics, says Dhaliwal.

We're actually investing very heavily in this area because what we recognize is, the more you use Slack, the better we want that experience to be. So if you imagine coming back from PTO and Slack's actually saying to you, 'While you were away, these are the three or four things that you should prioritize.'

[Or] there's a conversation going on off somewhere else, which should have your involvement or needs your involvement. And having the machine prompt you and say 'Hey, this conversation is going on here, you should go take a look, at it you might want to participate in it.'

So highlighting things that are of key importance to you based on the way you use the system — we're continually heavily investing in that because we recognize that that is actually the way to help people be more productive and make sense of a ton of information that organizations have to deal with.

It's another way of wringing more value out of Slack's messaging and integration platform, and increasing that all-important stickiness within the enterprise.

My take

In my previous analysis of digital collaboration, I concluded that messaging vendors would find it difficult to become central to enterprise collaboration simply because processes have to be rooted somewhere, and messaging alone seems too ephemeral. But Slack is evolving its platform in ways that make it possible to build structure around messages and threads, and which ties them to content, applications and the workflow within teams.

Meanwhile, the rise of conversational interfaces has elevated the role of messaging as a workflow layer. If you then sprinkle on the modern magic of artificial intelligence to find additional context and structure within an organization's messaging activity, you can begin to see a compelling argument why a messaging platform might become the dominant hub of enterprise collaboration. It seems Slack is turning its features into a coherent, defensible platform after all.

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