Slack adds a collaborative canvas and a co-code platform

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright September 20, 2022 Audio mode
Slack comes of age as an enterprise digital teamwork platform with the launch of a collaborative canvas and a composable co-code platform.

Slack canvas mockup - Salesforce
Slack canvas for onboarding (Salesforce)

Salesforce-owned digital teamwork platform Slack has announced two significant new capabilities for the opening of this year’s Dreamforce conference.

  • Slack canvas is a new collaborative workspace in Slack that can be embedded in channels as a placeholder for links to relevant documents, data and workflows.
  • Slack platform, now in open beta, combines building block components and no-code workflow templates, along with the ability for pro coders to create custom components and host them within Slack, even when connecting third-party applications.

See my take below for a detailed analysis of what this means for Slack, but here’s the tl;dr — Slack has now come of age as a complete platform for enterprise digital teamwork.

Slack canvas

Slack canvas won't be available until next year, but when it arrives it will bring a new content surface to what started out as a pure messaging platform. While messaging is well suited to real-time, in-the-moment teamwork, it's not a medium that works well for long-running projects or those that revolve around content creation and editing. While Slack has always had the ability to segment conversations into channels that are specific to a single team, subject or project, these have not had a convenient place to 'pin' key information and content that all participants need to keep in focus. This is where canvas comes in.

Slack canvas is much more than a digital document. It's a workspace that can embed static documents, workflows, and real-time data and insights from other apps. If anyone familiar with Salesforce thinks that sounds a bit like Quip, the collaborative document platform founded by Bret Taylor, now co-CEO of Salesforce, then that's no accident. According to Tamar Yehoshua, Chief Product Officer at Slack:

You all remember Quip, and if you've used Quip, it gives us some of the things in canvas. We took the collaborative components of Quip and we integrated them natively into Slack. And that's Slack canvas.

Slack canvas is a persistent layer of information that captures answers. It enables you to align and complements the real-time nature of Slack channels.

A canvas can be shared just like a channel, or it can be associated with a specific channel, including channels shared with external collaborators. It can embed text, video, documents, checklists, curated lists of Slack channels or profiles, or links to external content such as YouTube videos of Twitter feeds, with the ability to view external links as a popup card without leaving the canvas. Even more powerful is the ability to embed workflows and connections to other applications. Yehoshua elaborates:

Any workflow that you create in Slack, you can embed right in the canvas. And you can ask, execute and run it right from the canvas. So you can update an account opportunity through integrations with Sales Cloud. You can update a case through integrations with Service Cloud right there in the canvas. And you can pull data from your system of record.

All the integrations with Customer 360, you can pull right into your canvas. So any integrations that you have will show up here in the canvas with Sales Cloud, Tableau analytics or Google Workplace. Any third party can also comment on the canvas and the comments go into a Slack thread. So all of the functionality you have in a Slack thread, you're going to have for your comments on the canvas.

Suggested use cases for Slack canvas include sharing key sales information in an account channel, onboarding of new team members, marketing campaign management, collating information for executive briefings, or tracking incident reports. Many more are expected to emerge once customers can get their hands on the new feature.

Slack platform

Much of today's Slack platform announcement is a rehash of the original announcement last year, but now available in open beta for developers to get to work with the toolkit. Here's a quick summary of the key elements:

  • The new platform extends Slack's existing drag-and-drop Workflow Builder with the ability to compose workflows from building block functions.
  • Those reusable workflow building blocks can be created by developers using a Command-Line Interface (CLI) and a Software Development Kit (SDK) built using TypeScript. The SDK targets the open-source Deno runtime, a more secure implementation of node.js that's increasingly adopted for composable web apps.
  • Functions and data can both be stored and run natively on Slack. Functions can sign into external applications using Slack credentials and, by passing metadata, act as a connection between third-party apps.
  • As of today's there's a new library of shareable and customizable templates that provide a starting point for a wide range of workflows, including incident response, PTO requests, contract approval, budget review, daily standup, help request, team kudos, and many more.
  • Workflows are started with a customizable trigger or link that can be event-driven, scheduled, or selected by a user from a Slack message, a channel's bookmarks bar, a huddle thread, and, from next year, embedded in a canvas.

Today also sees general availability of the previously announced update to bring video, screen sharing and reacji to Slack huddles, extending the scope of this impromptu conversations tool.

My take

Why do I say this is Slack's coming of age? It's because canvas adds the crucial missing piece that elevates Slack from simply a messaging channel to a full-fledged digital teamwork platform. For a long time, I've been writing about the shape of what diginomica calls the Collaborative Canvas for digital teamwork, which must cater for four separate teamwork patterns — conversation and messaging, content, functional, and workflow. Slack amply fulfils the first of these, and with its growing connections to third-party applications along with its composable workflow builder, it has built out the last two. Canvas now caters for content in a way that a messaging channel on its own could never do. At the same time, it provides a more flexible format for anchoring functions and workflow.

This doesn't mean that I believe Slack is now going to displace the likes of Box, Dropbox or Google Workspace as a primary platform for managing enterprise content. Those platforms have much more specialized functionality for managing content that remains beyond the scope of Slack canvas. But what Slack will have, once it delivers canvas, is the ability to act as a co-ordinating layer that spans all the various more specialized pockets of digital teamwork across the enterprise. Very few digital teamwork players have that kind of reach.

The other intriguing element of this announcement, along with others this week at Dreamforce, is how much it resonates with points I was making only last week when discussing what I'm calling the Tierless Architecture of composable IT. First of all, there's the close collaboration that Slack platform assumes between professional developers and business app builders, in which business people can use the drag-and-drop, no-code Workflow Builder to assemble workflow automations, but can call on their developer colleagues to supply missing building blocks as needed. My term for this kind of no-code and pro-code collaboration is co-code.

Secondly, there's the move towards composability, with Slack acting as the engagement layer through which users interact with functions and resources. I call the architecture tierless because it breaks away from the old model of having to go via an application layer to access the underlying data. This of course threatens to break up traditional monolithic applications, of which Salesforce itself is an example. But maybe Salesforce is already anticipating that by breaking itself into more composable building blocks, not only here with what Slack is doing but perhaps also at the data layer with Genie. That's a thought I'll be exploring further as I speak to Salesforce execs over the next few days at Dreamforce.

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