Today saw the launch of Slack Connect, a new name for the expanded version of shared channels in Slack, which for all paid accounts now enables people from up to 20 different organizations to collaborate in dedicated Slack channels. The feature has been honed in beta at Slack and at a number of other organizations in recent months — Slack used it to co-ordinate its recent $800 million convertible debt offering — and is the culmination of more than four years' work.
The company is heralding Slack Connect as "the future of business communication" in line with its familiar positioning as a replacement for email, but its ambitions also extend into B2B application integration, as CEO Stewart Butterfield explained today:
Over time, I think one of the biggest ramifications of this will be having a kind of a medium or an avenue for enterprise software to run across organizational boundaries, because that's not something that happens now.
This was presaged in remarks that we highlighted several weeks ago during Slack's Q1 earnings call, when Butterfield spoke about Slack's plans to open up shared channels to multiple organizations and its ambition to act as a platform for connecting best-of-breed apps. He elaborated on this direction today:
I think a measure of success for us, looking maybe three or five years into the future, is going to be, what percentage of DocuSigns are signed inside of a shared channel? How many purchase orders are going across, how many invoices are sent, how many service tickets opened?
That whole mechanism by which organizations do commerce with one another are new possibilities for bringing more visibility and easier synchronisation, because Slack — when it's really working for individual organizations on the inside — becomes this lightweight fabric for systems integration. And that's just as valuable across boundaries as inside.
The rearchitecture behind Slack Connect
Following on from the announcement, I spoke to Ilan Frank, Head of Enterprise Product at Slack, to get more color on this and other aspects of today's news. We started by drilling into the four-year history that has led up to today's announcement, which wouldn't have been possible had Slack not completely rearchitected its back-end. Instead of a conventional SaaS tenancy model where each organization is a separate application tenant, the model needed to go down a level and treat each channel as a separate entity. Frank explains:
We had to rearchitect our infrastructure so it's channel-based, and the channel is the unit of organization. Now that channel can be connected to multiple organizations where, regardless of where you authenticate, you can access that channel. That's a very unique tenancy model that I haven't seen before, but that was something we realized early on that we'd have to do, and that's why it's taken so long. This architecture came to fruition earlier this year.
This rearchitecture was fundamental to then being able to implement all the security and compliance features that distinguish Slack Connect from email and other alternatives. Each participant in a channel brings into it all of the policies attached to their identity as an individual user and as a member of the organization they belong to. Slack calls this its "author aware" concept. Policies such as encryption key management, message retention or data loss prevention are attached to the author and anything that they contribute to the channel. This is a huge improvement on the processes organizations typically use for external communications, says Butterfield:
A lot of our largest customers put enormous effort into security and compliance. What ends up happening with external communication is often it goes out of band, it goes to text messages, it goes to WhatsApp. The organization has no visibility and no ability to retain important records.
Obviously there still needs to be some co-ordination between organizations who set up a shared channel to ensure there are no conflicts between their policies, for example on e-discovery. Frank comments:
It's not that we have added or removed from the complexity of doing business across multiple organizations. We've added more compliance controls than email, where everyone simply got a copy. Now the information you write is in a channel, even more specifically the information your authors or employees write is governed by your rules.
There are still going to be cases where you probably have to have two humans get together and agree the policy.
Keeping out malware and making it viral
Slack is also taking care in opening up the ability to send direct messages and invitations between organizations. It's wary of the potential for phishing, spam and other malware to penetrate corporate defenses, which as the company is quick to point out, has become the bane of email. It's adding two features to guard against such threats:
- Verified organizations — Slack will verify the authenticity of organizations that participate in Slack. Administrators will be able to mandate that inbound connections can only come from verified organizations.
- Approved organizations — administrators will be able to upload lists in a CSV file of approved organizations — for example authorized partners, members or customers — that are pre-approved for employees to connect to. There will also be an admin flow to approve new connections to organizations that are not on the pre-approved list.
Controls will also apply to applications as the integration functionality rolls out. Any organization can integrate an app within a connected channel, but it can only be invoked by users with access rights to the app. However any messages the app writes to the channel are visible to other channel participants. So for example a supplier might raise an invoice and then drop a link into the channel that allows the customer to view the invoice and push it into their own workflow for payment. There's a little more flexibility when using Slack's own workflow builder, which in the future will be able to connect into internal systems such as Salesforce, Workday, ServiceNow and Zendesk. So for example a customer could fill out a form in the workflow builder that then becomes a ticket in Zendesk.
One of the most powerful aspects of Slack Connect is its virality. One of the challenges Slack faces is that it's not easy to adopt, as Butterfield was lamenting on the company's recent earnings call:
You just can't adopt Slack that quickly. You can't move from e-mail to channel-based messaging in that short amount of time. I wish that whole cultures could change overnight.
Slack Connect is a very effective mechanism for turning Slack's existing customer base into product champions that bring on their partners, customers and stakeholders by setting up networks of shared channels and then showing them how to make use of the platform. The potential is huge, although Slack still needs to do more to streamline its onboarding process, admits Frank.
The workflow as it works today with channels, I can invite you by email address. You get an email with a link. If you have Slack, you connect via Slack, if not you can sign up.
We want to make that even easier. Maybe in the future you don't need to sign up for a team ... we're trying to get to a point where it is very easy for you to work with your partners, vendors and customers and you don't have the overhead of, do or don't they have Slack?
The company is well aware that there are still plenty of kinks to iron out. The initial limit of 20 organizations has worked well during the pre-release testing, but it's likely to rise in the future, says Butterfield, once Slack has got a measure of what that will involve.
As the number of participants increases, it wouldn't really make sense to have a single channel to house conversations among 1,000 different organizations. And yet, one of the obvious use cases is private networks — associations, consortiums and stuff like that. So we're taking our time there a little bit, because you need to understand what controls people need, how to make that comprehensible, how to make it visible.
But as you start to scale up those networks, I think [whether to include free users] becomes a little bit more pressing and relevant for us, because people will want to be able to participate. So I think, over the next 12-18 months, there's going to be a pretty rapid evolution on that front and we'll continue to revisit pricing.
Another factor will be helping organizations understand how best to interoperate with others — each Slack customer has its own way of organizing and naming channels and sometimes those conventions will be in conflict between connected organizations, says Butterfield.
Bringing that capability across organizational boundaries is going to be different for people. There's going to be some change management — getting used to it and learning a new way of operating.
Make no mistake, this is a landmark announcement by Slack. No wonder CEO Stewart Butterfield could barely contain his excitement on the company's earnings call earlier this month. Never mind replacing email or getting back at Microsoft Slack, which most of today's coverage focuses on. Slack Connect is aiming to replace the entire infrastructure of how businesses trade with each other, from EDI to webforms and portals as well as email [updated — when I originally wrote this, I had put B2B commerce but the scope is much wider than that, encompassing a whole range of interactions that are poorly served by current solutions. Also, I shouldn't downplay the huge value of simply having a shared, secure, threaded messaging channel in which people from multiple organizations can collaborate on a project or discuss an issue, even before you add any apps. It's just that adding the apps is, in my view, what makes this disruptive to traditional methods of inter-enterprise process integration].
This is a big ambition and the timescale of how it plays out is measured in years not months or weeks, with plenty of obstacles along the way. But it's on-trend with the newly emergent patterns of digital work I wrote about last week and the best-of-breed enterprise architectures the MACH Alliance foreshadowed in its launch yesterday. Perhaps it really is, as Slack claims, the start of a new era in B2B communication.