Slack speeds enterprise teamwork with automation and integration

Profile picture for user pwainewright By Phil Wainewright October 21, 2019
Digital teamwork isn't just about connecting people. Now it automates workflow and connects across applications - an exclusive Slack interview

Connected modern world concept © James Thew -
(© James Thew -

It's been a busy few days for fans of automated workflow in digital teamwork. Last week Slack announced a new no-code workflow builder and deepened its integration with Salesforce. Asana launched a no-code workflow rules builder, along with automated creation of project schedules and the ability to save tasks from diagrams and voice memos captured on a smartphone. Not to be outdone, Atlassian announced the acquisition of Code Barrel, the makers of Automation for Jira, a no-code rules builder which automates routine operations across the Jira product family.

Slack has its Spec developer conference in San Francisco tomorrow, but last Thursday most of the exec team were at Slack Frontiers in London. I sat down with Chief Product Officer Tamar Yehoshua and Director of Enterprise Product Ilan Frank to discuss Slack's pitch to enterprise customers and the growing role of automation and integration in digital teamwork.

Workflow builder and Salesforce integration

Earlier, Frank had introduced the new Workflow Builder and deeper Salesforce integration during the opening session of the London event. A big part of the message here is Slack's ability to act as a single layer that runs across all the different applications people are using at work. He explains:

Whatever your tool mix looks like, Slack will integrate with it. Slack takes all the valuable information in tools, out of browser tabs, and brings it into one central place — one channel — making it easier to find, share and discuss. And with information flowing into Slack, it becomes simpler to respond to, and act upon as well. Information flows both ways between Slack and these tools, so your people can be more productive.

The new workflow builder will evolve to play an important role in automating processes across that mix of applications, Frank tells me:

The evolution of Workflow Builder is to connect to these other pieces of software as well, which would be just tremendous in new ways that we haven't even thought about, as far as how to bring that value from all those locked-up silos of information together into workflow.

I started my career a long time ago, and building an integration between an SAP and a Zendesk or something like that would have meant a systems integrator. But that's no longer the case, that's something that you can just do with point-and-click.

What will users build?

This is all still new to customers, though. While the take-up of the new workflow builder was very strong as soon as it was launched last week, Slack doesn't yet know what customers will build with it, says Yehoshua:

They will come back and surprise us ... I'm very curious to see what innovative things our customers are doing.

One thing learned in feedback from early adopters is that enterprise customers also want to have some oversight into what users are doing with the tool. Yehoshua explains:

They didn't want a proliferation of thousands of workflows that they couldn't control. So we gave more administrative control over the Workflow Builder.

Administrators will have the power to disable access to the workflow tool. Also, each workflow when it is built is linked to specific channels, to make it easier for people to find and use the relevant automations. Slack is also going to create more templates that people can use as a starting point for building workflows, she says.

We want to invest in making it easier to get started in Slack, by giving you a little bit more direction of what you can and can't do right now. It's kind of a blank canvas when you start. So we're going to be investing in things like templates for workflows.

Enterprise adoption and engagement

More broadly, Slack wants to ensure that enterprises are able to track user adoption and engagement, just as its own customer success teams look at these metrics, says Yehosua.

There's some SaaS applications get deployed, and really don't get the usage that people expect them to have. That's the most important thing for us — we look at new users, and how effective are they using the platform? Do they use channels? Do they send messages? How do they use the features?

Slack is planning to offer similar analytics to its enterprise customers, says Frank:

We want to make sure that, as you roll out Slack, you not only know how much engagement, but you know exactly the type of engagement, and you know where it's happening inside your organization, so that you can help and assist in this organizational change.

This is all part of helping enterprises adapt to the different patterns of teamwork that Slack enables. Yehoshua explains:

We don't want you to pour how you work today, prior to Slack, into Slack. We want you to change how you communicate when you adopt Slack.

Managing change in how people work

The vendor's customer success management organization works very closely with large enterprises when they get started with Slack to help them use the platform effectively. The ultimate aim is to take the lessons learned from those engagements and adapt them so they can be made available in a self-service form, she adds. Slack's channel-based model fundamentally changes the way organizations organize teamwork:

When companies adopt channel based communication, it changes how they communicate, both from transparency of information and agility. You can virtually bring teams together on the spot in a channel, to bring a different set of people together much more easily — because doing reorgs every time you want to change how people work together doesn't scale.

To help enterprises manage dynamic changes in teams in a more scalable way, Slack integrates with third-party identity management systems such as Okta or Microsoft's Azure Directory, adds Frank.

We have the ability to move channels from one workspace to another, in order to reorg basically, or bring people from one one job to another ...

Even automatically, from Okta or Azure, you can actually move people around based on where they are in the organization.

How Slack handles data residency, especially when working in shared channels that cross enterprise boundaries, also appeals to enterprises, he says.

Unlike traditional data residency, that basically creates a separated tenant model in another region, we actually have created a situation where the architecture supports connecting organizations across the ocean. Typical SaaS doesn't do this.

If you're a German manufacturing company, and you're working with an agency in Detroit for your advertising, you can share a channel between those two organizations. The information that your employees write in your tenant stay in Germany. The messages that the ad agency write stays in the US. And the client dynamically pulls them from both sides in order to view it in real time. This is very different from traditional data residency.

Slack and other applications

Returning to the theme of connecting across applications, Yehoshua points out that one advantage of Slack's channel-based model is in the discovery and sharing of what's available across an organization.

There's so much valuable software out there today for enterprises, and we keep seeing more and more. That is not going to go away, it's going to continue. But we find that it's difficult for people to leverage and utilize all that software. And if you're a CIO, you actually don't know who's using what, you don't know how much usage your software's getting.

What we want to do is be platform agnostic and say, get the most value out of what you have. You might be an employee and not know about Asana that your teammates are using. So let it surface in Slack so you can be aware of it, you can use it much more effectively. Whatever software the corporation is using, the platform is there to leverage your investment.

While Slack becomes the layer that connects everything, it coexists rather than replacing other applications, she adds. Slack is where people communicate and have a simple interface to quickly do things, but they don't want to do complex things from Slack:

We're not going to try and recreate all of the functionality of the SaaS apps, just the thin layer for the quick things — it will take me longer to remember how to login, where to login, which screen to go to, let me just very simply click 'approve' for the expense report.

What we see is that our users are spending the majority of their time in Slack, so it's natural for them to use that as their collaboration hub and connect other products.

My take

Like all of its peers, Slack has a huge market education job to do across three separate fronts. It has to help established enterprises adapt to new, more agile forms of teamwork. At the same time it must help users learn how to harness the potential of easy-to-use workflow automation that crosses multiple applications. Finally, it has to persuade enterprise buyers of the sophistication of its administration and compliance capabilities. The company evidently has the appetite and the ambition, but each of these are big asks. It will need vast reserves of patience and determination to carry them through.