Video meetings killed the messaging star

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright December 1, 2020
Video meetings became the surprise star of digital teamwork this year and suddenly messaging alone doesn't have what it takes

Video meetings Messaging star
(Composite of Zoom and Slack images)

Back at the beginning of 2020, video meetings were interruptions to the flow of work. People went to video for interviews, to make or receive sales calls, or when threaded discussions got out of hand. Then they went back to their work — sending messages, writing documents, looking up data, handing down decisions. Messaging was the primary channel for enterprise workflow, and Slack was its rising star. No one then could have imagined the dramatic shifts that would see video rise to pre-eminence in the ensuing months, ending in today's acquisition of Slack by Salesforce.

When the pandemic sent entire regions and industries into lockdown back in March, video meetings seemed to be nothing more than a quick fix for a temporary problem. People were used to meeting in person, so they simply continued to meet face-to-face, doing it remotely over a video link. It was hopelessly inefficient and tiring over long periods, but it meant people could carry on.

Those of us who had spent several years watching the evolution of digital teamwork tools believed that this embrace of video was a short-term phase. The problem with video, after all, is that it's inherently still largely an analog medium, without all of the digital automation and integration that platforms like Slack had already evolved. I classed video meetings as little more than a workaround at the lowest level of maturity in digital teamwork. But in dismissing video I was making two big miscalculations.

Easy familiarity of video

The first was to underestimate the importance of the easy familiarity of video meetings. Once you're in a video meeting, you know what to do, because it's just like meeting in person at the office, but with home decor and the occasional pet or child as a background. There was a time when getting into a video meeting had been a hassle, but Zoom eliminated that, which is what led to its astonishing success as it became the primary video meeting platform of the pandemic. Microsoft Teams, Google Meet, Facebook Workplace, even Cisco Webex quickly followed its example, uprating their ease of use and adding other functions.

In comparison, Slack struggled because it was too difficult to pick up. "You just can't adopt Slack that quickly," mourned its CEO Stewart Butterfield in the company's Q1 earnings call as he reflected on its muted progress during the height of the pandemic lockdown. To use an analogy from the era of analog video tape, Slack had become the Betamax of enterprise teamwork to Zoom's VHS. It was technically superior, but Zoom is simply more convenient.

Video goes digital

My other miscalculation was to overlook that video meetings are becoming a digital platform, natively adding the automation and integrations that they've previously lacked. This is why the October launch of Zoom Apps is such a strategic move, integrating third-party applications directly into the video experience. No wonder Microsoft followed suit so rapidly with its own ecosystem of Teams apps for meetings — including some of the same partners.

Meanwhile, the use of AI to digitize the contents of video meetings — with machine transcripts, automated keyword recognition and even sentiment analysis of facial expressions and body language — means that video no longer has to be at a digital disadvantage in comparison to text-based channels. This allows video to move up through the layers of the aforementioned digital teamwork maturity model, no longer consigned to being an add-on or a workaround, but now a native platform for automation, intelligent measurement and ultimately using digital aids to help teams improve performance.

At that highest level, the notion of harnessing AI and collaboration in an iterative feedback loop to help people achieve better outcomes is one that I first heard a couple of years ago from Gordon Ritter. This notion, which he calls coaching networks, he believes form the basis of the next big wave in enterprise software. Why is that important to mention here? Because the VC firm he co-founded, Emergence Capital, was the first Silicon Valley investment firm to back Zoom.

My take

This year's pivot to video wrongfooted Slack, which was driving after solving a different problem — connecting across enterprise boundaries. That's still an important problem and one that is particulary pertinent to Salesforce, as we discussed in our previous analysis when rumors of the impending acquisition announcement first surfaced. On reflection, Slack needs Salesforce just as much as Salesforce needs Slack — and both need to tighten their existing links with AWS to leverage the video smarts they lack.

I don't know whether Slack is going to disappear into Salesforce or whether Salesforce will add the heft that Slack needs to regain its former pre-eminence in digital teamwork. What I do know is that the messaging is no longer sufficient as a primary channel for enterprise workflow. The world has pivoted to video.

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