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Workday loses its head for Slack - also Facebook, Google, Microsoft

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright March 25, 2018
Workday embraces conversational computing and goes headless in Slack partnership, will also open up platform to Facebook, Google Cloud, Microsoft Teams

Slack Workday logos in partnership 370px
Cloud HR and finance vendor Workday's new partnership with Slack, unveiled last week, is notable for two separate reasons. First of all, it's just one of many such partnerships, confirming an important aspect of Workday's platform strategy. Secondly it marks Workday's embrace of the concept of conversational computing, in which enterprise apps become 'headless' — users can access Workday functions and data in the midst of any conversation channel, without having to visit the application itself.

Since Workday first announced its PaaS plans last summer, more details have been slowly seeping out. The full story is due to be unveiled at the annual Workday Rising event this Fall, but an important element has been revealed alongside the Slack announcement. In a blog post titled Openness at Workday, CTO Joe Korngiebel makes clear that Slack is just one of many partners in the messaging and collaboration sector that Workday is opening up its platform to:

Many of our customers are embracing applications like Google Cloud, Microsoft Teams, Slack, and Workplace by Facebook to help fuel new ways of working and collaborating — and we are actively partnering with these companies to further the future of work.

Korngiebel's blog makes clear that Workday sees openness as a two-way street that will operate in different ways with a wide range of partners. The Slack integration is an example of "extending data, context, processes, and intelligence to every application that our customers use for their business." In other cases, applications will be able to "surface relevant data for employees through their Workday homepage," or create their own presentation experience using the Workday UI. All of this is underpinned by Workday's APIs and support for modern integration technologies and protocols such as webhooks and SCIM.

Slack and other 'natural workspaces'

The Slack integration will roll out in two phases. The first phase will surface a range of HR actions in the Slack messaging channel, so that employees can access co-worker information such as name, job title and department, look up organizational charts, check information about benefits, reviews or annual leave, and request time off or complete peer reviews — all without leaving Slack.

Later on, the integration will add administration functions so that IT teams will be able to assign people automatically to Slack channels based on their department. There are also plans for Slack users to be able to set up personalized Workday notifications and alerts.

And as Korngiebel makes clear in his blog posting, similar integrations will allow organizations to surface Workday data and functions in whatever collaboration tools they happen to be using, as part of a strategy of bringing Workday to users in what the company is calling their 'natural workspaces':

To engage and empower people with actionable context and data, we believe that you need to meet them where they are — which increasingly means meeting them in their 'natural workspaces'. Because of this, our upcoming collection of delivered integrations will allow employees to interact with Workday through conversational language with collaboration tools they’re already using.

Whether they want to request leave in Slack, find out a coworker’s office location in Microsoft Teams, or leave a colleague feedback in Workplace by Facebook, Workday will be there, through our open approach.

Workday and conversational computing

Those 'natural workspaces' are typified by what we at diginomica have been calling conversational computing, along with the associated phenomenon of headless applications, whereby users can access an application's functionality and data without having to actually load up the app. HR is a good example of an application that's rarely visited by some employees, and which therefore makes a good candidate for this 'headless' approach, as Workday's EMEA CTO, Dave Sohigian, explains:

When we say meeting the employee where they are, it is wherever that is on that big range, from tied to your desktop in the application all day, to, on your mobile device, or talking to a Google device briefly for five minutes, and that's your whole interaction for the week with Workday.

We don't want to control what that will be, because it really will vary by person, by use case, by skills ... [it's] not about let's lock somebody in to how we do things here, because it's just not going to be effective.

Some actions may be much easier to complete from a conversational interface because it can go straight to a function that may not be right at the top of the native application, he adds:

I think there's some really powerful use cases for things that are difficult to do in a mobile or browser interface that people commonly want to do, but you don't want to stick in the front of the interface. Time off would be an example, or 'What was my last paycheck?' You don't necessarily in an interface want to make that just a single click, because you're not sure they're [in the app] for that. But being able to say that [in a conversation stream] allows you to jump very naturally to something that might otherwise be really buried inside the application.

At the same time as talking up the convenience, Sohigian also makes the point that a robust integration framework is needed underneath it all to cater to enterprise concerns such as compliance. We were talking at the Unleash event in London, where the impending GDPR legislation was front of mind.

It's great to tie together a bunch of applications on another layer. But now when regulators come to you and say where is that data? It's fine if it's all in the apps layer. But when you're saying, well it's also residing up here again, having really well developed APIs for it, we can ensure that we do that well.

Why Slack 'eats organizations'

Sohigian says that Slack has already permeated Workday for internal collaboration, which perhaps helps to explain its selection as the first partner to announced:

At Workday, we're heavy users of Slack. Our development organization really kicked that off and now the entire organization uses it. For many of the users, that's where they'd just like to be able to do most everything. And if there was a bot that could answer questions for them that we've built, they'll take advantage of that rightaway, that interface ...

I do see the reason why it eats organizations. At Workday it started small and then just boom, all of a sudden, everybody wanted it, because it can replace email.

One anecdotal data point that underlines the rise of voice and messaging as an interaction layer for enterprise applications is the rise of new job roles serving this sector. Sohigian says Workday saw this as confirmation that the trend was real:

One of the big turning points for us in recognizing that this was a real thing was when we started to see there are now voice designers just like there's graphic designers. It's an occupation now, where both the subtleties of natural language processing as well as how you respond, there's people who design those experiences.

That tells you, once there's a whole job category around it — like when mobile designers came — now there's actually a demand for that. I think that's something we're going to see more and more of.

My take

This announcement rolls up two big trends in one. First of all there's the trend towards conversational computing — OK Workday, you can call it natural workspaces if you like — and the increasingly common spectacle of enterprise applications going 'headless'.

Secondly, there's the emerging trend confirmed by Salesforce's acquisition last week of MuleSoft. Integration is becoming an integral part of any enterprise application stack, and Salesforce is actually a laggard in only now adding that capability, since it's precisely ten years since Workday acquired Cape Clear to add integration capabilities into its own stack.

I'll be writing more on the second trend in a separate post looking at the context and ramifications of the Salesforce transaction. But in embracing both of these trends, Workday seems to be hitting the ground running with its platform strategy. I'll be hearing more about that next month at a Workday analyst event and look forward to drilling into the details as more emerges in the run-up to Rising later this year.

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