The Brave New Workplace: Navigating Enterprise Chat

Aug 23, 2017 · 5 min read
Conversational workplace opportunity banner
Conversational workplace opportunity banner

In the 1980s, the graphical user interface (GUI) came along and changed everything for the modern workplace and how teams worked together. Then came the World Wide Web in the 1990s and the mobile revolution in the 2000s. Now, we are watching the beginning of the next sea change in how teams work together with the dawn of the conversational interface. For many enterprises, this revolution may be a surreptitious one, quietly adopted and implemented by individual teams rather than deployed company wide. Nonetheless, it is one to pay attention to, especially for CIOs, CMOs, and HR within large organizations.

7 years of enterprise chat

While enterprise chat has been around at least since the turn of the decade, in 2010 when HipChat opened up its API and Salesforce released Chatter to the public, greater adoption didn’t really begin to take place until 2014 with the introduction of Slack. In 2015, Slack upped the ante with its launch of the Slack App Directory and the Slack Fund, which worked to turn Slack into more than just a place to chat, but a place for developers to create tools around chat. By 2016 and 2017, it was game on for all the big players, as Cisco, Microsoft, Facebook, Google, IBM and Amazon all threw their entries into the ring for what has come to be known as the “great enterprise chat race”.

Enterprise chat platforms — A timeline

A timeline of enterprise chat tools
A timeline of enterprise chat tools
Enterprise chat platforms: a timeline

Chatbots in the workplace

The popularity of the Slack App Directory was a key turning point in the evolution of the conversational workplace. While companies may have already been using chat to communicate, this move helped turn the conversation into more than just idle chatter — conversation is becoming work itself, with the help of disruptive and innovative apps known as “chatbots”. Chatbots are applications that operate within chat platforms and serve an ever-growing number of functions. Chatbots automate a variety of tasks, such as information gathering, employee on-boarding, customer assistance, technical support, reference, and so on. They deliver notifications, interject useful information, analyze interactions and generally enhance our experiences in chatroom environments.

Workplace messaging has become the connective tissue between disparate teams, users, and data sources. The group chatroom is no longer simply a place for idle chatter, but rather where real work is being done — the conversational workplace. With the addition of bots to analyze, enhance and facilitate these conversations, the conversation opens up new opportunities for greater insight, interaction and efficiency. The conversational workplace presents a whole new paradigm for consideration, and the main question you need to answer now is which chat platform will best suit your company.

Here’s a breakdown of the main players in chat platforms and how they compare:

A graph of the main players in the enterprise chat environment
A graph of the main players in the enterprise chat environment
Feature comparisons for enterprise chat platforms

Enterprise chat considerations

When contemplating a chat application for your company, there are a number of factors to take into account. For example, will the chat application be able to meet with federal regulations such as HIPAA, FINRA, FERPA or SOX? If your company works with data that is governed by one of these key federal regulations, this will be a deal-breaker. Many of the applications examined can be made compliant with add-ons or third party integrations, but make sure to be 100 percent clear before proceeding.

Other characteristics, such as supported languages and maximum users, are key to choosing the right chat application for your company. If your company spans the globe, perhaps an English-only chat application is not the best choice. Most applications these days support a number of operating systems, but this is again something you’ll want to make sure meets requirements company-wide.

Beyond the features outlined in the graphic above, there are a number of other factors you’ll want to consider when choosing a chat platform for your business.

The greater platform at hand

Your first, though not final, consideration should likely be whether or not a given chat application is part of a bigger enterprise collaboration platform — especially one you have already adopted within your organization. Amazon, Atlassian, Cisco, Google, IBM, Microsoft and Salesforce all offer complimentary applications for numerous business operations, while Facebook offers a familiar interface and many employees will already have an account.

Slack stands alone as not being directly part of a bigger enterprise collaboration platform, but offers integrations with many third party applications, as well as single sign-on for easy on-boarding. Nonetheless, if your entire organization operates using a suite of Microsoft Office or Google G Suite applications, their chat platforms should carry a greater weight in your deliberations. By the same token, some of these apps — such as Google Hangouts Chat and Microsoft Teams — may only be available as part of the larger platform.

The developer ecosystem

Next, you may consider the developer ecosystem around a particular application. For example, the number of bots available, the availability of an API (which most have), a healthy developer relations program, active developer engagement by the company — all of these factors can influence 3rd party integrations, apps and bots. In this realm, Slack currently outpaces much of the competition, and is a favorite of these mainstream chat offerings among developers. This could change, however, as many of these chat applications just were released in the last year or two and have big potential, given the companies backing them.

Form factor

Finally, does the form factor fit your purposes? Cisco Spark, for example, offers a virtual whiteboarding feature that might fit right in with your practices. Facebook, meanwhile, offers more asynchronous communication methods displayed in its familiar feed format. Some platforms focus more on video and voice than text, and others vice versa.

Additionally, this list of chat applications was in no way all-inclusive. The market has seen many entrants in recent years, including open-source offerings like Mattermost and RocketChat, and upcoming smaller players like Blink and RingCentral Glip. The great enterprise chat race has just begun and, while market fragmentation may be something to pay attention to, the real players to keep an eye on are likely Microsoft, Google, and Slack, as they each vie for the multi billion dollar enterprise chat market.

This article is the first of an ongoing series, The Conversational Workplace Opportunity, which will examine how enterprise messaging is transforming the world of work.

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