The double-edged sword of Slack

Slack is a beautiful group communication application. Along with its bot integrations, it becomes a powerful platform for productivity and collaboration. It enables teams to work more efficiently and fosters organizational collaboration. Unsurprisingly, businesses, large and small, are increasingly adopting Slack.

I’ve used Slack for over a year at a medium-sized technology company. I consider myself an ardent user and an evangelist of the product. However, I’ve also observed subtle and inconspicuous ways in which a deep dependency on Slack detrimentally affects an organization. I’m listing the caveats here since they are easy to overlook, but, if known, not very hard to tackle.

1. A sub-optimal knowledge base

It is common for teams using Slack to have technical discussions, task investigations, operational procedures and debugging on their group channel. This allows them to seek advice from team members who might have solved the problem before. It also allows the team to be in sync about what’s happening. Over time, Slack becomes a repository of nearly all the important information of the team. Eventually, team members find themselves searching the unlimited archives of Slack (along with its advanced filtering) to find the content they’re looking for. This ability sometimes eliminates the need for documentation and wiki updates. This wouldn’t be a problem, except interspersed chat messages are almost always inferior to pre-meditated narratives of a wiki document. Since this archival information is not neatly organized (unlike conventional documentation), it becomes much harder for new employees to thoroughly learn about the product. The temptation to ping a group channel for quick answers leads to more chatter and noise, and feeds more data to the sub-optimal knowledge base of Slack.

Interspersed chat messages are almost always inferior to pre-meditated narratives of a wiki document.

2. Replacing more than email

Teams often use Slack as a medium for communicating status updates. It is not uncommon for teams to have their regular check-ins on Slack. I’ve also seen people share minutes of the meeting, ask clarifying questions across team boundaries and make broader announcements on the app. I’ve found this causes tunnel vision for leadership that has conventionally relied on mailing lists for a holistic view of their orgs. It’s impractical for senior leaders managing a number of teams to be actively involved in their Slack groups. Their supervision often spans multiple groups (channels), making it very hard to keep a tab on each in real-time. Mailing lists are perfect for batched updates. They allowed the leadership to be thoroughly aware of their organization without the distractive overhead of real-time chat, which is better suited for operational roles (like software engineering). As this practice goes on, senior management may end up feeling disconnected from the teams and lose the ability of serendipitous reaction to events that were traditionally shared through mailing lists.

[Slack] causes tunnel vision for leadership that has conventionally relied on mailing lists for a holistic view of their orgs

3. Security is everyone’s responsibility

Slack bots offer a number of compelling and powerful capabilities from within the application. Apart from third-party services, teams often create in-house bots for faster access to information or to automate frequent operational tasks. It’s very important for teams to be wary of the security implications of exposing their production environment to a Slack bot. I am not undermining the security of Slack, but it is critical for organizations to reduce their attack surface area. Exposing critical capabilities through a Slack bot seriously undermines this idea, even if the third party you’re relying on is the poster child of the Silicon Valley. It’s simply not done.

[Teams must be] wary of the security implications of exposing their production environment to a Slack bot

Organizational structure and culture is not evolving nearly as fast as the technology, creating room for misalignment. I’ve distilled the concerns above from a year of heavy usage of the product. The intent is not to discourage the adoption of Slack but to be wary of the long term consequences of real-time team collaboration. As long as teams are conscious of the downside and effectively battle it, Slack is an excellent productivity tool for the organization.