Slack and the Future of Work Platforms

Dom Nicastro asked me (and some other market watchers) about the recent acquisition of Atlassian’s HipChat and Stride by Slack, and that’s been published at CMSWire. Nicastro picked some of the things I said, but I thought I’d share my full comments, and add a new topic at the end, regarding Slack’s unique opportunity as a work platform, more than as a work chat product.

A platform for work

Nicastro asked for my thoughts on July 31:

Nicastro: Obviously there was the big shakeup with Atlassian bowing to Slack and selling their collaboration tools. Did this move surprise you? Why? Why not?
Boyd: I was surprised that Atlassian had approached Slack in the way they did, but not surprised that HipChat and Stride were losing in the head-to-head competition with Slack.
Nicastro: Do you expect Atlassian users to just make the move to Slack or is it an opportunity for Teams to swoop in and steal some of them?
Boyd: My bet is that users of the Atlassian tools who had not already defected to alternative solutions will use the time before the tools are shut down to evaluate all the options. Slack has the opportunity to build some export/import bridgework, or to offer Atlassian users some discounts. But ultimately I bet the users will move to Slack, Microsoft Teams, Facebook Workplace, and other alternatives in about the same proportions as others in the marketplace do, with perhaps a slight lean in the direction of Slack. But remember, they could have defected to Slack a month ago if they liked Slack so much.
Nicastro: What does this mean for practitioners as they entertain a central hub for collaboration in their enterprises? Is it a Slack vs. Teams world? Or is that something manufactured by people like me who like big headlines?
Boyd: Yes, Atlassian surrendering to Slack is the final battle of one war, but the bigger war is still going: Slack versus Microsoft Teams. And Microsoft has 150 million business users for Office 365, and it has the inside track on converting those to Teams users.
My prediction is that Slack needs to line up with an internet giant to out-market Microsoft, so an acquisition by Google or Amazon is predictable. However, Slack is an unusual case: it has grown very quickly, and is the market-defining product for work chat. So the company is likely to go it alone until its growth slows. Honestly, though, the fit with Google’s G-Suite is compelling, and would be a good use of $10 billion.
Nicastro: What do large organizations need out of enterprise collaboration tools today? What’s most important?
Boyd: Work chat is the hot, high growth element of the larger domain of work technologies. That’s used best for small teams that communicate frequently to coordinate work. There are well known issues with scaling work chat to effectively support the communications and coordination at scale larger than teams, however, a great proportion of work is the work of small teams.
Other tools are also critical. Email is still the default mechanism to communicate with those we do not work with as teammates. Task, work, and project management tools — like Asana, Trello (acquired by Atlassian), Basecamp, Smartsheet, and many others — are also in broad use in the enterprise. And of course, companies stil rely on documents, even if they don’t get printed out as much anymore, so tools like Google Drive (with Docs, Sheets, and Slides), Dropbox and Dropbox Paper, and Microsoft Office 365 (Word, Powerpoint, and Excel) — which used to be called ‘productivity’ tools — are still essential. Note that Google and Microsoft are big players in this last category, ‘productivity tools’, and Slack has no horse in that race, as yet. Also, Microsoft and Google both have task management offerings, which Slack has opted to simply integrate with all comers.
Nicastro: Who right now has the most compelling story out there to offer these things?
Boyd: Slack has the best pure play work chat story, Microsoft (trailed by Google pretty aggressively) have the best work technology suites, ranging from email to ‘productivity’.
Nicastro: What advice would you give practitioners/orgs in the digital workplace looking at this news and wondering what’s best for them in their enterprises — in other words, what should we be using to collaborate — what are some good steps they can take to help themselves figure out what’s best?
Boyd: That’s a huge question. I don’t think there is a one-size-fits-all answer. A 20,000 person law firm with offices in three countries has very different needs from a 300 person design firm in one city, and again different from a 50 person software company with a largely remote workforce.
I’d suggest any company start with a simple assessment: what is the center of gravity in the company’s work activities? Is it project coordination with many external clients, like the design firm might be? Start by getting a good work/project management platfom established, and accept the inevitability of email-based communications. Is it internal communication by small teams? Start with work chat, and then decide what secondary considers matter to help pick the right work chat solution. I bet the law firm is document-centric, and relies on a solution like Sharepoint of Google Drive, so the obvious option is to pick one of those first, and adopt the other tools in the suite.
Nicastro: Anything else I didn’t ask you’d like to add, feel free!
Boyd: One last observation: There is an interesting trend that is gaining steam, which I call ‘work processing’. A new generation of document-centered tools — like Quip, Notion.io, Slite, Nuclino, and others — support shared documents with styled text, embedded objects (tables, videos, images), tasks and checklists, and social affordances: threaded comments, internal notifications, and messaging. In this approach documents are not just dumb files with styled text, sitting in a cloud file system. Instead of relying on work chat communications, which are only structured by channels and search, work processing relies on a system of documents to structure company information and discourse. This can also be integrated with work chat, or may include work chat internally. A trend to keep an eye on!

We covered a lot of ground, but the heart of our discussion was largely inward-looking, focused on the conventional idea of internal ‘collaboration’: a company’s employees communicating, coordinating, and cooperating among themselves, principally.

However, companies are being rapidly remade, as hierarchies are being eroded by the tectonic changes in the economy, and as companies move toward increasingly autonomous teams operating horizontally, and increasingly working with ‘outsiders’ on company operations. The adaptations to an accelerating marketplace require companies to become more agile and flexible, to work more closely with customers, partners, and suppliers, and to pull diverse, distributed task forces together to innovate and deliver greater value to customers.

This has major ramifications across the enterprise — on leadership, operating principles, decision-making, and, well, everything. But pertaining to Slack and the role of work technologies this means a new set of requirements.

Instead of simply supporting communications with the company, work chat and related tools will have to support increasingly critical multiorganizational use. When all involved are using the same technologies — say Slack — the cross-company integration is relatively straightforward, and might involve a cross-authentication between the two companies’ Slack accounts.

However, when company A wants to coordinate work with company B, and they are using different tools — say Slack and Teams, for example — things become more complex. There would have to be a common protocol between vendors of work chat solutions for that to work, or at least a one-to-one agreement between Slack and Microsoft. (Or not: we could have a standoff like we did with instant messaging services back in the day, but that’s a different history lesson.)

Slack has become the market leader for a number of reasons, but it has clearly staked its claim to being the most oriented toward easy integration with other tools, such as help desk, document systems, task management solutions, and so on. I am wagering that they will be the first to move aggressively toward full distributed platform support, just as businesses realize that their futures rely on reorienting their operations toward the horizontal, and move to convert themselves into business platforms. For companies to become full-on business platforms they will need to rest upon foundational work platforms — technology that will include work chat and other work management tools, as well as close integration with other necessary enterprise software.

This realignment of business operations toward the horizontal is the most obvious motivation for my claim that Slack will ultimately align itself with an internet giant, like Google or Amazon, because we can expect that these horizontal work platforms for business will naturally emerge on top of the cloud computing platforms that the giants will command.

Maybe we will be writing about platform-as-a-service, soon, with Slack as one important element in that stack.


Originally published at stoweboyd.com.

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