To Slack or not to Slack?

As many already know, the cloud based messaging tool Slack burst onto the market in the summer of 2013 and has become one of the hottest business messaging platforms around.  Honestly I was slow to pick up on its relevance and what differentiated it from other solutions.  I remember reading about it, looking into it and thinking I just didn’t have time for another gimmicky or niche solution which could expose me and my clients to security risks.

I’ve seen many new technologies come and go over the years and some of them stick around but don’t have the adoption or credibility to be a real business solution.  This has been the greatest challenge to Slack, because in order for it to become a solution that people can use, they have to prove that it is a safe, secure and reliable place to put businesses communications and files.

Brilliantly, Slack has used the same playbook as DropBox.  They managed to get their product into teams and businesses through the IT back door by offering free services that anyone can setup, offering simple, well written software and web apps.  And they have been so overwhelmingly successful at promoting their product that they have real credibility now.

Our Experiment

In our office we’ve been using Skype for Business for the last 4+ years and found it to be a great solution for keeping track of people’s Presence and reducing Inbox bloat.  So when we switched a couple months ago to Slack on a trial basis, I was very skeptical and didn’t want to give up what we already had.

In Skype for Business, Presence allows users to post their availability and what they are up to, like an electronic bulletin board.  This makes looking for help and answers much quicker than sending out multiple emails, calls, checking calendars, etc.

Skype for Business has also been great at reducing the Inbox bloat associated with the multiple interoffice emails, which tend to crowed out important emails.  And Skype for Business keeps your conversations available and searchable in your mailbox for review and documentation.

The Verdict

So after getting everyone connected on Slack and running it in place of Skype for Business for several weeks, we decided to stay on Slack.  In the end Slack offered several benefits that users felt better served our needs.

Pros:

  1. The Slack software and web interface are simpler and more usable.  They are easy to understand and follow and get the information we need.  Slack provides great software for smart phones, Macs and PCs.  In Skype for Business, the software is slow to load and connect.  On the Mac users are still limited to an old Lync client, which is very limited and buggy.
  2. Conversations among multiple users (Channels in Slack parlance) remain persistent, which is enormously helpful.  This allows messages to be posted and users to review and contribute to them at another time.  They can also see the history of the conversation to give them context and allow them to catch up.  In Skype for Business, conversations are immediate, meaning you can’t send a message for someone to receive and respond to later.  If you do message someone who’s busy or offline, they may (not reliably) get an email with the “missed conversation.”  Once someone disengages a chat session, the session is over and a new conversation must be established without the chat history.
  3. Notifications and continuity between devices is very smooth and reliable.  Slack always seems to know where to notify you (Computer, phone, web, etc.) and is very good at reliably reflecting which messages are new and unread regardless of where you check.  Also, being able to manage notifications based on topic (Channel), direct messages or specific words is helpful in limiting unnecessary distraction.
  4. Extensibility is a very strong and a unique feature of Slack.  It allows integration and extension of the Slack systems to many third party solutions and plugins.  I haven’t used many of these yet but they are widely used with many 3rd party add-ins.
  5. Slack offers persistent file storage.  Unlike Skype for Business, which transfers files from one system to another when they are shared, Slack actually stores them.  This has some collaborative benefits but also introduces new security considerations. We have not been using the file sharing capabilities as we’ve implemented Slack with a very specific purpose and strict usage guidelines.  We don’t allow client data, sensitive information or files stored in the Slack systems.

Drawbacks

Using Slack does have some drawbacks.

  1. Its support for Presence is very limited.  It really only has a “Do not disturb” mode and a light indicator to show if a person is online.  You cannot easily reflect location, current task or to indicate if you’re in the office but busy in a meeting.  This has also been reflected in the feedback I’ve gotten from users that Skype for Business seems more immediate.
  2. The user interface can become very muddled with what I call “Channel Creep” or “Channel Sprawl.”  Having too many Channels and overlapping Channels can get very confusing.  Ultimately someone needs to be in charge and maintain some level of order in an organization.
  3. Slack can also be another monthly cost.  In the Cloud age, businesses are saving on capital expenses but are being drained by the growing list of monthly subscriptions critical to their daily operations. It is true that the free offering may be sufficient for many users, but the free offering is limited and may not always be available.
  4. Slack possesses some security and data portability challenges.  The lack of data portability means you cannot easily take your data elsewhere if for example you decide you don’t want to use Slack anymore.  You can export your data for compliance and archiving, but the exported data is mostly unusable outside the Slack system.
  5. Security is also a consideration as Slack creates a new attack vector exposing communications and documents stored outside primary communications and storage systems like Google for Work, Office 365, DropBox, Box, Egnyte, etc. It constitutes yet another system, set of user accounts, passwords and copies of duplicate files for businesses to try and manage.  In 2015, Slack suffered a major security compromise exposing all their user profiles including passwords to hackers.

Alternatives

There are alternatives to Slack with similar communication models including HipChat and Fleep.  Both products have received much less media coverage then Slack but offer very compelling alternative solutions.  Not to be outdone, Microsoft is planning on introducing Skype Teams, which reportedly will have much of the same capabilities as Slack.

Conclusion

All in all, Slack is a great messaging technology that many businesses should consider using.  It offers a unique approach to messaging with significant advantages over older communication platforms like email, IM and voice.

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