This is a tale of how two medium size B2B companies that provide professional services to some of the world’s most iconic brands embraced Slack, how it affected the way they work, the value each of them derived, and how different the outcomes were resulting from its use.
Some of my colleagues don’t like it when I use the analogy of addiction related to getting people to change the way they work. They forget there are many legal, socially acceptable addictions and addictive behaviours that are as equally difficult to quit as banned substances; coffee, sugar, alcohol, cigarettes, fitness fanatics, Facebook addicts, email addicts, the list is endless.
Email is big and despite the meteoric rise of consumer messaging apps WhatsApp, Snapchat and recent arrival Slack, it continues to grow. Most of this growth comes from the business world because of course, generation Y and millennials don’t use email except for signing up to messaging apps, social media and web sites that require registration.
Email remains the most pervasive form of communication in the business world and remains the most ubiquitous form of business communication. In 2014, the majority of email traffic comes from the business world, which accounts for over 108.7 billion emails sent and received per day. Email use is growing in the business sector and by 2018, business email will account for over 139.4 billion emails sent and received per day. Business users send and receive on average 121 emails a day in 2014, and this is expected to grow to 140 emails a day by 2018. [Source: The Radicati Group]
Sei Mani’s customer engagement model is unique. We ‘go native’ and use our customer’s equipment and employee identity to deliver our services. Often, our people are managing inboxes in two or three companies, some of which have over 50,000 employees. That’s a lot of email to process. Can’t do much about that but we had to find a way to reduce our own internal email to better serve our customers. We deployed Slack two years ago. It reduced our email by 90% overnight. This is not an exaggeration. It happened that quickly. We love it. Because we’re experts in collaboration we use it for its intended purpose. That is, short messaging between individuals to replace email. We use it on the move, as an alternative to SMS because Slack’s mobile experience is slick and easy to use. We have open and closed channels but don’t use them as a substitute for ‘reply all’. Crucially, we don’t use Slack as a ‘system of record’.
We use Jive as a document repository and platform to make key decisions, store contracts, statements of work and all the other artefacts related to customer project deliveries and to collaborate with customers, partners and suppliers. We’re fanatical about analytics. Every week we get metrics about how we’ve used Slack. Pretty much every week our message stats look like this: 1% were in public channels, 18% were in private channels and 81% were direct messages. This is healthy addiction free behaviour.
In stark contrast, we spoke to another company that deployed Slack around the same time as us. Like Sei Mani, the introduction of Slack was a big hit but over a short time got out of control. Public and private channels resemble the long rants associated with deeply nested ‘reply all’ email threads. Behaviours quickly degraded to those we associate with email. “I sent a message to everyone on Slack, so my work is done”. IBM recently described dysfunctional use of Slack like this:
“People we know using Slack for any appreciable period of time feel like their information organization is totally kaput, like where did that conversation take place? People are struggling with just the basic utility of I’m having a conversation and how do I get back to the information, artefacts, content, decisions that were made?” It's on Slack might as well be replaced with 'I wrote the document you want on a needle, and it's in that haystack'.
We haven’t seen this company’s Slack metrics but based on their story we’d expect very different numbers likely describing unhealthy, email like addiction behaviour with a much larger percentage of messages published in public and private channels.
How is it that two very similar companies got completely different outcomes from using Slack? We had a very clear purpose for using Slack and our people’s day job is to help customers use less email. We already know how inefficient, inappropriate and addictive email can be and we recognised Slacks’ limits, knowing it cannot be all things to all men. Basically we had lots of practice, actually thousands of hours of using a wide range of collaboration apps. The employees of the other company had zero practice and didn’t offer a broad range of real time and asynchronous apps, so people can choose the medium of communication that best suits them. As a result, the behaviours associated with email were transferred undiluted to Slack.
There’s a frequently used refrain in the world of drug addiction counsellors: If you can’t find the drug you need, you’ll want the drug you can get. That’s why it’s not the drug it’s the user.
Note to Slack: About ten years ago, Clay Shirky carried out an experiment with email centric forums. He wanted to test what happens when the forum automatically publishes usage statistics back to the community. He made a startling find. When a user knows they’re posting the most (or being the loudest in the room) they massively reduced their posts to accommodate other people. That’s why you should provide an option for administrators to automatically post usage stats to the whole community and include leader boards with the number of hours being consumed by each user. This will lead to much healthier behaviours.