Slack promises to smooth out the bumps in enterprise email

It’s now 2015, and the first networked email was sent 44 years ago. Today, we’re still using email, along with a variety of newer communications channels, from Google Chat, to Skype, and Twitter. A home-grown Canadian firm has come up with a way to merge them all into one communications channel, and people seem to be listening.

Email is fraught with problems. Spam is the most obvious one, with mail still flooding to inboxes. But subtler issues exist, such as the tendency for mail to be counterproductive. Common mistakes such as inappropriate CCing of mails and responses bogs down inboxes and saps productivity. All-too often, the opposite happens, and important participants don’t get the memo, because someone forgot to include them.

Difficulty in prioritising can also leave important mails buried among mundane communications. Add in the increasing stream of communication from other systems – from general communications systems like Skype through to customer service platforms like ZenDesk – and employees face a nightmare of different communications options.

Vancouver-based Slack has been quietly building a solution that it says pulls all of these communications together. Founder Stewart Butterfield, who formerly founded photo sharing service Flickr before selling it to Yahoo, designed Slack as a tool to solve his own company’s in-house communication issues when working on an abortive videogame project.

His mission is to give everyone a transparent, searchable tool in which all communications can flow – along with shared files, images, videos, and audio. The tools is designed to make searches throw up entire conversations rather than just individual emails, to give people more context.

“Part of the means to doing that is to get people off of email for internal communication, because they end up with a partial, fragmented view of what’s going on,” he said.

The tool is also designed to allow for messaging between entire teams, private groups, or just individuals, so that the conversation is only heard by those who need to hear it.

This leads to some useful benefits, Butterfield said. Because messages can be posted in channels available to everyone in an organisation, it creates what he calls an ‘ambient awareness’.

People may not scrutinise every single message flowing through a public channel, but they will get a sense of what’s going on. This can make a technical operations team aware of potential service problems much earlier than if a customer service manager had to collate emails and then bring them to a weekly status meeting, say.

It can also help in areas such as analytics, Butterfield believes.

“We get messages posted in the public channel every time there’s a new bug created, and every time a new one is resolved. “We can tell from the content of the message in a machine-readable way whether it was a resolution of a bug or a solution of a new one, so we can give statistics about how we’re doing.”

The tool is particularly useful in areas where lots of communications, such as emails, customer service tickets or tweets, are automatically generated by machines. Examples here could be when someone comments on a task in team collaboration systems like Asana or Trello, both of which Slack integrates with.

Seven in every ten messages come from these integrations with other systems, he added. “We get a message whenever someone tweets to our corporate account, or when someone raises a customer ticket for a bug report, along with sales stats, and things like that.”

The company is growing quickly. It has over 75 employees already, and now has offices in San Francisco as well as Vancouver, where it began. It also recently acquired Spaces, a program that allows remote workers to collaborate on the same document simultaneously. This is going to form the basis for a document editing tool that Slack will build into its software in the future.

Tiny Speck also raised $120m in a fund co-led by Google Ventures and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers in October, and Butterfield has said that the firm is pulling in $1m each month, while spending $300,000. It only started a proper marketing campaign in November.

CIOs who are seeing problems with their internal communications might want to give a service like Slack a try. Deployed correctly, its main benefit could involve smoothing out the bumps between different teams, while getting information where it needs to go, quickly.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Danny Bradbury
Danny Bradbury
Danny Bradbury is a technology journalist with over 20 years' experience writing about security, software development, and networking.

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