There’s recently been a lot of chat about the shortcomings of chat, and with Slack in particular. Samuel Hulick’s Slack break-up letter amusingly called attention to the frustrations some individuals have with the chat app. According to Hulick, the time consuming, attention-splitting, clutter-inducing tool is causing individuals to be less focused and productive. Ironic, isn’t it?
At the enterprise level, these challenges are amplified. Jason Fried recently critiqued the utility of Slack as a group chat tool when used at the enterprise level: “What we’ve learned is that group chat used sparingly in a few very specific situations makes a lot of sense. What makes a lot less sense is chat as the primary, default method of communication inside an organization.” A communications platform like Slack needs to connect and inform all employees and keep them engaged and productive - not frustrated, confused, and distracted.
Here are five reasons that chat applications like Slack cannot successfully connect larger enterprises:
- Communication happens on many levels in a large enterprise. Slack hopes to solve this with a “messaging as a platform” approach. For that to work, all employees need to be actively participating on the platform (see point 3 below). Effective communication requires a full internal communications tool set, not just chat.
- The problem of social crowding. Stowe Boyd commented on the issue of group size and the effectiveness of chat tools: “Many of the problems that beset work chat in business contexts arise from social crowding, when the dynamics of small groups are constrained or sidetracked because too many people move into groups to participate, when they aren’t actually members of the set of people doing the work.” Without clear parameters for membership and contribution, chat streams soon become a place for unnecessary and unfocused chatter, which can stall productive work.
- Slack is for knowledge workers. These are employees who are comfortable with technology and have an ongoing need to collaborate in small groups via a chat stream to get their work done. Slack is not the right tool for everyone else in the organization. It will deliver value in departments where knowledge workers dominate, but not to the many other busy employees who have no particular need or purpose for small-group chatting.
- Messaging interfaces are inherently noisy. Individuals need to manage the volume and clutter of chat channels. For most workers, that’s too much bother and they stop actively using what quickly becomes a noisy experience. As soon as that happens, the audience becomes fragmented and any attempt to connect the organization is lost. To succeed beyond the small team level, a communication platform needs an effective way to target the right content to the right people across the organization.
- Trust is central to organizational health. The need to build and maintain trust is inherent across an enterprise. Organizations and employees alike need to be confident the content they share stays private. This is a critical flaw in the “messaging as a platform” model of applications like Slack where ad hoc streams may include external contributors or others not approved for visibility in an organization.
Here’s the bottom line. Tools like Slack can create a fluid, participatory, spontaneous communications channel for managed, small group interactions. It’s simple and straightforward, and much better than email for a high volume of communication. But on its own, it’s not enough for larger organizations. In fact, it makes enterprise clarity, communication, and engagement even more challenging.