Debating ‘Real-time Messaging in the Enterprise: Here We Go Again’

Back in August, Larry Hawes wrote a post entitled Real-time Messaging in the Enterprise: Here We Go Again‘, and I suggested to him at the time that we should have a debate on the topic. We did, but did not do so in public. In the future, I will try to have these debates in a more public way, like the obvious option of recording us in Skype or Hangouts, arguing away.
However, Larry and I did wrangle over the subject, and here’s the thread:

Stowe: Larry, I read your piece ‘Real-time Messaging in the Enterprise: Here We Go Again’, and I agree with some of your assertions, but I disagree with your central conclusion, which is that work chat is a fad that will fade away fairly quickly.
You make the case — which I agree with in part — that we are witnessing an explosion of chat tools, and these are creating silos of fragmented information. You wrote,

These applications are largely siloed from each other, so employees have to remember in which one a certain conversation occurred or know in which application they have the highest probability of gaining a specific coworker’s attention. Second, some can interoperate with other enterprise applications via RESTful APIs, while others require more costly, time-consuming integration efforts. Third, some messaging applications support information governance initiatives such as records retention and disposal whereas other offerings essentially assume that chats are throw-away conversations that do not need to be archived and managed.

The core idea — that these tools are silos — is true. However, I think that the mobile experience has shifted expectations so that people are tolerant — and perhaps even biased toward — a fragmented world of deep-and-narrow apps.
I also think that your second and third points above are actually characteristics for apps to compete around. Slack, for example, has become the poster child for integration with other apps.
Larry: Thanks for engaging in this conversation, Stowe! It’s very refreshing that Gigaom Research not only tolerates, but actively exposes differences of opinion amongst its analysts, rather than forcing everyone to conform to the ‘company viewpoint’, like most research firms.
Let me begin to address your opening comments by adding some clarification around my central conclusion. Yes, I very much believe that work chat will be a short-lived fad. It will be overhyped by vendors, analysts and other market makers. Then it will fall out of favor as the next, new form of messaging in the enterprise comes along. More on that below.
What I did not mean to imply, is that work chat will completely disappear or cease to be used. There will be key use cases, as well as individual and team workstyle preferences, which demand that IT keeps the technology in the corporate tool set. Despite that, I firmly believe that, long-term, work chat will see limited uptake and make a minimal impact on overall organizational performance.
The current mobile experience made up of numerous, functionally-focused applications that you cite works well for consumers. In some cases, it can also be highly beneficial to workers who want to quickly accomplish a well-defined task in isolation. The challenge in the work environment (that makes it different from consumer computing) is in getting information to flow between applications.
We typically use workflow technology to accomplish that, but haven’t applied it to work chat (or to older forms of enterprise messaging, including social status updates, instant messaging and email). Yes, Slack can use IFTTT to push information between integrated applications, but IFTTT isn’t considered an enterprise-ready technology by most IT professionals. Unfortunately, there is not an equivalent, lightweight enterprise workflow tool, so the IFTTT style of rules-based information flow can’t be easily replicated, with added enterprise features, in organizations today.
Organizations will struggle mightily to get information in and out of any work chat applications they deploy. That includes getting the multiple chat tools that have been self-selected by employees to interoperate, absent consistent inclusion and use of a standard communication protocol like XMPP. Also, organizations still need to manage their communications, including seemingly ephemeral chat conversations, in a way that accommodates corporate information governance policies. The throw-away chat paradigm of Snapchat and Confide simply isn’t viable in most businesses, so work chat tool providers will either have to build or partner for governance and compliance functionality.
Stowe: You say the big problem for these apps is that they are not necessary: they only duplicate functionality that other tools already can provide. My counter is empirical: if that statement is true, why are users and organizations adopting these new tools, and dropping the old? The answer has to be that they are organized around different principles. The fact that you don’t know what they are, or that they are hard to discern, doesn’t really matter.
And, oh, by the way, your argument was identical to what people said about instant messaging and email. ‘Why do we need IM,’ they’d say, ‘When we already have email?’ We know how that went. IM and email are very different, and are used very differently.
Larry: The story that users and organizations are dropping older forms of messaging in favor of real-time work chat is just that – a story. I haven’t seen any quantified evidence to support that assertion. That is a problem that I want you and others at Gigaom Research to address through primary research in the next few months.
The work chat case studies I have seen largely involve small businesses, mostly startups or relatively young organizations, in the technology sector. It makes sense that they would be the early adopters of work chat technology and the work future principles it supports. However, I have yet to see compelling anecdotal (much less quantified) evidence that larger, established organizations are adopting work chat technology, even at the team level.
Many will question why we need technology Y when we already have technology X that works. Most people do not embrace change; they resist it. My point was exactly that: the few that actively and eagerly adopt work chat technology will be overshadowed by those who have little or no interest in using a new tool or working in a different way. The limited success of enterprise social software demonstrated that, and I believe we will see a repeat with work chat.
Stowe: I guess we will have to see what happens over the near-term with these tools, so let’s plan to revisit that in a few months.
Finally, you conclude that these tools will be dropped, just as soon as people come to their senses, writing

Enterprise real-time chat is destined to quickly fail as a market segment and technology with significant, positive business impact. Just like the combination of status update and activity stream features in enterprise social software failed to displace email, instant messaging and other, well-established forms of business communication.

Your rationale?

Insufficient technology is not the cause of poor communication within organizations. We have had at our disposal more-than-adequate messaging technologies for decades now. The real reason that employees and their organizations continue to communicate poorly is human behavior. People generally don’t communicate unless they have something to gain by doing so. Power, influence, prestige, monetary value, etc.

My counterargument is this: people are moving away from earlier ‘social collaboration’ solutions because those were geared to large social groups where much of the communication was infrequent (see There’s a quiet revolution pulling some numbers down, written about a year ago on this topic). These new work chat tools are geared to small workgroups that communicate frequently. They are designed for people to get work done, and not for companies to do ‘business’.  So, I don’t think this is a fad, and the trend will continue on.
Larry: You and I are actually more aligned in our thinking here than you may realize. For sure, the facilitation of frequent communication among a small, well-defined group of colleagues is where work chat technology excels. This is clearly in opposition to the way social technologies have been successfully used to find, query and communicate with formerly unknown coworkers swimming in the larger employee pool. Or as a communication channel between the company and its market.
Where I do disagree with you is in your assertion that “people are moving away from earlier ‘social collaboration’ solutions”. In fact, those solutions have seen very limited adoption in most organizations, so there is not much of a base to move away from. Those who have found that style of communication to be useful will continue to use social tools, just as those who have had success with instant messaging and email will stick with those communication methods.
As I stated above, work chat technology will be a very useful tool for some employees, particularly those working in a defined group that needs to communicate frequently. As long as it is working for those people, their company will continue to support work chat.
However, I’m nearly certain that work chat adoption will follow the pattern previously established by instant messaging and social status updates. Individuals (and, eventually, entire organizations) will excitedly rush to begin using work chat without understanding which use cases it best supports and what benefits it produces. As a result, disillusionment will grow with the technology and it will largely be abandoned, except by those who understood it in the first place. So, yes, work chat is a fad, and it will play out itself out in the coming months and years.

We will pick the thread of this discussion up again, in the months ahead. Gigaom Research will also be pursuing new research on this topic in the near-term, as well, to try to determine what people are doing out there with SLack and alternative work chat tools.