Welcome to the Post-Email Enterprise: what Skype Teams means in a Slack-Leaning World

Work technology vendors very commonly — for decades — have suggested that their shiny brand-new tools will deliver us from the tyranny of email. Today, we hear it from all sorts of tool vendors:

  • work management tools, like Asana, Wrike, and Trello, built on the bones of task manager with a layer of social communications grafted on top
  • work media tools, like Yammer, Jive, and the as-yet-unreleased Facebook for Work, build on social networking model, to move communications out of email, they say
  • and most prominently, the newest wave of upstarts, the work chat cadre have arrived, led by Atlassian’s Hipchat, but most prominently by the mega-unicorn Slack, a company which has such a strong gravitational field that it seems to have sucked the entire work technology ecosystem into the black hole around its disarmingly simple model of chat rooms and flexible integration.

Has the millennium finally come? Will this newest paradigm for workgroup communications unseat email, the apparently undisruptable but deeply unlovable technology at the foundation of much enterprise and consumer communication?
Well, a new announcement hit my radar screen today, and I think that we may be at a turning point. In the words of Winston Churchill, in November 1942 after the Second Battle of El Alamein, when it seemed clear that the WWII allies would push Germany from North Africa,

Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.

And what is this news that suggests to me we may be on the downslope in the century-long reign of email?
Microsoft is apparently working on a response to Slack, six months after the widely reported termination of discussions of acquisition. There has been a great deal of speculation about Microsoft’s efforts in this area, especially considering the now-almost-forgotten acquisition of Yammer (see Why Yammer Deal Makes Sense, and it did make sense in 2012). However, after that acquisition, Microsoft — and especially Bill Gates, apparently — believed they would be better off building Slackish capabilities into an existing Microsoft brand. But, since Yammer is an unloved product inside of the company, now, the plan was to build these capabilities into something that the company has doubled down on. So now we see Slack Teams, coming soon.
Microsoft may be criticized for maybe attempting to squish too much into the Skype wrapper with Skype Teams, but we’ll have to see how it all works together. It is clear that integrated video conferencing is a key element of where work chat is headed, so Microsoft would have had to come up with that anyway. And Skype certainly has the rest of what is needed for an enterprise work chat platform, and hundreds of millions of email users currently on Exchange and Office 365.
The rest of the details will have to wait for actual hands on inspection (so far, I have had only a few confidential discussions with Microsofties), but an orderly plan for migration away from email-centric work technologies to a work chat-centric model coming from Microsoft means it’s now mainstream, not a bunch of bi-coastal technoids. This will be rolled out everywhere.
So, we are moving into a new territory, a time where work chat tools will become the super dominant workgroup communications platform of the next few decades. This means that the barriers to widespread adoption will have to be resolved, most notably, work chat interoperability.
Most folks don’t know the history of email well enough to recall that at one time email products did not interconnect: my company email could not send an email to your company email. However, the rise of the internet and creation of international email protocols led to a rapid transition, so that we could stop using Compuserve and AOL to communicate outside the company.
It was that interoperability that led to email’s dominance in work communications, and similarly, it will take interoperability of work chat to displace it.
In this way, in the not-too-distant future, my company could be using Slack while yours might be using Skype Teams. I could invite you and your team to coordinate work in a chat channel I’ve set up, and you would be able to interact with me and mine.
If the world of work technology is to avoid a collapse into a all-encompassing monopoly with Slack at the center of it, we have to imagine interoperability will emerge relatively quickly. Today’s crude integrations — where Zapier or IFTTT copy new posts in Hipchat to a corresponding channel in Slack — will quickly be replaced by protocols that all competitive solutions will offer. And Skype is that irritant that will motivate all these giants to make a small peace around interoperability, in order to be able to play nice with Slack.
We’ll have to see the specifics of Skype Teams, and where Facebook at Work is headed. Likewise, all internet giants — including Apple, Google, and Amazon — seem to be quietly consolidating their market advantages in file sync-and-share, cloud computing, social networks, and mobile devices. Will we see a Twitter for Work, for example, after a Google acquisition? Surely Google Inbox and Google+ aren’t the last work technologies that Alphabet intends for us? How might Slack fit into Amazon’s designs? That might surprise a lot of people.
But no matter the specifics, we are certainly on the downslopes of the supremacy of email. We may have to wait an additional 50 years for its last gasping breath, but we’re now clearly in the chat (and work chat) era of human communications, and there’s no turning back.

Work Management in Theory: Context

This is an excerpt of the upcoming report, Work Management Narrative, in which I will be reviewing around a dozen products, including Asana, Azendoo, Basecamp, Clarizen, Fleep, Flow, Liquid Planner, Mavenlink, Smartsheet, Trello, Work Front, Wrike, Zoho Projects and others.


Work Management in Theory: Context

Work management is a term that has emerged in recent years as task management tools were enhanced with various social communication capabilities, principally derived from design motifs from work media tools. This increase of capabilities — and the resulting overlap of work management capabilities with those of work media tools — means that trying to assess the trends that are prevalent  in work management really require stepping back. Today, there are a wide range of approaches to supporting cooperative work in the workplace, and they have many features in common. So, in many instances, groups or companies evaluating tools for  team cooperation may consider offerings that are very different in their underlying design, and require correspondingly different approaches to their use.

The Lay of the Landscape

Here’s a table that attempts to make sense of a variety of technologies that are used in business to support cooperative work. It is not exhaustive, but I hope it will clarify some of the distinctions between these classes of tools. At the same time, there is a great deal of overlap so some degree of confusion is inevitable.
Screen Shot 2016-03-24 at 2.37.22 PM
Today, there are a wide range of approaches to support cooperative work in the workplace, and they have many features in common. So, in many instances, groups or companies evaluating tools for team cooperation may consider offerings that are very different in their underlying design, and require correspondingly different approaches to their use.The primary distinction here is the degree of emphasis for task-centric versus message-centric tools. Those that we will focus on in this report are task-centric, even though there have to include some fundamental level of social communication to be considered work management tools. So for example, Todoist is a leading team task management tool, widely used in business. However, the tool lacks social communication aside from comments (‘notes’) associated with tasks: Todoist does not support messaging, discussions, activity streams, or ‘call outs’ (also called ‘@mentions’). While tasks can be assigned to others by the task creator, there is no other way that users can reference each other, or ‘talk’. And at the least social level of task management, personal task management tools don’t allow even the most basic level of business-oriented task assignment. As a result, team task management tools are not covered in this report, although Gigaom may develop a report like this one for that market, at some time in the future.
Work management tools share a lot of similarities with various message-centric work technologies. Note that I have divided the message-centric tools into two sorts:

  1. Follow centric — like Yammer, where the primary orientation of messaging is around following of message sources, and messages are primarily displayed in activity streams based on the user choosing who and what to follow.
  2. Chat centric — such as Slack, where the primary orientation of message is around chat rooms, or channels, and messages are principally displayed in those contexts when the user chooses to’ join’ or ‘enter’ them.

Some work media tools provide a degree of  task management, although it may not be the primary focus of the tool. And, as a general case, products like Jive, Yammer, and IBM Connections have little or no native task management, relying instead on integration with third party solutions. Likewise, many leading work chat offerings, like Slack and Hipchat, don’t have native task management, also relying instead on integration with task management tools, like Asana and Jira.
Lastly, the class of tools I refer to as workforce communications (like Lua, Avaamo, Fieldwire, and Sitrion One) have characteristics that are like those of work media and work chat tools, but are principally oriented toward communications management with an increasingly mobile contingent of the out-of-office ‘hard’ workforce, such as construction, retail and restaurant workers, field sales, security, and others.
At the bottom tier of the table in figure 1 are tools that are not principally oriented toward business use, like personal task management (Todoist, and Google Tasks), social media (Facebook, and Twitter), and consumer chat apps (Facebook M, and WhatsApp). This are widely used in business contexts, although they aren’t geared for it. Note however that this doesn’t mean that they couldn’t be recast as team or work oriented tools, like the trajectory of Facebook for Work.
There are other less-closely related work technologies that are also not investigated here, like curation tools, conferencing tools, and so called ‘productivity’ tools (like Microsoft Office 365, Dropbox Paper, and Google Docs/Sheets/Slides). These, again, are candidates for inclusion in another report.


Next week, I will be posting another excerpt from the report. 

Atlassian’s IPO is just part of its lofty goal for the workplace

One of Silicon Valley’s “unicorns” (that is, a tech company valued at over $1 billion), Atlassian is the company behind JIRA, HipChat, Confluence and BitBucket, all of which are aimed at making collaborative efforts within companies easier and more efficient. The company is one of Silicon Valley’s oft-fabled “unicorns” — that is, a company for which the valuation has surpassed the $1 billion dollar mark — and last week the company saw its shares jumping over the initial price of $21 to just over $27, where it has held for the most part. 

Atlassian was founded in 2002 and specializes in workplace software. Most of their products are aimed at streamlining workplace communication and simplifying collaboration in teams. 

HipChat, one of its most popular products, is an email-buster comparable to Slack that brings ongoing correspondence out of lengthy email threads and into a simple chat interface shared by teams and departments within a company. JIRA Software is a project-tracking software development tool. JIRA Service Desk is a task management platform that allows teams to coordinate the living, breathing, changing tasks that often become the foibles of service teams everywhere.

From BBC to Adobe and NVIDIA to Land Rover, Atlassian products are used by over fifty thousand teams worldwide. Which is great, but ultimately just the tip of the iceberg where the company’s concerned. With the successful IPO under their belts, Atlassian’s chasing down some seriously lofty goals.

“Our mission, ultimately, is to have every employee inside of every company using Atlassian products every day,” says Atlassian President Jay Simons. “And when you consider that there’s more than 800 million knowledge workers around the world, that’s a pretty big ambition and it’ll take a while to get there. The IPO doesn’t really change that. That’s basically been a goal of the company since inception.” 

A pretty big ambition, indeed. But it’s a pretty big market, too, and it’s no secret that email’s not particularly well-suited to the way that we work today. Inboxes that tend to get cluttered paired with our own abysmal skills when it comes to staying on top of the constant digital deluge, email’s become something of a dirty word in some circles. 

Though email’s something of a necessary evil that likely won’t be going anywhere (no matter how much I wish the opposite were true), Atlassian products exist largely to bring conversations and collaborative efforts that don’t belong in our inboxes into more appropriate arenas. Even with fifty thousand companies already onboard, there are still thousands of teams stuck in the cluttered trenches of email-only communication.

“I think there’s a tremendous amount of white space across teams with a lot of inefficient use of email,” says Simons. “I don’t think email’s going away anytime soon because it is an effective way to direct certain kinds of communication to people, but I do think that when you use our products, your inbox becomes a lot smarter, more directed and more appropriate for what email’s good at.” 

In Simons’ eyes, the successful IPO signals a recognition that what Atlassian’s doing is not only working, but that there’s room to grow—more tasks to manage, more email chains to prevent, more projects completed on-time with fewer hiccups and dropped balls. The way we work is changing, and the response yesterday would seem to suggest that Atlasssian’s going to be around to usher in some of these changes in the way we get things done.

“I think that the market and the investor enthusiasm recognizes that we’ve built a pretty special company,” says Simons, “and also recognizes that there’s a big opportunity in front of 800 million knowledge workers worldwide and teams all over the place that are trying to figure out how to work better together.” 

New collaboration tool TABLE is Slack, LinkedIn, & Upwork all-in-one

Communicating with people is hard. Or at least, it can be. Particularly when everyone isn’t in the same room, timezone, or (same) page. I can hear your cries now, bellowing, “That’s why there’s email!” and I would be inclined to agree with you, but email sucks. A lot. That’s why we have Slack and HipChat, which is great for those working primarily at a single organization, but not necessarily for those primarily doing freelance.

Now meet TABLE, a new web-based collaboration tool/platform launching this week in private beta that aims to be an all-in-one for distributed teams, freelancers, and occasional collaborators. Basically if you spend your days doing contract work for many different businesses, this service is worth keeping an eye on.

Table diverges from the recognizable structure of popular enterprise chat systems like Slack and Hipchat by splitting up into three basic portions: tables, people, and discover. The service is essentially divided into these three categories, with each breaking down into several key modules or “micro services” that can be customized to make sense for each project.

“Our approach, even towards the architecture of our web application, is micro services,” says Table CEO and cofounder Cristian Petschen. “We’re not really about the communication tool itself. We’re about connecting people, and being able to build your trusted collaborator network.”

Table lets you connect to people who have individual profiles on the platform, regardless of where they work. You can message them privately, invite them to a Table (which, functions similarly to Slack Channels and HipChat rooms), add them to your Inner Circle, or bring them into a Room. (Rooms function similarly to Teams in Slack and HipChat in that they allow you to bring people and Tables together, but you’re not tethered to a room for collaboration.)

Table isn’t just chat, though. Instead, its purpose is to give you options for communication as it makes sense to a particular project or task via the aforementioned micro services and modules. Some of these will be rolling out as Table moves out of the private beta and into the launch phase, but eventually users will be able to rate each other on performance, make voice calls, and even send and pay invoices directly through Table’s platform.

This brings us to Table’s other two primary categories: People and Discover, which allow you to manage current contacts or find new collaborators based on your professional network.

While LinkedIn has something of a stranglehold on the professional networking game, it’s not exactly a great place for getting things done or finding qualified collaborators for specific projects. Table wants to give users some of the functionality of LinkedIn with a network, but make it possible for people who don’t know one another to connect much like they do through sites like Upwork (formally Elance-oDesk).

“It’s going to be LinkedIn and more in that sense, because you can also put your projects up and people can look at your projects and the work that you’ve done,”Petschen says. “Since you’re collaborating on the platform, it’s not only what you say about yourself, but also what you’re doing. [Table] knows what subjects you’re working on, who you’re coming together with, and it has a much better idea of who you are.”

While Table is still in private beta, you can sign up to get on the waiting list.