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 Processing’ and the decline of the (Wordish) Document

I’ve been exploring a growing list of web-based tools for the creation and management of what most would call ‘documents’ — assemblages of text, images, lists, embedded video, audio and other media — but which, are in fact, something quite different than the precursors, like Microsoft Word and Apple Pages documents.
The big shift underlying these new tools is that they are not oriented around printing onto paper, or digital analogues of paper, like PDF. Instead, they take as a given that the creation, management, and sharing of these assemblages of information will take place nearly all the time online, and will be social at the core: coediting, commenting, and sharing are not afterthoughts grafted onto a ‘work processing’ architecture. As a result, I am referring to these tools — like the pioneering Google Docs, and newer entrants Dropbox Paper, Quip, Draft, and Notionas ‘work processing’ tools. This gets across the idea that we aren’t just pushing words onto paper through agency of word processing apps, we’re capturing and sharing information that’s critical to our increasingly digital businesses, to be accessed and leveraged in digital-first use cases.
In a recent piece on Medium, Documents are the new Email, I made the case that old style ‘documents’ are declining as a percentage of overall work communications, with larger percentages shifting to chat, texting, and work media (enterprise social networks). And, like email, documents are increasingly disliked as a means to communicate. And I suggested that, over time, these older word processing documents — and the use cases that have built up around them — will decline.
At the same time, I believe there is a great deal of promise in ‘work processing‘ tools, which are based around web publishing, web notions of sharing and co-creation, and the allure of content-centric work management.
Screen Shot 2016-06-08 at 11.19.25 AM
Chat-centric work management, as typified by Slack-style work chat, is getting a tremendous surge in attention recently, and is the now dominant form of message-centric work technology, edging out follow-centric work media solutions (like Yammer, Jive, and IBM Connections).
Workforce communications — relying on a more top-down messaging approach for the mobile workforce — is enjoying a great surge in adoption, but is principally oriented toward the ‘hardwork’ done by workers in retail, manufacturing, transport, security, and construction, and away from the ‘softwork’ done by office workers. This class of tool is all about mobile messaging. (Note: we are planning a market narrative about this hot area.)
Today’s Special
Today, I saw that David Byttow’s Bold — a new work processing app — has entered a private beta, with features that line it up in direct competition with Google Docs and the others mentioned above. Bold raised a round of $1 million from Index Ventures in January 2016.
The competition is hotting up.
Work Processing Will Be The New Normal
What I anticipate is the convergence on a work processing paradigm, with at least these features:

  • Work processing ‘docs’ will exist as online assemblages, and not as ‘files’. As a result they will be principally shared through links, access rights, or web publishing, and not as attachments, files, or PDFs, except when exported by necessity.
  • Work processing apps will incorporate some metaphors from word processing like styling text, manipulating various sorts of lists, sections, headings, and so on.
  • Work processing will continue the notions of sharing and co-editing from early pioneers (Google Docs in particular), like edit-oriented comments, sharing through access-control links, and so on.
  • Work processing will lift ideas from work chat tools, such as bots, commands, and @mentions.
  • Work processing will adopt some principles from task management, namely tasks and related metadata, which can be embedded within work processing content, added in comments or other annotations, or appended to ‘docs’ or doc elements by participants through work chat-style bot or chat communications.

I am pressed for time today, and can’t expand on these ideas with examples, but I plan to do so quite soon in a companion post to this, called Work Processing: Coming soon to a ‘Doc’ near you.

Evernote backing out of Work Chat, but committed to ‘Deep Work’

Evernote Work Chat

Casey Newman interviews Chris O’Neill, Evernote’s newish CEO — he’s been there a year now — in a far-ranging interview, and with regard to Evernote’s push into the work chat marketplace with Evernote Work Chat, it looks like the product is going to be retired as soon as replacement partnerships can be developed.

Casey Newman: So let’s talk about business. Evernote invested significantly in a feature called Work Chat, which allows for collaboration around individual notes. But it doesn’t seem like the company has gotten much of a foothold. How will you tackle the business market? Should we expect the company will orient itself more toward collaboration uses?

Chris O’Neill: No. It’s important to not try to be all things to all people. You have Slack, you have Hipchat. That’s a well-served market. Let’s just politely say, collaboration and chat is well served. So I don’t see it as, we need to try to do everything. If we do well with frictionless capture of ideas, and world-class search and retrieval, I think we can partner with a lot of other players. Collaboration is a fact, but it doesn’t necessarily mean we have to carry all the water. I’d just as soon do some integrations and partnerships to fill out that part of it.

Good timing, especially since the Internet monsters are all paying close attention to Slack’s rise, and tools like Facebook At Work are in beta.

Still, I was intrigued by the discussion around ‘collaboration overload’ and the role of ‘note taking’ in the article:

Chris O’Neill: Our place is as relevant today as it was when Stepan [Pachikov] started the company 10 years ago. Our market’s growing. The globalization of the economy has led to more knowledge workers — that’s good for us. Smartphone penetration continues to grow, albeit at a lower rate. That’s good for us, too. And the other thing, which may sound counterintuitive, is that it isn’t just information overload — it’s collaboration overload. It’s good that we’re working across borders and functions, and silos are coming down. The bad part is that it’s crowding out to time to actually think, and do what some people call “deep work” — the ability to focus on a task for more than 15, 20 minutes at a time. Deep work is the killer app of the knowledge economy, and Evernote is the killer app for deep work. It allows you to capture your ideas and cultivate them.

Casey Newman: That rings true for me. We need one great place to capture the knowledge in our lives, and then I think there’s a lot of opportunity in helping people easily manipulate that and turn it into other things. Whether it’s turning numbers into charts, or turning text into HTML. There needs to be a central repository. And it’s not email, or Dropbox, or Slack.

Chris O’Neill: It’s interesting — Forrester or IDC, they don’t have a category for “note-taking.” But we intuitively know, you have groups like students and knowledge workers that basically take notes for a living. So we think the market is real, and we think it’s big. And we think there’s an opportunity, to your point, to connect it to action.

I’ve been writing a lot recently about content-based work management, so I have to say I agree that ‘note taking’ is a less understood and less examined technology area, one that is at the core of ‘deep work’.

Cross-posted on workfutures.io.

The Rise of Work Chat Anti-Hype

Jason Fried

Jason Fried of Basecamp is only the most recent to come out stronglycondemning the hype around work chat, and perhaps, the leading protagonist in the market: Slack. He enumerates a short list of positives (4), and then a staggeringly long list of negatives (17). I will synthesize his points down to these: work chat is good for quick-and-dirty, once-in-awhile discussions, and for team building, but the costs are considerable, since work chat is tiring, obsessive, interruptive, and leads to focusing people’s attention on the near-term, while fracturing our concentration on what’s really important.

Fried’s mantra is ‘real-time sometimes, asynchronous most of the time’, which I completely buy. I am also a big fan of his recommendation that people should break out of unproductive chat mazes, and ‘write it up’ instead. Long form writing can break the chain of opinionated chatifying, and lead to a basis for deliberative reasoning.

Go read it. I’ll wait.

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.

But, as in other recent pieces about Slack (see Samuel Hulick’s Why I’m breaking up with Slack), Fried never explicitly discusses the sizes of the groups using work chat, and how group size may factor into the negatives these authors describe.

My thesis is that work chat works best in the context of small teams, which I call sets, groups of less than 10 or 12. 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.

Sets are characterized by small group social dynamics. There is frequent and reciprocal communication, so a member can post a request for help and get a response quickly, for example. There is a greater degree of trust than larger groups, in general. There is a greater likelihood of strong interpersonal connection — strong ties — than out-of-set relationships.

There are few who would advocate a massive chat room of 100,000 employees palavering with each other to steer a company, but we are making more of less the same mistake — social crowding — when we allow 25 people to argue product strategy in a Slack channel. It’s a difference only of scale, and the same error: applying a communication tool that does not work well at the scale of the social group.

But if a set of nine marketing folks is joined by (invaded by?) a dozen out-of-set members in a Slack channel where the marketers are trying to get their work done, the dynamics can go sideways. There is greater noise in the channel as the interlopers raise questions, throw their opinions around, and take sides in discussions. This crowding is worse that the noise, since the ‘tourists’ can lead to a decrease in the benefits of tight, in-group dynamics, and a hollowing out of purpose and shared goals.

So there are several threads that follow from social crowding:

  • Social norms have to be expressly promoted to keep chat channel populations low, if they are going to be the site of effective team work. (Note: I mean the work done by teams, not the somewhat nebulous, rah-rah term on the posters in the lunchroom.)
  • Chat is not the only sort of social mechanism that we should apply to work communications, and specifically, when we look at larger-then-set social groups there are better ways to communicate. We do much of our work as soloists and set members, but we are also members of larger scenes — groups of up to 150 more or less, made up of networks of sets. Effective communications at that level require more than — or other than — chat. Consider Fried’s suggestion toward a synchronous long-form ‘writing it down’ as just one example.
  • This is a specific instance of the general issue of ‘work as a commons’. The folks that naturally most closely tied to some definable work activities — like our marketing team, above — should have the largest say in how their work is performed, and the decision-making about their work practices. That’s what they share in common. While those farther from that work — the freeloaders that are crowding the chat with their noise, interruptions, and influence — should be kept from the set’s workings if that interaction is negative.

In the long run, vendors like Slack and its competitors will need to create a multi-scale suite of communications approaches that align with social groupings. Work chat may be best suited for much of what sets need, and other approaches — like we see in enterprise social networks (work media), work management tools, and workforce communications solutions — are likely to be better suited to work at the scene level, or the enterprise scale, the scale of networks of scenes, or spheres.

There are few who would advocate a massive chat room of 100,000 employees palavering with each other to steer a company, but we are making more of less the same mistake — social crowding — when we allow 25 people to argue product strategy in a Slack channel. It’s a difference only of scale, and the same error: applying a communication tool that does not work well at the scale of the social group.

Originally published at stoweboyd.com and workfutures.io on 8 March 2016.

Q&A about Enterprise Social Networks with IBM

IBM sent some questions following the recent IBM Connect conference. They are based on some unwritten assumptions that I disagree with, which will become evident in my response.

Here’s the questions:

  1. What is your definition of a successful social enterprise?
  2. Why do companies consider forming an enterprise-wide social network and what are the biggest benefits?
  3. How are enterprise social networks used to share knowledge and increase innovation?
  4. What hurdles do organizations face when implementing an enterprise social network? How can you overcome these hurdles?
  5. How do you see enterprise social networks evolving over the next 5 years?

Some answers:

Q1: What is your definition of a successful social enterprise?

A1. The idea of a ‘successful social enterprise’ is simple if you approach it superficially. In that case you simply define ‘success’ as some degree of adoption of social tools, and the harvesting of their purported benefits based on the network effects of social integration. A richer, and more nuanced definition requires a deep dive into significant changes in people’s aspirations, corporate values, and dispersal of tech platforms that underwrite new ways of work, not just new ways to communicate. (But this is not the place for that book to be written.)

A sense that the promise of social collaboration has failed is the backdrop for many companies and teams moving to try work chat-based solutions, and the resurgence in the use of email. — Stowe Boyd

Q2: Why do companies consider forming an enterprise-wide social network and what are the biggest benefits?

A2. There is actually a large-scale migration away from the now-mainstream model of ‘social business = a company using enterprise social network as platform for communication, collaboration, and coordination’. A sense that the promise of social collaboration has failed is the backdrop for many companies and teams moving to try work chat-based solutions, and the resurgence in the use of email, now somewhat socialized (like IBM Verse and Microsoft Office 365).

Q3: How are enterprise social networks used to share knowledge and increase innovation?

A3. Information sharing (mistakenly called ‘knowledge sharing’) is one of the most direct benefits of social platforms, of whatever kind. They decrease the costs involved, and the social motifs — like following, @mentions, and topical activity streams — have revolutionized how we think about working together. I think increasing innovation is a separate, but immensely important issue. Tools need to stand out of the way, drop into the near background, so that innovation can happen: they don’t engender creativity, per se.

In a few years the inroads made by touch, voice, gesture, and surreality will have profound impacts on how people at work choose to communicate. — Stowe Boyd

Q4: What hurdles do organizations face when implementing an enterprise social network? How can you overcome these hurdles?

A4. The hurdles of adopting any innovation — like a new communications or information platform for business — are consistently the same. First, people differ to the degree they are psychologically disposed toward adoption of new technologies and techniques (and the values that come along with them). So-called innovators — Ed Rogers’ term — are quick to adopt, and the laggards are most averse, and the rest of us are distributed in between in other groups: early adopters, early majority, and late majority. That’s the nature of people. Each group has its own set of concerns and considerations that slow adoption to a greater or lesser extent. This is independent of the specifics of any technology or the dynamics of any company, and dominates The Diffusion of Innovations, which is why Everett Rogers named his magisterial book that.

In the case of ESNs, adoption has been problematic because the benefits are difficult to quantify, are slow to be realized (if at all), and the established alternatives (like email) are deeply embedded in business practices and processes. This has been so slow a process that innovators and early adopters are jumping the curve and moving onto new approaches before the majority has adopted the old ones. So ESNs are already a lap behind in the communications platform foot race.

Q5. How do you see enterprise social networks evolving over the next 5 years?

A5. The continued acceleration toward mobile, wearables, and augmented and virtual reality (or surreality, as I call it) will mean even more of a migration away from desktop/laptop use and the decline of ‘desktop’ motifs. In a few years the inroads made by touch, voice, gesture, and surreality will have profound impacts on how people at work choose to communicate. Added to the rapid rise of AI assistants (or assistance, depending on your view), the premises of ‘working together’ will change as much as the Web has done, already. So, while we will still be working in social networks in five years — we are human beings after all — we will be unlikely to be using platforms based on the design and organizing principles of what we call ESNs, today.

 Cross-posted from medium and stoweboyd.com on 8 February 2016.

Work chat Fleep’s slash commands, tasks, and email integration

2016-01-19: Updated with some corrections. Strikeouts indicated former erroneous material now amended or deleted, and italics show new explanations.

I’ve been closely watching the development of work chat vendor Fleep, and since I reviewed the product in August (see Work chat tool Fleep has native task management: Is that a key feature, or just nice to have?) the company has addressed so many areas I won’t try to cover them all, I’ll let them do that for you.
I am just going to focus on the slash commands, tasks, and email integration.
Slash commands — Fleep’s chat (or ‘conversations’ as they call them), support a number of commands that are preceded by a slash (‘/’):

/pin <message> — create a new pinned message
/task <message> — create a new task message
/taskto @someone — create and assign a new task
/bug <message> — create a new bug report task with ((bug))
/add <email> — add new members to the conversation
/kick <email> — remove members from the conversation
/leave — leave conversation

When these are used in the context of a chat, when a chat message with a leading command is posted, the action is taken. In the screenshot below, I have just invited Doppelganger Jones to the AdjectiveNoun conversation, assigned him a task ‘please write up a plan’, and I have formed a new chat message at the bottom to create a second task also assigned to him.
Screen Shot 2016-01-18 at 2.10.54 PM
Here’s the task pane opened after those tasks were created.
Screen Shot 2016-01-18 at 2.11.26 PM
One of the weaknesses of Fleep’s task model is that the tasks have very little metadata. I can understand why they might not need comments or notes — it’s a chat app, after all — but due dates are fairly essential.
Tasks are completed by checking the task box. I found it odd that pinning a task — which moves a message to the top of the chat window and stops it from scrolling away — leads to the task losing its ‘taskness’: it becomes just another message. Odd.
Documents can be added to the conversation — including Google and Dropbox docs — but these aren’t attached to messages or tasks: they’re just dropped into the chat. And one or more documents/files can be added to messages or tasks.
Screen Shot 2016-01-18 at 2.13.16 PM
Once added, they also show up in the ‘Files’ pane, the one with the paperclip icon.
Screen Shot 2016-01-18 at 2.14.23 PM
Personally, I might have designed them to do both. That limitation seems particularly irksome with tasks.
It’s great that Fleep tasks (and messages) can have attachments, since passing along a description of the work to be done, or a document to be approved are commonplace activities.
Also note in this case I was trying to attach a Google doc, but somehow Fleep instead creates and attaches a PDF of the doc. So my colleagues on Fleep can’t use this as a way to open and coedit the Google doc, but just to look at an immediately out-of-date pdf of the doc. This is dumb. If I were actually using Fleep in production I would copy and paste URLs to docs, instead. And Fleep provides a text markup for that, in this form:

link<<text>>adds an inline link with the text in the angled brackets

And that works really well, in fact:
Screen Shot 2016-01-19 at 10.01.45 AM Screen Shot 2016-01-19 at 10.02.01 AM
Clicking on the preview or the URL link opens the Google doc, and since I copied a share URL that allows for editing, my colleagues would be able to view, comment, and or edit the Google doc, in place.
Returning to tasks, the task pane can include ‘sections’ that can be used to arrange tasks into subsets.
Screen Shot 2016-01-18 at 2.49.17 PM
I like the capability to layout the sections in this way, and when coupled with the ability to ‘clone’ conversations, teams could create and reuse project templates to help regularize the work in project conversations. Too bad that the ‘clone’ function for projects only copies the set of contributors, and doesn’t include — for example — the tasks defined in the conversation. If it did, teams could create and reuse project templates to help regularize the work in project conversations. Alas, not today.
Fleep now supports ‘@mentions’, so that I can alert others to messages, like ‘Can someone take a look at the timeline in this doc to check it’s up to date? https://docs.google.com/document/d/1bwF55zWtnJOtUsDheIoRgwmC7Geq7ZVcT9Ho-UYnd3w/edit?usp=sharing<<Report>> @doppelganger.jones’.
Note that the user identity in Fleep for Fleep users is an email address:
Screen Shot 2016-01-18 at 2.57.33 PM
This is by design. Fleep is tightly integrated with email, so that non-Fleep users can be invited to conversations simply by adding their email. If they aren’t a Fleep user, they can participate through email. This leads to all messages — including tasks — being sent to them, and their responses showing up in the conversation. Emailed tasks just look like messages at present, so email only participants can’t check them off, for example.
More importantly to me is that emails directed to Fleep aren’t treated as tasks but as messages, although they can be converted to tasks. And the model is that a new conversation is created with the other person for these emails. There is no way to direct them to an existing conversation. That’s a different slant than I am used to, from tools like Todoist.

I have not  touched on all features of the tool, but probably enough to get a sense for what using it feels like. Fleep is at core, a classic work chat tool, based on contextual conversation (see Contextual conversation: Work chat will dominate collaboration). Unlike leading competitors, however, Fleep has integrated task management.
At the same time, the limits on Fleep’s task model would chafe anyone who believes that richer capabilities are essential — like multiple assignment, subtasks, due dates, start dates, notes, comments, attachments, and so on. However, the fact that tasks and other messages can be brought back into context when looking at a task by selecting ‘show in conversation’ does counter some of the issues with notes, comments, and attachments, so long as they are in fact truly contextualized.
I hacked a link from a task to a day on my Google Calendar to represent a due date, but that just indicates the direction they might take if they start thinking about due dates and calendar integration. Here’s the edit for the task:
Screen Shot 2016-01-19 at 9.51.54 AM
And here’s how it renders:Screen Shot 2016-01-19 at 9.53.13 AM
This manual approach is just too much work, although I certainly could get the first order benefits simply by putting the due date in the text of a task.
Obviously, I’d rather have a calendar integration so that tasks with due dates would automatically show on my Google Calendar, and so would anyone else, I bet.
If the team at Fleep continue their development at the breakneck pace of 2015, they may in fact be countering some of these issues, and their focus on integration with a wide spectrum of developer tools seems to represent the same arc of adoption that we saw first with Hipchat, and later with Slack. We should anticipate the same disperal pattern, where the developers in a company infect non-developers with the ease of use and depth of the developers’ work chat platform, and they in turn begin to infect other non-developers across the company and the company’s ecosystem.

Triangulating on Conversus: forecasting a Next Work model

an open Gigaom Research brief

taxa: Next Work, Triangulation, Conversus, Work Chat, Futures

I gave a talk the other day for the Enterprise Digital Summit 2015 in London. I was in Austin, so we did the talk via Skype, which is not a first for me, but it was the first time I ever gave a talk at 3:30am.
It was the night after Back to the Future Day — Marty and Doc traveled to Wednesday Oct 21 2015 in part 2 of the series — so it was good day to talk about the future of the organization, or the future of anything, I guess.
Here’s an annotated version of the slides, with something like the rap I gave when walking through the presentation.

2015 Enterprise Digital Summit
I’ve written a great deal over the past few years about the new era — the new economy — that we are now living and working in, which I refer to as the Postnormal. I use that term to avoid the clunky formulation of ‘post-postmodern’, but it’s a synonym for all intents and purposes.
The postnormal is when the truisms and premises of the postmodern world begin to unravel, and by 2005 — with the rise of the social web and the movement into a connected but increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world order — it had started to be clear that we had moved into a time where there was no normal, anymore.
But today we are focusing just on where business organization is headed, in these early days of the postnormal era.

2015 Enterprise Digital Summit (2)
I’m trying to intuit the lineaments of possible futures, not ‘the future’ in scare quotes.
I think like a futurist, which is really just saying ‘I am a human being’. But more specifically, I like to create narratives about potential futures, to help others — and me — think more structurally about the future. But I’m not in the fortune-telling game.

2015 Enterprise Digital Summit (5)
One of the things that we have to realize is that we have to escape our conceptual blinders to think about possible futures, and that is harder — as Keynes points out — than dreaming up new ideas.

2015 Enterprise Digital Summit (6)
Triangulation is a trend analysis and forecasting technique, one that I am making central to the consulting, analysis, and research going on at Gigaom Research.
We employ the three-way juxtaposition of technology, trends, and people to help structure our thinking, and the way we analyze alternatives with clients and in our research.

2015 Enterprise Digital Summit (7)
They all influence each other in messy ways. Messy is good. The world is messy, so the closer you get, the messier things are.

2015 Enterprise Digital Summit (8)
Here’s an extended example leading toward our focus, the postnormal organization. The technology is cotech (all work technologies that are about sharing: co-editing, collaboration, co-curation, etc.).
The trend we’ve selected for this scenario is the movement toward more autonomy, which is a characteristic of agile, distributed, and/or high performance work.
This trend has led to new requirements/motifs/use cases for cotech.
One of the key differences is that more autonomy for individuals and teams is a decrease in the focus on managerial oversight versus peered ‘undersight’. In such use cases we see a need for ways to increase sousveillance (bottom-up awareness of what others are doing), and a decrease in managerial surveillance. Or as I characterize it, little brother, not big brother.

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On the People vertex of our Triangulation, this primarily plays at the social scale I call sets: small known networks that communicate frequently and reciprocally, like small work groups, or families. I have written about social scale in depth in other posts (see Understanding the failed promise of ‘social collaboration’ and Sets, scenes, and worlds: understanding social scale in the organization).

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In aggregate, we arrive at what I call a scenario: a triangulation on the cross influences of the selected technology, trend, and people as a way to examine what’s happening right now or in the near-term future. This forms a baseline to then create forecasts about the more distant future.
Note: cotech tools implicitly limit what they ‘think’ is important by what they allow users to capture and share. But they can be successful even by avoiding making conventions explicit, like work chat’s weak support for greater autonomy.

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We can hypothesize a change in the scenario over some time frame, leading to a forecast. In this case, a forecast I call Conversus.
The thought here is this: imagine that the liberalizing influence of greater autonomy at the team level (‘sets’) may have an impact over time at the company level (‘spheres’), which may lead to increasingly democratic management disciplines. This could be characterized as one of the features of ‘postnormal’ management disciplines.
This change in management thinking and behavior — and the likely distribution of decision-making to larger networks — reflects back on other aspects of the triangulation. In particular, cotech vendors may start to more explicitly support that sort of decision-making at a greater than team scale, where the changes in is more implicit.
This is a forecast, since it is a projection from a current day or near-term scenario to something longer range, like 3-5 years out, as in this case. We also explicitly change one or more of the factors, in this case changing social scale of the cotech and autonomy to company-wide.
As I mentioned, this is the forecast I am calling Conversus, a coinage intended to indicate a balance of consensus and dissent in postnormal work philosophy.
That shift represents a movement away from ‘charismatic’ and ‘traditional authority’ to ‘legal/rational authority’, as characterized by the political philosopher Max Weber in The Three Types of Legitimate Rule (1922). I like how Dana Williams characterized it,

When I discuss Conversus, I mean an organizational culture grounded in the principles of ‘commons’ thinking, where the resources of the company — including labor — are treated as shared by the members of the company, but subject to rules intended to counter destructive overuse.

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Conversus is not Holacracy by a different name. It’s quite different. Instead of a system that rigorously leads to relative consensus on policy based on tightly choreographed decision-making, Conversus is built around autonomy and cooperation.
But this is only a forecast: we will have to wait to see the form that any triangulated forecast will take in reality, if it does occur at all.
Best to think of forecasts as primarily designed to make us think about the future in a structured way, not to predict it.
I don’t pretend to know the specifics of hypothetical implementations of technological platforms that might support Conversus-style organizations, but I don’t think I’ve seen anything like that yet.
(I will be expanding on Conversus and the postnormal organization in other writings over the next weeks and months, I am sure.)


So, two things going on here:

  1. A brief introduction to Triangulation: a scenario and forecasting technique for Lego-izing the future. Triangulation is like a Tinkertoy modeling set, for fooling around with constructing, analyzing, and deconstructing futures. As you can see it has a sort of algebra or set-theoretic notation that can be used to spark thinking and pose questions. (What does this — {Cotech U IoT, ^Mobility, World}, or, in English, the convergence of cotech and the Internet of Things plus increased mobility, operating at the scale of our entire society — make you think of? Don’t be scared! There are no wrong answers, but there are hundreds of plausible forecasts that could be spun.)
  2. At Gigaom Research, I will be leading a push to develop two dozen or so scenarios and forecasts to help organize how we segregate and aggregate our research and writing. So Conversus and Work Chat will be two themes — or taxa (from taxonomy) — we will be returning to time and again, along with other more commonplace ones — like Mobility and The Internet of Things (IoT). Other themes that we’ve used in the past will be retired, as they lose their emotive force or clarity, like Social. Instead of Social, I will be using the term Next Work, which is shorthand for The Next [Era of? Sort of? Management of? Organization of? Principles of? Technologies of?] Work.

It’s worth expanding on the last point, and to make something clear. Gigaom Research will differentiate our work — and our value — by continued focus on the implications of emerging technologies and their impacts on business, media, and society. We are focused on providing deep insight to our target constituencies, leaders in business and technology companies, and all the players that populate the marketplace in which they coexist.
Toward that end, we will be extending our orientation towards futures-based analysis and research, and doubling down on techniques like Triangulation to provide new lenses to peer into the new world where we live, work, and play.
For business leaders, technology companies, and futures-oriented analysts who gravitate toward this thinking — and who are tired of the speeds-and-feeds or look!-shiny sorts of analysis that generally comes from the technology-meets-business commentariat — I invite you to contact us to discuss how we might work together.

Slack Posts New Functionality

Slack is widely acknowledged as the enterprise real-time messaging (work chat) tool with the most traction, having passed the million daily user mark in June. It seems that the company is not content to stay boxed into the work chat category, however. Yesterday, Slack announced and released Posts 2.0, a feature that enables the rich authoring of blog posts and publishing them to targeted collections of people.
Since its launch, Slack has had this feature, called Posts, that lets people write content that far exceeds the length of a normal chat message. However, it was so clunky that few people used it, if they were aware of it at all. To create a Post, one was sent out of the Slack application to a web browser, where text was written using a very simple editor and then saved back to Slack as an entry in the conversation stream of a specific channel or group.
The new Posts 2.0 includes an inline text editor, which improves the experience in two ways. First, it keeps users inside the Slack app. Second, it lets them create rich text with formatting styles like headlines, bulleted lists and checkboxes. Beyond that, the new editor also acts on embedded URLs by automatically displaying graphics, showing previews of websites and expanding tweets.
Once written, Posts can still be shared with specific individuals, channels and groups, whose members can comment directly on the entry (as opposed to creating an chronologically-ordered entry in the Slack conversation stream). This is one of two places in Slack where properly threaded discussions are possible; Files is the other.
There is another important new feature in Posts 2.0 – the ability to save and access Posts in the Files section of the Slack application. So rather than having to scroll through or search the Slack conversation stream to view a specific Post again, it can be easily found in the Files repository. Additionally, if an author stars a Post in the editor or a reader does so in the conversation stream, it will show up in Slack’s Starred Items list. 

Cool, But Do Businesses Need This? 

With Posts 2.0, Slack has complemented existing features with new ones that, in combination, begin to move the application beyond being primarily a work chat tool. Slack has now effectively become a lightweight Web Content Management System that enables blogging (to a targeted audience), file storage and sharing and threaded discussion (around Posts and documents stored in Files only). It’s a lightweight people directory with profiles too. Oh, and it’s still a communication and collaboration tool.
This expansion of mission is fine, but it immediately raises the question that I previously asked and continue to pose about Slack. Why? Do work teams really need an alternative to existing corporate communication and information management applications that already satisfy the same use cases that Slack is addressing? How is Slack better than the status update, IM, blogging, file sharing, and discussion tools for communities (groups) that are bundled in the enterprise social software applications and platforms that organizations have already licensed and deployed?
In addition to the functional redundancy, one also wonders if Slack will ultimately lose its audience by becoming the opposite of what it was originally. The application’s strong initial appeal was the simplicity of its user experience. By adding more communication and collaboration features, Slack risks becoming a complex mess of functionality that few will care to use, especially on mobile devices.
On the other hand, Slack may intentionally de-emphasize its application in the future, positioning and going to market as a platform on which developers can create their own apps. We’ll see. Many already refer to Slack as a messaging-centric platform. Time will tell if that is indeed their market strategy for the long-haul, but, for now, Slack is beginning to look like yet another bloated application.

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.