Could instant messaging tools replace email at work?



As a new generation of corporate messaging tools makes its mark, Glenn Elliott discusses how they can drive organisational performance

It would be hard for many of us to imagine what it would be like if we suddenly lost access to SMS texts, iMessage, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, or whatever your personal poison is. But recently the market for instant messaging at work has also been hotting up, too. Salesforce Chatter has been at it for years – as has Yammer, which Microsoft bought for $1.2bn in 2012. More recently, an application called Slack has been ripping through technology companies like a knife through butter.

In fact Slack has been reported as (maybe) the fastest-growing B2B SaaS business in history. Launched in February 2014, its daily active users grew to 500,000 in the space of 12 months. The following year, its daily user count jumped to an incredible 2.7 million users.

And with Slack proving the demand is there, Microsoft and Facebook have joined the party. Facebook announced it was launching Workplace by Facebook on 16 October and, less than a month later, Microsoft revealed a competitor called Microsoft Teams. So what is all the fuss about? What do Slack, Workplace and Teams have in common that makes them so special? How can organisations benefit – and what does HR need to worry about?

All three platforms are designed to power collaboration in a way that hasn’t been done before. Rather than focusing on top-down organised communication (as intranets do), these tools power decentralised, person-to-person communication. But what makes them special – what makes them unlike anything that’s gone before them, such as email – is that they are, by default, open systems. And what I mean by open is truly open.

The default way of sending and storing messages in Slack and Workplace by Facebook is publicly with everyone able to read everything that anyone writes or has written. It’s a bit like a huge private branch of Twitter for your workplace, but without the 140-character limit and with the ability to store files, videos, pictures and documents.

The big benefit of this open approach to communication is that it can unlock knowledge and talent in all corners of your organisation. Often you’ll be struggling with a business problem or lack a piece of data and you don’t know who in the company to ask. All of these tools come with powerful search facilities, so you can find people you didn’t even know in your organisation who might be discussing or working on the same problem as you. They also work across all platforms, so whether your users are office based on Mac or PC, or roving on iPhones or Android devices, whether the company or the employee owns them – these systems will work everywhere.

These tools also allow and enable collaboration outside the corporate network – with partners, clients and suppliers. As business becomes more complex and decentralised, this sort of open architecture can really help things move faster between teams that are working in separate companies.

So if your organisation is thinking about using a system such as Workplace by Facebook, here are three tips from an HR perspective to help things go smoothly:

1. As with any technology change, take time to explain the ‘why’ to employees. Many people are naturally cautious about change and will be busy with other projects. Make sure they understand the benefits to them that make it worth the small amount of hassle to adopt.

2. Don’t underestimate initial staff resistance to the idea of openness. When discussing Slack and Workplace by Facebook in my organisation, I found some people were initially wary of the whole concept of openness. They were worried that people would get distracted, and some were concerned about unwelcome input and feedback on their projects.

3. Workplace by Facebook, in particular, has been an issue with some employees because of its association with the Facebook brand. They were worried that data and insight from their personal Facebook account (which Facebook assures is kept strictly separate) would end up in the employer’s hands or somehow affect their employment. This will require significant levels of reassurance.

If this looks and sounds big and scary and not for you right now, then give it time. Workplace by Facebook has been in closed testing trials for more than a year with 1,000 companies involved. They’re also starting to sign their first big contracts, and last week announced that the usually uber-conservative Singapore government would move 143,000 public service officers to the system by 2017.

The time will come sooner than you think when you remember email with the fond nostalgia of CDs and floppy disks.

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