Persistent team chat has been the darling of the collaboration scene for a while now. The most prominent one being Slack, but also Atlassian HipChat, Cisco Spark, Microsoft Teams and now Watson Workspace from my employer. Cool, fast, flexible are words often used to describe the greatness of most of those products. There’s been an increase in complaints that they add to the communication overload we already suffered from, but I leave to others to voice their concerns over that. I have no intention to compare their features, characteristics and target audiences.
I want to discuss them conceptually.
For about a decade, I’ve been working devoted to the space of internal collaboration and networking tools and practices. From having had to, more times than I can remember, explain the business benefits of this new way to work* I have come to realise that those business advantages boil down to different aspects of either efficiency or effectiveness.
More efficient co-production of content (documents, spreadsheets and presentations typically, or for online publication in blogs or wikis) through sharing, commenting and collaborating instead of shuffling attachments around, leaving some poor sod to consolidate and redistribute, is usually a key element in generating efficiency. Reduction in version confusion and conflict is a great by-product.
Simplified communication is another. Typically from getting rid of Email Trees
Reduced reinvention of the wheel and shorter runway from building on shared work of others is another. It also reduces the frustration of being convinced that what you create is a waste of time, but you know that you won’t find what’s already “out there”.
These different flavours of efficiency are generated primarily from working towards a given goal with people you know already. The last one, a bit less.
The different flavours of effectiveness generally result from greater transparency, people working out loud and from open dialogue. You don’t only collaborate with your team on producing something, you make it available for all your colleagues to re-use, to feedback on and to improve upon.
Instead of restricting your dialogue to people you know, you post on boards – your own or those of colleagues, in forums, in open communities of interest and so on, making it possible for anyone to answer, to help you or to pull someone into the dialogue who they might know have the answer.
This way, communication flows more freely, knowledge and experience is shared more widely, ideas and people meet by coincidence to inspire, engage and build new relations.
It also makes it more easy to find expertise, either through what has been shared or through ease of finding the people who has it, who can help.
All this results in increased agility, in better resilience (since knowledge is no longer hoarded but released from heads, hard drives and email files). Communication flows more freely, with reduced distortion and misinterpretation and employees become more connected, engaged and inspired – all key factors for innovation.
Persistent team chats are good for efficiency, but do little to improve effectiveness
An inherent characteristic is obvious in the name: “team” i.e. people you already know, usually with a defined goal.
Another characteristic comes from “chat”. In other words, a continuous flow of conversation, admittedly often with capabilities of adding attachments or links or to integrate with other services, but still in that continuous flow. With that continuous flow comes, automatically, a challenge to find stuff from the chat history. You might overcome it by a strong search engine. Microsoft have tried to approach this by creating a Sharepoint space for the team in the background, still is only for the team. IBM approaches it by adding cognitive computing to help identify highlights and action items. But still, the concept in itself generates a challenge to be solved.
Looking back at those two characteristics, persistent team chats aren’t that different from a long chain of reply-to-all emails, are they? At least not conceptually. You might add integration of bots and cool apps, cognitive capabilities or a file repository. You still restrict your collaborative effort to a limited group of people you already know. You still create a challenge to find stuff in the chat history, a challenge you need to solve. Where’s the wide sharing of knowledge and experience? Where are the inspiring “knowledge accidents”? Where’s the clarity of communications in all directions, up and down, across organisational boundaries, forming new relations between people with shared interest but otherwise unrelated?
Does this mean that persistent team chats are bad?
That is not at all the point I want to make. They definitely can add value and facilitate the way teams work. But
- Persistent team chats are not enough on their own. They should be just one part of an entire collaborative landscape
- They need to be supplemented by other capabilities offering structure and ease of finding both files and online content
- and other capabilities enabling and encouraging working transparently, to the benefit of the entire organisation, not teams only
- One stream of updates! We don’t want one more stream of updates. It only aggravates stress, confusion and distraction. The updates from the team chat must be possible to consolidate with all others.
What’s your experience from working with persistent team chats? From working and networking transparently? Do you agree? or not? and why?
*The new way to work really isn’t that new, is it? In many ways, this is how we used to work when companies were smaller and usually located in few places. The “new” is about being able to work so, via the internet, across borders – both national and organisational, great distances and time zones.
One thought on “Persistent Team Chat, Merely a Gilded Reincarnation of Reply-to-All Email?”
It always depends but I agree to you on most. It is no good idea to built new news streams and this is main point why I do not recommend these tools at the side of a social intranet or any other collaboration product if it is not integrated into the existing search and news streams.
It is challenging to decide when to use group chat and when not and of course to teach the users of a company.
In my opinion it should be used in the same way as communities. Most should be public. This is the key.
E.g. it is no good idea to use slack instead of twitter and blogs in order to comment a conference as many people actually do. Newbies and maybe yourself are staying out of the knowledge if you do not know that the group chat exists. Others decide what you get and what you not get. This is like turning the wheel backwards and nearly the same as a mail thread: A low maturity level of digital collaboration.