I don’t know about you, but I am quite afraid of my inbox. Email being one of the first “killer apps” the internet delivered to the masses, few of us are without an email account or three. And it’s a simple enough concept: anybody with your email address can send you anything they like whenever they like. This framework brought a number of amazing new ideas to business communication. First, it solved the timezone problem in multi-national organizations. Now folks on each side of the globe could communicate during their own hours. And it democratized companies as any intern could now fire off an email to the CEO. But since the first email message was sent in 1971 we’ve piled more and more significance on this 45-year-old platform.
We use email for EVERYTHING. To begin, it’s how we connect to nearly every other Internet service: Amazon, Facebook, Uber, etc. Plus, it’s our online shopping receipt database. And it’s where we send articles to read later. But it’s also full of junk to sift through. Spam, viruses, phishing schemes, you name it.
To make matters worse, trying to use email to coordinate with a dozen internal staff members and outside vendors can be a nightmare. Simply the headache of making sure to CC (or not CC) the exact right people on each message is time consuming enough. But then add in common mistakes like thread-hijacking or maybe a little reply-all buffoonery and just try to track down the message you’re looking for. Especially as our inboxes can easily have hundreds of thousands of messages. Yuck.
I’m not saying email is a terrible thing, but it’s simply not a perfect tool for all uses. And a few years ago, Silicon Valley finally figured this out. While there are a number of strong project management apps like Basecamp and Asana that strive to move some elements outside of our inbox, the single biggest threat to email is a platform called Slack. (slack.com) Unlike other non-email messaging platforms like Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram, Slack is tuned for corporate communication. Highly tuned.
Slack starts with the concept of instant messaging, much like the AOL chatrooms of the 90’s. But then hits the steroids. With Slack all team conversation occurs inside a “channel”. These channels can be dedicated to a department, a project, or a topic, and everyone in the channel has a full, searchable view of the entire discussion. Private channels are available for sensitive topics and direct, one-to-one messaging is also supported. But Slack takes it further by allowing drag-and-drop file sharing into the message thread. PDFs, images, and spreadsheets can be dropped into Slack and allow commenting, versioning, and full search-ability. And hundreds of other Internet services connect to Slack as well. So instead of just people posting in the channel, Dropbox can alert that a document was updated, or Basecamp can report that a project task was completed.
In a Slack-enabled company, no longer do you hear, “I didn’t get the email.” Nor do you have to hunt back through your archives in order to forward an old message to another team member. If Bob from accounting has a marketing question, he can just pop into the marketing channel, search the history, and if necessary ask a question of the marketing team members. And he can just as easily leave the marketing channel and steer clear of continued font jokes....
You could think of Slack as a bit of a reversal. In email the participants stay consistent and the messages move between the people. With Slack and platforms like it, the messages themselves stay in a single location and the participants come in and out. A subtle but powerful shift in architecture that will hopefully remove those three horrible words from our vernacular: You’ve Got Mail.