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Fed Up with Enterprise Messaging? That’s Because Work Cannot Survive on Chat Alone

Recently there has been a lot of buzz in the news around people getting fed up with enterprise messaging applications. This began with a well written and widely read article in Medium titled, “Slack I’m Breaking Up with You.” A twitter hashtag called #slacklash started to rise in usage. Others jumped on the same bandwagon – FastCompany, for example.

I want to offer a different perspective.

I’m a heavy user of Cisco Spark. Cisco Spark, like Slack, provides enterprise messaging. Within Cisco, we’ve got tens of thousands of Spark users. Some use it more than others. Within the collaboration technology group – the thousands of people that make Cisco’s $4B collaboration product portfolio – we LIVE in Cisco Spark. All of us have pretty much moved the bulk of our asynchronous communications away from other tools (email and Jabber) and work entirely in Spark. We still use Outlook – mostly for calendaring and for checking email from folks outside of the collaboration business.

I’m probably one of the more active users. In the last six months, I have read or sent messages into 1548 Spark rooms. I pretty much “sit” in it all day, and access it via mobile frequently in evenings and when I’m out and about. I’m the Chief Technology Officer (CTO) for the collaboration business. And – I’m also a remote worker, working out of my home on the east coast when I’m not traveling to Cisco engineering sites, which I do one to three times a month.

So – first, some admissions.

While Spark has dramatically reduced my volume of USEFUL email (email that is not a mailing list, calendar notification, or spam), I still get email, and there is almost always a message or two each day I need to respond to. This forces me to check Outlook perhaps three or four times a day.

At the same time, I get a lot of messages in Spark. Indeed, if I count messages alone, I’d say that I get more Spark messages each day than I got email messages each day, before we adopted Spark. And not just a little – I get a LOT more messages.

But – I love it, and I will say definitively that it has done four things for me that email has not been able to do.

Spark makes me feel connected. As a remote worker, feeling like I’m plugged into the team is really important. When I’m in a Spark room with a bunch of folks, and we have a very active, live conversation – it makes me feel like I am there. It’s the same kind of rapid-fire, real-time, interactive conversation that you get in person or in a live meeting. This makes me feel like I am part of important discussions and decisions. In fact, the only way I get this sense of connectedness is when there are lots of messages in that room, happening in real-time. A high volume, rapid-fire chat conversation is – in essence – the textual equivalent of good meeting, and that kind of interaction is precious to me. Now, you might say, “hang on Jonathan, why don’t you just have a meeting instead?” Well – this leads me to the second thing Spark does for me that email never could.

Spark allows me to get the productivity equivalent of attending multiple meetings at the same time. My calendar is precious. I have a fixed window in which I can schedule calls, and those timeslots are almost always filled. And – more importantly – I can only fill them with one meeting at a time. With Spark, I can (and do) typically have multiple rooms in which there is a really active conversation going on. I’ll participate in those conversations, oftentimes either while I’m in a meeting where my full attention is not required, or during gaps in my calendar where I don’t have a meeting. This gives me the holy grail that every executive dreams for – to (in essence) attend multiple meetings at the same time. That, in turn leads to productivity improvements for me. Of course, regular meetings are almost always at least 30 minutes, and they tend to run to the time scheduled. On the other hand, a live conversation in a Spark room can take less (or more) time – but it only runs as long as needed. But – but – you’ll say – you cannot possibly be participating actively all day long? Of course not. But that leads me to the third benefit.

Spark allows me to get the equivalent of watching dozens of hours of meeting recordings, but in minutes. Clearly, I cannot actively participate in every conversation at every moment. And that means that I will miss out on stuff. When I do have a moment, I can go back and catch up by reading what transpired in the room. The experience of doing that in Spark is actually much more like watching a meeting recording, than it is like reading an email thread. Email’s tendency towards embedded replies and nested inline responses simply does not allow you to easily catch up. That’s because it doesn’t mimic a live conversation. Chat, on the other hand, much more closely models the kind of interaction that you see in a meeting. This makes it easier to catch up and comprehend what has transpired, since it’s a lot like watching a meeting recording. Now – the problem with actual meeting recordings is that it takes a lot of time to watch them. But, catching up on a Spark room – even a really, really long one with hundreds of messages – takes just minutes. This is a form of time compaction, and that in turn gives me my most precious commodity – more time.

Now of course, the critics reading this will say that this means that you cannot really make decisions in these rooms, because at any given time you cannot be assured that the key people are actually reading. That is true. But, this leads me to my fourth and most important point.

Spark lets me have a call or a meeting when I need it, since you cannot actually make big decisions in chat. Decisions are what meetings are good for. And what I love about Spark is that meetings are a built in part of the experience, so that I can have a real, honest-to-goodness voice and video meeting in that room, and actually make the decision. Critics might also argue that sometimes it’s difficult to have a deep conversation in chat since meaning is lost and the speed is not as fast as a voice call. To them – I say – yes, that is also true. In those moments when I need it – I have a call. What’s great about Spark is – I can also do that, in the same 1-1 room where my chats are happening.

The conclusion I draw is that true productivity comes not from messaging alone, but rather from the intertwined usage of calls, meetings, and messaging. An integrated tool like Spark allows you to optimally spread your time amongst them. And furthermore, the messaging component itself does allow me to do something I really value – it allows me to be more efficient with my time. That is where Slack and Hipchat and the flood of other similar products all fall down. Work cannot survive on chat alone.

So – to you Mr. Samuel Hulick – now that you’ve broken up with Slack, I see that you’re now available. Why don’t you come and start a relationship with Spark?

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  1. Jonathan,

    “Voice”, “Video” naturally aid the “textual” communications. The next frontier is “3D” communications. For e.g to discuss the internals of an “Room” during Interior-Design, discussion of an back-injury during a healthcare session etc. I would like to present our work to you and your team in this context. We have been granted a patent by USPTO.
    We have also had market-validation for this.

  2. “true productivity comes not from messaging alone, but rather from the intertwined usage of calls, meetings, and messaging” – that´s so true;very well written!Thanks

  3. While I won’t deny some of the points brought up here, ease of use, meetings, mobile first, I have to also admit spark still has some catching up to do with features I love with email

    1) Just because you reduced your email traffic, doesn’t mean you didn’t create more “noise” aka rooms in spark that sometimes spiral out of control. I would love to see some type of folder structure to keep this manageable vs a long list of rooms after rooms after rooms

    2) You mention threading in emails as not easy to catch up..I beg to differ. I feel it is super relevant in chat rooms. I have been in large spark rooms where there is so much overlapping conversations that you lose sight of where the question is and where the response is since 10 messages down is the response. It would be great to intertwine them. Even a simple mark message as unread would be useful like email to go back to a post later in the day. Sure pinning could solve it but I am still waiting on that feature..

    3) Search is still very rudimentary. Yes I am looking at the new acquisition Cisco did to see how it pans out plus searching encrypted messages is a challenge but at the end of the day I need a super smart predictive search engine with easy to use filters to narrow down posts. I want when the search is done by a post author or date/time range to provide me a custom view in spark of those messages and not the way it is now

    4) Feature parity isn’t perfect across platforms either on Spark, on desktop windows, I can’t see status on content being uploaded vs browser.. emoticons won’t render on desktop correctly vs mobile.

    5) Need seamless escalation from spark meeting to webex meeting..still some work to be done there.

    and Yes i have submitted these through feedback.

    I love spark, love the mobile platform, calling and compared to Jabber over lossy mediums, the performance rocks. We just need to tighten up the UI and add features quickly vs pointing to API and having partners close that gap for Cisco…IMHO

    • Thanks for the comments Srini. The good news is that none of these are a surprise and most of them are under development. The one that we debate a lot is around threads. I think there is a very natural desire for it, but it adds complexity to an otherwise simple experience. Many chat tools have avoided trying to tackle it, for this fear. Thanks for your feedback!

      • Hi Jonathan,

        Great response to Samuel’s understandable reaction to Slack. Samuel’s article expressed a real frustration but kept things light and didn’t forget to praise the achievements of Slack and call on their abilities to continuously improve the experience.

        Your account is powerful because it draws from experience and doesn’t fail to acknowledge the difficulties and concerns surrounding trending tech and the new ways of working that surround them.

        At Sei Mani, we entirely endorse the balance you have struck between “asynchronish” (as Samuel would put it) and real time collaboration. We’re utterly convinced from experience and observation that solutions that seamlessly integrate them both, and change/adoption programmes that treat users like stars, are the only way spread, en masse, the benefits you’ve discovered on your own.

        Affairs and breakups like Samuel’s will be common place for some time, but the technology is maturing, and organisations who truly invest in unlocking better ways of working are enjoying game changing results.

        We’d love to hear more about how Spark is taking root at Cisco!



  4. I am a constant user of Spark messaging over the past year or so. What I love about this type of messaging (compared to IM/P), is that my conversations include two important groups that are absent from IM/P chats. 1. People that are not “present” (which basically means active of their computer at the time I want to ask a question. So many of my peers are busy running from meeting to meeting and traveling that they are “offline”. But, with Spark, they stay connected when mobile…nearly all the time, and they respond and I get the answers or guidance I need quickly from my mobile peers. 2. Spark is available to everyone inside my organization and everyone outside my organization too, and in addition to my peers that aren’t sitting on their desktop, but are nearly always available on their mobile and are open to “mobile text messaging”; I can reach anyone outside my organization too. This includes business partners and customers, and personal contacts too. All the people I couldn’t reach with IM, important and useful people, are now available all the time. It really helps me stay connected. I’ve always been able to have meetings with anyone anywhere, and now I have the same messaging access. It is awesome.

  5. I never “got” Spark until now. A very concise, real-world example of how it can make your life easier. Maybe I’ll actually try it now!

  6. oh, that is so true

  7. Love how simply this article outlines the ease of #Spark. It clicked for me when I realized that shared content is so much easier to find in relationship to a conversation – the content and conversation(s) stay together in the same room… so logical!