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?