fewer chat choices leads to stronger more collaborative global community

We reduced the number of choices for online chat and ended up with a more concentrated, focused and collaborative global community. This wasn’t planned, it happened organically, and it’s still in progress. But it shows the value of allowing and encouraging people to concentrate into common systems, even ignoring any financial considerations.

As recently as four years ago we had a multitude of separate group and direct chat applications. We had multiples of everything from private in-house Internet Relay Chat (IRC), Jabber and similar servers to several generations of Microsoft products. At one point I counted no fewer than 8 different chat servers that I needed to use myself, just to reach my customers and peers. For the record, that was two different Internet Relay Chat (IRC) servers, two different Jabber servers (the original open source XMPP server), two different Slack instances, Microsoft Lync, and Microsoft Office Communicator (which is now Skype for Business).

(This doesn’t even get into the multiple WebEx, Zoom, GoToMeeting and special conferencing systems.)

Completely ignoring the efforts and costs of running the in house IRC and Jabber servers, the major problem was people wasting time trying to remember (or figure out) which app or server they needed to use to reach a particular person or group. This led to lots of conversations like this…

“Does Susan use Slack?” “No, she’s on Microsoft.” “I don’t see her in Lync?” “She’s in Communicator”.

“Dear IT – I’m in Tokyo and I can’t reach UK R&D over Slack. Please fix.” “R&D is in the other Slack.” “What other Slack?”

This was bad enough for individuals, but finding out that perhaps 5 people who needed to collaborate were “homed” on three different platforms required getting them all accounts on a single platform just for that particular project or need. This led to an even worse explosion of per-user accounts, as now everyone had to have multiple accounts on multiple platforms.

This is similar to, but worse than the fracture in social media. While the “do I find you on Facebook or Google+ or Reddit or Twitter or Instagram or email or SMS?” question is annoying for individuals, having this in a global company is untenable in the long term.

Slack started as a grass roots effort among several of our internal communities. These groups “routed around” the IT-provided solutions and adopted Slack independently, and in most cases without knowing about each other. Obviously, this initially made the problem worse! But, as these groups found out about each others’ Slack instances, they began to talk about whether it would be good for them to merge their communities into fewer (or a single) Slack instance.

Importantly, all the IT organizations around the world realized what was happening and helped and encouraged the move. They made Slack a supported and preferred solution, instead of fighting it.

Over the past year some of our groups around the world have been organically moving their communities to Slack, retiring old services on their own. All the IRC servers and most of the Jabber servers have been decommissioned. Multiple Slack instances have been merged into a new “main Slack”, with more planned to move this year. More importantly several “new” chat systems have NOT been launched; those communities have agreed to adopt Slack instead.

This only worked because people wanted “one place” to gather and Slack offered a “good enough” experience. It’s not important that they selected Slack, it’s important that they all want to be in “one place”, and that “they” selected Slack, it wasn’t imposed. And frankly Slack was better than almost all of the legacy systems.

It’s not clear that we’ll stay on Slack forever, as some of the promised Microsoft solutions may offer better integration with Active Directory, desktop voice and video chat, etc. But until those come, all our users have the option of a single place to collaborate.

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