Slack and Zoom: Bottoms Up

This month, on opposite coasts, has seen separate user and partner conferences for two of the rising stars in enterprise collaboration -- Slack and Zoom -- each with similar market views, growth trajectories, and customer loyalty stories.

The week of Oct. 1 saw the Slack Frontiers conference in New York City, the second of three Frontiers events (previously in San Francisco, next in London) in which customers, partners, and Slack employees came together to share success stories, visions, and use cases. Frontiers was followed by last week's Zoomtopia event in San Jose, attended by more than 1,400 Zoom customers and partners. Despite the fact that Slack and Zoom compete in two separate application spaces -- Slack as a team/workstream collaboration hub vendor and Zoom in the visual communications and collaboration space -- the similarities in their approaches, customer stories, and visions were remarkable. Here are some examples:

  • Viral, bottoms-up adoption -- Both Slack and Zoom rely on users to tell their stories, and drive adoption. Customers of both companies that I spoke with told similar adoption journeys: Individuals or small teams began using the apps, and eventually the apps went viral as awareness blossomed to adjoining teams, leading IT to decide it wanted to support larger implementations.

  • First focus on the human element of successful collaboration -- Both Slack and Zoom events featured early speakers who had nothing to do with technology. On the Slack side, Lindsay McGregor of Vega Factor spoke about the factors that motivate employees, and how focusing on improving "total motivation" or "tomo" leads to tangible business value. This drove follow-on discussions showing how Slack's ability to improve team and enterprise collaboration by increasing team coordination leads to a more motivated workforce. Zoom's program included an early session by Stephen H.R. Covey, son of the author of "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People," discussing the benefits of building trust relationships. His presentation reinforced discussions related to how visual engagement improves trust.
  • Incredibly loyal customers -- Interestingly, both events featured quotes from Paul Donnelly, Oracle VP of Corporate Application Services, essentially saying that he would lose employees if he took away either app. It's rare that a collaboration application creates an emotional bond with its users; Slack and Zoom both appear to have done that. I asked several customers at each event how they justify paying for the respective apps when they have access to free alternatives, such as those included within Microsoft Office 365; in all cases the response was along the lines of "I justify paying for it because it makes my users happy, and if they're happy, they're more productive." This is echoed in our research showing Slack customers had the highest improvements in productivity compared to customers of any other team collaboration vendor.
  • Get the basics right -- Digging deeper with event attendees, and within our own research, we find that ease of use is most responsible for viral growth and loyal customers. The app "just works" is a comment I frequently heard at both events. There is little need for training to get users up to speed. Typically, they're able to quickly, and intuitively, figure out how to use the apps to do what they need to do. This is especially true outside of tech user communities where users quickly become evangelists in both their own workgroups as well as to other connected teams.
  • Be open -- Slack and Zoom are rapidly expanding ecosystems, partnerships, and integrations to enable each app to become part of workflows rather than just exist as stand-alone collaboration tools. Slack discussed a growing number of custom and out-of-the-box integrations with enterprise apps, while Zoom featured Dropbox and Atlassian (which recently announced an investment in, and migration of its own team collaboration customers to, Slack). Zoom continues to grow its third-party hardware and channel partnerships and featured room system components from vendors including Crestron, DTEN, Logitech, Panacast, Plantronics/Polycom, Yamaha, and more.

So what are the key takeaways from these two separate, but in so many ways similar, events?

For IT leaders, rethink how you approach collaboration. Success doesn't necessarily come from delivering a single enterprise-wide set of tools at the lowest cost. Rather, it comes from understanding your employees, how they work, how they want to work, and what motivates them to work, and then providing appropriate collaboration capabilities, or figuring out how to support the tools they have already adopted on their own. As speakers at both events argued, the time is passing when every worker gets the same laptop, phone, and office space. Instead, providing the flexibility to support a variety of collaboration applications (of course in line with governance and security needs) is likely to lead to more motivated workers, higher retention, and ultimately, increased productivity.

For vendors, the top-down sales model is in crisis. The days of IT shops going through long RFP processes, with page after page of requirements, followed by months-long demos and proofs of concept, is being replaced by an Agile-based approach that encourages flexibility, experimentation, and a desire to empower workers by giving them flexibility to adopt collaboration tools that best fit their work styles. Slack noted that more than 60% of its user base is outside of IT, those workers are getting tech-savvy, and are coming into the workplace with a keen awareness of the need to be able to collaborate visually, in context, on mobile, and across company boundaries.

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