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Frontiers 2020 Spotlights Slack's Ambition

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Last week, Slack hosted its annual customer event, Frontiers, the latest of the tech industry's many conferences to have gone virtual in the wake of COVID-19. With an agenda targeting decision-makers in both business and IT roles, as well as developers, the virtual format also had a significant impact on the reach of Frontiers this year, with more than 15,000 people registered, according to Slack.
 
Remote Work Amps Up Slack's Adoption
Having grown its paying customers almost 20% to 130,000 organizations in the past six months, Slack showcased a host of major new and expanded users of its channel-based messaging platform, many of which have seen substantial rises in adoption and usage of the platform since March.
 
Media giant Viacom now has 13,000 active Slack users, and ride-hailing firm Lyft reports over 3,500 daily active users. At U.S. bank TD Ameritrade, 10,000 employees collectively now send more than 400,000 Slack messages every day; in the U.K., HSBC saw the number of Slack messages sent by its employees jump 80% in the first month after the shift to working from home. While it's been easy to overlook companies like Slack under the shadow of Zoom's stellar growth this year, it's clear that Slack is finding itself becoming more embedded and critical to its customers' operations, something that bodes well for the company's future.
 
Although the company has focused primarily on business usage to date, Slack is steadily making progress in the education sector with a surge in remote learning. Arizona State University now has 28,000 weekly users of Slack, up from about 5,000 before the pandemic, and 830,000 messages sent each week. Lev Gonick, the university's chief information officer, said the institution has more than 4,000-course workspaces on Slack, accounting for two out of every three classes. It also makes extensive use of Slack Connect, with 106 external channels. This is an interesting new avenue for Slack, which also counts MIT, Yale, and Kindai University on its customer roster.
 
The education sector is becoming a hotly contested space for the collaboration players, with many seeing the opportunity to become the preferred option for a new generation of graduates entering the workforce and helping to drive their employers to modernize and transform their workplace technology.
 
Slack Connect Continues to be the Gem in Slack's Offering
The global shift to remote working and the need to connect and enable employees digitally has helped Slack to clarify and better articulate its proposition over the past few months. At the heart of this is its business-to-business collaboration offering, Slack Connect, which became generally available in June 2020 (see this related No Jitter article, Slack Connect: The Next Step in Slack's Challenge to Email). There are now 52,000 organizations using Slack Connect, up from 42,000 at the June launch, and this remains a critical differentiator for Slack over Microsoft – one the company is keen to capitalize on.
 
At the Frontiers event, Slack provided an update on the forthcoming direct messaging capabilities in Slack Connect, which are expected later in 2020. These capabilities will enable Slack users to invite any other person to message them by providing a personal URL link, even if they aren’t already working together in a channel. This is a huge opportunity for Slack to drive up its customer numbers, with participants four times more likely to send an invitation to a non-user if they use external channels through Slack Connect, Slack said. When you consider that 1,000 of the 8,000 new paying customers in the company's most recent quarter came through existing Slack users inviting them to collaborate in a Slack Connect channel, the scale of the opportunity becomes clear.
 
Frontiers also saw Slack confirm plans to introduce Verified Organizations in early 2021, which will use a Twitter-style tick to denote legitimate companies based on an internal verification process carried out by Slack. A Managed Connections feature has also been promised for availability later in 2020, enabling administrators to specify partner-specific automatic approval policies for new channel requests. I expect Slack Connect to continue to be a primary focus for product investment in 2021 as Slack takes advantage of its head start on Microsoft.
 
Confidence in Workflow Builder Is Growing Steadily
Another key piece in Slack's offering — and one that's central to its vision of enabling the event-driven enterprise — is Workflow Builder, which provides a no-code tool for automating processes, based on the Missions technology Slack acquired in 2018. Now generally available, Workflow Builder has been used to create more than 515,000 workflows by 175,000 Slack users, almost 80% of whom are non-technical users.
 
Until now, Workflow Builder only allowed the automation of actions within the Slack platform, but the company has now introduced support for actions or "steps" that connect with third-party applications. In addition to out-of-the-box integration with Google Sheets, Slack announced four initial partners — PagerDuty, Poly, Datadog, and Zapier — that have created steps for Workflow Builder as part of their Slack apps. Customers and developers are also able to create their own steps using the Slack API.
 
It's great to see Workflow Builder gaining traction and understanding among Slack's customers and partners. This is a feature I believe will go a long way in helping individuals and teams to get the best value from their Slack deployment, and which — thanks to its no-code approach — extends that opportunity to non-technical users to make automation more democratic, even at the individual user level. Building on the company's established partner ecosystem and app directory, it's the piece of Slack's offering that's most likely to enable the goal stated by Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield that Slack becomes "the 2% of your [technology] budget that is a multiplier for the other 98%."
 
Rimeto Adds Another Opportunity into the Mix
In addition to these major announcements and an insight into the rapid rate of Slack adoption over the past few months, Frontiers also offered a little more detail on Slack's recent acquisition of Rimeto and where this could take the company in the future. Rimeto's technology, positioned as a "reimagining of the corporate directory," pulls data from an organization's various business systems—from HR to customer relationship management to project management systems. It creates a rich, searchable employee profile that shows their expertise and experience, their current and previous teams, and what they're working on at present, as well as how to get hold of them.
 
Some simple integration with Slack is already in place. However, the Rimeto team outlined a road map that will bring the profiles capability natively into Slack, to integrate information about the individual from Slack (based on their channel membership, for example), and to surface this rich profile information in Slack's search capability.
 
Initially, this focus remains on the internal corporate directory, which is undoubtedly still a major unresolved problem in many organizations. However, in the longer term, there are interesting questions about how this could come together with Slack Connect to potentially create a cross-organization directory or business network — something that sounds a little familiar (ahem, LinkedIn). There's no official information about what Slack might do here. But it's undoubtedly something that Microsoft will want to keep a close eye on, given that it has yet to fully exploit the power of LinkedIn in the context of its business collaboration and communications portfolio.
 
Slack is hugely ambitious in its goals for transforming the way we work, looking far beyond team chat to help streamline communication, workflow, and automation both inside and outside the company boundaries. The company remains under intense scrutiny and pressure to demonstrate its growth potential, and it continues to bump up against Microsoft's might at every step. But Slack is certainly holding its own.

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