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On Wednesday Microsoft announced Teams, a group chat application that competes directly with Slack. The launch is a clear response to Slack’s strong growth as a workplace tool for communications and file sharing that reduces reliance on company e-mail.

Microsoft Teams will be integrated into the Office suite of applications. Like Slack, the Teams group chat app allows team members to chat with colleagues via threaded conversations within specific message channels, direct messages or video. They can also share files and images. Teams will be available in desktop, mobile, and web versions.

Slack has had phenomenal growth as a startup in the team chat space over the past couple of years. The company launched in August 2013, and has since raised $540 million in funding. Slack was valued at around $3.8 billion in its last funding round in March. By May of this year, Slack had 3 million daily active users, including 930,000 paid seats, according to VentureBeat. The user population increased 3.5 times over the previous year. 

So what do the rise of Slack and the launch of Teams tell us about the future of workplace collaboration? Here are five takeaways.  

1. Existing collaboration solutions aren’t as easy to use as they should be.

Today, Slack is used by teams inside many companies, including eBay, Ogilvy, Salesforce, Samsung, Urban Outfitters, and Hewlett Packard Enterprise. In fact, Slack says 77 of the Fortune 100 have signed up.

Enterprises that use older collaboration solutions like Jive or Connections are finding their workers are gravitating toward Slack because it offers consumer-grade ease of use and a "freemium" business model that reduces friction further. It's the hot new thing for interoffice chat and is also attracting developers who use it for team chat, project management, and sharing code snippets. Slack-based gaming communities are growing rapidly as well. 

2. Teams need well-executed chat tools to get things done.

You can substantially reduce dependence on your e-mail inbox when a team chat application works well across multiple devices. Yammer, the precursor to Teams, grew fast with its take on enterprise microblogging. WhatsApp grew fast because it made group messaging easier.

Collaboration solutions work best when they take a more open approach, with messaging functionality that makes it easy to loop in the team you need in a threaded conversation spread across multiple channels in real time. In today’s environment, we might start the conversation at the office and continue on the road.

Slack works on a Mac, a Windows PC, through a web interface, or on mobile apps for smartphones and tablets. It shows the way for this core component of a smart collaboration suite.    

3. The bots are taking over. 

Under the hood, Slack leverages bots, machine learning, artificial intelligence, and robotic process automation. The company offers more than 500 apps, chatbots, and algorithms that can be deployed to help make your collaboration life that little bit easier, covering a wide range of routine tasks and integrations.

There are bots for tracking expenses, setting up to-do lists, and creating polls for a team. Bots can also handle integrations with Trello, GitHub, SugarCRM, and other third-party applications. This is changing the nature of office work and the digital workplace, in the same way that automation has transformed the shop floor.

4. New entrants can still disrupt this market.

Collaboration solutions like Jive or Connections have been available for more than a decade. But the rise of Slack shows that even in a the crowded market of collaboration tools, enterprise social networks, and messaging apps, there is still room for a new entrant with a new approach to gain significant traction.

5. The writing's on the wall for e-mail.

Organizations worldwide are still sending e-mails with file attachments, creating multiple copies in the sender's and all of the receivers' inboxes. We’ve been working with this old-school messaging technology for more than 40 years, but the shift to mobile devices of the past 10 years is finally triggering significant change. E-mail isn’t disappearing, but smart organizations are adopting productivity and collaboration solutions that allow for the co-creation of documents, reports, and presentations, and the ability to capture the conversations that need to happen around these projects.

Whatever business you’re in, your business model is under threat by some smarter, nimbler competitors with a different approach or better use of new technology. Our research shows that the most effective digital organizations use enterprise social networks to connect their people. They are using enterprise-level, cloud-based products such as Jive, SAP Jam, or Salesforce Chatter to help their employees connect and harness their collective intelligence more effectively.

Even in these organizations, Slack is gaining traction. For example, Salesforce, which was born in the cloud with its own widely used collaboration tool set, has teams that are using Slack to get stuff done. 

The next generation of collaboration

Microsoft Teams will feature deep integration with other Microsoft services like the Office 365 family, OneDrive. Like Slack, it allows in-app voice and video calling. Teams offers a "Fun Picker" that lets you find and add Giphy GIFs, memes, and more to your conversations. And it supports Skype’s Bot framework to allow developers to easily extend the app’s functionality with their own services.  

All this matches what Slack already offers. Will tighter integration with the rest of Microsoft’s stack be enough to establish Teams as a viable competitor to Slack? On the face of it, Microsoft Teams looks like a very good team chat solution, with clever integrations and important advantages if you are already following an Office 365 strategy.

Does Teams have the secret sauce that allowed products like WhatsApp and Slack to really take off? We'll need to hear more and see it in action, but both Teams and Slack have characteristics that put them ahead in the collaboration field. 

Workplace collaboration: Lessons for leaders

  • Slack is a rising star in the collaboration world for a number of reasons, but the underlying message is that team chat helps get things done.
  • The smart organizations that deploy a companywide enterprise social network or collaboration solution are better placed to deal with digital disruption.
  • Bots and process automation are becoming mainstream in the digital workplace.
  • The writing's on the wall for email, and it's about time!

Photo by Ignite New Zealand

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