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How Slack Can Catalyze, or Kill, Group Collaboration

Our never-ending, and always failing, academic quest to move beyond email.

November 11, 2019
 
 

The dream is to get off email. For most of us in higher ed, this is a dream denied.

How many emails did you get today? How many have you sent?

I’m writing this blog post toward the end of the working day on a Monday. So far, on my work email account, I’ve received 53 emails and sent 34. Those counts will increase throughout the evening. Crazy. Crazy. Crazy.

And yet, we seem powerless to get off the giant sucking swamp of time, energy and productivity that is email.

That is, until Slack came along.

Slack was supposed to liberate us. Slack was supposed to combine the benefits of project management, chat and social media. Slack promised to get teams at work off  email and on to a web and mobile platform that aggregating work streams in Channels. Channels can be for teams or projects. Channels are a combination of ongoing conversations and a method to share (and store) documents.

Slack should be able to do some things email can’t. For instance, Slack integrates pretty seamlessly with Google Drive, so documents are an easy click. Plus, Slack’s search functions are infinitely better than email (at least Outlook) -- so in theory, finding stuff should be easy.

So what’s not to love about Slack?

First, I want to share where I have witnessed Slack working well. I have two positive Slack examples.

The first is at my institution. Not the entire institution, but the collaboration between the people who work in our Center for the Advancement of Learning -- where I’m based -- and in our Learning Design and Technology team. On my school’s org chart, we are two separate organizations. In practice, we mostly work as a seamless and integrated team. For these two groups, Slack has been a great way to make our shared work more visible, transparent and productive. The 11 people who share Slack workspace are assisted in our work together.

My second positive Slack example one that was started for folks across different schools who participate in the HAIL Storm community. This is a smaller and less active Slack workspace, but it has proved an excellent way to share resources and ask questions.

Have these two positive Slack examples reduced emails? Marginally.

For the Slack workplace at my school, there are no doubt fewer emails between the 11 participants. But the vast majority of all the people we work with are not on Slack. Only a small portion of emails would be between the people in our small organizations. For Slack to have any meaningful impact on email, the entire institution would need to be on the platform.

I have trouble imagining a whole school on Slack. Do you have any examples?

For the HAIL Slack workspace, the contact of colleagues across institutions is normally sporadic. The only exception is when a HAIL convening is being planned. So Slack does help with reducing email.

Where have I seen Slack kill group collaboration?

Earlier this year, I participated in a small convening for folks who lead digital and online learning initiatives at their institutions. The meeting was great. We followed the convening with some good collaboration in Google docs and email.

One of the participants got the idea -- which seemed a good idea at the time -- to move the group off email and on to Slack. For whatever reason, and it is not clear what that reason was, Slack killed that particular group collaboration.

My theory is that for Slack to work, everyone needs to be fully bought into using the platform. If there is one holdout, then Slack dies. That is a very high bar for any group collaboration tool.

The other problem with Slack is that it becomes one more place to check. If you are working in email and Slack, then at some point you have to spend time in both.

I’m surprised how well I’ve seen Slack work between my team at work and the team that we work with most closely. I was also surprised how quickly Slack can kill an emerging community if deployed too early.

Can you imagine a college or a university president, provost, dean or VP saying that they will no longer be on email? That if you wanted to reach them for internal university communications, Slack is the only place that they can be found?

What has been your experience trying to get off email?

Are you on Slack?

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