The problem

Instructional Web, like a lot of teams at ACC, didn’t really communicate that well at first. It’s something we continually work at and need to improve on. We are a seven person team at Pinnacle campus, but we are very often out of the office either going to meetings, telecommuting or visiting another campus for whatever reason. The tools we had weren’t helping.

The problem with chat

We have all used chat applications in the past, but chat has a few problems

  1. It’s mostly private conversations
  2. Not easily threaded, grouped by topic
  3. Not Easily searchable

It’s mostly private.

In a chat app, members have to be specifically included into the chat.

Chat isn’t easily threaded or grouped by topic.

Chat messages are streams of a conversation, that conversation can be on any topic.  If you have a group chat and you want to message someone privately then you have to open a new chat with that person.  Now you are managing many chat threads at once.

Chat isn’t easily searchable.

It is possible to search some chat applications like iMessage or Google Hangouts, but it’s not easy.

The problem with email

We all have email. Our inboxes are cluttered and most people don’t enjoy using email.  We use gmail here at the college, and those messages are threaded and the search is great.  The problem is that the messages are still mostly private.  If you have an email correspondence going back and forth about the details of a project, then another team member joins the project somebody is going to have to fill them in and send them all the necessary materials.

Being included on unnecessary email threads is a pain.

Email can be sent to groups and team members can stay in the loop that way, but managing it on the users end is kind of a hassle.  We get a lot of group emails here at ACC and it’s hard to sort the important info from the irrelevant info most of the time.

Slack solves all the known problems, and some we didn’t know we had.

Slack is a communication tool for teams. It replaces the role of both chat applications and email. Slack stands for “Searchable Log of All Conversation and Knowledge”. It is archived, it is threaded, it is searchable, and many people find it a much better alternative to email.  Even enjoyable.  Slack has become the fastest growing workplace software product ever, and without a sales team because it solves such a huge problem.

In order to use slack you need to join a team. Teams are sort of the top level grouping and you can belong to many teams.  Instructional Web is the team we started, but I also belong to public teams for Bootstrap and Ionic and other projects outside of ACC.  Inside the team, you can see all the members in that team and their status.

Team Members

Team members are assigned a username when they signup for slack.  I am “rferguso.” Teammates might be online, offline or in a “do not disturb” mode.  Slack is a mobile and desktop application and supports notifications.  If I send somebody a direct message or reference their username in anyway, they can get a notification. (Even if they are logged out, depending on their notification preferences)

To send somebody a direct message you can just click on their name to start a private conversation with them. This works just like private chat.  Other team members can’t see private conversations. To have a public conversation you need to do that in a channel.

Channels are pubic group chats organized by topics.  You can create a channel for whatever you want and assign team members to see the contents of that channel.  We have a channel set up for each project, so the rest of the team members not assigned to a particular project don’t have to sort through unnecessary info.  You don’t have to keep track of who is assigned to what, a message posted in a channel is public and goes to everybody. All channels are archived, searchable and important info is “pinnable” which is placed in a separate pinned area outside the timeline.

Third Party Integrations

The killer feature that you wont find in either email or chat is Slack’s integrations with other services. Slack can easily talk to services like Google Docs to add functionality or notify team members of things outside of the Slack app. We have integrations  set up for BitBucket, Google Docs, and Trello.  With BitBucket, any time the code changes significantly the team is notified so they can make a pull request and update their code.

Bonus: Analytics

You also get analytics with slack, so you can get an overview of whats going on with the team as a whole.  Slack is a freemium product. Its free up to a certain storage and message limit, then it costs a few bucks after that.  I can see that the team has sent over three thousand messages since we started a couple months ago.  I’m surprised and pleased at how well the team has integrated slack into their work, and I credit the developers of the app for creating such a useful communications tool.