How to manage group chat in the enterprise (hint: lightly)

Slack, Microsoft Teams, HipChat and a host of other collaboration tools are flooding into the enterprise. Here’s how IT is handling the deluge.

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There is a lot of chatting going on in corporate America these days, but not everyone is speaking the same language.

Group chat has been part of the startup culture for years. Young companies with young staff, particularly engineers in Silicon Valley, embrace it as an easy and effective way to communicate and collaborate, but they are hardly the first pioneers.

CompuServe was established as an independent company in 1979 and dominated the 1980's for chat and a host of other early online services. The popular IRC (Internet Relay Chat) and ICB (Internet Citizen's Band) protocols both date from the late 1980s, while one-time chat champion Yahoo Messenger made its debut in 1997. (See a neat graphic of the evolution of chat here.)

Typically, chat was popular among technical teams, but was not officially sanctioned. (Ironically, IT employees were often part of those technical teams.)

All that has changed in the past few years as chat has gone mainstream. Slack is currently leading the latest charge, with Microsoft Teams aiming to capture some of Slack's audience. Atlassian, Basecamp, ChatWork and Cisco also have chat offerings in the mix, among many other players.

As group chat infiltrates large corporations, the IT department faces the prospect of how, or even whether, to manage these programs as formal collaboration tools. Should IT pick one program to standardize across the company, or let each department or business unit choose its own tool? How much control should IT assert? How can it maintain compliance without sapping productivity?


A brief history of chat services

A look at chat services through the ages, compiled by chat software integrator Sameroom.

While there's broad agreement that group chat can be a productive collaboration and communications tool, there is also the potential for abuse. "It's called 'Slack' for a reason, right?" quips Andrei Soroker, CEO and founder of Sameroom, a product that aims to connect various chat programs together. "It plays into this idea that you can slack off more efficiently."

In reality, Slack's name evolved from the acronym for "searchable log of all conversation and knowledge," but Soroker's larger point is one shared among many enterprise teams -- group chat can be a powerful collaboration tool, or powerfully distracting.

Read on for insight from senior tech leaders on which aspects of chat need IT's attention and which they can safely ignore.

Chat happens...without IT

The term "group chat" is vague. Research firm IDC calls it "workplace application messaging," Forrester calls it "team messaging," and Gartner uses the term "workstream collaboration tool."

However they're referred to, these programs have collaborative features that specifically go beyond the functions of instant messaging, says Adam Preset, a research director for digital workplace at Gartner. They enable multi-party as well as one-to-one chat, allow the sharing of files, often include video and voice capabilities, and can be integrated with third-party systems.

The use of these tools almost always starts with small groups, not the IT department. "It's very rare for us to hear from a large-scale enterprise that has gone all in on a workstream collaboration tool like Slack or HipChat or their competitors," says Preset. Instead, teams within an organization will start proselytizing about their chat program, and it grows organically from there.

How group chat fits into a collaboration strategy in the enterprise depends on the organization, Preset says. Large companies may have some kind of enterprisewide chat in place, for example Google Hangouts or Cisco Jabber. At the same time, small groups within the company may use their own favorite chat programs.

Small groups at Exelon have used different chat tools, says Jay Cavalcanto, vice president, cloud and infrastructure engineering at the energy company, which employs 34,000 people and had over $34 billion in revenue in 2015.

jay cavalcanto Exelon Exelon

Jay Cavalcanto

The company is now evaluating collaboration tools and considering how and whether group chat programs fit into the enterprise. It is focused on leveraging tools in the Office 365 Suite -- namely Yammer and Teams, Cavalcanto says. "The problem for Fortune 500 companies is that we're an email-driven world," he says, and groups that embrace chat tend to move away from using email. "So how do you bridge that gap?" he asks.

Indeed, different groups adopting different group chat programs can wind up inadvertently creating information silos. At Kabbage, a venture-backed financial services data and technology company that provides loans to small businesses, employees were using about six different chat programs when Danny Baute started working there as head of IT services. "There were pockets of teams communicating, but not everyone was communicating with each other," Baute says.

That's one reason Gartner recommends standardizing on one group chat program companywide, so at least everyone has access to the same information. Some of the leading group chat programs have the ability to integrate many other functions, which creates a broad collaboration platform, says Preset.

By the time Kabbage had reached a couple hundred employees, it needed to standardize, says Baute. It chose Atlassian's HipChat because Kabbage already used many of Atlassian's other tools, which simplified integration, he says.

Preset advises that standardizing on one program should not preclude the use of other chat programs in small groups. "It's OK to have a workstream solution that's context-specific to a certain team, because those teams have figured out the optimal mix of tools to make themselves the most productive."

Compliance is key

But how to manage such a mix? IT should impose the obvious rules, including implementing and enforcing compliance rules -- like HIPAA and other industry-specific rules and retention policies -- which can be done through the enterprise editions of group chat programs.

zubin irani cPrime cPrime

Zubin Irani

Zubin Irani, founder and CEO of cPrime, a $50-million company that consults on software development, says some of his large financial services customers have started embracing chat as it has percolated up from distributed tech teams. One of his customers adopted the enterprise edition of HipChat, rolling it out to at least 10,000 users.

Because it's on-premises and all data is captured, the company can use the same programs it's already using to monitor its other communications channels, Irani says. "Having the chat program on-premises, which HipChat Server provides, makes it significantly easier to implement security and monitoring systems and controls, which is a huge advantage for financial or regulated companies."

Guiding the rules of engagement

Compliance and security typically fall clearly into IT's domain, but other chat decisions are often up for grabs. Can anyone start a chat room, group or channel, or will that capability be granted to only a few? Can chat rooms be on any topic, or only on particular work-related topics? How quickly are employees expected to respond to messages?

"The worst thing you can do is leave the rules of engagement undefined for these new platforms," says Preset. "What happens is that they become yet another input that people have to pay attention to, they are not sure what is appropriate [for chat], and they don't know how to use it to improve their work."

andee harris HighGround HighGround

Andee Harris

On the other hand, too many rules can inhibit communications and collaboration. "You want people to feel free to use it," says Andee Harris, chief engagement officer with HighGround, an employee engagement company that uses Slack. "It's up to leadership to set the tone."

In general, that tone tends to be informal. For example, casual speech and even bad writing (spelling errors, incorrect grammar) that would be considered sloppy in email are often tolerated in chat. Texting abbreviations like OMG or WTH are common. And where verbosity and length may be tolerated in emails, chats are supposed to be short and to the point.

Typically, rules are kept to a minimum among deployments. At Loggly, a 45-employee cloud-based service company that uses HipChat, the only rule is that people must keep their status updated, says Manoj Chaudhary, CTO and vice president of engineering.

At Kabbage, employees are expected to follow the rules on electronic communications spelled out in the employee handbook -- which ban financial information or personally identifiable information from being shared. Other than that, employees can "say what you want, when you want, how you want," says Baute.

On the other hand, if people in various chat rooms don't keep their conversations focused on the specific topic, it can be hard for employees to cut through the "noise" and extract the meaningful information, says Preset -- a problem that can be exacerbated if IT or a business group decides to mine information from chat channels into a centralized system as a way of capturing institutional knowledge.

He also cautions enterprises to clarify when and how quickly employees should respond. With chat, as with other collaboration tools, it's easy to develop a 24 x 7 mentality, where people are expected to always be available and responsive. "People need to know when they can ignore messages in the chatstream, and that it's OK to check back in when you return to work," says Preset.

An evolving conversation

As group chat continues to grow in popularity, large corporations will continue to wrestle with how it fits into larger collaboration schemes. Investment-management firm Vanguard, for example, already uses several chat or chat-like tools, according to Lisa McCann, Vanguard's principal of enterprise shared services.

There's CrewChat, a white-labeled, third-party custom tool that can be accessed from any Vanguard desktop or mobile device. The company also uses SharePoint for specific interest groups. It uses several video chat and video conferencing tools as well. And, of course, there's always email.

"Eventually, we want everything to be integrated," says McCann. "We'd like to have all these different communication tools come together."

Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.

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