Slack’s new ‘Connect’ looks to better connect IMs, apps across companies

Building on its shared channels feature, Slack will now let up to 20 organizations collaborate in ways that could reduce the use of email for business communications.

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Slack has taken another step in its aim to replace email with the launch of Connect, a communication environment that enables messaging collaboration between multiple organizations.

Advancing the concept of the shared channels feature  introduced three years ago and now in use by 41,000 companies, Slack Connect lets users send messages to 20 external organizations, both in channels and as direct messages.

In addition to sending instant messages, Connect could also help bridge digital business processes across a company with linked applications.

Connect, available now for all paid customers, was piloted internally by Slack, allowing its financial staff to communicate with banks and lawyers as it raised an $800 million convertible bond. It has also been tested by more than a million Slack users, the company said.

“This is a major step for Slack, which has seen huge success from its shared channels capabilities over the last couple of years, and it continues to be a very important differentiator for Slack against Microsoft Teams,” said Angela Ashenden, principal analyst at CCS Insight’s digital workplace practice.

Rearchitecting Slack's AWS back end

The launch of Connect is the culmination of four years’ work rearchitecting the back end of Slack’s platform, which runs on AWS’ cloud – shifting its tenancy model from an individual customer per tenant to a single channel per tenant. This essentially allows for real-time messaging between a large number of organizations within a single channel, with each party retaining control over data, enabling companies to interact more easily with their suppliers, agencies or clients, for instance.

Slack will also let users send direct messages to users whether they are part of a shared channel or not. (That feature is still in development.)

“With Slack Connect, we're going to enable it so that you can actually direct message to anyone in the world,” said Ilan Frank, Slack vice president for enterprise product. “You can allow your employees to work externally a lot more freely in Slack, very similar to the way that they work in email.”

Slack is also working on a variety of measures to protect users, said Frank. A Twitter-style verification system is in development that will confer approved status to Slack customers, ensuring that communications are restricted to authenticated users, bypassing the need for manual approval from admins.  One advantage of communicating with external parties this way is the ability to prevent the spam and phishing issues that have beset email, said Frank.

In addition, Slack’s existing enterprise key management encryption feature will eventually be rolled out for Connect messages, providing granular control over data security. “We can actually create security guardrails around the channel content that are unique,” said Frank.

Ensuring that users can safely interact outside their organization will be crucial as Slack broadens access. “There’s a careful balancing act there which needs to be fleshed out,” said Ashenden.

Connecting business processes across organizations

The ability to connect with external companies also opens up opportunities tap into user data across apps. Slack cited an example where planned Outlook and Google Calendar integrations could scan calendars and propose meetings times based on the two parties’ availability. A launch date has not yet been announced for the feature.

“Over time, one of the biggest ramifications of this will be having an avenue for enterprise software to run across organizational boundaries,” said Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield during a briefing on the company’s plans. “There’s a whole variety of interesting use cases around automation and internal integrations, as well as third-party apps, running inside of channels that are shared across multiple organizations.

“That’s one thing that's going to create a critical advantage for customers, and something we're excited to dig into.”

A split is emerging among collaboration applications, said Mike Gotta, research vice president for collaboration and social software at Gartner, with the likes of Slack and its rivals separating into two sub-categories: generalized platforms targeted at productivity, collaboration and meetings and others focused on specific business scenarios, such as investment trade flows and operational processes.

Slack is increasingly targeting the latter. “Slack’s announcement of Connect is an example of the trend to contextualize offerings around more specific business activities,” said Gotta.

“The basic needs for productivity and team collaboration are being commoditized to some degree, and that raises the bar for what buyers will expect from vendors that might overlap with existing suite solutions,” he said. “Expectations, however, will be higher than the type of requirements organizations have for generalized tools.”

The ability to connect business processes across companies using applications and automation tools such as bots also helps Slack compete with vendors that package team messaging apps in application suites.

“The most value comes from Slack when teams integrate processes into the platform, not just through surfacing notifications as a sort of feed, but actually leveraging workflow, bots and apps to allow Slack to become the place where work is done,” said Ashenden.

“If you can extend that to your B2B processes as well, that becomes very interesting – take examples like supply chain processes, or customer service and support,” she said. “That starts to really showcase the advantages of channel-based messaging over straight email or chat, and at the moment only Slack really enables that.”

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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