Slack and synchronicity

Posted on | March 22, 2015 | No Comments

The current market valuation of enterprise software start-up #slack is prompting some much needed discussion of effective communication channels in the workplace and email in particular. A few of my close colleagues* recently debated the value of the service in terms of both ephemerality – the serendipity of useful, chance engagements with colleagues that email cumulatively broke – and flow. Slack succeeds by letting users stay ‘in the moment’ on the job without accruing excessive information baggage to wade through after the day is done.

In this sense, Slack marks a turning point for understanding the social dynamics of the digitally mediated workplace. The popular aspiration to transcend the inbox, or the idea that one might ‘catch up’ on email could only ever fail: there is simply too much of it to begin with, and too few acknowledgements of its effects on others.

What I find missing in discussions so far is an explanation of how, in the wake of social media, the design deliverable has changed to favour a collective experience of synchronicity. The productivity imperative in tech and management thinking failed to acknowledge that flow is subjective and personal. It places the individual above the group, celebrating heroic solo performances of uninterrupted creativity. This is because flow’s original theoretical premises were based on varieties of athleticism – whether in the excessive regimes of the subject-in-training or the excusable asociality and egotism of the artist-genius. Flow aligned with the foundational move in scientific management which was to erase solidarity with the gang.

The point about Slack is that it makes groups feel together, practically and psychologically: it makes them aware of their time as a collective, and it performs that coherence through its design. The company’s claim to make people feel less busy is about re-engineering the competitive individualism of the workplace to embrace social ends: it promotes an atmosphere of collegiality.

One reason knowledge workers feel busy is because their schedules aren’t in synch; they work across multiple times and locations. Getting ‘in touch’ with distributed others requires significant logistical overhead. People become frustrated with enterprise software not because it lacks functionality, then; it lacks intelligence about timing. It also lacks a model of collective accomplishment or wellbeing beyond maximizing the assets of the firm.

When we are looking at the most valuable companies right now, I wonder how many of them are delivering some kind of access to services and resources that firms once provided, just at a more convenient time or location for the user. This is what I mean by consumer-led enterprise innovation. The fact that today’s workers have little obvious rationale to remain loyal to an employer makes it entirely sensible that they want technologies that are ambivalent about institutions. Slack is a platform for the adhoc professional who needs access to information and a support network on demand.

*This post is inspired by a characteristically complex, humorous and extensive email thread between Peter Levin, ken anderson, Richard Beckwith and Tony Salvador, all of whom regularly stretch the creative possibilities of Outlook. It also benefits from ideas long championed by Maria Bezaitis (on collectives) and Margie Morris (on attunement).

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