Anyone who knows me, or has ever talked to me about the collaboration space, knows its an area of IT I’m quite excited about. Over the past 10 years we’ve all seen products such as Slack emerge and dominate the market, Hipchat disappearing under the weight of Slack and then the powerhouse of Microsoft enter the scene with Teams. But who is using these tools in anger – is this just used in development houses and in the IT domain, or are enterprises seeing adoption and value with all their staff?

I’ve been a keen follower of the communications space for a good while, back from the days of ICQ, mIRC, AIM and Windows/MSN messenger, yes I am very much showing my age… For those who aren’t familar with these platforms, they were very common platforms in the early 2000s, not used in the business world, but as ‘safer’ alternatives to chat rooms. They gave people a way to instant message and send files instantly to each other.

Next came the social networks, Facebook, Twitter and the like. As smartphones grew in popularity, in came the behemouth that is WhatsApp and WeChat (more commonly used in Asia) and those in all fairness have grown in popularity, mainly due to their interopability across various devices (Android, IOS, etc).

The first delve into making instant messaging work in the enterprise was probably Microsoft when they introduced Live Communications Server back in 2003. This eventually became Lync, Skype for Business and is now part of the Microsoft Teams stack. Whilst this went on, HipChat emerged and was eventually bought out by Slack and Google went through various communication platforms eventually (it seems) settling on Google Hangouts.

Its fair to say technology has moved on a lot since then, but the core concept is the same – make it as easy for people to communicate and collaborate as possible. Making this work in the corporate world though has a whole list of different requirements though – single sign-on, logging, data loss prevention just to name a few, but the biggest challenge is getting people to stop emailing and realise the value of the instant message.

I’ve used the two platforms that are currently going head-to-head for businesses, Slack & Microsoft Teams. Both have their advantages, and disadvantages but I’m not going to go through them in any detail. Essentially, if you’re a Office 365 subscriber – you’re paying for the platform and to get anywhere near the same feature set, you’re going to need to pay the monthly fee of £9.75 per user (at time of writing), a rather expensive justification if the functionality exists elsewhere. If you’re not in the world of O365 however, less than £10 a user for Slack’s capabilities and integrations with tools such as, Google GSuite, Trello and Github to name a few in second to none.

I decided to do a quick poll of my friends and family, ones that don’t work in an ‘IT’ job, and of the handful I asked, not a single one of them had heard of either Slack of Microsoft Teams. When I explained what they did, almost all of them said something similar to “yeah I use instant messaging. We’ve got a team WhatsApp group, it just works doesn’t it?”. I won’t lie, I was a little disheartened, because Slack and Teams are incredibly powerful, especially when used in conjunction with other tools. Being able to share and co-author on documents, video conference en-mass, share screens are all features unique to these platforms and can all drive efficiency in the workplace.

Yeah I use instant messaging. We’ve got a team WhatsApp group, it just works doesn’t it?

An unnamed friend

Once I calmed down, and had a good think about why my friends and family weren’t using these tools in their work, I realised the obvious – they don’t need all these features. Email, on the whole is fine for communicating 99% of the time if you’re not sat in front of a computer all day. Yes, its formal, yes it can be a bit cumbersome (dependant if you’re business has given you a modern client) but it’s functional. WhatsApp can give you that communication on the move when you don’t have time to get your laptop out, and is flexible enough with file sharing, and its based audio and video conferencing facility.

So it brought me to a final thought, can platforms like Slack and Teams manage to stay relevant like WhatsApp has done for over 10 years? Can these platforms grow outside of the IT world beyond their (sometimes artificial) active user figures? I’d say both platforms have a lot of work to do before they become a business-critical service across the world.