A few notes here about organizing work and communication. A few projects have warranted some work lately, and I've been coordinating them over email. One of the projects does have its own Slack channel, but we haven't used it in a while. This brought me to some thinking around how Slack wants to replace (inter-organizational) email, but I wasn't fully convinced:
I'm not the only Slack-replaces-email skeptic, right? Email is to Slack as forums / Stack Overflow is to IRC / chat rooms.— Mark Bao (@markbao) January 4, 2016
I still find email really useful to organize work and coordinate on a specific topic. Not the same with Slack. Slack is faster, to be sure.— Mark Bao (@markbao) January 4, 2016
Take this email, for example:
That's something that can't really be replicated on Slack. Sure, I can send this out once on a Slack channel, but it would quickly be lost in the sea of other stuff being communicated. You couldn't refer back to this to see what needs to be done. So, I think that Slack is great for one-time transactional stuff that can be ephemeral/transient, but doesn't work so well for situations where you need more permanence.
That's the premise of what I'm thinking about here – that the chatroom ephemerality that comes from using Slack is usually useful but sometimes not the best way to organize communication.
Whereas an email thread defines a topic and keeps things organized, a Slack chatroom clutters the topic. As an analogy, take a Stack Overflow question: it has a logic to it that an IRC chat doesn't have (and that email doesn't reach, either). The organization that comes from this structured format makes it easier to find, follow, and use this information.
To be sure, email isn't really that great at this, either. Emails like the above get stale in a matter of hours. A few hours after sending that email, it's now out of date. In a sense, I'd like it if there was a 'community wiki' on top of the thread that could be updated with the current status of whatever topic it is. If it's a current project, it can be updated with the current status of the project. If it's an email for reference, it can be updated with new information without needing to reply all to everyone.
So maybe what we need is a sort of wiki, really – but one that doesn't just store information, but also prioritizes it. One that says: these wiki pages are currently active. Current projects to be worked on, and a folder full of 'reference' pages.
I think Google Wave was a really great idea on this front. It's like email – but more active, editable, more living, and less just text that got thrown around. I'm surprised that nothing has come to replace it, since it seems like an email product based on the ideas behind Google Wave would be useful for enterprise and backwards-compatible in the sense that you could use it for organizations that had their own Wave-like system, but also fall back to the traditional email interface in the same UI. Slack can't do that – it's too different from traditional email for it to be able to fall back to it in the UI, at least at the moment.
A more integrated solution to this could have wiki pages integrated directly into Slack channels, such that each channel can have a community wiki that displays the status of a project. This would work for projects; reference materials would need to go somewhere else.
Basically, the four key things that email provides are:
- Communication — This is probably the most reduce-able content, and it's also the content that clutters up email chains unnecessarily. Slack replaces this the best.
- Task management — Probably something that can be offloaded to a dedicated task manager, provided that the whole organization uses it.
- Project management and reference — e.g. the email above. Probably something that can be replaced by a good wiki.
- Standard for external communication — Everyone has email, so it's a standard medium of communication.
It's plausible for three products, like Slack, Asana, and Hackpad, to replace the first three use cases. Maybe. The interesting thing about email is that it does a pretty OK job combining these three together. At the same time, I wouldn't be surprised if Slack combined all three of these into one product.
It's the fourth one that is difficult. Email is a crappy platform but it's ubiquitous. For as long as there is a difference between "new email" and "old email," that is, say, future Slack and the old email we use today, it's going to be cumbersome to manage both at the same time.
In any case, I prefer working with topics and stuff of that ilk, like the example above. It would be cool to see a product that combined the great organization that comes from a wiki or a thread/topic-based communication organization scheme, with the real-time features and low-pressure, low-friction benefits of Slack, with the flexibility of a best-in-class task manager and somehow make it not only work between individuals in an organization but also be able to fall back to supporting external organizations that haven't used this new system yet, but all in the same UI, seamlessly.