Slack for communities

Slack is a messaging app that has become phenomenally popular over its relatively short two year life span. As of June 2015 there were over 1 million registered users.

Originally designed as team chat software for the employees of a video games company, the developers spotted the compelling nature of their messaging platform and decided to spin it off as a separate product. Some of that video game DNA is evident in the colourful user interface and playful nature of the Slackbot – the automated help system that gets people up and running when they first join. This isn’t your usual bland corporate software tool.

For many small businesses and startups it’s becoming the direct replacement for internal email. Why? It’s hard to explain until you actually start using Slack. The shallow learning curve and ability to run across multiple devices makes it easy to integrate into working life. Sharing via ‘channels’ with clearly defined topics means that it’s far better for disseminating information amongst the right people. And Slack plays nice with other services. It can integrate with Twitter, Trello, Google Docs and Dropbox (amongst many others). Essentially you can use Slack as the linchpin for all the other web services you use.

Slack isn’t just for small teams though. Slack’s pricing model means you can invite an unlimited number of people to a Slack team for ZERO cost. Because of this, some organisations have started creating Slack teams to support entire communities. Buffer for example have a community Slack team where Buffer staff and users can mingle and talk about the product, share tips on social media use or chat about anything else that people might have a shared interest on.

Slack is also being used as a tool for conferences (see article on The Verge). It can be daunting to attend a conference where you don’t know anyone, especially if you’re not the sort of person comfortable with small talk and networking. XOXO organisers used Slack to help establish relationships between delegates before they actually met in real life. And after the conference had taken place, Slack helped delegates stay in touch to keep the momentum of new ideas & projects going.

I know what you’re thinking. We’re swimming in ways to communicate with each other – why throw yet another channel of communication into the mix? I really love Twitter and in recent years it has become a hugely influential tool for learning and crowd sourcing information. BUT, many of the relationships formed on Twitter tend to be quite fluid. It’s great at creating lots of different connections, but it’s harder (although not impossible) to deepen those relationships within the confines of 140 characters. The very nature of Twitter is quite impermanent. Unless it’s occurred in the past few hours, it’s pretty much buried.

Slack on the other hand enables free form conversation amongst potentially hundreds of people. The simple but effective messaging format fosters properly fleshed out discussion and there’s a lengthy history of everything that has taken place for those joining the conversation mid-way. In terms of fully conveying ideas in real-time with a large number of people, it’s about as good as it gets outside of physically being in the same space.

Also, as Slack teams are not publicly viewable it perhaps discourages some of the counter productive grandstanding (or worse, trolling) that takes place on other public mediums. See the comments section of.. well, just about any website you can imagine for examples of this.

If this sounds interesting and you’d like to dabble with Slack, I’ve created a UKHousing Slack team for anyone working in or involved with housing. All are welcome! You can request an invite by filling out this form : https://ukhousing.typeform.com/to/JbTf9L

Coworking. Not just for trendy freelancers and startups.

Earlier this week I was reading an article about the rise of coworking spaces in recent years. In case you’ve never heard of it, coworking is the practice of individuals or small teams working from shared office space. Aside from enabling these groups to have a flexible base of operations without committing to fixed leases, these spaces have created flourishing communities and helped connect and inspire people from differing professions around common goals.

This had me pondering – couldn’t the benefits of coworking office space be applied to absolutely anyone, not just freelancers and startups?

For a while now the technology has been in place where people can work from literally anywhere (see the definition of digital nomad if you want to be green with envy). I’m at a point where I could do a large chunk of my job armed with just an iPad and an Internet connection. So why aren’t we encouraging more staff to spend office days in places other than their desk? Especially faced with mounting evidence that the traditional office environment is bad for productivity.

Yes, it’s good (essential even?) for staff to spend time with their colleagues to foster those working relationships that are so crucial to getting things done and making the job enjoyable. However, I think it’s equally important to work in different spaces to shake off the ‘default’ mindset of plodding through routine, doing what you’ve always done before.

So, speaking from experience of my own sector – what if we had shared working space for all the Housing Associations in Cardiff? How many serendipitous conversations and relationships would be forged simply by sharing the same working area whilst doing the daily email trawl?

Let’s throw the net wider. Why not open that shared office space to Housing Associations in Wales? What sort of ideas might get swapped over a cup of coffee in the kitchen?

Let’s go broader again – why not open that office space to Local Councils and Health Boards? What common struggles could we talk about over lunch? What sort of connected approaches might we start defining?

Whilst we’re at it, why don’t we host regular unconferences in this space to help flesh all these new ideas out to find wider support?

Obviously, there’s a whole raft of logistical challenges to solve. But I think it illustrates that working in this sort of environment could result in huge opportunities for collaboration and connecting the dots across multiple sectors. In a broad sense it’s all about removing barriers (physical, hierarchical, political, organisational) to prevent people toiling in isolation, duplicating or expending effort in the wrong areas.

In this way we might be able to get on with the business of tackling the wicked problems that matter most, together

IT is dead. Long live IT.

I’ve worked in the IT sector for 14 years. The majority of that stint has been spent in public & third sector organisations. In all that time I can’t remember the pace of technological change being quite so rapid.

And that’s by no means bad thing! I love new technology and I’m a big fan of change but it’s something that most organisations in our sector struggle to keep pace with.

The IT department were once the purveyors of everything digital. We introduced the first PDA devices that you had to sync via USB to carry your email around. We gave people their first laptops that came in suitcase sized carry bags and weighed as much as a small toddler. We told people that social networks & instant messaging platforms were okay, but weren’t a serious communications replacement for trusty old email.

So what happened? Has IT become a lumbering dinosaur?

Technology has become mainstream and the barrier for using it is getting lower all the time. When I was five I got my first computer (Amstrad CPC464 FTW) and it came with a ring bound manual that was comparable in size to the Boeing 747 owners guide. I took me the best part of a day to figure out how to load games from the cassette deck. This year my daughters (2 & 3 years old respectively) had Android tablets for Christmas and within 10 minutes they were happily using them unaided.

People from non-traditional IT backgrounds are becoming skilled in areas like mobile and cloud because they use that technology in their day to day lives. The hardware (mobile, tablet, laptop, desktop) has reached a point where it’s increasingly less important than the actual services people are interacting with. And the expectation is that those services are available wherever there’s an Internet connection.

Of course, your trusty IT department play a HUGE part in ensuring you can access your work anywhere. But as more and more services migrate out to the cloud, there’s less to administer in house and less that can go wrong on the user end of the equation.

In the last ten years I have witnessed a huge bump in general computer literacy. I fully expect new generations of staff to be very comfortable with Google-ing their own problems and fixing their own stuff.

The cold hard truth is the average in-house IT team are rapidly losing relevance in their current guise.

The problem is we’ve been saddled with the role of gatekeepers of change for far too long. If any part of the organisation wanted to do things differently, it has to work with IT to map out the processes, scope the project, procure a system and implement it. Great right? We’re valuable!

Whilst it’s lovely to be needed – it also creates a bottleneck. It’s not unusual for an IT department to run with somewhere between 5 and 10 projects simultaneously on top of day to day activities. And they just keep stacking on top of each other as the year progresses. Constant time slicing between complex tasks slows everything down to a crawl. In turn this makes the organisation less responsive and less able to change course when required.

Course correction is more important than perfection.
– IBM CIO Jeff Smith

I think it’s time for IT to relinquish control. We need to start looking for technology leaders outside the four walls of our departments and take a far more collaborative approach. Let’s have the confidence to make information freely available and co-author solutions together rather than unwittingly imposing decisions and limiting options.

Working within rigid hierarchies just isn’t going to cut it going forward. IT spending is dropping and IT teams are typically under resourced. We simply cannot hold back the floodgates of change. It’s time to decentralise IT and tap into resources across the breadth of the organisation to surface real technical challenges that need addressing now.

By adapting the role of IT to one of innovation and learning delivery (rather than just purely service delivery) we immediately extend our shelf life AND provide a far better platform for change to our organisations.