A few years ago, chat applications were about as welcome in the enterprise as a piece of malware. Chat was seen as time wasting, something that network managers would look to lock out of the corporate network. And then came Slack, and it became apparent that “chat” isn’t superfluous to business – it’s at the heart of it.
Slack’s ability to penetrate the corporate network at the level of individual teams hasn’t gone unnoticed in Redmond. What some people might have seen as a threat to Microsoft’s business, it has seen as an opportunity: a chance to create a new product that can sit at the heart of Office 365 and offer something different to its customers – and potentially attract businesses that might otherwise go to Google.
Teams is more than just a bolt-on to Office 365. It’s designed to take advantage of deep underlying Office technologies such as Groups and the Microsoft Graph to make an experience that is richer and more seamless than the platform-centric approach of competitors such as Slack.
Owning the whole ecosystem also gives Microsoft some advantages over Slack. Slack integrations tend to be one way – bringing information into Slack – rather than two-way. You can bring a Google Doc into Slack, for example, but there’s no way to see a Slack conversation about that document once you’re viewing it on Google’s platform.
The potential is there for Microsoft to do this with Teams, for example allowing a conversation about a Word document originated in Teams to be part of the document’s comments when you’re viewing it in Word. Rather than being a funnel into which data flows, as Slack is now, information from Teams can flow out into the wider Office 365 ecosystem.
This kind of deep, rich integration is largely for the future, but assuming Microsoft goes down this path, it’s hard to see how Slack would keep up. Google, of course, could, and its recent announcement of an update to Hangouts that makes it more "Slack-like" could be the start of this.
Microsoft’s biggest challenge, though, may be something beyond its control: its customers. Anecdotal evidence suggests that many large organisations that have begun to deploy Office 365 have been slow to embrace the tools beyond the “core” familiar suite of Office applications. Word, Excel, PowerPoint and SharePoint are embraced widely in the corporate environment. Delve, Planner, Sway and the other new Office tools are deployed slowly, if at all. One organisation I’m familiar with moved to Office 365 a year ago: at this point, it’s only just fully deployed the 365 versions of Word, Excel and PowerPoint.
Tools such as Teams, Delve and the rest rely on companies being ready to work in more agile ways. Some corporates are embracing this, as they realise that being more agile is the only way they’ll compete with leaner, hungrier new companies in the future. And agility is more than just a question of the technology you deploy: half the job is to change the culture of a company and embrace new ways of working.
Microsoft can provide all the tools you need to do this, but what it can’t provide is the ability to change your business’ culture.