A Blog by Jonathan Low


Nov 8, 2016

Why Group Chat Has Emerged As the Hottest Thing In IT

Ease, convenience and cost have driven every other major trend in consumer tech.

The interesting question is why it took so long to figure out that combination might also work in business tech operations. JL

Christopher Mims reports in the Wall Street Journal:

Chat is becoming the backbone of many businesses, bringing together both people and multiple software programs. It is emerging as a way to coordinate business functions. Chat is taking off because it centralizes both tasks and communication about those tasks. It’s convenient. It might even lead to increased productivity.
Forget artificial intelligence. Forget the cloud. Forget everything you think you know about what will separate the winners and losers among business-technology vendors. The defining turf war of the next decade will be group chat.
It sounds ridiculous. How could something pitched primarily as a “replacement for email” prove more important than other technologies, from productivity software to storage?
The answer: Chat is becoming the backbone of many businesses, bringing together both people and multiple software programs. Consider Newcastle Chrysler in Newcastle, Maine, population 1,752. Alex Miller has worked at the family-owned business since he started washing cars at age 12. Now 30 and head of information technology, Mr. Miller says the dealership couldn’t live without Atlassian Corp.’s HipChat.
Before HipChat, replacing a part required a customer-service representative to print a request, walk to the parts department, wait for a mechanic to check inventory and look for the part. Now, it is a two-minute interaction in which an employee can find the required part online without leaving the chat app.
Such stories are drawing new, and bigger, players to the arena. Facebook Inc. last month introduced Workplace by Facebook, which replicates the world’s largest social network for groups within an organization. Last week, Microsoft Corp. added a group chat function, dubbed Microsoft Teams, to its Office 365 productivity suite, turning every online Office document into a potential launch point for discussion.
The two giants join workplace-chat natives such as HipChat and Slack Technologies Inc. As if to underline the stakes, Slack, which boasts four million daily active users and was valued at $3.8 billion earlier this year, published an oddly defensive and somewhat cringe-worthy full-page letter in the New York Times “welcoming” Microsoft to the field.
The car dealership’s Mr. Miller says chat is superior to other communications channels because it can be both immediate and synchronous, like a meeting or a phone call, or asynchronous, like email.
Kevin Conroy, chief product officer of GlobalGiving, a crowdfunding platform for nonprofits, recalls the moment that dramatized the value of chat. “I was sitting in a cab in Nairobi helping our [system administrator] in D.C. debug a problem with a system in Vancouver,” he says. Previously, that would have required a “hairy mess” of emails, phone calls and documents, with communication delayed by hours or days and complicated across time zones, he adds.
In the case of the recent Hurricane Matthew, Mr. Conroy says his team couldn’t have coordinated resources for charities without HipChat. It delivered news, forecasts and social-media posts. “It allowed our folks to work with organizations on the ground in the Dominican Republic and Haiti, and it enabled people to be feeding real-time info to us,” he says.
Chat’s role in improving communication within teams is well documented. Now, it is emerging as a way to coordinate business functions. The trend, dubbed “ChatOps,” began among software developers, but is spreading to nontechnical workers.
Early adopters among developers integrated bots—automated chat-based communication interfaces—into Slack or HipChat to notify administrators when a server went down, for example. Both apps can connect with other services, or custom software code, allowing computers elsewhere to push notifications into group chats. The interaction can go the other way as well, by sending commands directly from a chat window to a remote system.
At base, ChatOps is about integrating all the functions a person needs to carry out a job into a single window—the chat window.
“Chat replaces 100 open browser tabs,” says Steve Goldsmith, general manager of HipChat. “I have a room, I have the right services plugged into it, and I can escalate via video chat if typing is too slow.”
Mr. Conroy says his team has replaced a 15-minute daily check-in meeting with a two-minute chat driven by its “Standup bot” that prompts team members to detail what they did yesterday, what they plan to do today and any impediments to their work.
At the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences in Sydney, every exhibit has its own entry in a system called Jira, typically used to manage software-development projects. The museum connected Jira, also an Atlassian product, to HipChat to create an information hub for its many exhibits, which include a working steam engine. When problems crop up, employees are instantly alerted on their mobile devices and can jump into a chat room to discuss remedies. It’s a literal translation of ChatOps to real-world objects and a nonsoftware business.
Elsewhere, hotels are equipping employees with chat apps and creating chat rooms for each physical room, tracking its condition and status for new guests. International Business Machines Corp.’s 1,300-member design team uses Slack to discuss and quickly vote on proposed designs.
Slack’s explosive growth didn’t just happen because people like to gab at work. Chat is taking off because it centralizes both tasks and communication about those tasks. It’s convenient. It might even lead to increased productivity—though the jury is still out on that.


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