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Good News: Slack Has Added Workflow, Bad News: It Falls Short on Operational Needs

December 3, 2019

Slack’s new Workflow Builder feature offers simple automation, but it’s missing some key features for operational workstream collaboration.

You’ve likely heard about Slack, the cloud-based instant messaging platform that launched in August 2013. Since its launch, the platform has grown to some 10 million daily active users. To expand upon their instant messaging offering over the years, Slack has continued to add integrations and plugins to explore new possibilities with the tool. 

One of their biggest changes in 2019 was the release of the Workflow Builder feature. Workflow Builder is meant to bring Slack further into the workstream collaboration market. For some offices, it’s a function worth investigating. However, while Workflow Builder can allow users to create custom workflows within the Slack application, it does not fundamentally change what Slack was built to do. For operational teams that rely on real-time developments to guide their workflows, Slack still falls short. 

 

Slack Workflow

 

What Is Workflow Builder?

More experienced users have been able to create their own custom apps through Slack for a while — the platform introduced automated bots in 2015. But the Workflow Builder tool is a new low-code solution that’s more approachable for non-technical users. The Slack platform product head, Andy Plaum, has stated that Workflow Builder is about enabling “people without development skills and experience [to] build basic workflows and applications inside of Slack.” 

Workflow Builder is meant to help employees streamline simple workflows through a visual process. Creating a workflow can also add transparency into how processes happen and who is responsible for what pieces of the puzzle. This feature comes with fairly customizable pre-built workflow templates for common routine tasks, including: 

  • Onboarding 
  • Information requests
  • Incident reports
  • Help desk tickets

 

Where Slack Workflow Falls Short

It’s important to acknowledge that Slack gained an enormous amount of popularity for a reason. It allows for easy communication thanks to an informal messaging format that aims to replace back-and-forth emailing. It has made some strides toward real workstream collaboration by including features like mobile access, push alerts, and third-party integration. 

And of course this new feature, Workflow Builder, will likely help more users automate certain aspects of their workflow. For companies that already use Slack, it will be a useful feature to minimize the inefficient conversations that arise around scenarios like help desk ticketing. After all, implementing an embedded form is a much better solution than ad-hoc messaging with the help desk. 

That being said, even with Workflow Builder, Slack still doesn’t suit the needs of every team. This is especially true for teams that have specific operational needs that can vary based on factors such as unforeseen customer demands, changes in weather, or product failures. Most teams that works in the field need to ensure that their current real-world situation is reflected in their workflow tools, even as conditions change. These teams must consider the following: 

Interface

Ultimately, the Slack interface is limited. While Slack does feature a mobile application for remote access, it was not designed as a mobile-first platform and cannot truly support operational on-the-go demands. 

The interface is similar to that of many other instant messaging and productivity apps, making it user-friendly — but this same feature also makes it harder to customize. Shortcuts and additional features do exist, such as “slash commands,” but these are less than intuitive. The platform does not offer permanent options to flexibly change the visual interface to make the application more streamlined.

Channels

The sheer number of channels also makes communication complicated. While teams would ideally focus on a few key channels, the reality is that individual employees tend to split off for one-on-one conversations. Constant pings from dozens of channels end up splitting user attention, and alerts might even be missed or end up buried. As noted in Gartner’s 2019 report on workstream collaboration, channel “noise” would benefit from better management and customization options, including nested channels and specific channel types or templates. 

Workflows could be a step toward this functionality, but the underlying channel system is still at the core of the Slack platform. Operational teams would benefit from more actionable alerts that are truly relevant to the recipient and contribute to completing tasks rather than adding to the noise. Additionally, organizing communication around tasks or events rather than larger channels could help focus conversation and drive projects forward. 

Unification

One issue with Workflow Builder is that it relies on employees to make piecemeal adjustments and additions. This process is unlikely to lead to a unified, intentional solution that genuinely transforms workflow. It is possible that specific individuals or team leaders may take the initiative on this, and there could ideally be some business coordination to optimize the use of this new capability. However, streamlining forms and templates can only go so far. For many organizations with operational processes, a digital workflow tool must grapple with the bigger picture if it’s going to transform a team’s operations. 

Internet of Things

Workflow Builder doesn’t solve one of Slack’s major limitations as a workstream collaboration tool. Organizations increasingly need to incorporate IoT data into their operational workflows, but this still isn’t easy within Slack. You can attach some devices, like a Raspberry Pi, if you have the specialized skills to do so. But if you need specific or extensive IoT integration, analysis, and visibility, this isn’t the right platform. Slack may be an option for connecting to some third-party services, like GitHub, Google Drive, JIRA, and Twitter. But dealing with IoT data is different than integrating with a business application. There isn’t a straightforward way to incorporate and use that data in Slack — which is a huge missed opportunity for operational teams that rely on real-time sensor information to guide next steps. 

 

Slack Workflow app

 

A Solution for Operational Success

While Workflow Builder will open up “app” creation for more Slack users, it still falls short when it comes to workstream collaboration for operational teams. Workstream collaboration is all about integrating work processes and communication into unified tools that can enhance the team workflow from end to end. 

For many, a custom solution needs to be built out in a unified way to include IoT data, location services, and task-based discussion channels. For operational teams, Workflow Builder won’t solve the main disadvantages of Slack. That’s why organizations in manufacturing, first response, transportation, logistics, and other field services industries are turning to solution providers like Coolfire. Coolfire offers a purpose-built solution for more comprehensive control over workflows. It’s not an IM system with add-ons — it’s a platform designed around each team’s specific operational requirements.