Slack’s Platform plan: To be ‘the central nervous system’ of businesses everywhere

Steve Wood joined Slack three months ago as head of Platform, and he wants to turn the chat app into a way to understand everything happening inside a company.

Slack workflows

Slack's move beyond just communication starts with Workflows, helping connect apps to each other (and Slack).

Photo: Slack

Not long after Steve Wood joined Slack in June, as a VP of product for its developer platform, he had a sort of an epiphany. Slack, it turns out, is really good at what Wood calls "events." An event, in his world, is any moment that matters to a business: a lead comes in, a server goes down, a sale is closed, code is committed. Lots of companies use Slack to talk about these moments and to figure out what to do next. But Wood wanted to do even more.

In his first three months at the company, that's how Wood and his team have come to talk about Slack Platform, its tools that allow developers to build their own apps and workflows within Slack. They talk about "the event-driven enterprise" and giving companies and users the ability to know everything important that's happening in their company, no matter where it's happening or how it's being tracked.

At its Slack Frontiers conference, Wood announced new features for Platform users, like the ability to roll out a new app across an entire organization and an increased security profile for enterprise apps. Ahead of his keynote, Wood explained his vision for Platform — and for Slack's future as more than just a place to chat with co-workers.

Steve Wood Steve Wood, Slack's VP of product for Platform.Photo: Slack

Ultimately, Wood said, Slack could act like a traffic cop, telling users what to focus on without forcing them to check a dozen browser tabs or in-app notifications. "The thing with events is that the value of them often degrades with time," Wood said. Stock price changes matter only in the moment; new business leads are far more likely to pan out if they get a call in the first hour. "It's not that our customers aren't already doing this," Wood said, "but we had this idea to take the world of system events to the world of human events, and then bring the two together and have Slack Platform be that mediation layer that kind of manages between the two."

Done poorly, that sounds like notification hell, an endless stream of tiny changes that mostly don't matter. Done right, it turns Slack into the first place people check to see what's happening in every part of the company. Doing it right will be tough, Wood acknowledged: They're working with IBM's Watson to better contextualize and personalize these updates, and will rely on developers and users to figure out for themselves what's important and what isn't.

What Slack doesn't want to be is a full-fledged workplace a la Office or the new Google Workspace. Wood said that Stewart Butterfield likes to joke that building a best-of-breed messaging system is hard enough, without also trying to do the same for spreadsheets and CRMs. "If we become that sort of central nervous system, where events are coming in that need human attention, then all of a sudden we drive the workflows that go back to the systems that are really great at what they do." He's happy to let Salesforce do Salesforce things and Zoom do Zoom things, and Slack can be the jumping-off point for all of them. Slack likes to say that the 2% of your software budget you spend on Slack makes the other 98% more useful.

The other thing Wood is working on is making it easier for people to build these apps and workflows in Slack. He spoke proudly of the fact that 175,000 people have built workflows for Slack, and 77% of them are classified as "non-technical." Slack's now working with Zapier to bring its huge library of integrations into Slack, too. In theory, many of the workflows that currently require human intervention could soon happen entirely automatically, with only a notification showing up in Slack that everything is done and dusted.

The trick with making all those foolproof no-code tools, though, is that they can often prevent tech teams from building more powerful, custom things they need to run their business. That's where Wood said some of Slack's Platform APIs will come in. "I tend to bifurcate the platform a little bit," he said. "We have this no-code piece, which is really to empower our Slack customers and allow them to do more. And then we have the developers that can extend those things. But I see less of a model where one would jump between those two things." The no-code opportunity seems to be the larger one for Slack, though.

Slack's main project continues to be interpersonal communication. At Frontiers the company announced new ways for users to connect with people outside of their organization, new ideas about audio and video chat, and more. But remember: Slack is trying to kill email. And the only way to kill email is to kill the notifications, the status updates, the "something happened" notes that clutter too many inboxes. If Slack can move those into Slack, and make them a little smarter, that's one less reason to ever check email.

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