Workplace

Slack was built for humans. Now its tools talk, too.

In Slack's new platform, your calendars and doc apps can chat with each other.

A set of drag-and-drop building blocks in a customized workflow

Slack's new platform falls in line with head of Platform Steve Wood's projected vision at last year's Frontiers conference: the place users keep track of everything important happening in their company.

Image: Slack

Slack wants to help your work tools talk with each other, and with you — all on Slack's new platform, unveiled at its annual Frontiers conference Tuesday.

Slack is the central hub of communication for at least 177,000 paying customers. With everyone working from home, it positioned itself as the ideal "digital headquarters" for companies, releasing tools like Slack Huddles to facilitate more connection. But work is about more than talking, and our work is spread across more apps than ever. "We want to make it so that Slack is highly customizable in the sense that you can get more of the business outcomes you need inside of Slack using the apps you have today," said Steve Wood, Slack's head of platform.

The new platform falls in line with Wood's projected vision at last year's Frontiers conference: the place users keep track of everything important happening in their company, compiling information from other tools and platforms. At a press briefing in preparation for this year's Frontiers, CEO Stewart Butterfield described the new platform as "a real perfect bridge" between "a solid, dependable professional structured system" and "looser, sometimes messier, more conversational actions."

"We have rebuilt the platform, and that's not hyperbole," Wood said. Slack's platform already allowed developers to build their own apps and workflows within Slack itself. But for the most part, the apps were siloed. For example, Outlook and Google Calendar apps couldn't coordinate to schedule a meeting through Slack. On Slack's new platform, developers can create apps that talk to each other.

Eventually, Slack users will be able to look at these apps and fit them together into customized workflows for their company. They'll build workflows with no code, simply dragging and dropping the apps together. Slack already has a workflow builder, but not for complex or highly specific processes. You can set up a daily check-in reminder in a channel, but you can't, for example, create a multistep sales approval process that might trigger a "request signature" notification in DocuSign. What will these workflows look like? It's all a bit nebulous right now, as Slack wants to wait and see what developers create in private beta.

"We're watching to see what our developer ecosystem does, and then we'll work on the builder for normal people," Wood said, noting that over a million developers use the platform. "The approach we're taking with that is we want you to find a useful workflow that works for you."

Apps communicating with each other is also a big deal for Slack Connect, which allows users to talk to people outside their companies. The same building blocks and workflows can be used in the Connect channel as well. "We see this as being a very powerful way for different organizations that have different tools to to come together," said Ilan Frank, VP of Product.

Third-party integrations continue to be important to Slack, as the platform wants to notify users of what happens in outside apps. Wood's team is working on allowing people to subscribe to third-party app notifications within Slack. Salesforce, Slack's parent company, is a key integration within Slack. Smartsheet, the tracking tool for managers, also integrates with Slack and has helped build inter-tool notifications. Cynthia Tee, Smartsheet's senior VP of Engineering, said "people should work where they want to work." If Smartsheet users want to stay in Slack, so be it.

"It's all about keeping you in the place you want to be when you want to collaborate with folks over Smartsheet," Tee said. "It enables you to not only view that document, but say, 'Hey, I want to be notified whenever something happens in this document.'"

People often complain about the noise within Slack; constant pinging or unread messages in channels can be overwhelming. Introducing more notifications into that environment could make that issue worse. But Wood argued third-party notifications can be powerful, especially with customized workflows around them.

"The world isn't getting any slower and it's not getting less noisy anytime soon," Wood said. "You have the tools to escalate the things that you want to escalate and to silence the things you don't care about."

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Photo: Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post via Getty Images

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Photo: artpartner-images via Getty Images

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