Slack: a communications lifeline for small teams

Amidst the hype surrounding the rapid growth of real-time collaboration start-up Slack, we carried out an online survey to peek beneath the covers of Slack’s sudden popularity. What attracts people to use Slack when there are so many other collaboration technologies already available to businesses, and what are they using it for?

Top takeaways

Slack is currently used by small, internal teams, mostly within small organisations

Our research indicates that Slack is being used predominantly at a grass-roots level within organisations, helping teams to communicate more effectively within the context of particular projects, and is most popular within organisations with fewer than 100 employees. Its growth is underpinned by viral, peer-driven adoption, and most Slack instances are initiated and operated without the formal approval or recognition of management.

Slack fills a gap left by existing business collaboration technologies, and its ease of use is central to adoption

To a large extent, the current market for business communication and collaboration tools is most heavily focused on large enterprises; there is little support for smaller, more nimble organisations. This is an opportunity that Slack currently addresses well, through a simple user experience which is easy for new users to embrace. However, some respondents in our survey expressed concerns about Slack as a long-term solution to their problems; clearly there is still room for improvement – the question is whether Slack can maintain its head start in this space while meeting the increasingly educated needs of users.

What’s behind the Slack hype?

Since its ‘preview’ beta release in August 2013, real-time business communications tool Slack has gained profile and adoption at an impressive rate, achieving 2.3 million users by February 2016 – the second anniversary of its official launch. Of these, 675,000 are paid users, and the company is projecting annual recurring revenues of $64 million for this year.

Though it is a business rather than consumer tool, Slack has attracted attention for the fanbase the product has gained in such a short timeframe, with enthusiasts vocally advocating its benefits and their love for the product. The technology is also prompting a reaction from established players in the enterprise collaboration software space, with Jive Software introducing its Jive Chime mobile messaging product and IBM launching Project Toscana in response to this emerging opportunity.

To dig a little deeper into the truth behind the hype – beyond the marketing and the software industry’s tendency to view the latest fad as a dead cert – we decided to carry out a small survey of our own to understand what is prompting Slack adopters to start using the tool, and what they are getting out of it. Our online survey was carried out over three weeks in February and March 2016, inviting users of Slack to share their views and experiences. 49 people participated on a self-selection basis, with the vast majority (62%) coming from the Technology sector. The demographics of the survey group are shown in the Appendix section at the end of this report.

Peer-driven, viral adoption is propelling growth of Slack

Our research confirms that use of Slack within organisations is predominantly virally-driven, with adoption growing through ‘grass roots’, peer recommendations rather than through company-led initiatives.

Of our survey group, only 18% began using Slack because their organisation had selected the product as a corporate tool; the remainder either took the initiative themselves to try it, or were encouraged by colleagues or peers within the organisation who were already using Slack. Of those organisations where there was a corporate decision to deploy Slack, these were almost exclusively small organisations with fewer than 500 employees. Interestingly, peer-driven adoption seems to be particularly strong among organisations with between 20 and 100 employees, accounting for more than half of the respondents for this answer.

Viral effects are driving Slack adoption

Source: MWD Advisors

Slack is primarily used within departmental teams

Slack is positioned as a team communications tool, so it is perhaps not surprising to discover that the majority of our survey participants are using it to work with their immediate teams; 65% responded that they do this “a lot”, while more than 90% use it for this purpose at least some of the time (see below). However, Slack is not playing as significant a role in connecting people in different parts of organisations, with only 29% using it extensively for cross-organisation collaboration – and managers are also being left out of the conversation, with only 16% communicating with more senior staff via Slack on a regular basis.

Our survey suggests that Slack is very much a business tool; adopters are not really using it to communicate with personal contacts within their organisations. And while there is reportedly growing adoption of Slack to support public online communities, this is not evidenced strongly in our survey, with only around a third of respondents having explored this at all.

Peer communication within teams is the main use case for Slack

Source: MWD Advisors

Benefits focus on better-connected teams and reduced email

Continuing the theme of team collaboration, our survey shows that the benefits that Slack users get from the tool are very much driven by the need to better support teamwork and ensure that everyone working within a team is kept up-to-date on what is happening; 71% cited “collaborating more effectively with team members inside my organisation” in their top three benefits, while 61% cited “keeping track of what’s going on in my team” (see below).

However, the need to reduce email overload was also central to the benefits of using Slack, with almost 60% of survey participants identifying this within their top three – and almost 20% marking this as their most significant benefit. It seems that despite wave after wave of collaboration software vendors targeting the overuse/misuse of email for collaboration within organisations, this remains a major headache for many employees, and one they continue to find their own workarounds for.

More effective team collaboration is far and away the most important cited Slack benefit

Source: MWD Advisors

Adopters value Slack’s ease of use – and that it’s free

When it comes to the aspects of Slack that adopters appreciate the most, our research suggests that its simple, easy-to-use interface is the most important feature of the tool (23%), followed by its open, group messaging capabilities (15% – see below). However, it’s interesting to see that while ease-of-use is edging clearly ahead, our respondents’ opinions were well-spread between the potential benefit options we presented, suggesting that adopters use – and get value from using – the tool in various different ways. Additional features noted by participants under “Other” included support for multi-threaded messaging within Slack, as well as bots and emojis. Comments from participants celebrated the speed with which they could get answers to their questions using Slack, and the real-time nature of the communications. Some examples of these are highlighted in boxes throughout this report.

Our survey did not formally address adopters’ challenges or concerns with using Slack, but some respondents took advantage of the comments options to share their views, and again we have shared some anonymously here. Common threads among comments included concerns about handling the volume of information they received via their Slack feed, and also how well the tool would handle volumes of information over time and as more people joined the conversation.

It’s also worth highlighting the prominence of Slack’s freemium nature on the scale of importance to adopters. As the third most popular feature with 14% of the votes, it’s clear that business users value the ability to use the tool without having to fund it themselves or get purchase authorisation from their managers.

Slack’s simplicity is a clear winner

Source: MWD Advisors

Broad adoption is limited to smaller organisations

Despite the hype and excitement within the software industry about Slack, for the most part it remains a niche proposition with limited levels of adoption within its customer base – except within small and micro businesses. Our survey found that 31% of respondents currently have less than 10% of their employee base using the tool, with 45% having fewer than a quarter of all staff signed up (see below).

At the other end of the scale, 20% of respondents reported that Slack was used by more than three quarters of their organisation’s employees, but this group is made up of mainly small (20-100 employees) or micro (less than 20 employees) businesses. In fact, as figure 6 shows, there is an almost direct correlation between the size of a respondent organisation and its level of adoption of Slack, with little adoption above 10% of the total employee base in organisations with more than 1,000 employees. It’s not particularly surprising that smaller organisations find it easier to drive more wholesale adoption, but it’s clear that Slack is fulfilling a need within these organisations that has not so far been met by a communications or collaboration tool.

Most respondents use Slack in pockets

Source: MWD Advisors


Smaller organisations are more likely to use Slack everywhere

Source: MWD Advisors

Slack is filling a team collaboration-shaped hole in many organisations

Beyond assessing the adoption of Slack in our survey participants’ organisations, we also wanted to understand what the broader collaboration software landscape looked like within these organisations, to further examine the context behind their interest and adoption of Slack.

Over the last decade or two, a wealth of new collaborative technologies has become available to businesses, with each addressing one or more of the many aspects of improving collaboration – although (as is apparent from Figure 8 below) none has had the same widespread success and adoption as email. Some are more focused on enabling information to be shared, while others are more centred on facilitating real-time communication, and still others aim to better connect employees across an organisation.

Our survey suggests three tiers of technology usage. Almost all (although surprisingly not quite all) respondents use email regularly (see below), and then three technologies share similar, moderate levels of adoption:

  • Instant messaging (such as Skype, Lync and Jabber) is used by 57% of our respondents on a regular basis;
  • Document sharing tools (such as Box, DropBox and Google Drive) are used by 55% of our respondents on a regular basis;
  • Audio/video and web conferencing tools (such as WebEx and Skype) are used by 49% of our respondents on a regular basis.

While the first and third are more established technologies, document sharing tools are a relatively new addition to the space – although clearly filling an important need – and their widespread adoption is therefore more surprising.

However, there is then a significant drop-off with relation to usage of the remaining technologies we identified – notably team or project collaboration tools (such as Asana, Basecamp, Clarizen and Huddle), which only have regular usage among 24% of our survey group, and enterprise social network tools (such as Jive Software and Yammer) which are even more uncommon with only 16% citing regular usage.

Given the skew towards organisations with fewer than 500 employees within our survey sample, the limited use of enterprise social networking technologies is perhaps not surprising; these tools offer much greater value in large organisations where there are greater challenges relating to silos of knowledge and processes, as well as disconnected business areas, and this was evident within our survey data. More telling is the limited use of team collaboration tools within the sample group; interestingly our data indicates that this is particularly low within organisations with 20-100 employees, which perhaps helps to explain the considerable interest in – and more wholesale adoption of – Slack among this group.

Email is omnipresent, but is just one part of most organisations’ collaboration tools landscape

Source: MWD Advisors

Organisations are turning a blind eye to Slack usage

The final area we examined focused on whether employees’ use of – and in turn their need for – a real-time communication tool like Slack was being recognised by business leaders. It seems that, while such virally-driven usage is not completely under the radar, most organisations turn a blind eye to its presence.

Among our survey group, only 35% of respondents (figure 8) reported that they have corporate approval for their use of Slack internally through a purchased subscription to the premium version of Slack, with the majority of these being organisations with fewer than 100 employees. 14% asserted that their organisation was unaware that they were using Slack, while 4% are discouraged to use the tool by their organisation. In contrast, 37% indicated that they were simply allowed to get on with using Slack, although it is not a formally recognised or sanctioned tool.

Slack mostly flies under the radar

Source: MWD Advisors

Is Slack more than a short-term fix?

Our survey data provides some insight into what’s driving the current wave of adoption of Slack: there is clearly an ongoing need for an easy-to-use team collaboration tool that helps to better-connect small internal teams – one that existing collaboration tools have so far failed to fulfil.

At the moment the Slack baton is being carried predominantly by small businesses that have most likely experienced rapid growth in a short time, and need a way to tie the business together in a low-cost and low-effort way.

While some are effusive about the value that Slack has brought to their work lives and their organisation, others are expressing concern about Slack’s value in a longer-term or more enterprise-wide scenario. Slack is benefitting from extensive media attention in 2016, but it’s got a lot of work to do if it is to win the long-term battle here, both in terms of maintaining its differentiation in terms of features and capabilities, but also in maintaining the loyalty of its early adopters and champions.


Appendix – Demographics of survey participants

Demographic breakdown of respondent organisations

Source: MWD Advisors

Breakdown of respondents by region

Source: MWD Advisors

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