Unlike previous acquisitions Slack reaches beyond data and infrastructure to general human interaction. Slack challenged legacy collaboration assumptions by eliminating much of the structure and governance of previous systems. Slack espouses a bottoms-up approach to defining teams and communications channels. Its early popularity among coders soon penetrated other segments of the enterprise. Small businesses adopted Slack as well, finding it an easy way for people to communicate more quickly, and more transparently, and more inclusively than e-mail.
The deal, expected to close in over a year, raises some questions about how Slack’s openness fits into a system designed to silo collaboration around customers and opportunities. Salesforce already includes chat tools and collaboration features like Chatter and Quip, as well as the nascent Salesforce Anywhere. Salesforce also offers structured collaboration through its Work.com investment to help customers better deal with Covid-pandemic related workflows.
Serious Insights views customer relationship management (CRM) as part of a holistic collaboration experience. People work together around a record to understand an opportunity, close a deal, or resolve a question. Those conversations led to actions in finance, in legal–they lead to manufacturing master schedules, to operations, to logistics, to customer support, and customer success. The conversational nature of sales record collaboration was not lost on Salesforce. Structured databases do not make good repositories for people discussing an issue, often expressed through multiple responses, occasionally through protract arguments. Thus the need for collaboration adjuncts to the relational database. From a knowledge management standpoint, those conversations provide context, capture historical relationship states, and facilitate consensus. They need to be stored, indexed, and ultimately curated.
The acquisition of Slack opens a new competitive front for Salesforce. Slack was not a CRM-focused tool or a collaborative market rounding error. Slack openly competes against Microsoft, Google, and Facebook for a share of how people work across the organization. With Slack, Salesforce takes a deeper dive across the enterprise.
But that enterprise focus isn’t the first issue the company needs to deal with. Their first chore will be rationalizing their own collaboration investments. Like enterprises everywhere that acquired too many collaborative tools, Salesforce now faces that reality as a vendor. It needs to create a rationalized model of work and reconcile features across its collaboration investments. It now needs a comprehensive vision for the future of work.
That Salesforce needs a comprehensive vision does not mean one will arrive. Most collaboration companies, including Microsoft and Google, have limited visions for how people work because they see the work of maintaining deep, often conflicting, and challenging views of the future ancillary to their core mission. They also suffer from the delusion professed by many technology leaders, Bill Gates among them, that the best way to predict the future is to create it.
But creation requires knowledge of things that can’t be known. That is why I concentrate so much on uncertainties and alternative scenarios. Without that richness of humble exploration, developers will think they have an answer to some future problem without understanding the dimensions of the problem, including if the problem will really be a problem across all possible futures. Executives take pride in making big bets on technology, in the hopes that their leadership will shape the future, without any evidence that a bold choice is anything more than another extrapolation of current trends into an uncertain future. It behooves technology companies to at least explore future contexts across multiple possibilities in a robust way rather than trusting gut to statistical extrapolation from trends. If 2020 teaches anything, tomorrow may be very different than today.
Salesforce has placed a big bet on Slack. Slack investors like it, but in the long term, like many technology acquisitions, it will likely prove an ill-fitting glove to the problems and opportunities the company will face in the future. It thrusts them into a new competitive space that may, at the size of the deal, cause distraction rather than coalesce toward a synergy. Slack may continue on its own journey, it may disappear into a set of features swimming around CRM, it may emerge as a strategic juggernaut that positions Salesforce as a new visionary in the future of work. I don’t know how it will turn out, and neither do Slack or Salesforce.
Within days of the Slack announcement, Cisco announced huge investments in the reinvention of Webex platform. Unlike Salesforce, Cisco has been down this road before with abandoned collaboration products strewn along the margins of its journey. While their strategic messaging around 10x better experiences misses the mark for credibility when challenged on measuring improvement, the fundamentals of the changes appear well-informed against the needs of the moment. Cisco also remains less than robust in its visioning exercises, but its blocking-and-tackling around the new product direction–and perhaps most importantly its willingness to self-examine in a time of anxiety and confusion, does demonstrate leadership. It also means that Salesforce will need to deal with a resurgent Webex as it ventures toward whatever Slack will evolve into.
The $27B bet will be watched by investors perhaps more so than enterprise consumers. For enterprises, even Salesforce-forward enterprises, Slack isn’t their core concern. If it already adds value, it will continue to do so, if it doesn’t, whatever alternative adopted will likely still remain connected to Salesforce’s marketplace. I’m guessing that by the time this deal closes it will look like a 2020 play that like many of 2020 events, is either best forgotten or something that turned out completely differently than predicted.
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Daniel W. Rasmus
Daniel W. Rasmus, Founder and Principal Analyst of Serious Insights, is an internationally recognized speaker on the future of work and education. He is the author of several books, including Listening to the Future and Management by Design.