If you’re part of a flexible or remote team, enterprise messenger platforms such as Slack, Flock and Fuze could fundamentally change how you communicate with clients and colleagues. Technology journalist James Day shares what you need to know
It’s like WhatsApp, but for internal business communications. That’s enterprise messaging in a nutshell. Rather than getting bogged down by email or locked into lengthy meetings, secure instant chat apps can speed up staff interaction and increase productivity.
With the enterprise messaging industry estimating that its five million global users could rise to a billion in 10 years’ time (1), this rapidly growing market is about to explode. With so many platforms to choose from and exciting technologies – such as artificial intelligence (AI), augmented reality (AR), the Internet of Things (IoT) and virtual reality (VR) – all set to play their part, here’s how to navigate the messaging minefield.
1. Why it might be time to switch
Open, efficient communication. It’s what every business believes in but doesn’t always deliver. Our love affair with email is understandable, but it’s a productivity killer when you think about how many messages it takes just to schedule a meeting. Now imagine an instant real-time conversation with every collaborator on that project and you might find you don’t need the meeting in the first place.
Secure enterprise messaging isn’t about replacing email. It’s about avoiding the traffic to arrive at your destination earlier. A survey from messenger app Flock, which launched in the UK in 2017, even suggests it’s reduced the number of meetings and emails required by its users by up to 70 per cent.
“The business ecosystem has grown and workplace activities have become much more collaborative,” says the billionaire founder of Flock, Bhavin Turakhia. “That’s why we need to respond quickly to many workplace challenges. Clearly, tools that let users collaborate seamlessly and in real time are the need of the hour.”
2. What’s all the fuss about?
With individuals losing 27 minutes of productive time every day (equal to a whole day every month) due to IT problems, slow running systems, and outdated kit (2) – any tools that can help streamline daily work processes are winners.
A top enterprise messenger service offers more than just a convenient way to chat. For a start, it should work seamlessly across platforms, such as your desktop or laptop computer, smartphone and tablet. This also includes voice and video calling.
It should be easy to share digital content, for example, dragging and dropping a document you would normally attach to an email. Integration with external apps such as Dropbox, Trello, MailChimp and others is useful, as is secure cloud storage with several layers of encryption.
Finally, the service needs to be scalable to the size of the business and not compromise on performance if the team grows. Flock has been adopted by global management firm Accenture, electronics manufacturer Ricoh and Swiss Army knife maker Victorinox, while the even more popular Slack is used by computer giant IBM, British broadcaster ITV, Samsung, AirBnb, and eBay, and among others.
3. Leaders of the pack
Given it’s all about being snappy, it’s no wonder the services driving demand all have buzzword-style names. Fuze, Flock and Slack are already established and cover all the criteria listed above. The trio are geared towards end users and require very little set-up.
Twilio, on the other hand, is for developers seeking to embed real-time messaging into their software. Alternatives include Teamwire, used by banks and police forces in Germany, and BroadSoft, recently bought by Cisco Systems.
The freedom of open-source software may particularly appeal if you work with sensitive information, need to keep communications behind a firewall, or simply don’t trust the cloud and would rather use a local server. In that case, choose a service such as Rocket.Chat, Mattermost or Oneteam. Otherwise take your pick from the best of the rest jostling for space. In most cases, they are free to download and use, but offer paid-for premium features.
There’s no question that real-time messaging saved to the cloud ramps up productivity. For example, imagine a new member of staff joins the company and needs to get up to speed on a project. Rather than scheduling time-consuming meetings, conference calls or forwarding reams of email correspondence, the team’s conversation history and shared documents are instantly accessible so they can hit the ground running.
4. The big four
Microsoft, Google, Amazon and Apple were never going to be far away. Microsoft Teams is part of Office 365, but can integrate with non-Microsoft products. The tech giant considered buying Slack for $8m but backtracked after Bill Gates reportedly lobbied for the money to be spent developing Skype for Business (see Social media gets serious) instead.
Google Jibe is described as a Rich Communications Service (RCS). It shares plenty of similarities with enterprise messengers but is aimed solely at Android users. Whereas Amazon Anytime, reportedly in the works, will be compatible across desktop and mobile devices and is more consumer-focused.
Apple’s Business Chat is a new feature within iMessage launching this year. The idea here is to make it easier for customers to contact firms, such as their bank, to resolve issues. The benefits for anyone already ingrained in Apple’s ecosystem are fairly obvious, with synchronicity across all iOS devices, including iPad, iPhone and Apple Watch. You’ll also be able to start conversations through links in Safari, Maps, Spotlight and voice assistant Siri.
A scene from Altspace showing a meeting between virtual avatars
5. Social media gets serious
WhatsApp itself is a favourite of small businesses in emerging markets and claims 80 per cent of small firms in Brazil and India use its service. With this in mind, it launched WhatsApp Business, which works like Apple Business Chat and possibly explains why it’s Android-only at present.
Other consumer platforms to go corporate are Workplace by Facebook and Skype for Business. Workplace shares the familiar look and functionality of Facebook, but restricts things to work colleagues only and sprinkles some enterprise messenger goodness. Skype for Business also swaps out friends for work colleagues. It integrates with Office 365, but will eventually be swallowed up by Microsoft Teams, reportedly part of a grand plan by the tech giant to put pressure on Slack… the platform it almost bought.
The bonus of using familiar platforms is that staff can navigate their way around in double-quick time (a boon for productivity). And the impact of making these platforms business-only – separate to people’s personal messaging accounts – means there are no distracting ‘likes’, ‘tags’ or other notifications popping up during the work day.
6. IoT and AI
Imagine asking Amazon’s Alexa to message the team on Slack through your Echo Dot. The rise of the smart home IoT devices makes enterprise voice messaging achievable. A slightly more terrifying use for IoT is a smart attendance system. A quick card swipe at your desk confirms you’ve arrived at work and instantly informs colleagues.
Machine learning and messaging means chatbots – but AI-enabled enterprise chatbots can make brisk business of mundane tasks. This includes finding information faster, organising meetings, making or changing appointments and collecting internal data on the business. Setting up an enterprise chatbot used to be the domain of coders, but platforms such as ChattyPeople are making it ever easier.
7. VR and AR
Arguably the most exciting tech in consumer electronics right now, VR and AR have a role to play in the future of business communication – and collaboration, too. With both technologies, finding a physical meeting room isn’t even necessary because you can all hook up in a digital world from different locations.
Windows Mixed Reality is Microsoft’s affordable VR system. It’s partnered with Altspace to offer virtual meeting areas where you join a room full of avatars – your colleagues. The same works for AR, only this time other attendees appear like holograms over the real world, with all the graphs, presentations and slides required too. “These advancements will make global businesses more connected, robust and able to deliver on their goal,” says Flock’s Bhavin Turakhia.
Add everything up and it equals an exciting future for enterprise messengers, with plenty of emerging technologies in the mix to move the story on and usher in an era of flexible working that’s fit for the 21st century. So which one will you choose for your workplace?
James Day is a UK-based technology journalist