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Slack: When It Makes Sense to Use It

[Maha Bali is Associate Professor of Practice at the Center for Learning and Teaching at the American University in Cairo, Egypt. Her primary role is a faculty developer but she also teaches educational game design to undergrads and ed tech to in-service teachers. She is a co-facilitator of edcontexts.org and columnist at Hybrid Pedagogy. She blogs at http://blog.mahabali.me and tweets @bali_maha.]

My first thought when I heard of this tool was: why would someone call a productivity tool “slack”?

You’ve read ProfHacker posts about how to manage your email more effectively; the truth is, the best way to manage your email better is to get less email in the first place. Tools like Slack can help make this happen. You could think of it as the social media evolution of email. Other people have referred to it as a private form of social media, but I disagree. Slack is all about privacy and organization and social media is largely about openness and, frankly, embracing serendipitous chaos.

You’ve already read about some of Slack’s appeal from Lee’s recent post. Here’s some more detail about how Slack works and some of the different ways you can use it.

First, someone creates a “team” on Slack and invites people to it. Whoever creates that team will be referred to as an “admin” – that person can give other team members admin permissions or other levels of permission. Within the team, admins can create channels (and archive them when a “project” is done) and private groups (that some admins will allow users to create) that are visible only to a subset of people in the team. You can also do private messaging on Slack. It allows you to link to all kinds of documents including Google Docs, Dropbox, and PDFs. It also allows you to see who is online at the same time as you — a feature shared by Gmail, but not Twitter.

Slack’s main advantage is when you have a large pool of people working together but not all of them working on the same thing, and there are multiple parallel projects running at the same time. A couple of examples:

  1. You are part of a research team of 10 people. There are 3 of you working on a conference paper while 5 of you are working on a peer-reviewed article (with some overlap between these two) and you also want a space, visible to everyone, where people can propose new projects

  2. Your department at work has a mailing list but some topics are only of interest to a subgroup of people. So, for example, some people in my department were working on an extended workshop on blended learning. Instead of keeping a string of emails to look for later, a Google Doc folder that most people forget how to find, and a Dropbox folder, we could have instead used Slack which allows you to pin google docs in channels. This way you never forget to copy one person on an email, you don’t have to sift through all emails from a person to find the one on blended learning, and you never need to email the entire group things that are irrelevant to them. Other groups or channels can be kept for “special interest groups” like for sharing resources on ed tech. You would know where to go if you wanted to look at a resource that was shared last week, and you could choose not to look because the person posting it already did the job of categorizing it

From the above examples I would say it works well for time-limited projects which can be created as events then archived when over (e.g papers, events) and ongoing projects or interests (e.g. sharing resources on a particular topic)

Slack comes with two default channels that are open to all participants in the team: general and random chit-chat. This helps people who really don’t have time to socialize on a particular day and want to focus on the important or urgent work (though I think they would be missing out on the fun).

Key things to remember for managing Slack are:

  • I like the mobile (Android or iPad) notifications more than the email ones.

  • I dislike the fact that each “team” has a different login (username and password), but if you use an app for it on a mobile device, you can set all of these up and adjust the notifications however you like. It’s easy to switch teams with a click.

One of the things I have run into while working with different teams is that some admins are really into keeping things organized and will get annoyed if a conversation in a “working” channel veers into chit-chat. Other admins are different: you have a conversation in a private group or channel within Slack and they ask you to make it public to the whole team. I think these decisions will always depend on the team and each community can set their own ethos and rules.

While it sometimes seems like too much organization, Slack can really help save time finding things, especially when you work on multiple projects with a similar group of people — a situation where email will inevitably get unwieldy to the point of frustration. Slack puts the burden of organizing things on the sender/poster and makes it easier for readers to find things, especially backlogs.

My main concern with Slack is that it can encourage siloes at work such that some people become excluded from conversations in ways less visible than email, where you intentionally type in the emails of people each time (or at least can see them in reply all). Slack allows you to see who is a member of a group, of course, but it’s an extra step you have to take. More experience using Slack should give us a better perspective on its strengths and limitations. One obvious limitation right now is the difference among the Android, iOS, and desktop apps (but this issue is not unique to Slack). Meanwhile, users can enjoy the enormous range of emojis to choose from (including ones that are customizable by skin tone – thanks Autumm Caines and Sarah Honeychurch for showing me this one), and the ability to create your own emojis, and giphy integration (type in any sentence after typing “/giphy” and get a surprise), an indication of a strangely fun-loving approach to productivity! Oh, and the Slackbot is eerily cute and helpful, I often feel compelled to thank it. When I do, I get a “Don’t mention it.”

Learn more about Slack from their own web site, and check out their privacy policy.

Are you a Slack user? If so, what advice do you have for newcomers? Alternately, do you use a different, non-email tool for online communication, collaboration, and organization? Please share in the comments.

[Image: Slack, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from Jon Bunting]

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