Collaboration has a Sweet Spot in Team Chat Tools

If you could be connected to your teammates at will, but not miss anything if you weren’t AND your communications didn’t require email AND you could search the messages later effortlessly, would you opt in? Daniel Weiss explains why persistent chat is so popular and so useful for knowledge sharing and collaboration.—Editor

Author: Daniel Weiss

In the ever-changing landscape that is communications technology, there is a new kid in town. It’s called team chat, and it’s a collaboration approach that allows groups to easily communicate and stay aware of others’ activity. Chat systems have been around for many years, but the current wave of tools provides a new combination of features including easy transition from synchronous to asynchronous communication, mobile access, and integration with cloud tools and automated bots. Team chat has become extremely popular in industry, at first being adopted by start-ups and small teams, and then later being accepted by large organizations.

Slack, a favorite in the tech world, is leading the current wave of excitement. This team chat platform currently has over 5.8 million weekly active users, with 77% of Fortune 100 companies using it in their organization. Slack’s competitors include HipChat (acquired by Atlassian), an open source alternative called Mattermost, and new offerings from major players in the industry such as Cisco Spark and Microsoft Teams.

What makes team chat so popular? First of all, conversations are persistent. Unlike many instant messenger applications, you can leave and come back, and continue the conversation later. Conversations flow from synchronous (instant messaging) to asynchronous (email-like) communication smoothly without any hiccups. There is also the ability to search through the entire archive of your conversations, and since all your team communications are taking place in this one location, it’s easy to find who had said what later.

In addition, it is easy to communicate with groups. Project teams or communities of interest can set up what’s called a channel, making it easy to broadcast a message to all the members of the group with the press of a button. At the same time, many team chat tools provide a significant amount of granularity in how and where you get notified. Depending on how relevant the activity is, you can mute one channel completely, receive notifications only when your name is mentioned in the second channel, and be alerted for all the activity in the third. You control when and for what you are notified.

Lastly, many of the tools provide integrations and bots that extend the functionality of team chat by enabling connections to other tools. This allows team chat to be a command center where all activity can be tracked across tools. One can receive incoming notifications to a team chat channel that new code is being uploaded to your code repository or that a new file has been added to the team website. At the same time, a person can also send commands or content to other tools from within the chat interface. If you are chatting with your colleagues and an action item is decided by the team, you can have the action item populate into your project tracking or to-do list tool via a command in the chat window.

In the summer of 2016, several of us did an investigation into team chat tools. In addition to testing a half dozen tools, we evaluated the overall cloud ecosystem, looking into how different enterprise productivity tools can work together to make a knowledge worker successful. Different tools, such as file syncing/sharing, collaborative editing, and task tracking apps were all evaluated, along with how they integrate with each other and how that would impact their workflow.

Integration with other tools is key to the value of a team chat tool, so we also prototyped integrations that connect to a number of existing MITRE tools. One of the key findings of this evaluation is that while team chat has benefits for everyone, it seems to hold particular use for teams that are either working on a shared goal, or for whom geographical separation creates challenges. Although team chat has benefits for everyone, we see additional value for these types of teams.

In the months since, we have seen ever more adoption of these tools, so our intent is to continue to investigate which will fit best into MITRE’s IT environment and culture and select one for corporate support. After that, we hope to continue to make integrations with our corporate tools that better enable all MITRE employees to collaborate and produce great results together.

Daniel Weiss is a User Experience Designer and an Innovation Catalyst. He has a Masters in Human-Computer Interaction from Carnegie Mellon as well as a Bachelors in Psychology. He enjoys envisioning the future and working to make it our reality through idea generation, prototyping, research, and new tool onboarding.

See also: Ending Isolation and Building a Unified Team Across Distributed Sites

©2017 The MITRE Corporation. All rights reserved. Approved for public release; Distribution unlimited. Case Number 17-1889.

The MITRE Corporation is a not-for-profit organization that operates research and development centers sponsored by the federal government. Learn more about MITRE.

 

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