Destroying context by Slack and WhatsApp

Brilliant write up!

Slack is the opposite of organizational memory

It normalizes interruptions, multitasking, and distractions, implicitly permitting these things to happen IRL as well as online. It normalizes insanely short reply times for questions. In the slack world people can escalate from asking in a room to @person to @here in a matter of minutes. And they’re not wrong to – if your request isn’t handled in 5 minutes it’s as good as forgotten.

Somewhere along the way we forgot that interruptions are toxic to real work. It wasn’t always this way. On day 1 of my first trading job the only instruction I received was ‘when the market is open, mute your phone.’ The subtext was ‘or else’. If someone said this to me today I’d give them a hug, and I’m not a hugger.

The greatest “email slayer” of all the times!

Chat, at least on slack, isn’t grouped or threaded. ‘What about rooms?’ you ask. In my experience (at 4+ companies) rooms aren’t a clear delineation; they tend to anchor groups rather than topics and topics/conversations still overlap in any one channel. Under the typical use patterns I’ve observed, it’s non-trivial to know what the current topics of conversation are in a slack channel or to assign one of those topics to any given message.

And finally the search is broken:

  • in part because unlike threads in email / forums, there’s no natural grouping, so you can only search for messages
  • in part because the slack search feature is badly implemented – adjacent messages show up as separate results, even when their before/after context overlaps
  • I never know what clicking will do – sometimes it will scroll my channel to the message, other times show or hide or resize the search result

I was dealing with a start-up in the US. The names aren’t necessary, but I was trying to convince their PR managers (community experts), that they should hold asynchronous conversations on Telegram. All entreaties fell on deaf ears. It was impossible for them to understand the conceptual ideas I was trying to share (including some engineering challenges) and was a waste of time. There are other “journalistic start-ups” which offer Slack as an add-on to provide feedback. Pathetic.

Search is broken. “Channels” or Rooms have zero traction. Their web interface is shoddy. Notifications are a mess. UI is confusing.

The most important takeaway:

I think most people agree that when knowledge workers work together on teams they need to use writing to agree on what to do. On slack the quality of that writing is plumbing new depths. There’s a world of difference between a well-considered G doc that has been edited by multiple people vs a stream of consciousness mixed in with people’s WFH announcements and ‘look what my cat did’.

24/7 reachability also hurts good docs practices. When people couldn’t get ahold of each other at all hours orgs had to design for redundancy, i.e. write things down such that they could be understood by someone else. But there’s a whole generation of workers and even companies that never experienced that.

Documentation serves as an “organisational brain”. Here’s the thought process. For example, documentation of early and long-term effects of radiation should be formed with clinical physicists and oncologists. There should be a mechanism to form a bridge to document the planning processes and highlight the best practices. Failure rates should be assiduously tracked and provide a feedback mechanism including the audits. All these are lost in asynchronous chats with the patients, being lost to follow up, and absent documentation/autopsies to understand the cause of death. The quality of the deliverability mechanisms suffer.

If you slowly connect the dots, creating a giant memex within the organisation (including the tumour board decisions) should be captured (minus the hyped Slack or WhatsApp) so that patients can benefit (conversely the organisation).

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