- The IT department at Emerson College needed a way to engage IT staff in important communications, but with the ability to segregate casual and business conversations and hosted offsite to maintain business continuity.
- The IT staff chose the free version of Slack, which provides a reliable, easy-to-use, platform-agnostic chat and instant messaging service that IT staff and students have readily adopted.
- Communication, while open, is also segregated and focused according to the users’ needs, encouraging department-wide use and enabling stronger collaboration.
- Ultimately, Slack might help the varied Emerson departments collaborate and work together as “one college.”
On a typical morning in Emerson IT:
A Google Calendar bot announces who’s out for the day along with department-wide activities. Someone shares an article about electrical problems on the subway, or about our record snowfall. Last night’s tweets and replies from IT are available for everyone to review. The information security officer shares a new SSL vulnerability, or maybe someone in Media Services receives a spam message and asks if anyone else got it. The Help Desk manager catches up on assigning new tickets, and if several seem related to the same issue, might ask the infrastructure team for details.
And everyone in IT, from the CIO to student employees, is privy to the discussion. Slack is how Emerson IT, with all its sub-departments and specialized functions, operates as one team.
Communicating in Emerson IT: A History
For the past two years, I’ve been the director of Networking and Telecommunications in Emerson IT — but I’ve worked for Emerson’s IT department for 11 years. When I arrived at the Student Welcome Center in 2004, my parents noticed I could apply for a job at the help desk. Although only partially computer savvy, I applied. To my surprise, later that day I was interviewing, and later that week I was taking help desk calls.
My managers (and when you’re a student employee, essentially everyone who works full time is your manager) made me log into an IRC channel, colloquially referred to as “chat.” Chat’s purpose was straightforward: it acted as a way for the students answering phones at the help desk, as well as the student helpers stationed across our computer labs, to communicate quickly and easily with each other and their student coordinator (and maybe the stray IT full-time technician).
“Can someone deliver paper to the XML?”
“I’m going to grab food, can someone cover the APL?”
“There’s a suspicious person in the lab — they’ve knocked an iMac off the table, the alarm is going off, and they’re calmly whistling songs from Wicked. Any ideas?”
When some of our students graduated and became full-time staff (myself included), they continued to log into chat. Over time, the number of staff in chat outnumbered the students on any given shift. But across the full-time staff appeared a generation gap between those who logged into chat and those who didn’t.
With more use of chat, conversations sometimes became sensitive (like internal comments about specific users, or budget planning discussions) and also trended more casual than we wanted the student workers subjected to. For this reason, we created a new IRC channel called “Fulltimers,” segregated from the students’ channel. Still, half of the full-time staff didn’t log in, complaining that conversation often seemed too frivolous, making it hard for them to know when they should pay attention. The fewer people who used chat for communicating or receiving information about work-related issues, the less reliable a communication method it became.
For example, each year during class registration the registrar’s office and IT support would join an IRC channel for quick communication in case anything went wrong. This approach was used so infrequently that IT always had to go around to install the chat client and configure it for participants’ systems.
Additionally, when IT emergencies like global or high-impact outages occurred, whoever was handling the emergency would sometimes look to chat as the quickest way to communicate to the largest number of people. But because such a high percentage of the staff had opted out, we instead relied on e-mail distribution lists, which needed to be maintained and updated per emergency. Plus, e-mail isn’t a live feed of activity, so support staff at the help desk couldn’t adapt to new information as easily as in a chat.
On one occasion, our data center overheated in the middle of the night, and those of us on the IT infrastructure team quickly decided that a chat room would be the best tool for coordinating shutdowns and starting everything back up. However, the chat application lived on a server we needed to shut down, so our chat channel had to quickly find an off-site host. We quickly found a free IRC service and got chat up and running again.
These multiple problems underlay our need for solutions to achieve the following goals:
- More engagement from all IT staff (and possibly other departments/constituents from across the college) to make chat a viable place to receive important information.
- An effective means of segregating casual and business conversation, and/or a means for alerting staff to conversations pertinent to them or their department.
- An off-site solution that is not integrated with on-premises authentication, for business continuity reasons.
- A web-based and mobile option to make logging in simple and self-explanatory.
Slack on Trial
Our department spent a lot of time debating processes and revising chat etiquette in an attempt to solve the issues we had identified. When our help desk manager discovered Slack in March 2014 (just a month after its debut) and presented it at an IT all-staff meeting, our department conducted a trial of the technology.
“How different can it be from traditional chat?” I wondered at the time. Honestly, the features that make Slack great for Emerson IT are not especially groundbreaking, and yet, they solved all of the problems I’ve noted here.
A software platform, Slack has a version available by web browser and offers apps for the Mac, iOS, Android, a Windows client, and the Apple Watch, and has an unofficial Linux version.1 Users can obtain this cloud-based chat product for free, or purchase a priced plan if premium features are required (so far, we have not needed those). Anyone with an e-mail address can create a free Slack “team” defined by a group of users who can participate in segregated chat rooms (or channels) and instant message one another. The team owner can allow anyone to join, allow by invitation only, or lock the team to only e-mail addresses in a specific domain.
Anyone on the team can create channels for focused discussions. In the Emerson IT team, we have a channel for every sub-department, and often create channels for projects. Anyone from any sub-department in IT is welcome to join any of the department channels if they’re interested, or they can focus on the department/project channels most relevant to them. For instance, last year we rolled out a new VoIP phone system, and as the help desk and the rest of IT acclimated to the new system, they could ask small questions as they came up — things that didn’t justify a problem ticket.
Figure 1 shows a screen capture of part of the Emerson IT communications team channel, with 21 members logged in. Notice that the channels are searchable, allow targeting specific users using the @ symbol, and let users favorite comments they consider particularly important. Chat entries appear in the order entered, so you can begin with the earliest and read through the trail to the most recent. Users can switch to another channel via the menu on the left.
Figure 1. Slack chat of the IT communications team channel
Additionally, users can set up alerts for keywords or specific channels. For instance, if I want a desktop notification or mobile alert every time someone chats in the #Infrastructure channel, I can enable that. Or maybe I want to be notified every time anyone mentions “vmware” or my name. This relieves the pressure of paying constant attention to every conversation in Slack and helps users who spend little time chatting to attend only when necessary.
Student workers belong to the Emerson IT Slack team as well. You might wonder, if anyone can join any channel, will students be privy to sensitive discussions about agenda items or budget information? Slack supports “private groups” in addition to channels. We only have one private IT group right now — #fulltimers — which is the only designated place for non-work–related discussion. If people become overly conversational or informal in one of our other channels, we ask them to move the conversation to #fulltimers. Of course, Slack could just act as a work distraction here, but we’ve found that it simply bridges communication gaps between IT personnel in different buildings and departments, helping staff get to know one another.
Working as One College with Slack
While we don’t use integrated authentication like SAML (so that we can log in even during a server or network failure), Slack just requires a web-based login, and the mobile app is a scaled-down version. We used to collect everyone’s emergency contacts and cell numbers, but Slack has become our primary and emergency mode of communication. It has replaced texting in the department and made working from home similar to being in the office.
As users of the free plan, we’re limited to 10,000 recent messages across a team, so we can’t refer to an indefinite archive of messages. In a way, we’ve found this to be a feature, not a bug — Slack is meant to augment e-mail and ticketing, not replace them, so using it as a permanent record would go against its nature as a collaboration tool. We’re also limited to five integrations (one of which is Twitter, so the whole department can see in one channel who’s tweeting about or to us and what we’re tweeting out, without needing their own Twitter accounts).
As with any communications tool, a code of conduct is necessary; for instance, we would never allow sending plaintext passwords in Slack. While we’ve identified Slack as a formal communication tool in the IT department that we expect staff members to use in sending and receiving information, some announcements warrant an e-mail or meeting announcement. And finally, not everyone is a proficient typist or able to communicate adequately through typing. As a result, we have a bit of a cultural schism between those who would like everything to exist in Slack and those who would rather pick up a phone, but the gap is decreasing.
Slack has become the cornerstone of how Emerson’s IT department communicates, and we find it essential to offering excellent service to our community. It unifies us as a single department, removes barriers for communication, focuses and accelerates discussion, and — through exposure to different kinds of conversations and problems — plays a role in cross-training.
Since the inception of the Emerson IT Slack team, we’ve also created an “Emerson College” Slack team that anyone at the college can join to chat and instant message one another. We’ve conducted workshops and AMAs (ask me anything sessions) open to the campus. Staff from across the college share news articles about higher education, information about the status of the subway, or anything, really. With this Slack implementation we’ve taken a step toward breaking down our organizational silos and working together as one college, which is our ultimate goal.
- Details on Slack from Wikipedia (August 11, 2015).
Frankie Frain is director of Networking and Telecommunications in Emerson IT at Emerson College. After graduating from Emerson in 2007 with a bachelor’s degree in Visual and Media Arts, he went on to work as a lab support specialist, then systems administrator, and network manager in Emerson IT prior to his current position. In 2012, he earned his MFA in Visual and Media Arts. He lives in Westport, Massachusetts, and pursues filmmaking in addition to his IT work.
© 2015 Francis Frain. The text of this EDUCAUSE Review article is licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International.