Naval Applications for Slack: The Collaboration Tool

Naval Applications of Tech

The following article is the first in CIMSEC’s newest column: Naval Applications of Tech. Written by Terence Bennett, Naval Applications of Tech will discuss how emerging and disruptive technologies can be used to make the U.S. Navy more effective. It will examine potential and evolving developments in the tech industry, communication platforms, computer software and hardware, mechanical systems, power generation, and other areas.

“The most damaging phrase in the language is ‘We’ve always done it this way!’” Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper in an interview in Information Week, March 9, 1987, p. 52

By Terence Bennett

The Navy has spent many years looking at how to bring the newest information technology to operating forces. A U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings article from 1998 criticized the Navy’s resistance to change and recommended setting up local slack-logo_large-1024x403area networks (LAN) using the built-in capabilities of Win95.[1] Technology has come a long way since then, but the use of floppy disks aboard this author’s ship in 2012 indicates that the Navy still has some progress to make. An application, Slack, may be just what the Navy needs.

Microsoft gave us Outlook and PowerPoint and the Navy has not questioned their dominance for 20 years. This author argues that traditional email services are no longer helping a ship’s crew effectively communicate. Leaders may be familiar with sitting in their stateroom or office to send and receive emails, but it is no longer an effective or efficient form of communication. Many organizations, the Navy included, have outgrown this tool for much of its internal communication, though they may not be aware of this. McKinsey, a consultancy, estimated that high-skill knowledge workers (including managers) spend 28 percent of the workweek managing email and 20 percent of the day looking for internal information or tracking down individuals who can help with a specific task (doesn’t that sound familiar…at least we have the 1MC.)[2]

Navy leadership takes pride in the autonomy and independence of a Commanding Officer at sea. But the autonomy of leadership is challenged by the business of meeting the bureaucratic operational and training standards of today’s navy. Leaders are so burdened by relentless requirements and tasks, they are forced to ‘fight the closest fire.’ This is not only a Navy problem. Many civilian companies struggle under the burden of hundreds of emails a day and the reactionary mindset such an environment creates. The McKinsey report finds, “when companies use social media internally, messages become content; a searchable record of knowledge can reduce, by as much as 35 percent, the time employees spend searching for company information.”[3] Slack, an application already available on the open market, facilitates this.

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Sample Slack window. Image: The Verge.

Slack is a communication tool set  designed by software engineers to streamline their own team’s communication. In that spirit, it is very deliberately built, intuitive to use, and efficiently designed. More relevant to any commander or unit leader looking to streamline their team’s communication, Slack works without the need for any installation or system integration. Users log in and build a team through the Slack website. That’s it.

Time magazine enthusiastically uses Slack in its office, stating:

“Venture-capital darlings Airbnb, BuzzFeed and Blue Bottle Coffee use it. So do Fortune 500 firms like Comcast and Walmart. Teams at NASA and the State Department are on Slack. (More than 2,000 people use Slack at Time Inc., which publishes this magazine and many others.) Not in a generation has a new tool been adopted more quickly by a wider variety of businesses or with such joy.”[4]

Email messages are often hard to follow, thus making tracing decision-making logic more difficult. Email can become especially cumbersome when checking in with teammates, getting updates, or when trying to get a quick ‘RGR.’ Slack is literally changing the way companies operate. It allows all communication to be controlled in one place, integrated cheaply and easily over commercial web browsers on existing architecture. Imagine if all of a ship’s internal email communication was immediately pre-categorized into channels that were searchable. Companies that have successfully integrated Slack now use traditional email only for external communication. As with chat software, organizations use big public channels, private groups, and one-on-one channels. Although many of the embedding features for mobile users and coders may not be useful for the Navy, there are exciting ways to integrate cloud storage, like Dropbox, in the future. The enterprise pricing options start at $8 per month and scale upward.

One big impetus for a shift to Slack is its mobile integration. With the Navy’s move towards the eSailors program and making ships wireless, leaders will have opportunities to stay mobile and work on the move. Putting a tablet in the hands of every Sailor will likely change some of our operations and maintenance procedures. Such connectivity will undoubtedly change the way we communicate and organize. Slack can be the first controlled step towards bringing the Navy into this new and empowering world. Leadership challenges in the Navy may become increasingly difficult under budget constraints and operational requirements, but the new Sailors enlisting in the Navy today have the technological skills to face those challenges. Leadership has an obligation to give them the tools and opportunities to do just that.

LT Bennett is a former Surface Warfare Officer and current Intelligence Officer. The views express herein are solely those of the author and are presented in his personal capacity on his own initiative. They do not reflect the official positions of the Department of Defense, or any other U.S. Government agency.

[1] Michael Junge, “Paperless Navy …Pshaw!, 124 Proceedings Magazine, Jul. 1998.

[2] Michael Chui, James Manyika, Jacques Bughin, Richard Dobbs, Charles Roxburgh, Hugo Sarrazin, Geoffrey Sands, and Magdalena Westergren; The Social Economy: Unlocking Value and Productivity Through Social Technologies, McKinsey Gloval Institute, July 2012.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Samuel Jacobs, “How E-mail killer Slack Will Change the Future of Work, Time Magazine, Oct. 29, 2015.

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