Slack moves to extend in-app workflow automation

Slack moves to extend in-app workflow automation

Collaboration software maker hopes to make it easier for users to create and share workflow automations without the need to write code. The features are due out in 2022.

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Slack may best be known simply as a tool for team messaging, but for many users the ability to connect apps and automate actions is central to its appeal.

With that in mind, the vendor has announced a redesign of its workflow engine designed to make automations more accessible to a wider range of users. The changes were unveiled at Slack's Frontiers event.

The updates are aimed at extending existing capabilities that let developers customise apps and automate workflows within the app. This includes the Slack Platform APIs for developers and Workflow Builder, a no-code platform launched two years ago that lets non-technical users create their own automations.

It’s an important focus for Slack, which said more than 400,000 users have created workflows since the introduction of the Workflow Builder, which was created after the acquisition in 2018 of Missions, a start-up specialising in this area. Last year, Slack added the ability to include actions in third-party apps in workflows with the rollout of “steps for apps."

The newest updates – slated to arrive in 2022 — expand on its ambitions to help users customise the software to meet their individual needs.

“What we always wanted was to give people the equivalent of Lego blocks that they can recombine, because there are so many actions that are common,” Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield said in a pre-recorded briefing, stressing that automations can bridge the gap between systems of record and workers in business roles without requiring developers. 

"If you're a salesperson or HR benefits administrator you have a much better idea of where the friction is and where the difficulties and the challenges are in the way that you use the software."

Slack users and developers can create workflows using “blocks” — essentially, snippets of code that trigger actions in Slack, such as creating a new channel or initiating interactions between third-party apps – which can then be combined into larger blocks for more complex multi-step workflows.

A key change is that these blocks can also be shared with other Slack users by sending a link. The recipient can then edit or “remix” the automation to fit their own needs, adding or removing steps, for example. The changes need to be made in the Workflow Builder.

These updates should make workflow automations more accessible to users than is now possible with the Workflow Builder, said Steve Wood, vice president of product for Slack’s developer platform. Rather than installing an app and it showing up as a slash command, for example, the new workflow engines “gives you a library of these blocks, so you've got more in your arsenal to automate work,” he said.

“To have a digital HQ you need to customise your space in the way you would with your office environment: we've made the workflow engine foundational to how you customise Slack,” said Wood.

Enhancements to the Workflow Builder itself include a new drag-and-drop interface and the addition of conditional logic that lets users structure workflows around if/then statements.

It will also be possible to connect multiple applications in a single workflow, Slack said, with information automatically updated across separate apps — allowing for more complex workflows. For example, an incident response notification from the PagerDuty could trigger the creation of an issue in Jira, while a more severe incident might also open a new team channel within Slack to coordinate a response.

While channel-based messaging alone can improve communications, integration with third-party tools is important, too, said Wayne Kurtzman, research director at IDC. He cited a recent IDC survey that integrating external applications into collaboration software tools effectively can result in a 77 per cent faster time-to-completion of projects.

“Slack has always sought to be the two per cent of an IT budget that makes the other 98 per cent more valuable,” said Kurtzman. He described Slack’s new building-block approach as “an easy metaphor with serious potential to improve the way individuals work — even without any coding experience.”

The changes to the platform are likely to broaden the appeal of Slack’s automation capabilities among non-technical users, said Angela Ashenden, principal analyst at CCS Insight.

“Simplicity and reusability are really key, particularly for organisations that are newer to automation and app building within Slack, because you need to recognise that people don't want to reinvent the wheel every time,” she said.

The latest moves also make sense for Slack as it continues to compete with Microsoft Teams by bolstering its existing strengths as an integration and automation platform, said Ashenden.

“It’s always been a challenge for Slack in terms of how they differentiate against Teams, so this ‘hub’ capability with automation and a focus on work rather than just chat is increasingly important. It's a key area where they're investing for obvious reasons,” she said.

At Frontiers, Slack also announced new developer tools, including a command line interface, software development kit, and the ability to host data on Slack’s infrastructure to simplify app-building on the platform.

Other updates include an expansion to the number of external users who can access Slack Connect shared channels. Slack Connect launched last year check, simplifying communication with external partners via share channels and direct messages, without requiring guest accounts. Next year, the limit on the number organisations that can share a single channel will be increased from 20 to 250.

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