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The messaging software company Slack sees massive potential in generative AI and large language models, allowing more automation to improve workplace productivity and efficiency, said Steve Wood, Slack’s SVP, product management at the VentureBeat Transform 2023 conference on Tuesday.
“For me, I think automation, integration and AI are going to have a profound impact on how we experience software going forward,” Wood said in his panel discussion with Brian Evergreen, founder and CEO of the Profitable Good Company, a leadership advisory firm.
Launched as a startup in 2013 by former Flickr founder Stewart Butterfield and acquired by Salesforce for nearly $30 billion in 2021, Slack has embraced automation technologies and leveraged large language models (LLMs) from OpenAI and Anthropic to more efficiently summarize busy channel activity in the instant messaging platform. It also generates new work flows from the contextual information found in a company’s online discussion.
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After reflecting on how automation appeared in Slack, the platform saw the need to rebuild to “make it friendly for things like AI,” said Wood.
Automation for everyone
Another shift highlighted by Wood was the move towards “flexible, modular building blocks,” that would allow low- or no-code individuals to automate features of their favorite apps or potentially have developers put elements in place that could be better understood by AI in the future.
“I think too many organizations are holding on to automation as a practitioner’s role. And I think we need to open it up and … [empower] everybody to build and automate things, and they may not get it perfectly right,” said Wood. He said that the level of institutional comfort will need to grow to enable a future where AI-enhanced automation tools are accessible to everyone in an organization.
Wood said the integration of outside information held in LLMs with the unique data found in the conversations on individual companies’ Slack channels could be key to quickly unlocking bespoke business intelligence for the users of the collaboration tool.
The ubiquitous corporate chat app released a report in May that outlined three trends that shape the modern workplace and drive employee productivity. The State of Work 2023 survey highlighted the underutilization of new technologies such as AI and automation, the transformation of office work and design in the era of hybrid work, and the direct influence of employee engagement and talent development on productivity.
“Today there’s all these pervasive productivity gains through these tools and we just have to let them be discovered,” said Wood.
The automation of repetitive tasks is an underused way to improve productivity among teams in the age of hybrid work. While the survey found that people viewed automation as useful, only a small portion of the surveyed companies ended up using the new tools to address these challenges.
“It’s something like the average is around five hours being saved a week using AI technology in their work, which translates to a month a year. That’s a non-trivial boost,” said Wood. “So it’s time to rethink software and how we engage with it, for sure.”
Wood further opined that he thought the true value of generative AI for Slack and society was yet to be fully realized, and could not be accurately projected yet as it likely involved changing societal behaviors. He compared gen AI to the advent of Uber and ridehail apps, pointing out that that the total addressable market (TAM) wasn’t just people who took taxis, but everyone who changed their behavior once they realized they could order rides easily from their phones.
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