This is #Slack…and Here’s How Your Unit Can Use It

One week spent in a military unit will show you that efficiency isn’t its shining characteristic. Not only does information bombard the unit from multiple levels of the chain of command, but within the organization there are hundreds of conversations taking place to prepare for, synchronize, and execute the myriad of events on the calendar. (And I’m sure the same is true for the business world.)

These conversations happen over thousands of emails, in meetings, face to face, and on the phone. And if your experience is like mine, almost everything goes out over email.

But what if there was a way to customize your conversations based on your team’s requirements instead of relying on the single “channel” that is the email inbox? What if you could have your conversations in the right place, instead of all over the place?

Enter #Slack.

slack

Slack Basics

Slack is a web and mobile application that gives its members extraordinary flexibility to streamline the conversations they have. Using Slack, organizations can:

  • Create customizable teams
  • Organize conversations into channels
  • Send direct messages to individuals
  • Create private conversation groups
  • Customize notifications
  • Share and collaborate on documents
  • Search conversations and documents
  • Integrate social media applications

Slack is what you wish your email could be, without the depressing, overwhelming feeling of insurmountablility. But it’s even more than that. It’s like creating email inbox folders for specific topics or events (like most of us do anyway), then inviting all the relevant team members to participate real-time as the topic or event progresses. By putting the right people in the right conversations, Slack instantly flattens any organization.

Let me give you the bottom line, then a bunch of ways you can use Slack in your formation.

If you are frustrated by a lack of flexibility in coordinating and communicating, you need to look into Slack. You’ll have to shed your allegiance to traditional communication avenues and adopt a mindset of creativity and innovation, but you won’t be sorry. (Honestly, you may not even realize how hamstrung your organization is until you play around with Slack and experience its form and function.) And now…

A Long List of Ways to Use Slack

Channels. Use channels as a way to narrow the conversations to the most relevant people, specific events, or topics. A unit might have Slack channels named:

  • Unit Leaders. Collaborate with leaders at any level in the chain of command (Platoon Sergeants, All Officers, Bravo Company NCOs). Yes, you can do this in email, but Slack is a live chat, searchable, pushes notifications to mobile and desktop, and has a better user experience.
  • Training Information/Discussion. Here, you can brainstorm training ideas for upcoming range time, push out the latest guidance from Range Control, send the draft Training Meeting slides, or give instant feedback on the progress of training.
  • Announcements. Quickly let everyone know the boss is in the area or share big news events that might have an impact on the unit.
  • Administrative Updates. Get the latest personnel and staff info related to the unit.
  • Maintenance & Sustainment. This is the Executive Officer’s channel to keep the maintenance and support knowledge going strong.
  • Holiday Party Planning. Got a big event coming up? Bring in everyone involved (including spouses) to share ideas, report progress, give feedback on flyers and design, and share social media posts.
  • Calendar Updates. Use this channel to push calendar changes throughout the entire formation, not just one level down.
  • Deadlines. Gently remind everyone that the slides are due, the boss needs the report, and that they’ve got to order ammunition for the big training event next month.
  • Resources. Give your leaders an easy place to highlight valuable resources they find.
  • Rumor Control. Here’s a channel for the command to personally respond to rumors and hearsay. Imagine how much clarity could be achieved if leaders could squash rumors as soon as they appear.
  • Families. Here’s a channel for spouses and family members to talk directly to leaders.
  • Good News Stories. Need a way to pull good news stories from the entire formation? Let leaders publish their team’s accomplishments instantly and directly.
  • Working Documents. Bring in leaders from all levels to provide input on critical documents like policy letters, training guidance, and operations orders. Slack integrates with applications like Dropbox and Google Docs and can upload any file you can attach to an email.
  • RFIs. In a meeting and need a quick answer? Open Slack, select your custom channel for subordinate leaders, instantly send your request, and watch as the answers populate in real-time. No waiting for emails to trickle in.
  • Idea Generation. Use this channel when you’re facing a complex problem and need ideas from across the formation. Send out the background info and let people churn away at potential solutions. MDMP anyone?
  • Suggestion Box. Gather the best ideas for improving your unit by creating a virtual suggestion box.
  • Professional Development Lessons. Ever had that moment of brilliance with no one around to tell it to? Post it to your unit’s Lessons channel and create a repository of good ideas the whole team can discuss and implement. And if the conversation drifts to another topic, break off a new channel, assign a #hashtag, or create a private group to continue the intellectual momentum.

I really hope you see the impact that Slack channels can have. There’s incredible time to be saved by trimming conversations to the most relevant people and by creating one-stop-shop channels for the latest unit information.

Private Groups. The Private Groups feature is a no-brainer for echeloned leadership. Commanders, NCOs, Primary Staff Members, Budget Folks, Single Soldiers, Women in the UnitService Members in Their Reenlistment Window…the list goes on. You can also create a tiered Private Group system whereby you only push info to larger circles when you are ready.

Direct Messaging. Use Direct Messaging like text messaging with individuals, but unlike mobile phone text, with Slack you can share links, collaborate on documents, tag the varying discussion topics with #hashtags, and search your conversation history. Use DM for subordinate leaders to instantly pass performance information higher (“Sir, Lieutenant Smith is not doing well on this range. You may want to come see his next iteration.”) and reference later for counseling.

Social and Document Integration. Slack integrates with every major social media site you care about, so you can pull-in your unit’s Facebook and Twitter feeds to see the latest postings. And the document collaboration function has lots of potential to streamline staff processes. But do not use Slack to transmit classified or Personally Identifiable Information.

Make the Change

Slack is one of the fastest growing software companies in America. Entire organizations are migrating their team communication away from email and over to Slack after realizing that conversations happen quicker and easier through the platform. Your unit could do the same. Check out the website, grab your staff or key team members, and brainstorm the ways in which you could streamline your communication through Slack. You might just wonder what took you so long.

Here are some resources to get you started:

Ready to spread the word? Let others know what you’re thinking about Slack and share this post with your network.

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Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • HatedSoul

    While I agree Slack could become extremely useful, I think there’s some issues to address with your argument and the counterargument.

    1. I’ve personally had to help my commander learn how to utilize MS Outlook. Imagine how much hand holding it’ll require to get command teams (read as, old people) on board with Slack. Some leaders still have trouble with the calendar function and reply all button (to include those in the S3 shop). And let’s not forget not everyone has a triple digit GT score.

    2. Until the Army finally dumps BlackBerry for secure email and voice, I don’t see any app taking it’s place.

    3. The counterargument that FOUO, SBU (an acronym everyone just needs to agree to stop using), and PII shouldn’t cross over from .mil to .com is bunk. How many times has someone asked you for your SSN or birthday for some stupid roster because they’re too lazy to lool for the AAA? How many times have you seen soldiers take photos of 5988s, FOUO slides, and rosters? How much unit information goes out on mass texts? Ideally the Army SHOULD invest in a common platform like Slack if nothing else to get everyone a secure method to get and share knowledge over mobile.

  • anatoliank

    This is probably one of the more irresponsible ideas I’ve seen.

    So the host of http://www.theMilitaryLeader.com, an Army Infantry officer with 15 years experience and four deployments to Iraq/Afghanistan is encouraging other members of the military to post PII, SBU, CUI and FOUO info on a commercial system that is not approved for this type of info?

    Nice job. Way to use that experience and wisdom hooah.

    • Did you happen to read the entire post?

    • While your sarcasm is unnecessary, your points are legitimate.

      Military leaders should know and follow information security guidance as they explore options for refining communication. [There’s probably room for a guest post on the topic, if you want to write one.] I decided to stop with, “Avoid using Slack to transmit classified or Personally Identifiable Information.”

      Judgment is important here, which I didn’t talk about. We expect our leaders to exercise judgment (informed by regulations and training) when making decisions about digital communication, and every other challenge they face. The military has entrusted its leaders with more critical responsibilities than this issue. And there is no reason to think they (or even the DoD network agencies) couldn’t properly implement Slack, a comment made by many people in response to this post.

      I’d request that you refine your comments so readers can focus on your worthwhile digital security tips. They’re worth noting.

      Thank you

      • anatoliank

        I’ll apologize for the sarcasm – your post hit a real sore point with me.

        FWIW, I prefer to let the first post stand as is for an accurate reflection of the discourse. Yes it is snarky but what you suggest violates so many rules and practices. (Bad ideas sometimes need a sharp stick in the eye to get folks to pay attention before real harm is done.)

        Seeing someone with the time in service and experience you have suggest something like this popped a safety valve in my frontal lobe.

        This year +25 hours of my time (probably a low estimate) have been wasted in training, briefings and inquiries related to others poor OPSEC, INFOSEC, DCI’s and other bad info handling practices… four of those hours just last week.

        The reasons why your suggestion is a bad idea are many; some of which I’ve tried to shine a bit of, somewhat snarky, light on already. The rest probably need to be discussed on a higher network.

        Besides the facts that posting and aggregating this kind of info about your unit and soldiers on a non-.mil system is a really bad idea from the start I’ll suggest some starting points for future research.

        Slack would likely be considered as a “Social media site” by Army Regs and possibly by DoD policy. DoD policy may also lump it into Internet Services and/or Internet-based Capabilities (IbC).

        As far as the Army Regs go, read up on AR 25-1, http://www.apd.army.mil/pdffiles/r25_1.pdf – specifically Para 4–2. “Social media sites.” (AF, Navy, Marines and Coasties will have to google their own services regs.)

        See also AR 360–1, AR 25–400–2 as there are parts of those that will likely apply.

        Your units use of Slack will also be subject to the policies and procedures of and require compliance with DODI 8550.01, DOD 5500.07–R, and Part 2635, Title 5, Code of Federal Regulations (5 CFR 2635) to name the ones I can think of.

        Sites to find these pubs and other info on are:
        http://dodcio.defense.gov/dodwebpolicy
        http://dodcio.defense.gov/socialmedia
        http://ciog6.army.mil/PolicyLegislation/tabid/64/Default.aspx#webmaster_policies
        http://www.army.mil/media/socialmedia

        Seriously though, ask yourself this:

        What are you going to do when one of your Joes posts FOUO or PII to your Slack portal such as the full Alpha roster with SSN’s and DOB’s? (This is a reportable ‘spillage’ according to the DoD regs.)

        How are you going to clean that up? Just delete it and pretend it didn’t happen?

        Any soldier who was in your unit and found out his/her PII had just been posted to a .com or someone’s GDrive or GDocs would have cause to report you and the rest of the leadership that advocated for use of this.

        And god forbid, what if one of your Joes accidentally scans in some docs with a S//NF doc sandwiched in between the /U/ ones and posts it without checking? (Not as far fetched as you think and it happens more than you realize…)

        How do you even clean that up?
        Slack is not just going to let your S6 and Cyber guys just pop on in and wipe a couple of their server racks… and the investigation will involve more than the same sort of thing done w/in the .mil domains.

        (And the fallout will be a bit more than a below center of mass OER…)

        Seriously, run this idea by your S/G6 and your S/G2 including your cyber folks and SSO and get their take.

        Think about it.

        These events and others (which can’t be discussed here) aren’t a matter of “if” but a matter of “when”…

        Weigh the costs vs the benefits and think about the worst case scenario with posting unit and soldier info to an unapproved .com site.

        Now if you are totally comfortable standing in front of the first GO in your CoC and explaining why you made the decision to have your unit post that info to Slack then go for it.

        Just don’t do it in my formation or with my Soldiers info.

        • First, thank you for taking the time to send your thoughts and these resources. Your comments provided context to the discussion and only serve to inform leaders.

          I still hold that Slack (and other mediums) can have their place, but leaders (again) must exercise judgment in their use, just as they must always use discretion when using social media, non-DoD phones, classified information, and so on.

          Your comments provide a dose of (expert) realism that I did not provide. The larger audience can benefit from that. Would mind writing a counter post (anonymous, if you like) for subsequent release? Or perhaps let me morph these comments into a follow-up post?

          • anatoliank

            I’ll drop you a note by email.

      • anatoliank

        Follow up response:

        Judgment is important here, which I didn’t talk about.

        Agreed.

        We expect our leaders to exercise judgment (informed by regulations and training) when making decisions about digital communication, and every other challenge they face.

        Agreed, and the regs and training on this sort of thing are both abundant and reasonably clear. A good amount of the info you suggest units use Slack for really should not be on a non .mil site like Slack.

        The military has entrusted its leaders with more critical responsibilities than this issue.

        Absolutely it has but that is does not mean units and soldiers should be using Slack for collaboration and information that is wrong and violates existing policy and regs.

        And there is no reason to think they (or even the DoD network agencies) couldn’t properly implement Slack, a comment made by many people in response to this post.

        I refreshed the page and saw no other comments in response to this post except for our dialogue. Not sure if you are talking about Twitter or something else – if so I may have missed their comments.

        As is, with Slacks server still sitting outside the .mil cloud there are plenty of examples every week to show that leaders and soldiers will make mistakes and improperly post information where it does not belong.

        That said, could the DoD or USG implement Slack behind the .mil or .gov firewall?

        Yes, absolutely but the main hindrance is likely cost and acceptance.

        (Acceptance from the ranks will likely be very little of an issue. The issue will be acceptance from the O6s/GO’s as well as GS15/SESs – the grey beards.)

        Slack appears to run on AWS (https://aws.amazon.com/solutions/case-studies/slack/) – AWS also has GovCloud (US) for the Federal goverment https://aws.amazon.com/federaland meets Department of Defense CSM Levels 1-2, 3-5 and some other Federal Certifications.

        It is likely not much of a stretch to get it approved for the same level of FOUO//PII (including SBU, CIU, etc) but I’m just making a SWAG at this point.

        The hurdle for collaboration will likely continue to be logging in with CAC.

        The Information Assurance folks (IA’s) will require CAC for FOUO and will require folks to use their .mil email putting us back to square one until CAC login with smartphones and tablets is common place.
        **