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Slack has been quiet since Salesforce announced that it was going to buy it. This week that changed, and it came back with a bang, announcing new features that will make it easier to collaborate outside of company walls, both physical and virtual. However, the bang in question was probably not what the company had hoped for. The focus of attention was Slack Connect and its Direct Messages feature, which was originally unveiled last October, but which has now been pushed into general availability.

In a blog about the releases, it explained that to help businesses improve the way they work with their partners and customers, they are expanding what is possible with Slack Connect. As of the launch, users could use the following features.

  • Quickly and securely connect with anyone outside of your organization with Slack Connect direct messages.
  • Link together multiple organizations to create a private business network, allowing for unified directories, channel discovery and more.

 Ilan Frank, Slack's VP of product, told tech news site Protocol that Slack is deliberately positioning itself to become the chat platform of choice for the business world. And that is when the problems started.

The new DM enabled users to add people from outside the company’s Slack and from there users could DM them or add them to group DMs or channels inside an existing Slack. The privacy issues are clearly huge as are the data security issues. In fact, just a few hours after launching Slack had already canceled a feature that allowed people to tack on a message to their invite emails due to the possibility of harassment. In a statement to Motherboard, Jonathan Prince, Slack's vice president of communications and policy, wrote, After rolling out Slack Connect DMs this morning, we received valuable feedback from our users about how email invitations to use the feature could potentially be used to send abusive or harassing messages.

“We are taking immediate steps to prevent this kind of abuse, beginning today with the removal of the ability to customize a message when a user invites someone to Slack Connect. We made a mistake in this initial roll-out that is inconsistent with our goals for the product and the typical experience of Slack Connect usage," wrote Prince.

In an ideal world, the direct messaging function would work like this: Users send an invite to any partner and start messaging in Slack as soon as the other side accepts, speeding up the work that often starts over back-and-forth emails. A salesperson, for example, can form a direct line of contact to prospects, or a customer service agent can triage an issue faster, without waiting for the other side to check their email. In addition to Slack Connect DMs, Slack has also announced several other features to improve external collaboration, including the following items.

  • Calendly app for Slack: Skip the scheduling back-and-forth and share a Calendly link in Slack Connect for an effortless scheduling experience between your partners and customers
  • Private business networks:This is coming later this year and will enable organizations to link together multiple organizations to create a private business network, allowing for unified directories and channel discovery, among other things.

As more and more companies adopt a distributed working style, Gartner research shows that 83% of knowledge workers want to work remotely full- or part-time and meetings will not return to the pre-pandemic status quo. That is leading businesses to reinvent the way they communicate internally and externally, which is where Slack DM comes in. No doubt the tool will be tweaked to make it secure, but it was an embarrassing release for Slack.

Abbyy Reaffirms Its Digital Transformation Credentials

Competition in the artificial intelligence and robotic process automation space has always been stiff with new products and players entering the market every week. One of the big ones in the past week has been from Milpitas, CA-based Abbyy, with the release of Vantage 2.

Abbyy Vantage is a comprehensive platform that provides cognitive services and trained skills using artificial intelligence (AI) to understand business documents and extract meaning and insights in a human-like manner. It was made generally available in Q2 2019.

The re-architected Vantage 2 was released at the company's Reimagine conference. It  is a low-code/no-code platform that brings new cognitive skills for RPA robots, automation systems, chatbots and mobile solutions. Together, the new additions offer organization the ability to extracts insights from documents and content of just about any kind.

The company also says that the new platform has already been deployed by Cogging, EXL, Kryon, Micro Focus, NICE, Pegasystems, PwC, and RoboRana, which have already integrated it with their platforms.

Vantage 2 platform is built on microservices and packaged into containers orchestrated by Kubernetes to fit the needs of agile IT operations. Its interface enables organizations to pull developing technologies like AI and machine learning into their tech stack.

But it is not all that Abbyy has introduced. It has already created a new offering called "Marketplace" that offers an extensive online collection of reusable technology assets including cognitive skills for classification of documents and data extraction, ready-to-go process flows, and pre-built connectors.

According to IDC’s 2020 Intelligent Document Processing Use Cases Survey (subscription required), almost half of enterprise leaders cite improved business decision making as a primary benefit of digitizing and transforming document processes; other benefits include customer and employee satisfaction and improved accountability.

All of this goes to the heart of the new market positioning that Abbyy unveiled last year when it announced its Digital Intelligence portfolio. These releases underline the company’s credentials as a major digital transformation tech player.

Edge Computing Growth Helps Digital Transformation

Elsewhere, State of the Edge, a project under the Linux Foundation (LF) Edge umbrella organization which established an open, interoperable framework for edge computing, has launched the 4th annual report under the title State of the Edge 2021.

The report covers a whole range of issues around edge computing, but like other research into technology this year, the role and impact of COVID was key, even in the edge computing market. What the research uncovered is that COVID has driven digital transformation initiatives in many enterprises, and edge computing with it.

This, according to the research, has had a considerable impact on edge computing adoption. Government lockdowns, social distancing and fragile supply chains have pushed enterprises towards digital solutions over the past year and ultimately will permanently change the use cases across the enterprise. "Our 2021 analysis shows demand for edge infrastructure accelerating in a post COVID-19 world," said Matt Trifiro, co-chair of State of the Edge and CMO of edge infrastructure company Vapor IO, in a statement. "We've been observing this trend unfold in real-time as companies re-prioritize their digital transformation efforts to account for a more distributed workforce and a heightened need for automation. The new digital norms created in response to the pandemic will be permanent.”

This, he said, will intensify the deployment of new technologies like wireless 5G and autonomous vehicles, but will also impact nearly every sector of the economy, from industrial manufacturing to healthcare. There are other points too:

  • Off-the-shelf services and applications are emerging that accelerate and de-risk the rapid deployment of edge in these segments.
  • Edge facilities will also create new types of interconnection.
  • 5G, next-generation SD-WAN and SASE have been standardized.

Overall, it the research points to the fact that the edge is quickly becoming a core part of the digital workplace and will continue to do so over the coming year.

Microsoft Going Back To the Physical Workplace

Meanwhile, if  Redmond, WA-based Microsoft spends a lot of time developing tools to enable remote working, it too appears to have embraced the concept of hybrid working, at least in its Redmond and Seattle-based headquarters.

Currently, Microsoft work sites in 21 countries have been able to accommodate additional workers in its facilities — representing around 20% of its global employee population. On March 29, Microsoft will also start making the shift back to the physical workplace in its Redmond, Washington headquarters and nearby campuses.

The opening is part of a phased approach to opening offices again, and a strategy Microsoft has outlined in six stages last year.  This a Hybrid Workplace Dial that anchors to six defined stages — rather than specific timelines — has allowed the company to open work sites depending on health conditions, while also staying data-driven in our decision-making.

This hybrid workplace, as Microsoft, sees it, is outlined in a blog post about plans by Kurt DelBene, Microsoft’s head of corporate strategy. He writes, “Looking ahead, we know that hybrid work requires a new operating model and strategy that encompasses flexible work policy, inclusive space design and innovative technology solutions. The modern workplace requires companies to meet new employee expectations, connect a more distributed workforce, and provide tools to create, innovate and work together to solve business problems."

It is a small move but one that will be watched by many large organizations. It also gives us an idea of Microsoft’s concept of the digital workplace, which must feed into its thinking about its what the digital workplace needs.

Google Upgrades Workspace

Finally, this week, Google Workspace unveiled several improvements, which, the Mountain View, CA-based company said, will be enable work in whatever way it needs to happen in the digital workplace. Citing research from Gartner, it says 90% of companies will allow employees to work remotely at least part of the time even after the COVID-19 vaccine is widely adopted.

The main upgrade is the release of Google Workspace Frontline, which has just been released and will open communication and collaboration channels between frontline workers and corporate teams in a way that is safe and secure. 

Workspace Frontline is a custom solution that includes communication and collaboration apps like Gmail, Chat, Docs, Drive, and more, as well as business-grade support and security features like advanced endpoint management that help keep a company’s data secure.

It has also enabled business teams to build custom AppSheet apps directly from Google Sheets and Drive, so that frontline workers can digitize and streamline their work, whether it is collecting data in the field, reporting safety risks, or managing customer requests.