Rolling out Slack to thousands of users on a college campus
October 11, 2020
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Officials at Arizona State University discuss how their implementation went enterprise-wide during the pandemic at the Slack Frontiers conference.


Image: iStockphoto/oatawa

Deploying new technology to the masses is always a challenge, but as Arizona State University discovered, the stakes are higher in a pandemic. The university is using Slack as a “digital hub” to enable real-time communications and collaboration, officials said during a session at the Slack Frontiers conference Thursday.

With 120,000 students, “Scale is all about making sure the community is engaged,” said Samantha Becker, an executive director of creative and communications at ASU. “We broke it down by trying to understand what the community wants and needs.”

Officials did not take an “If we have Slack available they will come” approach, Becker said. “We wanted to find out what they wanted out of the communication hub.”

Slack Frontiers: Reassessing collaboration in a virtual world


Find the champions

In trying to inspire people to use a new tool to get to scale, “you don’t go it alone with a single team responsible for adoption,” added Warick Pond, executive director in strategic implementation at ASU.

He said it was important to create a “champions network” of people who shared what they use Slack for. Previously, many people may have viewed it as a tool for instant messaging and were not aware “how Slack can be used for day-to-day work and collaborations,” Pond said.

The strategy for campus-wide deployment started by putting together a cross-functional team of faculty, students, and staff, and making sure everyone “understood their role so they didn’t just join the team and ask what they were doing here,” Pond said.

“We did not treat it as an enterprise implementation,” he added. “We created personas to represent the masses and held jam sessions or focus groups and shared stories of early adopters and successes.”

The plan is “constantly evolving” and was created in “wet clay,” said Becker. People iterate on Slack every day in Google Docs as the community finds new apps that can be used on the platform. “So when we were putting together a unique value proposition we invited in our stakeholders to comment and add other thoughts and channels to help us better represent the community,” she said.

Workspaces were designed for people to use on day one, Pond said, including ones that were shared across the enterprise and in specific colleges for faculty and classroom collaboration.

“We also sat with [faculty and staff] to decide what they’d look like and how they’d interact with each other and created affinity channels,” he said.

For new students who may not know where to turn for advice and get questions answered, there is “Devil to Devil” community on Slack, Becker said, referring to the Sun Devils, the name of the university’s athletic teams.

They can go in and ask any question “and students who have been through it have answers … That’s more authentic than asking a faculty member or your RA,” Becker said. “They can also find new connections there.”

There is also a parenting channel for people to use who are going to school while parenting, she noted. “Above all else, you feel a sense of belonging and work/life integration and Slack has become the place … to feel assured it’s OK to be human here at ASU.”

Bumps in the road

As Slack usage grew there were several issues that needed to be dealt with, such as who would take ownership of such a ubiquitous tool when it is used on mobile devices, laptops, and desktops, and who provisions workspaces and sets private channels? Then there was the question of governance: Who monitors them and ensures there is no bullying, Pond observed.

Then, because ASU and most organizations already have existing tool sets that do the same things Slack does, officials had to figure out “how do we create the desire to switch and migrate over to Slack? There was no pedagogical evidence Slack would work in classrooms, so we partnered with faculty that would use [it] in their classrooms and their curriculums,” he said.

Because many people perceived Slack as an instant messaging tool, officials had to automate some processes, Pond said. “Also, there was collaboration tool fatigue. This was viewed as just another tool.”

To address some of these “bumps in the road,” he said, officials addressed them early on and created a lot of collateral describing what Slack can do, including in a channel and a “Slackathon” to show how others were using Slack across campus.

“Those early adopters came in handy when it came to obstacles and bumps,” he said. “If you’re working for an organization of thousands, it’s pretty hard to get the word out.”

They also did it methodically. Pond noted that “ASU is very intentional about how often it communicates with faculty and students because it’s important not to overwhelm people with too many communications. We had to be very careful and wanted it to feel organic — we didn’t want to push change, but have people see the value.”

Officials began by creating communication kits that included blurbs, slide decks, and testimonials about Slack to help motivate faculty and students to enlist friends and colleagues to join and understand the value as well, “rather than us talking at people,” Pond said.

“It was other people finding meaning and value in Slack who were the biggest champions and advocates,” he said. “Your biggest proponents will always be the people successfully and creatively using the technology.”

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