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Slack CEO describes 'Holy Grail' of virtual assistants

Clint Boulton | Oct. 18, 2016
Stewart Butterfield wants to build a super bot that retrieves and correlates information from any enterprise application to find employees answers to sophisticated questions.

NEW YORK -- Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield has an audacious goal: Turning his messaging and collaboration platform into an uber virtual assistant capable of searching every enterprise application to deliver employees pertinent information. And if Slack succeeds, it could seal the timeless black hole of wasted productivity enterprise search and other tools have failed to close.

"I think the team-level virtual assistant is the next software product category for enterprise that is on the order of [Microsoft] Office in terms of longevity and value," says Butterfield, who spoke to at the office of shared workspace provider WeWork. "That’s a long shot for us because you have Baidu, Facebook, Microsoft and Google and a whole bunch of companies that have interested heavily in machine learning and search."

Equal parts a platform for collaboration, productivity and project management, Slack burst onto the tech scene in 2013, garnering attention among Silicon Valley upstarts and media companies who raved about its capabilities, including invite-only channels and direct messages, as well as content sharing. Slack integrates with, Box and other corporate software providers.

The real potential comes in the form of intelligent virtual assistants, known as chatbots. Slack this year introduced a platform and development kit that allows third-party developers to build bots designed to make tedious tasks such as managing expenses, tracking projects or ordering tacos more efficient. If developers create enough bots, employees won't have to switch out of Slack to access apps in browser windows -- and that's good for Slack.

One uber bot to rule them all

But Butterfield sees the Slack of tomorrow as something much more empowering to users, a team-level virtual assistant capable of balancing the push-pull of information employees need when they need it -- that is, within the proper context.

Corporations are complex, with product managers, human resources, IT and multiple other units collaborating on projects. Stakeholders are bound to have questions that only stakeholders from another department can answer, but connecting with them isn’t always feasible. Companies are frustrated with the needle-in-a-haystack difficulty of finding basic information from large volumes of data.

For example, suppose that you wanted to know who someone's boss was, or what a business unit's revenue was for a quarter. You could ask around or sift through a corporate directory laden with an enterprise search system. But what if you could just ask a bot, which could retrieve the answer almost instantly? "You can build institutional knowledge and ask that of a bot instead of a human and it saves people a lot of time and offloads a lot of noise," Butterfield says.


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