Tech Startup Darling Slack Says It’s Ready for the Biggest of Big Customers

January 31, 2017, 6:00 PM UTC

Slack, the workplace messaging software that has already gained an impressive following at many Fortune 500 companies, wants to further entrench itself in the world of big business with a new corporate version.

“People forget we’re an enterprise product, maybe because they enjoy using Slack, but now we’re enterprise with a ‘capital E,'” April Underwood, Slack’s vice president of product told Fortune in an interview before Tuesday’s launch event in San Francisco.

The goal of the new Slack Enterprise Grid is to ease the management of large, often overlapping, workgroups across very large organizations. It has been used by several big companies including Capital One (COF) and IBM (IBM)for the past few months, according to Slack chief executive Stewart Butterfield.

News of the release comes as Slack faces increased competition—especially from Microsoft’s so-called “Slack Killer” more formally known as Microsoft Teams, which launched in November. Because Microsoft (MSFT) Office 365 is already used by most Fortune 500 accounts and Microsoft Teams comes with some (but not all) Office 365 versions, this is a challenge for Slack.

Still, Butterfield says Slack’s head start—the product launched in 2013—gives it an edge, and he intends to keep building on that. Microsoft Teams, as he points out, limits group size to 600 people, which in his view is not optimal for large accounts.

Microsoft aside, Slack has to tread a fine line by adding IT-friendly security and compliance features while not screwing too much with a user experience that fans have come to love.

“We had to build a way to mirror a company’s existing directories,” Butterfield told Fortune. That means when a new employee starts a new job, she has to get an ID badge, set up her 401K and payroll, and get access to corporate networks. Getting her onto corporate Slack will now be part of that, he explained.

“It’s important to automate the process of getting on Slack and making sure your access is removed when you leave,” said Butterfield.

With Slack Enterprise Grid, teams can be unlimited in size, and the product supports current network directories like Microsoft Active Directory and identity management software from Okta, among other software providers. That helps ensure users can only access the resources they’re authorized to use.

The current version of Slack targets non-techies, so it’s easy to set up workgroups. That has helped Slack adoption spread like wildfire, but it has also led to many disconnected teams using Slack within the same company. Slack Enterprise Grid aims to knit all those together.

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Enterprise Grid also ties into software from Palo Alto Networks (PANW), Skyhigh, Netskope, and Bloomberg Vault so that the business can prevent access to sensitive data.

On-stage guests at Slack’s San Francisco launch event will include Diane Greene, senior vice president of enterprise for Google, along with executives from SAP (SAP) and IBM (IBM)—two companies with products that are already widespread among Fortune 1000 accounts.

Slack already works with Google (GOOG) to link Slack with Google Drive storage and with IBM (IBM) to use that company’s Watson artificial intelligence to make smarter bots, or chatbots, a technology that lets users interact more naturally with websites or software.

SAP plans to build a series of bots so that Slack users can communicate with SAP Concur travel and expense account software from their Slack channels. Also on tap: A bot that lets Slack users access SAP SuccessFactors human resources software to track employee goals and performance criteria, again without leaving Slack itself. And finally, there will also be a Slack-SAP HANA tie-in meant to enable software developers use their Slack channels for HANA-related software development.

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Capital One has been using the new product for several months and is now up to about 12,000 users. Jennifer Manry, vice president of workforce technologies at Capital One, was impressed that Slack now supports large networks of communities across the organization.

“It lets people still work in their own workgroups but also stay connected across the whole company,” said Manry, explaining this ability to preserve existing workgroups but also share information as needed across silos is important.

Constellation Research vice president and senior analyst Alan Lepofsky said the management features and improved search are key. The product will let users search for colleagues and content across all of an organization’s teams—provided they’re authorized to do so. And IT administrators won’t have to worry about “rogue deployments and instead provide central control for billing, user management, and compliance. Individual teams can continue to customize the look of their channels and work with other applications as they see fit.

While Microsoft Teams is a looming concern—Microsoft claims 30,000 organizations started using it in the past month—there are other competitors including Atlassian (TEAM) HipChat, Cisco (CSCO) Spark, and (CSCO) Jive Software (JIVE). Dropbox, which announced new corporate perks to its storage and file sharing product, is also making a more concerted move into corporate accounts.

And don’t forget, Facebook (FB) Workplace, which is a wild card in this arena.

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