chat apps
July 17, 2018

When Chat Becomes Chatter: Hiring the Right App for the Wrong Job

By Jon Ogden | Senior Manager, Content Marketing at Workfront


Harvard business professor Clayton M. Christensen had a realization.

For years he’d been asking why great companies fail (coining the concept of the innovator’s dilemma in the process), but he hadn’t yet focused on what he calls “the reverse problem” of looking at how successful companies grow.

As he worked on this new problem, Christensen discovered a theme: companies grow by making products that do a job that needs to be done. “When we buy a product,” he says, “we essentially ‘hire’ something to get a job done. If it does the job well, when we are confronted with the same job, we hire that same product again. And if the product does a crummy job, we ‘fire’ it and look around for something else we might hire to solve the problem.”

Clayton christensen quote

To illustrate, Lyft does the job of getting you somewhere quickly by making hailing and payments easier. Amazon does the job of delivering you goods without the hassle of going to a physical store. Google does the job of getting you the info you need when you need it.

In short, when businesses successfully make products that get a needed job done, they grow. When they don’t, they fail.

This sounds straightforward, but sometimes it can be difficult to know the exact job a product is meant to do. We hire a product and then use that product to do jobs it was never meant to do, or to do jobs that it isn’t optimized to do.

This happens all the time with chat apps. Too often, we hire chat apps with the intent to use them as a work management platform — as a way for employees to collaborate on projects and keep track of progress. But they weren't made for that.

Right product, wrong job.

To fix this problem, we have to be clear about the jobs that chat apps are best suited for and the jobs they aren’t best suited for.

Chat apps can help you:

  • Communicate fast. Unlike email, there’s no need for introductions such as “Hey, Jim” or a signoff such as “Cheers.” You just type a line, hit Enter, and you’re done. That may seem like a small thing, but small things add up—especially when you’re receiving dozens of emails a day.

  • Let your personality shine. Because chat is less formal than other modes of communication, your team member’s personalities can shine through. Jokes, emojis, and gifs add a level of emotion and fun that are often missing in other communication tools. This emotional component can be an overlooked aspect of building culture, especially if you have remote employees.

  • Put out fires. Is your server down? That’s something you don’t want lost in an email inbox. Chat is the perfect way to address something that needs attention right now.

  • Coordinate in real-time. Are you seeing if anyone wants to grab lunch? Changing a meeting a few minutes before it happens? If so, chat is likely the right tool for the job.


Chat apps hurt productivity when:

  • Chat becomes chatter. If you’re not careful, chat can fry your workday, sending you a scourge of notifications calling for your attention. In some sense, it’s as though you’re sitting in an open office space where you hear everyone’s conversations all day — and research shows that such settings can be highly distracting and lead to lost productivity. When group chats become chatter you risk losing productivity.

  • Your culture becomes driven by fires. We all know that we should do the work that’s most important regardless of urgency, but chat apps often make that difficult to do because everything seems equally urgent. This is partly because with chat your team members can see you’re online and expect a reply and partly because nothing is prioritized visually. By its very nature, chat is often the enemy of your most important tasks.

  • You lose your sense of context. Have you ever had someone make a work request directly in a group chat? How do you put that single request in context with the overall project? What happens when, a few minutes later, that request gets buried by new chats? In this case the strength of chat — its real-time immediacy — is its weakness.

  • You have no transparency into projects. Say you get a one-off request via chat to complete a task in a project. You complete the request and let the person know it’s done. But what happens days later when another team member needs to see how the project is moving along? Chances are, they have to message the team member who made the original request. There’s no way for the whole team to see how the project is progressing step by step.

  • You have no reporting. Chat is basically all qualitative — groups of ad hoc comments. Because of this, you can't drive any quantitative understanding from chat activities. In other words, no reporting or analytics to understand how things are going.

Right Product, Right Job

The takeaway here isn't that you should toss your chat apps in the trash. Rather, the takeaway is that chat apps are meant for a specific job, and when they're used as an ad hoc project management tool, they're being used for the wrong job and cripple knowledge workers as a result.

Like George Costanza from Seinfeld said, "It's not you, it's me." The tools aren't bad. We are — because we try to use them for things for which they weren't designed. It’s like trying to use email for audit tracking, group chat, file management, etc. It doesn't work.

To make the most of chat apps, we must recognize that they function best in concert with a robust work management solution. With chat in its rightful place, you'll find that your employees will be better able to get their jobs done (which is good because that's precisely what you're paying them to do).

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