Addressing Compliance Challenges as Conversations Shift from Email to Collaboration Platforms

It seems as if it’s happened almost overnight. I spend more cumulative time in Slack on a daily basis than I do in email. It feels like it was just yesterday that emails drove the reactive part of my business day, reading and responding to each one as they popped into my inbox. Not so lately.

Now I tend to “catch up” with reading emails every few hours, and it’s Slack messages that get my attention, and almost immediate responses. These new team-oriented collaboration platforms are shifting the way we communicate electronically and how we work with each other. In my view, Slack is the originator for this new category of communications tool but they are only one of several platforms that are rapidly gaining traction and competing to be the corporate standard for our non-email communications.

Other vendors in this emerging space include Microsoft with Microsoft Teams, Facebook with Workplace by Facebook, and Cisco with Cisco Spark. There are more, but these are the ones I have most frequently seen gaining adoption within the financial services industry.

In my role as Chief Evangelist at Smarsh, I often speak at financial services conferences. Throughout this year, I have been asking the audiences made up of compliance, legal and IT professionals if they are currently using, or planning on using, a collaboration platform like Slack in their business. Six months ago, only a few hands would go up. Now, nearly the whole room has their hand in the air.

Focusing specifically on Slack, the numbers we are now seeing for their adoption and daily usage backs up what I am experiencing in my work day and my show of hands instant polling results out in the field as well.

Recently, Slack announced that it had passed the 6 million user mark. In October 2016, they had 4 million users. The other stat that caught my eye recently is the amount of time these users are active on Slack on weekdays, which is 320 minutes on average according to numbers published by DMR. Given that the amount of hours in a day has not changed, it would be fairly safe to say that those 5 hours plus of activity in Slack have been stolen from time spent in email.

The answer as to why is very simple. Productivity, and the direct impact it is having on the firm’s business in terms of teams getting a lot more done and much quicker than using email when working together on a common task, goal or initiative. Email was not designed with this use-case in mind and breaks down quickly when trying to keep a group in synch as we answer an older message in a rapidly evolving thread and inadvertently spawn a new thread that complicates things quickly.

Contributing to the productivity factor and being the right tool for the job, these new collaboration platforms feature instant messaging (IM), persistent chat, video/audio calls and online meetings, plus file and document sharing with version control all in one integrated and unified platform to use versus being in and out of separate individual offerings for each all day.

All of this is great news and the platforms will only mature and become more capable as they add more features, so where’s the downside for financial services firms?

As we’ve seen earlier this year, the regulators (FINRA, SEC, etc.) have been very clear in their communication and published guidance that all forms of electronic communications being used for firm business need to be captured, retained and adequately supervised/reviewed for compliance purposes, regardless of the method chosen. Although the guidance was specifically targeted at social media and mobile text messaging, these new collaboration platforms are also subject to the same regulatory compliance requirements.

Just like with social media and text messaging, prohibition and restrictive usage policies are very hard to enforce with confidence knowing that individuals will utilize these forms of communication at times when the needs of the business necessitate it or for other valid reasons, such as increased productivity. No ill intent, but a compliance risk all the same if these messages are outside your compliance perimeter and not being archived and actively supervised alongside all of the other electronic communications channels being used by your firm.

The complicating factor with Slack adoption is that it is happening in a non-prescribed way within firms. Users can download the free Slack application from the web and deploy it as a team in a matter of minutes, and all without the need to ask for any help from IT. This is a big part of the reason that the number of Slack users is growing so rapidly. Slack monetizes on this freemium model later on when the business starts to require more advanced functionality that goes beyond what the free version provides.

This is the latest example of “Shadow IT” and is a very real situation for most firms we talk to these days, So, if you know your employees are using Slack (or another collaboration platform) within your financial services business and you are not actively archiving and supervising it’s use as you would your email or any other allowed channel, you need to be. If you’re not aware or aren’t sure about whether a collaboration platform like Slack is being used in your firm, I am willing to bet it is if you specifically go looking for it and ask your users.

The good news is that comprehensive archive technology has advanced and leading vendors have active relationships with Slack and other collaboration platform vendors to provide archiving connections that directly capture the messages, index, supervise and store them in a search-ready state alongside all other forms of electronic communications being used by the firm.

Bottom line here is that the goal needs to be achieving compliance and productivity as new technology emerges so you don’t succeed with one…at the expense of the other.


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