Insight by Slack

How agencies can boost productivity using tools they already have

Collaborations tools like Slack can boost productivity by serving as an entry point to streamlining business processes with built-in automation and AI.

Federal agencies have been trying to figure out how to do more with fewer people and limited budgets for years now, and that likely won’t stop any time soon. That means they need to figure out how to maximize their productivity. One way to do that is by making work simpler; collaboration tools that proliferated during the pandemic have already begun that process, bringing people and systems together in secure, trusted environments that act as a single repository of knowledge. And with the ongoing push to integrate artificial intelligence into more tools, processes and missions, agencies have the opportunity to simplify the work even more.

“These repositories that tie together different applications and data create a wealth of information,” said Milena Talavera, senior vice president of engineering and infrastructure at Slack. “In the future, people can leverage AI to answer questions and summarize that information, as well as use recaps to catch up once they’re back from vacation. There’s a lot of added productivity for workers, both from the core functionality to future potential.”

Streamlining work

Comprehensive collaboration suites have the ability to meet workers wherever they are, from their desks at headquarters to their workspaces at home to in the field. But at the moment, agencies are largely invested in discrete tools, and often don’t have the budgets or capability to switch wholesale. So they’re looking for ways to build a single entry point, because working across many tools adds complexity, which is the enemy of productivity.

For example, a federal contract manager needs to communicate both internally with their team and externally with the bidders. On top of that, contracts need to go through a series of iterations or approvals, many of which often take place in separate tools. This leads to what’s known as the “swivel chair effect,” meaning the employee is pivoting between tools and copying information manually, much the way they’d do physically in a swivel chair between two screens. Any time this happens, it increases the chances of data loss, mismatched versions, or any number of other human errors getting introduced into the process, to say nothing of the time lost.

“Tools like Slack can understand this problem and solve for it by enabling team communication, contractor collaboration and process automation within a single platform,” Talavera said. “Rather than jumping between applications, stakeholders can message, meet, co-edit documents, route deliverables for approval, and automate repetitive tasks all in one place.”

Applying automation

Slack’s application programming interface allows other tools to connect with Slack and seamlessly transfer data, making all of this possible. Not only does this remove the potential for human error in those data transfers, it also saves time and increases productivity by enabling automation across tools. Agencies need to ask themselves where the repeated tasks are to identify opportunities to apply automation. Approvals are a common scenario where different tools, like existing approval systems, can be connected and streamlined – or something entirely new can be added in their place. That leads to major productivity boosts, where various approvals can all be handled in the same common interface all at once. Agencies can also add automated triggers, where when a certain condition is met, the next task is automatically kicked off.

These tools also have a lot of potential as generative AI is more commonly explored and integrated into existing platforms. One early entry point Talavera mentioned is summarizing information. Collaboration tools like Slack often have significant amounts of information generated in their various channels. When a new employee is added to a working group, it can be time-consuming to play catch up on all that information. Generative AI can extract and summarize key points.

Another potential early opportunity to apply generative AI is augmenting existing search functions. Currently, to answer a question, you have to search for a keyword, and then manually sort through the keyword matches the search function returns until you find the answer. Generative AI can sort through all of those itself much more quickly, summarize them, and return an actual answer based on the data in the tool.

Don’t recreate the wheel

Two major challenges agencies face as they work to integrate AI into their operations are their already strained budgets, and a lack of AI expertise in the federal workforce, largely due to difficult hiring processes and stiff competition from the private sector. With those limitations in mind, the fastest and most effective way agencies can begin seeing productivity increases from AI tools is as a consumer, rather than devoting their limited resources to building bespoke solutions that already have industry analogues.

“Federal agencies can benefit from out-of-the-box solutions without needing extensive technical expertise,” said Talavera. “The beauty is that a lot of these technology tools, including Slack, are working to build in AI capabilities, so agencies don’t have to recreate the wheel and build their own models.”

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