Whatsapp & iMessage won’t solve your communication problems! Here’s why…

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More than 90% of the companies we interviewed at Unifize were using Peer-to-Peer (P2P) communication tools like Whatsapp or iMessage for internal and/or external company communication.  However, these companies still report endless communication problems.

Ultimately, Whatsapp and iMessage were not designed to be used in these environments.  We take a closer look at how and why they fail to solve communication problems in these companies.

A brief history of trying to get everyone on the same page

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I still remember the day that I had conference calling activated on my mobile phone. It was an epiphany of relief.  

Previously, coordinating between teams and individuals could only be done in face-to-face meetings or over a long consecutive series of phone calls.

For regular work, this was fine. However, if something urgent came up, the resulting activities were like pulling teeth.

It would inevitably happen on a Friday evening at the end of March, as I was returning home from work.

“The punching machine is down. The special tool for the xyz project has broken,” the production manager would announce.

“But we have a spare.  We approved two.”

Let me check.”

Ten minutes of waiting, while the customer calls the sales team for a status update, which they are evidently unable to provide.

“The first one broke last week and the machine operator replaced it with this one without telling anyone,” the production manager would call and say, eventually.

“Well, can we send the job outside?  Can we get in touch with the tool vendor?”

Let me check.”

The customer calls, again.

Another half an hour passes as the production manager coordinates with the machine operator, engineering, and purchasing to get in touch with the vendor to release a purchase order, while someone else tries to find a sub-vendor.

“The sub-vendor says there’s a payment that’s been held up because of a quality issue, and she won’t take more orders. Someone from finance will need to call her.”

“Where’s the finance head?”

Let me check.”

And so on and so forth. A massive, frustrating game of collaborative cat-and-mouse.

Mobile conference calling made this whole process much better.  It enabled us to speed up the information exchange by getting everyone we needed on one call, reducing the time and effort required to resolve urgent issues.

Another communication breakthrough…

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Recently, P2P chat-based tools like Whatsapp and iMessage improved things even further. Suddenly, we were able to bring people into one place without having to actually speak to them at the same time.

The instant, asynchronous, chat-based approach also provided a limited amount of traceability to the conversations, and we could see whether the recipient had received and read messages.

At Unifize, we found that more than 90% of manufacturing and engineering companies we interviewed were actively using Whatsapp or iMessage for internal and/or external communication, although in most cases it was ‘unofficial’.

In one company, we found a network of 25,000 dealers, each being managed in their own individual Whatsapp groups by 300 sales representatives across 27 territories.

Each sales rep was, in turn, was communicating with a team at the head office by another Whatsapp group.  The CEO had his own Whatsapp groups to communicate with his lieutenants.

On average, each employee was part at least 5 individual Whatsapp groups for work purposes.  We saw similar patterns using a variety of different chat-based tools, depending on the location of the company (iMessage in North America, WeChat in China, Whatsapp in India, and language-specific apps like Zalo in Vietnam)

So, communication problems solved then?

 

Actually, not even close…

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“We don’t get enough feedback from the market when we release new products,” the CEO complained to us, “Even if we do get feedback, it takes too long.”

“Our branch offices never tell us about the problems until it’s too late, or they aren’t described clearly enough,” his Sales Vice President said.

“It takes a long time and a lot of internal follow up to solve problems and implement disposal and corrective actions.  It’s a huge challenge to keep on top of who needs to do what, when and why,” his Service Head said.

“We get customer complaints, but we are only getting about 10% of the dealer feedback on things like competition, features and price,” the Product Design head said, “If I want to understand what’s actually going on, I have to go to the market myself.”

We went to visit a few sales reps in the field, whom we asked about the communication problems that their management had highlighted.

“There’s no problem,” they said, defensively.

That is the problem.  They don’t even know there is a problem!” the Sales VP said defiantly when I reported this back to him.

Problems, problems, everywhere…

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We found a similar pattern of Whatsapp or iMessage coexisting with multiple communication-related problems at almost all interviewed companies, all of which managed complex repeatable processes.

Ultimately, the most frequent issue in all interviewed segments was that “x team(s) spends too much time coordinating to get something done with y team(s), resulting in unnecessary delays and mistakes in achieving (z) objectives”.

Why weren’t Whatsapp and iMessage solving these communication problems?  To understand this in greater detail, we needed to take a closer look at exactly how these P2P communication tools were being used throughout these organisations.

What’s in the detail?

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At Unifize, we have several thousand screenshots of Whatsapp and iMessage groups, email clients and CRM / ERP / PLM tools that we gleaned from on-site interviews with users over many months of what we called ‘Process Mapping’ during our customer development process.  I can’t say they make great bedtime reading.

However, we knew that the key to developing any kind of solution to delayed product development and engineering times was to understand these in more detail, in aggregate.

Broadly, we found two use cases of P2P chat-based platforms like Whatsapp and iMessage for conducting company business:

  • Cross-Functional Groups:  By far the most prolific usage of these P2P chat platforms, Cross-Functional Groups are set-up to manage general communication between collaborating teams with no specific objective other than to facilitate a continuous flow of information.  These groups exist in perpetuity and members are slowly added / removed as the organisational structure changes.  For example, there might be a Quality Group for exchanging information about complaints or non-conformances, a Sales Group for general communication between and across sales team members, or a Leadership Group with the CEO and his key lieutenants, etc etc.
  • Task Force Groups: An alternative usage of Whatsapp and iMessage are groups resembling Task Forces set-up to achieve a specific goals.  For example, to resolve a maintenance issue or a delayed quote that required collaboration between different teams and individuals for a specific purpose and length of time.

The use of P2P chat platforms to enable Cross-Functional Teams and Tasks Forces evidently provides at least some benefit, otherwise no-one would be using them at all.  However, given the endless ongoing communication issues, these tools appear only to alleviate – not solve – the problems. 

To understand this better, we need to understand these problems (and their root causes) in more depth.

The email problem

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In the majority of cases, Whatsapp or iMessage are not being used as the ‘official’ channel of communication.  In this arena, email still reigns high.  

The general problems with email are well defined. For teams managing repeatable processes using email, these problems are often more acute:

  • Email is one of the least secure methods for sending confidential data, including drawings, technical data and other company owned Intellectual Property (IP).
  • It is difficult  to understand context and accountability from  email threads, especially when they involve multiple recipients and are linked to activities outside the thread, such as clarifications or approvals.
  • There is no way of knowing  whether the recipient has received, much less understood a given exchange of information. 
  • If a decision, action or insight is required consequent to a communication process, it  usually needs to be recorded in another tool, which makes it difficult or impossible to trace its  status or source back to where it was originated in the email chain.
  • The movement of  information back and forth between different systems also increases the risk of delays and / or mistakes, especially when they need to collaborate outside the organisation with customers and vendors.

Ultimately, the sheer volume of email communication required in most manufacturing use cases makes it extremely hard for people collaborating to keep track of who needs to do what, when and why.

The unstructured data problem

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The absence of any structure to conversations on Whatsapp and iMessage means that key elements of traceability and record-keeping are lost.  This results in the following specific structural failures of P2P chat platforms:

  • It is impossible to link conversations to one another.  For example, you might need to link a conversation about special materials to a specific project or work / job order, or a machine maintenance issue to a specific machine.
  • It is impossible to introduce reusable templates for repeatable communication processes.  For example, when onboarding a new vendor, resolving a quality issue, or approving a customized techno-commercial offer document at an engineering or manufacturing company.
  • It is difficult to know which conversations require follow up, with whom and when.  For example, having to respond to aging sales enquiries before they go stale, or resolving a customer complaint when the customer has also forgotten about it.

The absence of conversational structure is especially problematic when collaborating between internal and/or external teams on drawings and technical documents.  

In these cases, each comment or clarification may need to have its own conversation with different people to get resolved, and for the resulting decision or action taken by the right team at the right time.  P2P chat systems completely break down trying to handle this, with people moving to email and, in some cases, CAD/CAM collaboration tools (more on these later).

The lack of structure to conversations in Whatsapp and iMessage also means that it is impossible to build a searchable, indexable knowledge base or library of historical information, meaning that work (and mistakes) are often unnecessarily repeated.

The security problem

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Connected to the issues of structure and traceability is the issue of security. By using P2P communication platforms like Whatsapp and iMessage, these organisations don’t own the data from their business communication and lack granular control over who can see what, and when.  

These companies are especially vulnerable to such security issues when an employee leaves the organisation or when their relationship with third-parties in possession of confidential documents (eg suppliers) changes. 

The compliance problem

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One of the biggest fears that a Board of Directors has is that their company fails to pass compliance audits. These could be for external certifications, statutory / government / legal compliance, or as part of normal vendor management policies at large customers.

P2P chat applications contain an incredible amount of data that is disorganized, untraceable, and insecure. For audits requiring traceable conversations, decisions and actions, these P2P chat applications completely break down.

Many companies pretend to ignore these risks by banning P2P platforms ‘for official use’ and insisting that ‘official communication’ is done via email, which simply creates an additional layer of security and traceability issues. 

Furthermore, even a surface-level communication process audit will often show that Whatsapp and iMessage are being used ‘officially’, even at the CXO level.

The communication waste problem

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A higher-level problem with these systems is that it is impossible to make any sense of all the communication going on within the organisation, meaning they are unable to take action to identify and reduce their communication waste.

As we have discussed earlier, teams at manufacturing and engineering companies spend up to 70% of their time communicating to get things done.  

However, because Whatsapp and iMessage can only be used to facilitate tactical, unstructured exchanges of information, it is impossible to measure the time taken or identify problems in sequences of consecutive or concurrent communication processes.

Companies have spent a great deal of time and effort optimising how their machines process physical material, but have failed to dedicate similar resources to understanding how to optimise their communication processes.  P2P chat platforms are wholly inadequate for addressing this need.

Don't make the elephant dance!

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We aren’t the only people to talk about the problems with P2P communication tools at work

However, it should by now be clear that teams managing complex repeatable processes face a swathe of additional issues if they are trying to use these tools for business communication.

Ultimately, we have to accept the fact that P2P communication tools like Whatsapp and iMessage weren’t designed to be used in complex collaborative environments like this.

Nevertheless, this is where people are trying to use them!

Considering the amount that is at stake for these companies, you could be forgiven for thinking that someone else is already working on solving these problems.  

Perhaps enterprise chat platforms like Slack, Flock, Hike and Microsoft Teams can address them?

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