Manufacturing & supply chain companies: Whatsapp & iMessage are not the solution…

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About 25% of the manufacturers we interviewed at Unifize were using Peer-to-Peer (P2P) communication tools like Whatsapp or iMessage.

Ultimately, Whatsapp and iMessage were not designed for use in companies that manage collaborative processes. 

Use them at your peril…

What’s in the detail?

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.

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

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 collaborative 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 collaborative 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

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

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

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

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!

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 companies that manage repeatable processes.

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 and Microsoft Teams can address them?

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