This truth hit me hard when I visited Azadpur Wholesale Market last week.
Ever since we started developing Vegfru, an online portal to bring together fruit and vegetables buyers and sellers on the same platform, I occasionally went to Azadpur to network with my old business associates and colleagues from corporate years to refresh my relationships and to get better insights on what jobs those folks are getting done through market mechanism, ecosystem and modern day ICT tools. Idea was to have a ring side view of what matters and what not so that our engineers could design appropriate functionalities, features and a better user experience for Vegfru portal and its Android mobile app, a business tool with search, indexing, file sharing and task management functionalities for buyers and sellers.
My first port of call was Lalit’s shop (name changed for (Names and other identifying details have been changed in the post to protect the privacy of individuals.) I had known Lalit for almost two decades now. 20 years back, despite initial reluctance and strong resistance from his father, he was the one who had agreed to buy some part of produce from his own auction to break the bulk to cater to Safal’s requirement for just sorted graded produce.
While greeting him profusely, I ask him “Why you are no longer active on various WhatsApp groups including groups administered by Vegfru team”. “Sir, I have lost almost half of my business because of this WhatsApp”. I got curious as I always thought WhatsApp as a good communication tool. I ask him, “How?” Thereafter he narrated a story which sounds too far-fetched yet true.
Lalit graphically explained how a silent WhatApp member was passing contact details of the leads with whom he was about to initiate business talks to one of his bitter rival. Lalit could never understand how that rival would exactly know who he was going to talk to and when particularly when the rival was not on that group or even WhatsApp for that matter. Mystery unwrapped when one of the customer who was common to him and his rival inquired from Lalit whether his accountant has quit and joined the rival as he had overheard the conversation between Lalit’s accountant and rival businessmen about some business opportunity in Gurgaon and exchange of contact details.
Lalit politely shifted the topic but his mind was putting 2+2 together on the mystery of leaked information. Hours of grilling later, it turned out that the Accountant, who had by virtue of his master’s reference had gained entry into that group, but was a silent member and was also getting private messages / forwards from his master for operational purpose. But the accountant had an another axe to grind – get the relevant information and pass it on the rival who had promised to employ his uneducated brother.
It could be one of incident but from that moment I started researching more and more and talking to many active traders / business persons on use of WhatsApp for business use. Here’re are my observations;
WhatsApp and other consumer messaging apps like Facebook Messenger etc are nowadays getting used as shadow IT tools also for business. The main advantage of these messaging apps is, that they are much faster and efficient than email, and lead to improved communication and higher productivity. On the other hand, when used in businesses these consumer messaging apps have significant weaknesses with regard to their various limitations, use cases, data protection, security, administration, ecosystem integration and support.
Let’s talk about limitations and use cases first.
The size limit of the group currently is <= 256 persons. However very few are aware that a Group-Admin can not only add the persons but can also give admin title to other persons in the group and all the 256 essentially can become the group admins. Try to visualize impact of this. The one you made a group admin can theoretically add another 254 persons. How many of those persons you may actually know is a matter of speculation but the implications are clear. Newly added may not be relevant to the purpose of group or could be plainly undesirable.
256 persons limit is also restrictive from business perspective. How many in your current WhatsApp group do you think share the common business or product lines. In few of my groups I could not count more than 10 with whom I could share common interest. But do we need groups comprising of common interests or a healthy mix of uncommon interests, like say a mix of genuine buyers and sellers. In one of the group everyone was posting something for sale. But where are the buyers? Even if match mapping happened once, do you think you’ll continue to stick with same business partner even if better opportunities are available outside the group. Something that often ends up into creation of multiple groups and side groups which leads to information vacuum for few and glut for some.
But more than that, WhatsApp, for most users, is not strictly for business. For most it is used for personal conversations and non-work group chats. Mixing personal and business groups can be downright annoying, disturbing, and possibly dangerous. Sharing business information anywhere where conversations about business and personal conversations blend is not at all smart and can result in the leakage of confidential information outside the business. Besides going through all such nonsense chats quite often is so frustrating and productivity losing proposition.
WhatsApp is a great tool for communicating with family and friends. That is how the app has become popular. However, with the professionalization of messaging more and more business use cases are emerging that require a sophisticated feature set like searching for content, file sharing, to name just two. WhatsApp is meant for casual conversation. Anyone can create groups, anyone can private message anyone. If your business needs remain as transparent, this is not the right thing.
One never give a thought before pressing the “Allow” button to read one’s contact, messages, photos, files, location etc. when one signs up for services like WhatApp.
Imagine this. WhatsApp accesses and stores the address books of employees, which contains confidential corporate and customer data. While WhatsApp has announced an improved encryption, it currently does not provide enterprise-grade encryption (e.g. metadata, storage on device, storage on servers, etc). Besides, there is still that very big problem of a user’s account being tied to a personal phone number. You cannot limit the roles of employees or restrict access once someone is a part of a group chat. Even after employees leave, they will continue to have access to the information being shared. As a result, changing roles becomes a logistical nightmare.
In addition, free services like WhatsApp require user data to make a living. WhatsApp has announced to generate revenues from businesses by allowing them to communicate to customers. Such a business model requires knowledge of your users and is in conflict with minimal use of personal data, general data reduction and strong data protection. Think about this and you’ll find real answers on WhatsApp’s business model.
And finally, the biggest daddy of all issues. WhatsApp can land admins in jail. See this. https://is.gd/hnhKSm. With no control over persons and information they post this is a highly likely scenario.