37% of large organizations use WhatsApp – and that’s a problem

We conducted a survey about digital work environments, which surprisingly showed how much WhatsApp is used for work communication. A staggering 37% of the 111 organizations who took part in the survey mentioned WhatsApp as one of the tools for information management and teamwork in their organizations. In previous years, WhatsApp has not even been mentioned as a major work communication tool. Although the question was not asked as directly in the past, almost 40% is still a noticeable result.

North Patrol is a consulting firm specialized in the design of digital services and information systems. We shape ideas into a vision and service concept, find the best architectural and technological solutions, design a functional user experience, and compete to find the ideal partner for implementation work. We do not sell implementation projects, nor do we sell licenses; we are genuinely on the side of the customer.

25 June 2020

Perttu Tolvanen

In the past, we at North Patrol have seen WhatsApp as a phenomenon for organizations working physically in the customer field. For example, many construction companies run a lot of contract-related communications on WhatsApp because groups need to have easy access to people from many different companies, and easy mobile use is important on construction sites. When the data of the survey were looked at a bit more closely, it became clear that the use of WhatsApp was common in organizations that are not primarily information work organizations. WhatsApp is used by 43% of organizations where less than half of the work is information work.

Correspondingly, WhatsApp's share is 35% in information work-focused organizations.

There are many understandable reasons to use WhatsApp, especially in environments where a lot of short-term projects are done and the team includes members from several different organizations. In politics, for example, the use of WhatsApp has long been pretty widespread, as working groups and meetings often involve people from many different organizations, and the pace of work can be very hectic. It's hard to question the effectiveness of WhatsApp as it has been used successfully, even for war operations as The Guardian reports.

However, problems with WhatsApp have already been raised in many areas. In February, for example, the European Commission ordered all its staff to switch from WhatsApp to Signal. Many other organizations have done this already. For example, journalists have been avoiding WhatsApp for years and have rather preferred to communicate with their sources via Signal.

Finland is not vigilant of the problems with WhatsApp

Despite the comprehensibility of the situation, it is surprising that even among large organizations, the use of WhatsApp is so widespread. After all, the survey had a strong focus on large organizations with more than 5,000 employees. Thus, the results of the study do not tell us about the tools used by small businesses. Presumably, the use of WhatsApp in small businesses is even more extensive, but it was not considered in this specific study.

From the perspective of large organizations, using WhatsApp is, in many ways, more problematic than for small businesses. For example, large construction sites are unlikely to face major challenges if small subcontractors communicate on WhatsApp. It is more questionable if the main contractors also run critical building site communication with WhatsApp groups as the management of the groups is based entirely on the conscientiousness of the people who created the groups.

Manual group management is WhatsApp's biggest issue

WhatsApp, nowadays owned by Facebook, cannot be integrated with enterprise user management, so access control is based solely on the manual work of group administrators. The management of the user rights is based on telephone numbers, and there is no way to restrict the addition of users. The group administrator can solely add anyone to the group they manage.

Typically on construction sites, WhatsApp groups carry a great deal of sensitive information. For example, building site passage control, work shifts, the location of machine keys, and the timing of material shipments. The situation is often aggravated by the fact that WhatsApp teams are used in situations where staff turnover can be high, and team administrators may not even be aware of all staff changes. Thus, it is very typical that a person might maintain access to the groups, even if the work at the construction site in question has already ended or the person has already changed jobs.

For IT, a system based on WhatsApp groups is also completely unmanageable, as there is nowhere an overall picture of what groups exist and who their creators are. In WhatsApp, it is not possible to transfer ownership of a group because the group is always owned by the person who established it and this founder cannot be removed from the group. The founder himself can only unsubscribe from the group.

Manual access rights and user identifier (ID) management are understandable if the organization is very small. While in the organizations of thousands of people, manual user ID management in critical communication and teamwork tools can be classified as quite serious negligence. Manual management errors can result in significant information security and theft risks to the business.

Dissemination of information and documents to outsiders is a typical side effect

Another significant risk for WhatsApp is the spread of information and documents to channels where the organization no longer has control over the information. It is unfortunate that on construction sites, for example, versions of drawings and documents are distributed in WhatsApp groups. This can easily lead to problems when the contractors accidentally follow outdated drawings or follow outdated safety instructions.

Even from the point of view of good information management, the mere fact that the organization's valuable documents are uploaded to the Facebook cloud is problematic. In WhatsApp, too, many users routinely save important documents and pictures to their phone or computer. Otherwise, it can be challenging to find them in the active groups. In this case, confidential documents end up on the users' phones, and these documents are likely to remain on the phones until the user acquires a new phone or, for example, the phone is stolen.

WhatsApp's method of treating all messages, images, and attachments primarily as the property of each user is also very problematic for business. For example, if a person is removed from the company's WhatsApp group, the conversations and shared files in the group will not disappear for that person. The removal from the group will only block access to new conversations and new files. The user's archive and backup system will cover all messages and attachments received by the user, regardless of whether the user is no longer a member of those groups.

Facebook stores the metadata of all conversations for its own use

WhatsApp messages these days are automatically encrypted, so even Facebook can't read the content of the messages. However, this does not apply to conversation metadata that Facebook collects from all conversations and then uses it, for example, to do target advertising. Thus, Facebook records all the names of all the messages, the times of the conversations, the number of messages, and metadata about the interactions that took place. Based on this information, Facebook completes its so-called social graph of who knows who and who is close to whom.

For example, such information can be much more interesting to spyware than the actual content of the messages. Hence it is bizarre that many organizations, classified as critical businesses, widely use WhatsApp to support their operations. For instance, journalists writing about internationally significant themes have been avoiding the use of WhatsApp for years. Since many intelligence agencies have different backdoors into Facebook servers, and data centers are hacked regularly.

The boundary between work and private life is difficult to manage

Even if things in your organization do not seem very secretive or sensitive, using WhatsApp can still cause problems with your company’s operations.

The extensive use of WhatsApp at work has been reported to have an increasing effect on human workload when work matters cannot be clearly distinguished from leisure activities.

For example, many hobby groups run on WhatsApp, which also inevitably exposes people to work messages in their spare time, and this can increase the burden on employees. This has been reported for years, especially in political organizations, where people work in different circadian rhythms and as a result, work-related WhatsApp groups notify their users from early morning to late evening.

Moving on from WhatsApp requires a good alternative

It seems like WhatsApp is still living in a kind of grey area in Finland as only a few people would even think to use a personal Hotmail email account for work-related matters or create a Facebook group for the company’s internal affairs. The popularity of WhatsApp in hobby groups and people's personal lives is probably one of the reasons why so many organizations also have work-related WhatsApp groups. In the past, WhatsApp might also have had a better reputation when it was not a part of Facebook’s social media empire.

In many organizations, using WhatsApp may already have some history, so it’s not easy to say no to a workable and tested solution. Restricting the use of Whatsapp is also technically difficult, as many have good reasons to use it, even on a separate work phone. Therefore, the replacement of WhatsApp should primarily take place by providing a sufficiently good alternative tool that is required to be used at least in all permanent groups.

For very short-term uses, it may make sense to allow the use of WhatsApp, at least at the beginning, as many alternative solutions can be quite tedious to set up compared to WhatsApp. For example, setting up a new Teams and inviting all the members there is such a big operation that it will hardly continue to be done just for the needs of individual work gigs, a couple of meetings, or small contracts.

However, one of the reasons for WhatsApp’s popularity is that there aren’t many good and cheap options available.

All alternatives differ from WhatsApp 

Microsoft's Office 365 also has its own WhatsApp clone, Kaizala, which can be integrated into an organization's active user directory, giving you better control over discussion groups within your organization. In addition, it has been easier to invite users who do not have an Office 365 license to Kaizala. However, Kaizala's features are also coming to Teams, thus Kaizala is no longer being actively developed.

It is quite clear that Teams is probably the most common solution in Finland, which many organizations are moving to while they are trying to sort out their internal WhatsApp groups. Teams is, of course, a much larger and more complex software, but it can also be used more simply as a WhatsApp clone if you wish.

If, on the other hand, the need is primarily related to secure discussions with members outside the organization, setting up Signal can be a sensible move. For example, Signal is used by many security organizations with sources and contact persons outside their organization. For instance, Wired has written a comprehensive article on why WhatsApp should be switched to Signal if the use is more serious than any hobby or entertainment use. However, it is not possible to connect Signal to your organization's user directory, so it will not directly work as a replacement for internal WhatsApp groups.

For non-Microsoft customers, there are also plenty of WhatsApp options. The most significant player is, of course, Slack, which is also widely used in Finland, especially in software companies. However, Slack's price tag for large organizations is significant, and it does not always meet the strictest requirements of security organizations.

However, there are many different “cheap copies” for a Slack-type chat solution, some of which have already risen to a fairly independent position. Also in Finland, a few larger organizations use Rocket.Chat, which was also mentioned in our report. The main difference between Rocket.Chat to Slack and Teams is the possibility to install it on your server, thus you can decide on the level of security and the location of your data.

So there are alternatives if you want to use them. However, the first step in Finland is probably to be aware of the problems associated with the use of WhatsApp groups in business.

(This article has been translated from the Finnish original. Read the original article.)

Perttu Tolvanen

Perttu Tolvanen is a web concept design and content management system expert.

Perttu consults with clients on project planning and defining requirements, and supports customers in selecting content management systems and implementation partners. His areas of specialisation include facilitating concept design workshops and selecting content management systems.

Perttu has ten years of experience with web and intranet projects, including serving as a project manager and consultant. Earlier in his career Perttu has worked in procurement and as a project manager at a large media company, a content management system consultant at a large IT company and an independent, neutral consultant at his own firm. He is also a well-known seminar speaker and blogger. Perttu is also the editor of Vierityspalkki.fi, a Finnish blog about the Finnish internet and its creators.

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