The Great WhatsApp crash: When technology fails businesses

The media hoopla surrounding the blackout might have been amusing, but it does bring up a few serious questions for HR.

A WhatsApp outage on Friday (November 3) left millions shaken as they found themselves unable to communicate with friends, families and colleagues.

With the chat service completely down for a whopping 60 minutes, users across today’s post-voice call world, including here in Asia, had full-on meltdowns.

Many, seemingly oblivious to other communication channels like standard messaging service (SMS) and Skype, panicked about how they would ever have a conversation again.

Some took to their social media to share their concerns, some of which you can see below:

Satire aside, the sheer number of companies affected by the outage of one of the world’s most used communication channels is certainly a great cause for concern.

It is not difficult to see why. With over 1.3 billion users as of July 2017, WhatsApp is the second most used messaging app today, after only parent company Facebook’s own Messenger app.

That a fake version of the app had been downloaded more than one million times before it was finally taken off the Google Play store is further proof of its immense popularity.

But the use of the app, and other similar services like WeChat (WhatsApp’s Chinese equivalent), has permeated more than just personal lives. In most organisations today, not just among client-facing employees and out-stationed teams, the platform has also become the de facto mode of communication.

WhatsApp is a great business communication tool and a natural extension for companies because it is free, most employees already have it on their phones and so no familiarisation is needed, and also because there is a desktop version of it called WhatsApp Web for those who like having options and a larger screen.

It also enables teams to work remotely through the group chat function, among a whole host of other benefits which we will not go into.

But overreliance on the app can have disastrous consequences for businesses, as the latest system crash demonstrates.

This latest episode also brings up a bigger question: In today’s technologically advanced and digital age, are we being too overly dependent on technology to run every aspect of our personal and professional lives? What happens when it fails?

And these do not even begin to cover secondary concerns around data security and privacy.

An ongoing poll on debate.org revealed that 83% of respondents believe people have become too dependent on technology.

As one voter wrote, individuals are now less inclined to retain knowledge when everything “is a mere google-search away”; learn new languages “when we can just use automated translators and pocket-dictionaries”; or even keep a social life “when the majority of our friendships are maintained online”. 

These have adverse effects at the workplace. When employees are able to live and work online, they no longer see the need to develop relationships in real life. Over time, social skills might even be hindered. Not having face-to-face interactions also limits collaboration and innovation, both of which are essential for companies to survive in the present disruption economy.

The email, for all its good, has also been blamed as the number one productivity killer. Last year, a CareerBuilder study found that replying or reading emails took up 23% of the average individual’s work day, amounting to some 112 emails per person per day.

And as convenient as the format is, trust and rapport with clients (and even teammates) simply cannot be built through email. Phone conversations and in-person meetings remain key in the world of partnerships and deal-closing.

The lifeblood of most of these technologies – the wireless internet (WiFi) – is also, unfortunately, prone to hiccups in the form of connections dropping without the slightest warning, networks that disappear magically, and frustratingly slow speeds.

With almost all our work now done online, a weak WiFi signal can cause massive setbacks to businesses. After all, time equals money. A client waiting for a proposal urgently might just walk away if you miss the deadline.

It’s not uncommon to hear colleagues losing their cool when their laptop screens are frozen, or when the WiFi is not cooperating, or as more recently, when WhatsApp collapsed.

The ultimate question for HR then is: How can it ensure that employees use a variety of tools, instead of getting comfortable with only one?

Certainly, we write and text a lot in this day and age, but perhaps, in light of the recent hoopla, it’s a good time to consider going back to the good ol’, trusty telephone. Or a fax machine, if you need to get that contract out quick. 

For more of HRM Asia's take on today's real world business issues, head to the dedicated Analysis forum.

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