WhatsApp is taking over at work: Are contextual apps the answer?

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The promise of unified collaboration and communication in the workplace is an empty one; instead we’re seeing greater fragmentation as we use more tools and apps than ever.

Day to day I use any combination of Skype, Keevio, SMS, IRC or Slack, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, any one of Google’s three messaging apps, and let’s not forget good old phone calls. 

People are more engaged with apps they use socially and in their home life, so we’re inevitably seeing these filter into the workplace. The rise of non-work-approved apps like WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger is variously attributed to BYOD - where people use one mobile device across work and home - or the arrival of the digital generation into the workplace, or perhaps the failing of IT teams to provide the right tools for workers to communicate.

The societal shift from defined 'work' marked by rigid long term employment within a single enterprise, to more fluid engagements which blur the distinction between the personal and professional self in many knowledge based sectors is driving this trend structurally.

Personal communication apps are simple, have a great user experience, offer personal control, privacy and security and have helpful features like private group chats, and video, voice and picture messaging.

What's so great about Whatsapp?

It’s easy to see why WhatsApp is so appealing. Users can freely move partial concentration between chats and tasks, then arrange group voice calls at mutually convenient times to conduct valuable, high bandwidth communication, before drifting back to asynchronous (or no) communication as attention spans allow.

A recent internal report from the Foreign Office UK found that “rather than make use of specially tailored government tools, many British diplomats use WhatsApp to discuss sensitive issues.”

Reports say that the app is being used to have important discussions about meetings, strategy, and groups created to rally support for different policy positions. In short; if you’re not on WhatsApp, you’re missing out, and will fall behind.

This is a trend we’ve seen time again; it wasn’t long ago that Twitter DMs were used to bypass state censorship, and before that, Internet email to bypass corporate email systems and silos.

But many government organisations and enterprises struggle to keep pace with technology and so employees continue to find and use their own alternatives. This will lead to more fragmentation and complexity, security and regulatory risk and, in this instance, make communications untraceable and unaccountable. 

Internet infrastructure is nearly pervasive and the bandwidth to support media rich real-time interactions is now becoming much more widely available.

Great infrastructure a 'game changer'

This infrastructure is now powering the next generation of technology that is putting  communication at the heart of apps, meaning that workers can communicate from within an application which can be accessed from any device, website or connected object – without the need for plugins.

This is potentially game changing for business. It enables rich interactions where we can communicate seamlessly with each other *and* the application, without having to context switch to another application – like WhatsApp – or a phone call.

These apps will quickly deliver beautifully designed interactions which perfectly meet their users’ needs on whatever device they choose to interact. This gives rise to what we call ‘contextual communications’.

Contextual communications apps are based on WebRTC, an open-source project that allows standard browsers to communicate via video, audio, and even data files, with a basic API built with JavaScript. Mozilla Firefox, Opera, and Google Chrome all currently support WebRTC, with Microsoft also working on it, and all computers, phones, tablets, and even IoT devices can be used to hold conversations.

The best contextual applications will mesh together all the information needed to effectively exchange and enhance real-time and non-real-time communication flows, which are appropriate to the phase of each task.

This is a new opportunity for businesses to both simplify and enhance  their communications, reaping a raft of benefits from improved productivity and efficiency to streamlined business processes.

It also benefits communication with external stakeholders, by providing a much more engaging and efficient customer experience. If we can understand why a customer is contacting us in advance, we can be far better equipped to deal with their requests efficiently and intelligently.

Contextual communication may not completely eliminate unofficial work use of WhatsApp and other massively social apps, but it will create a new way of working that people won’t recognise as having a distinct or separate communications element. 

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