WhatsApp is great for personal messaging, but not so great for enterprise communications
When a former investment banker was recently fined £37,000 for using WhatsApp to share confidential client information with people outside work, it was the first time the Financial Conduct Authority had singled out the instant messaging app in such a case. It is also a cautionary tale for anyone who uses WhatsApp at work.
Christopher Niehaus had "failed to act with due skill, care and diligence" when he sent the information in a bid to "impress" a friend and an acquaintances , the FCA ruled.
Niehaus – who has since quit his job at City bank Jefferies - is not the first to get into trouble using personal apps like WhatsApp at work, and he won't be the last.
WhatsApp has enjoyed soaraway success, with one billion users worldwide. That's great for WhatsApp and its owner Facebook, but not such good news for companies whose people are making WhatsApp part of their everyday working lives.
The adoption of such messaging platforms at work poses serious problems for business leaders concerned about issues such as security, compliance and, ultimately, corporate reputation.
Firstly, let us say this - at Blink we think WhatsApp is very cool. As a way to communicate and organise your life it does a brilliant job. We just don't think it's something that belongs in the workplace.
Employees bringing WhatsApp into their workflow is a dangerous example of 'Shadow IT', where employees select their own technology to solve their day-to-day productivity problems. Credit to them for wanting to work smarter, but business leaders need to see the gaping pitfalls that await.
Right now, too many seem to be happy to turn a blind eye - or even positively embrace consumer software such as WhatsApp. At Blink, we've seen this at first hand among businesses large and small that we talk to.
We've found that WhatsApp is far and away the most prevalent instant messaging system being used by them. Individual employees use it to communicate with each other and teams have embraced WhatsApp groups. But we also know of WhatsApp groups being used by retail bank branch managers for staff communication and even boards of FTSE-100 companies who use them.
All of this matters because because we believe the next big corporate scandal could very likely be the product of a workplace messaging group - leaked WhatsApp messages, a courtroom drama and, ultimately, hefty fines and even jail.
In 2015 a man in the United Arab Emirates was fined for swearing at someone via WhatsApp. A subsequent ruling decreed that sending an emoji insult - such as a raised middle finger - would also be punishable under the law.
Such incidents might be easy to dismiss as wacky news stories, but from an enterprise point of view it raises the question of where responsibility lies. How does an organisation draw the line between what an employee does as a private individual on WhatsApp and what they do as an employee and representative of the company? It could be a lot more serious than a culturally inappropriate emoji.
Companies have no control over thisMessaging apps like WhatsApp use the contacts on a user's smartphone rather than an enterprise directory, so straight away there is a blurring of boundaries.
It's not just poorly-judged messages that are the risk. One slip and a message intended for someone inside the organisation can end up going to someone on the outside, potentially with confidential data and attachments.
This is clearly a nightmare in terms of security and compliance, but there could also be legal and reputational ramifications if sensitive information leaks out. What if important intellectual property ends up in the wrong hands?
Personal security blunders - like falling victim to a phishing scam - suddenly become problems for the company, and difficult ones to fix. And because work contacts are added to what is a non-work app, that information leaves the organisation when the employee leaves and management loses any control or oversight.
WhatsApp's introduction of end-to-end encryption removed the danger of messages being intercepted, but it offers companies little comfort beyond that.
This extra security is great for users who can message each other with complete privacy, but that privacy exclusion also extends to employers.
There is no way to monitor, audit or account for what information is being freely exchanged inside and outside the organisation.
In short, companies have zero control over what their people do on WhatsApp and so have to trust that their people always act sensibly, carefully and in good faith. And never make mistakes.
So why is there this huge demand for apps like WhatsApp at work anyway?
'Shadow IT' practices are born out of necessity on the part of employees. It is the result of a wider shift in the way people want and need to work and organisations need to adapt to this new reality.
Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) is an accepted norm now, so it's unrealistic to think Bring Your Own Software (BYOS) can be prevented altogether.
The solution is to pre-empt the problem and give employees the tools they demand. Crucially, such tools need to match consumer apps for usability, utility and quality. An inferior messaging experience backed by a draconian enforcement policy is not the way of progress.
People bring their own software to work because it's better than what they are provided with. It lets them be more productive - a laudable motive.
Group messaging is worlds better than email for ease, speed and efficiency.
It's less formal and removes the burden of being locked into a cycle or replies and threads. And because the likes of WhatsApp are such a big part of people's lives, it makes sense to communicate in the same way at work.
Teams have recognised this benefit too, and are quickly moving away from email to team chat apps such as Slack, Microsoft Teams and our own, Blink.
In fact, we created Blink exactly because of this woeful lack of enterprise-standard workplace tools that could match the simplicity, functionality and elegance of consumer apps.
Our simple belief is that if you give people better tools at work they won't need to bring their own. Make those tools as good as - or better than - the apps they use in their everyday lives and they'll be happier, more productive employees.
And their bosses can sleep at night.
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