Talking about chat apps at work in the Global South
External Authors: Moira McGregor, Jacki O'Neill, Jonathan Appavoo, Nic Bidwell
We explored how chat works in the distributed workplace and how it fits alongside the rhythms of both local and remote work in the Global South.
In this study, we took an ethnographic look at how two chat apps fit into the communication ecosystem of six large enterprises in India and Kenya, and provided insight into where and how chat might best fit into an organisation’s communication ecosystem.
From the perspective of management, Mobile text-based chat applications such as Whatsapp, promised to foster greater communication and awareness between workers in the field, and between fieldworkers and the enterprises administration and management centres.
Each organisation had multiple different types of chat groups, characterised by the types of content and interaction patterns they mediate, and the different organisational functions they fulfil.
The organisations studied used two chat apps: WhatsApp and Kaizala. Kaizala is a chat app for work, supporting the usual chat functionality of one-to-one and group messages of text, photos, documents and videos.
Broadly there are two types of chat groups: conversational, and non-conversational, such as announcements or groups where people did not choose to interact.
Most of the organisational groups tended to work around non-conversational chat groups.
Chat is a powerful addition to the communication ecosystem for remote workers and chat groups can become a valuable shared space. However, chat’s promise of more direct communication and greater awareness was only moderately successful.
In non-conversational groups people could only respond to them in a structured manner such as via polls or surveys, or reply to individual posts in nested replies that aren’t shown in the main chat. Often non-conversational groups were used to make announcements or inform field-workers of company information such as a change in procedures.
Organisations were keen to use Kaizala’s broadcast functionality in direct-to-worker communication strategies. Yet, chat did not transform organisational communication and typically workers relied in established local practises of knowledge sharing and coordination work.
For example, managers at each level filter, curate and customize the information, by moving to chat alone this means losing this work and the chat streams consist of unfiltered time-based streams of everything posted. Fieldworkers can therefore find it difficult to locate what is important. In that way – Chat can be more helpful when information is timely and pertinent to ongoing work.
CHAT IN THE GLOBAL SOUTH
Whilst too much information can be a problem anywhere, this was compounded by the range of mobile phones used by fieldworkers. Avoiding ‘overload’ requires a sensitivity not only to small screen size, but also to issues of accumulating too much stuff on cheap phones, and work stuff cluttering up personal phones.
Observations in Namibia and Uganda show that micro and very small enterprises increasingly depend on WhatsApp in business-to-business and business-to-customer communications.
Finally, our study did not provide evidence for less hierarchical communication, and despite hoping for more direct information sharing with workers, most organisations created chat groups around their existing hierarchies.
Our Story is a digitally mediated workflow for Participatory Video developed by Open Lab in collaboration with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent (IFRC).
WhatFutures is a real-time game event played entirely through WhatsApp. Designed in collaboration with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC).