Monday morning, 7.30: The executive of a global mining company steps into his London office. With mineworker unrest in South Africa still fresh in the collective memory and frequent strike action commonplace in news headlines, the sector is grappling with the challenge of how to communicate effectively with a large, distributed and politicised workforce, creating a more motivated and engaged staff.
He’s quietly confident. That morning, the South African region of his company launched a survey campaign, asking workers if they had the right tools to complete their underground shiftwork safely. The previous Friday, it informed workers of a new homeowners’ scheme. Earlier that week, it sent out important health and safety information. All this in addition to the regular emergency notifications that are sent, including loadshedding, production and safety critical messages.
He logs onto the dashboard of his company’s enterprise social network, navigates to the South African region campaign pages and is pleased to see the steady flow of results coming in, as expected. With a response rate of 86%, tens of thousands of workers have stated their preference for Brand A safety gear. A slightly less impressive turnout (78%) updated their personal details – still beating all previous campaigns of that nature. As for the communiqué, it was read by 98% of the workers.
The impossible made possible
How is this possible? One would need very sophisticated technology to reach respondents that quickly and to measure and collate results with that degree of certainty. Email is out of the question, since PC and smartphone penetration is virtually nil. And a traditional poster campaign or mass gathering would have been expensive and slow to execute, to say nothing of the process involved in capturing responses.
The answer is innovative mobile technology relevant to Africa and other emerging markets and an enterprise social software solution called Wyzetalk. The Wyzetalk Enterprise platform interfaces with any technology device, including feature phones via SMS, to broadcast information, get feedback from the workforce and enable them to access business critical and social content via USSD (Unstructured Supplementary Service Data) interactive menus. All at no cost to the worker and accessed on an opt-in basis.
The software behind this mobile interface was created in 2011 by technologists at a Cape Town-based technology firm. A meeting of the minds at the UCT Graduate School of Business between Wyzetalk cofounders Gerhard Pretorius and Gys Kappers (facilitated by Stuart Phillips, who was a student with Kappers on the Executive MBA programme), led to the commercialisation of the software and paved the way for the emergence of a highly innovative, locally developed African success story that is gearing up to take on global emerging markets.
Three years on, Wyzetalk is cutting a swathe through all industries as an open communication, collaboration and innovation platform, changing the way companies communicate and engage. It is delivered in the form of a software-as-a-service offering (hosted in the cloud), on desktops and mobile phones and – luckily for the mining, manufacturing, retail and construction firms – the platform can also be accessed on feature phones. Research shows there are 22 million feature phones in South Africa, and, as yet, only 13 million smartphones.
Kappers says the communications breakdown between company executives and their workforce has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years.
UCT professor Ralph Hamann writing in Business Day cited a breakdown in communication as one of the primary reasons for the Marikana tragedy and subsequent platinum strike. It highlights a long-standing issue that has been ignored for too long.
“Wyzetalk allows mine management to remedy their problem by going directly to workers, with an immediacy and transparency that pleases management, as well as shop stewards, unions and workers alike,” he says.
“It takes communication and engagement to a whole new level. For this particular target group, Wyzetalk on mobile offers far greater engagement than email or PC-based collaboration tools. It is one thing to ask for information on email, but people never speak up in numbers when that happens, and it’s difficult to act on the data, as it first needs to be collated and analysed. Wyzetalk, by comparison, is immediate, measurable, and feeds data into the Wyzetalk platform while also integrating with enterprise systems including SAP, Oracle and Microsoft.”
The effect, he says, is that of a self-reinforcing feedback loop that enables continuous improvement in working conditions. “Wyzetalk helps executives gain insight into worker issues, which enables them to put interventions in place that improve matters. It makes for a steadily more positive relationship over time,” says Kappers. “It doesn’t disintermediate the unions in any way either, but allows companies to empower themselves by re-entering the dialogue.”
From another perspective, Wyzetalk offers a way for mining groups to enlist expertise outside the company while keeping consultant payments to a minimum.
According to a recent Deloitte Digital survey, Tracking the Trends 2015, the top 10 issues mining companies will face this year – a common enterprise social platform (such as Wyzetalk) that connects management, head office, suppliers and consultants could be used to bring global best-in-class advice together. This allows a faster response to issues and needs, but also enables the company to share advice across regions and operations, so each operation doesn’t need to contract consultants individually.
Kappers says the big breakthrough idea of Wyzetalk is to use web, social and mobile technologies to break the shackles of normal collaborative tools.
“Looking at the two mining house scenarios, this convergence of technologies allows the enterprise to overcome application silos and network borders, distance and cultural gaps, as well as budget and knowledge shortfalls. It is a textbook illustration of the power of the new digital technologies working in concert,” he says.
“Instead of software, you get a browser-fronted service with less restricted functionality, because it doesn’t have the network or systemic barriers of normal applications. It all happens out there on a secure web-hosted platform,” Kappers says.
“This means enterprise social software platforms are available to any stakeholder who is given authorisation to access the platform,” he explains. “It allows the business to engage more deeply with staff, partners, suppliers, customers and social audiences, really opening the enterprise up to a much broader ecosystem, internally and externally.
“Reaching internal stakeholders can be just as big a challenge as external ones for traditional software,” Kappers continues. “You’re faced with the challenge of reaching on-site, but divisionally segregated staff, physically separate entities, such as other branches and off-site functions and roaming staff. Cloud plays a role here too, but in this case, mobility is the secret sauce.”
Kappers says that in three years, the company has seen significant uptake. And in 2014 it was listed by CNN as one of the top 10 African start-ups that rocked 2014, and by CB Insights as one of the top 13 tech companies to watch in Africa in 2015.
The SA market is showing big promise, but still lags uptake in the developed world, he adds. This is ironic, as the challenges in local market are, if anything, more pronounced because of social inequalities. But he believes that Wyzetalk has significant potential to redefine the way the top levels communicate with the other end of the organisational spectrum in the country.
“South African companies still tend to be quite hierarchical. This stops them from being as competitive and innovative as they can be. Open business platforms like Wyzetalk can take South African companies to the next level because they break down the barriers between management and staff, and between companies and their ecosystems, to draw on much broader inspiration.”