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It’s OK to send my boss a WhatsApp message!

ShriramVenkatraman25 July 2014

Image Courtesy Bhupinder Nayyar (Creative Commons)

Image Courtesy Bhupinder Nayyar (Creative Commons)

Mahesh, 28, an ITES (Information Technology Enabled Services) professional met with me for lunch in one of Chennai’s well-known vegetarian restaurants. He works three days a week from his company’s branch office located in the Indian field site – Panchagrami – and two days from the company’s Chennai office located close to this restaurant.

Over special vegetarian Thali meals, we discussed his life, his ambitions, his family, his presence on social media etc. When I called him up to schedule an interview, he arranged for us to meet for lunch before his work shift that started at 2 PM. Though we met at around 12:30 PM, he seemed pretty relaxed and unrushed and the lunch interview kept going until around 1:45 PM, when he excused himself to let his boss know that he would be running late for work by approximately 30 minutes. He got his smart phone, a Samsung Galaxy out of his pocket and typed something into it and sent out a communication in less than 20 seconds. I was pretty surprised because, it normally takes at least a minute for an official communication to be typed and sent over an official email server with all the salutations normally required in an official communication. So, wondering if he had already typed an email to his boss, I asked him what he let his boss know, to which he replied that he just sent a WhatsApp message to his boss letting him know that he was delayed over a meeting and would report in shortly. This triggered a conversation that was extremely informative. I asked him why he didn’t email his boss and why did he choose to operate and communicate over WhatsApp.

Soon, it became extremely clear that WhatsApp was fine enough for communicating mundane official matters such as informing that one was running late to the office or to a meeting or to meet at lunch etc. and that it was replacing what Short Messaging Service (SMS) did originally. However, important official communication always happened through official email. But, communicating to one’s immediate boss on mundane official matters now moved from text messages to WhatsApp messages. So, why did this happen? Because everyone is now on WhatsApp, almost all have a smart phone connected to the internet with WhatsApp as an application, which people would keep checking on a constant basis compared to SMS and WhatsApp is free to use. These factors led to people using WhatsApp messages more often than SMS.

Naturally, the next question was geared towards Facebook (FB). I asked him if his boss was his friend on Facebook and were they on FB messenger on an always signed-in mode. He replied ‘yes’. So, why did he still choose to communicate over WhatsApp rather than Facebook? He considered WhatsApp more official compared to Facebook. It seems like one of his teammates had actually sent a message to his boss over FB and was frowned upon, as somehow FB just didn’t seem official enough and equated everyone to a being just a ‘friend’, thus breaking hierarchies, while hierarchy was still maintained over WhatsApp. So, did people in his team ever communicate with their boss over FB? They did for more for personal communication such as ‘liking’ something, forwarding a moral message, spreading the word about an office party or get together etc. but nothing related to an official one-to-one or one-to-many sort of communication. He made sure to add that he would never communicate to his boss’s boss over WhatsApp, it had to always be over an email. The vertical span of use of media seemed extremely interesting.

I was immediately reminded of the concept of polymedia, termed by Madianou and Miller, 2012 and also on how an important person in a network influences others in the network to choose media through which people communicate to him. In this case, Mahesh had three ways of communicating with his boss – over email, over SMS or over WhatsApp (in this case was influenced by the boss, who was fine with communication over WhatsApp and had added it to the list of official communication tools).

This soon became an important question, and interviews with several other IT/ITES professionals revealed something similar. So, why are certain media perceived to retain hierarchy while others don’t? Stay tuned to find out…

(Brain) Drain vs. Gain

ShriramVenkatraman16 November 2013

Photo by Sinistra Ecologia Libertà (Creative Commons)

Photo by Sinistra Ecologia Libertà (Creative Commons)

Recently, when I was interviewing a retired school Principal, she casually mentioned how disheartened she was about the Brain Drain that was happening in India and Brain Gain that was happening in developed nations. At first it just seemed like a casual mention, but when she kept returning back to this topic over and over again, it somehow seemed to strike a chord even with my Research Assistant. To examine this topic further, I thought it would be helpful to first understand what each of these terms mean. ‘Brain drain’ is the flight of qualified and intelligent individuals from a particular geographic region or field and ‘brain gain’ is the influx of qualified and intelligent individuals into a geographic area or field of work. Brain drain, by definition, is a depletion of vital human resources that would have helped to develop that area (geographic area or field of work). On the other hand, brain gain is an aggregation of talent that can potentially transform the area if the additional talent can be nurtured and channeled in a proper manner.

Geographically, brain-drain is an oft repeated complaint in many countries of the developing world where infrastructure and economic return may not match what is offered in more developed countries. This is evident in India where there is a constant outflow of talented and well qualified individuals to first world countries in North America, Western Europe, Australia and some Asian countries as well. Such individuals leave India in search of more economically viable jobs, better infrastructure, respect for their talent and a perceived higher quality of living. This is a visible phenomenon and has been talked about time and again in the media. A more hidden and subtle form of brain drain in India is that of the outflow of qualified individuals from certain fields/professions to others. Let’s take for example the IT and ITES industries. Companies from these industries recruit talent in droves from colleges (especially, engineering/management for IT and Arts and Science colleges for ITES) and are lauded as economic boons.

This caught my attention through a series of interviews with a few undergraduate students studying in Engineering as well as Arts and Science colleges in my field site. What was evident was their aspiration to somehow get into the IT field. IT is such a drawing force that these students really haven’t explored their own field of study as much as they have explored the IT industry. Through any means possible they want to be associated with the IT industry. From Chemical Engineers to Tamil scholars, students tend to look at IT with a sense of awe and respect, though they often say that they are aware of the pitfalls in the industry. They tend to view IT careers as the panacea to all their problems (though it seems like all of their problems point to personal finances), through which they say they would attain status both in their own family as well as society at large. Their aspirations reminded me of Nicholas Nisbett’s bookGrowing Up in the Knowledge Society. Though he deals with Bangalore, the case is similar with most of the South Indian cities where the IT economy rules. Of course, the physical distance that someone is from an IT industry is also a factor and given that my field site is so close to a Special Economic Zone that tends to favour the IT industry, such aspirations aren’t really a rarity. However, what is often overlooked is that this talent inflow into IT/ITES is at the cost of losing talent in other areas of Engineering, Sciences and Humanities. In other words, the IT industry’s brain gain is the result of a brain drain from other disciplines and this leads to a skewed and potentially unsustainable distribution of talent. Thus, India faces a simultaneous brain drain and brain gain which together are a more complicated issue than if each is seen separately.