KM on a dollar a day

Musing on knowledge management, aid and development with limited resources

Yammer: lessons I learned

with 14 comments

I frequently get queries from people asking me about our use of and experiences with Yammer. In the spirit of knowledge sharing, I’m going to put some of my observations here in a blog post. My comments are from the point of view of someone working in an aid organization – but much of this would apply more generally.

Disclaimer: Yammer was introduced and is managed by our internal communication team – not by the KM team, so I can’t speak to our official position on the tool, nor why or how we introduced it. But I get asked a lot about it because I’m probably its biggest user, maybe even its biggest promoter in house.

So here goes:

Lessons I learned on Yammer

Yammer, for those not familiar with it, is an internal microblogging platform. Kind of like twitter but behind the firewall (and without the 140 character limit). It’s a great tool for connecting people in real time, especially in large organizations spread across the globe.

It’s easy to set up for your organization (maybe too easy). Anyone in an organization can set up a Yammer account for their organization if one doesn’t exist already. They are set up by domain, so anyone who has the same corporate e-mail domain can join.  The trick is that to get all the cool admin features that you need to make this work well, you need to pay, and if you are a large organization the cost could rack up quite quickly at $5 per user/per month (but with discounts for not-for-profits).  Since anyone could start a network – maybe someone has already started on in your organization and you don’t even know about it.

Although it’s secure to logged in members with you organization’s e-mail domain, it’s externally hosted, so it’s not run by your IT department. They are probably going to feel uncomfortable with that since they aren’t able to control it or support it or feel 100% sure that the data is secure. But the stuff that people share  is rarely mission critical not highly sensitive, so this is less of a problem in practice than in theory.  That said, I wouldn’t use it as a means to share “diplomatic cables” for example. Another downside of the external hosting is that it is yet another logon, and it doesn’t integrate with your internal systems – a potential barrier to getting people to use it.

It’s a very powerful tool that is easy to use, and also allows you to participate via web, desktop application, e-mail, smartphone and SMS. You can easy get started with sharing things and discovering what others have shared. It allows image and document uploads, polls, RSS feeds and other cool features. It might well be slicker and quicker to learn than anything you have that is home grown or bought from Micros**t or any other big vendor – unless you are a tech startup yourselves.

While its easy to set up and use from a technological standpoint, getting people to use it and understand what you can do with it in your typical aid organization is a whole other issue unless you work at a place where the staff wear ripped jeans or black polo necks to work. When we first started using it, and spreading the word we got a lot of sign-ups but most people updated their status once then never came back. We  have a hard core of regular users and recently (now after 2 years) usage is really starting to pick up – but it’s going to be hard to get those one time visitors to come back again.

In hindsight “build it and they will come” doesn’t necessarily work inside a technology challenged organization. What would have been good was to be more proactive in identifying and demonstrating particular ways it could be used. A few of the more obvious uses include:

  • Status updates on what you are working on –  and also encourage people to reach out to you to contribute.
  • Promoting your work  (and yourself) – by sharing your any reports, products or other outputs you have produced, or events you are organizing.
  • Live reporting on meetings – giving timely snippets of key conclusions or good sound-bites to both help document the meeting in real time and share what’s happening with those who can’t be there in person. This works best when it’s not just one person doing it though.
  • Sharing links to interesting articles you think might be useful to your colleagues, whether internal or external – and possibly sparking a bit of debate about them.
  • Having quick exchanges of ideas and discussions with colleagues (without having a meeting, or having a long disjointed e-mail exchange where key people get missed from the conversation)
  • Asking questions and asking for help. This can range from simple factual questions, to more complex requests where Yammer would be means of finding who knows but the real exchange of experience  would happen offline.
  • Get to know and connect with your colleagues better – by finding out what they do, what they know and what they are interested in.

We would probably have done better if we consciously worked with interested teams to demonstrate how the tool could be used for these purposes, and also did more to encourage and support champions who are promoting its use. I think once people see first hand how it can be useful then they are less resistant.

Drinking from the social media firehose: one complaint from some quarters is that there is too much noise with too many potentially irrelevant updates. With the current level of usage this isn’t much of a problem, but if it really takes off then people are going to need guidance on how to use it effectively including how to select who to follow, how to use hashtags, and how to speed/skim read so members don’t feel that they need to read everything. One or two users have suggested that we need to tell people to make sure their contributions are “relevant” and encourage people to share less. I personally don’t buy this. What’s relevant to me is different from what is relevant to other colleagues.   I think it’s more that people need to get used to this new form of communication and how it works, and to get better at filtering what they take in.

Groups are less useful than they seem. Yammer allows you to create private groups for smaller discussions. People like this feature and have created hundreds of theme groups, most of which are hardly used. That’s because the benefit of Yammer is reaching out to people outside existing silos, and the serendipity of discovering common interests. If you create a group you are hiding away from this discovery and your message is much less likely to get a response. An exception to this might be if you set up a group for private discussion around a fixed time project such as a pre-defined team working on a report, or meeting participants using it to interact with each other – we have been able to use groups effectively this way on a few occasions.

Yammer’s marketing is annoying – they do things like sending e-mails to members saying things like “we can see you are highly influential within your network” why not do x. This just creeps people out and makes them think they are being spied on. I wish they would stop doing this.

It’s a tool of the moment. It’s good for real time interaction – but not as a place to store documents or conversations to come back to afterwards. It does keep everything, and it has a search which works better when people add tags to their messages (which they almost never do) but it is really structured as a stream of consciousness, like Twitter is, so Yammer is not your tool if you want to be able to capture and distil all that tacit knowledge later. It’s really about sharing materials, discussing and answering questions “right now”.

How big is your network? A benefit of Yammer is that it is restricted to your organization, so it is a safe space to talk to one another and to say things you might not want to share publicly. But that is also a drawback. One challenge of any knowledge sharing tool that is restricted to your organization is that you can only tap into the knowledge and expertise of the people you have. On many issues the best expertise is outside your organization (sorry), and Yammer can’t put you in touch with them. And within the organization there are also important network effects too. The larger the organization, and the higher the level of adoption then the more value you will get. If the people you need to talk to are not on Yammer, then you need to connect to them in some other way. But there is a virtuous circle once you get enough people on board since the more people are there the more interesting it is for others to join.

Yammer is not the only tool out there but it is the biggest and most well known. There are other similar tools offered by other companies. Socialcast is one of the larger rivals and from what I’ve seen is very nice (The 2.0 Adoption council uses it so I’ve had a chance to use it there). StatusNet and allow you to install and configure microblogging on your own server without your own domain, I’ve not used these so can’t comment directly on how good they are. There are many others – here is one list. Most enterprise collaboration tools and even ERPs are also scrambling to incorporate some microblogging feature within their existing platforms, although one of the attraction of microblogging is simplicity, so mixing it in with SAP, Sharepoint, Salesforce or some other big tool will probably take away some of the appeal and make it more cumbersome, in order to achieve integration.

My final take-away – I love microblogging (look at how much I share on Twitter) and I believe it can have great potential inside the workplace too – but you need to know what you are getting yourself in for, you need to work hard at supporting users to understand it and use it effectively, and you need patience. Yammer is a great place to start – but there are many other tools on the market now to choose from so ask around, and negotiate well.

Any comments/questions? (Happy to continue the discussion in the comments for the benefit of others curious about the possibilities of microblogging inside aid organizations)


Written by Ian Thorpe

March 25, 2011 at 3:33 pm

14 Responses

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  1. Ian: Great post. As you know since leaving the practitioner role to come work for Yammer that I bring many of the concerns you shared into the company. The response that I’ve received has been great. Everyone is concerned about providing a great customer experience, we are looking to find the right way to help customers become successful without being “annoying”. As I’m sure you can guess, this can be somewhat tricky. One way we are doing that is to get involved with networks early. You can rest assured we are not “spying” on anyone and are looking for ways to reassure everyone of this. I will say that the team is learning quickly.

    As for building a community, it does require hard work and leadership. My advice is to lead conversations early to ensure that people start to see the value quickly. For me, it took 6 months of posting every day, helping people realize how to be successful Even if you come in late, it’s the constant reassurance and leadership that will help everyone achieve more.

    Greg Lowe

    March 25, 2011 at 3:55 pm

    • @Greg – many thanks for the reply, and the reassurance on how the Yammer team is looking at how it markets to and helps its users. It’s great to know they have someone with your expertise and experience on board.

      A few months ago I was wondering if our network would ever take off, but I’m glad I waited before writing this blog since I see encouraging signs all over now. Although I know it to be true, it’s sometimes hard to be patient and persistent to allow time for new ideas and ways of working to catch on.
      I think a great opportunity now is for the “evangelists” to learn from each other and help out those who are just entering into this area for the first time now.

      Ian Thorpe

      March 25, 2011 at 4:06 pm

  2. Hi, Ian,
    having experienced Yammer for the corporate for some time, I have very much enjoyed reading your post, because it is based on good experience, very much beyond the hype, showing potential and the difficulties.


    Gerald Meinert

    March 27, 2011 at 5:51 am

  3. Nice post, Ian! Relates well to the experiences we had at Oce. Just search my blog for “Yammer” or “microblogging”: e.g.
    You relates to not being able to tap in the outside network. I get what you mean. But you can use ‘Communities’ for this. They work quite well, I find.

    Samuel Driessen

    March 28, 2011 at 8:05 am

  4. […] you don’t usually make a community of all of your staff (Yammer notwithstanding). Most communities form around topics or themes and sometimes also geography. This […]

  5. […] Yammer ist ein kleines faszinierendes Tool, eine Art „Facebook light”. Es ist im Kern eine Microblogging-Plattform für den internen Einsatz, ohne die Beschränkung auf 140 Zeichen und mit einer Reihe weiterer Features, die den informellen Informationsaustausch erleichtern. Wenn ich heute daran denke, wie man das informelle Lernen unterstützen, wie man formale Qualifizierungsangebote mit alltäglichen Routinen verknüpfen kann, denke ich an solche Plattformen. Der vorliegende Erfahrungsbericht beschreibt sowohl die mit Yammer verbundenen Möglichkeiten und Grenzen, aber auch die Schwierigkeiten, andere mit an Bord einer Community zu bekommen. Ian Thorpe, KM on a dollar a day, 25. März 2011 […]

  6. Eclectic set of comments you got on this one, Ian.
    As one of the staunch upholders of the “technologically challenged organization” I was one of the people who used Yammer for a short time. I signed up (as all Representatives more or less had to) around our global meeting, and signed out again after a few weeks when I found no use for it.

    You list some of the potential uses in your post, but somehow they don’t resonate with me – at least, they don’t resonate in a way that would make me think Yammer was better than blogging. Maybe I am just a paragraph-thinking person.

    And I truly feel resistant to people micro-blogging during meetings – I find it hard to see the value (I would rather a reasoned summary in a blog than exclamations throughout that are so cryptic I don’t know what they mean); and I don’t like to see people blackberrying away while someone else is talking (unless they are boring). It just seems rude. Maybe generational.

    And I suppose its use would also depend on (your next blog post) how limited or wide the community was.

    Anyway, just a chance to exercise my fuddy-duddiness one more time!

    Mark Hereward

    March 31, 2011 at 4:17 am

    • Mark,

      I am, as well, part of a “technologically challenged” organization, but I have been given the opportunity to figure out how to improve communication internally.

      At first, I thought a blog would be the way to go, but I have an insanely hard time getting people to write blog posts for our customers much less an internal network. The main reason for that I believe is the time and effort it takes to write a full blog post alongside a lack of understanding for the technology. I am curious if you had anyone in your organization who expressed liking Yammer more than a regular blog?

      Thanks for sharing your experience; I’m leaning towards Yammer right now, but we will see where it goes as I continue to figure out what the specific needs are.

      Chris McCulley

      April 1, 2011 at 5:16 pm

  7. @mark @chris thanks for your comments:

    In UNICEF we have both blogs as part of our online communities, and we have Yammer as a microblogging platform. From what I can see some people prefer one, and some the other.

    Yammer has the advantage that it is quick and easy to use – a lower barrier to entry than blogging – but the downside is that it’s not really good for putting down a more thought out piece for discussion. These tools suit both different circumstances and different personalities. I’d like to think they are complementary rather than alternatives. We have some people (the tech and KM enthusiasts) who use both and then we have some that predominantly use one or the other and have preferences as to why. And of course we have many that use neither tool.

    One challenge is with people used to formal papers and reports. Getting them to lighten up to blog can be hard as they imagine that everything has to be polished before it can be shared. If you can persuade them of the value of sharing more informally or better demonstrate it then this might help overcome the resistance (plus getting positive feedback after you have done something helps a lot!). Getting people to “Yam” is a step even further from their normal way of working but on the other hand it’s also so different that you can’t even try to approach it the same way as report writing – so you have to use it in a more immediate way.

    Maybe one way to look at it is that it’s technically easier to microblog (easy technology, less time thinking about what you write) but its also more culturally challenging as it’s further way from the way people are used to working.

    Whichever approach you choose, having champions who both advocate for it and also model the behaviour by blogging/yamming themselves will be very important.

    Ian Thorpe

    April 2, 2011 at 9:54 am

  8. […] Yammer: lessons I learned, KM on a dollar a day, 25 March 2011 […]

  9. […] most popular post (by views at least) was: Yammer: lessons I learned which got 1,154 […]

  10. […] Image reference. /* Sorry, we weren't able to sign you up. Please check your details, and try again. […]

  11. […] Lessons from Ian Thorpe (UNICEF) about using Yammer, a post from March 2011 which is a useful testimony about how one power user has perceived relative benefits and challenges of using Yammer. […]

  12. […] Image reference. […]

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