Yammer: lessons I learned
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 Present.ly 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)