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Using social media at work might just get the official stamp of approval.
Yammer is a fast-growing 'enterprise social network' service, and works almost like your company's own private Facebook.

Rather than interacting with 'friends', though, you interact with colleagues about... work. Sound boring? It doesn't have to be. The service is gaining in popularity as well as functionality, and there may even be some surprising benefits for a university environment.

What is Yammer?

Yammer is an online platform developed to enable employees to network and collaborate in large organisations. Users post messages that can be seen only by other company employees – you need to have access to a company email address to join a particular network.

More than 15,000 Australian companies are on one of these networks – some of its big-ticket Australian users include corporate heavyweights like Deloitte, NAB, Suncorp, AMP and Westfield. Worldwide, Yammer is used by more than 100,000 companies, and claims a user base of more than four million people. The 'University of Sydney' network has not yet been licensed by the University, and it will be interesting to see when and whether it will receive official endorsement and an organisation-wide rollout.

Facebook in a business suit

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It's difficult to avoid the comparison to Facebook and Twitter. Like the biggest social media providers, it's a profile-based service, users post status updates (called 'yams'), images and links. The service features a feed, and uses tags.


However, the differences to these other platforms are also important. "Yammer is explicitly for companies and organisations," says Yammer CEO David Sacks. Where Facebook in the past asked users 'what are you doing?', Yammer asks 'what are you working on?'.

Networks are closed environments, and users can only gain access by using their company email address – for instance, the University of Sydney network is accessible only to users with a sydney.edu.au address. A range of security measures aims to keep it that way – the Yammer blog claims that its user management capabilities allow organisations to 'keep the right people inside your network and the wrong people out'.

The social enterprise

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Praise badges

Yammer creates common ground by confining a network to a group of people who have one thing in common – their workplace. Bounded by a few guidelines, this can be a productive basis for generating conversation and engagement about that organisation, its projects, visions and values.

The service can be used in ways that start to sound distinctly corporate and even productive. Users can ask questions, share news and ideas, brainstorm, make announcements, share articles, send private messages and publicly praise a colleague. Other features recently rolled out on the Yammer platform are surveys and polls, events, and questions – all intended to help manage the knowledge within an organisation.

It is the tagging and searching functionalities that make Yammer particularly interesting, however. One of the standout benefits of the platform is being able to search within the network. Ted Hattemer, senior director of university marketing communications at Ohio State University, points out that, collected over time, "these 'status updates' and 'quick hit FYIs' have the potential to create a bottom-up searchable resource or knowledge base."

In other words, a Yammer network has the potential to become a stored repository of aspects of a company's knowledge, without being maintained by an individual and dependent on him or her.

Search results also become a powerful tool – users can search by tag or message content across the whole organisation. Been away for a week, and want to catch up on what people are publicly discussing about a company restructure? The search functionality might help. Similarly, the #AGM tag might group together the reactions to last year's annual general meeting. Or #Mint might let you see what people think of the café around the corner.

How are companies using Yammer?

As with any tool, the benefits of Yammer depend on how it is used within an organisation. The nature of knowledge work is changing, and Yammer is very much part of the second wave of social technologies.

Yammer seems to target notoriously elusive elements such as the capacity to keep employees engaged and active, fostering a sense of community and collaboration, and a sense that members are valued for their contributions. These soft metrics are slippery, and difficult to measure. So it's a challenge to find hard data on the benefits Yammer is bringing to its corporate members.

However, Kai Riemer, an academic at the University of Sydney Business School, has collaborated on a case study examining the way that corporate firm Deloitte has implemented Yammer within the organisation.

The study drills down to analyse the ways that Deloitte uses Yammer, and found that, surprisingly, it is not used for task coordination, project management or information storage. Instead, the focus is on conversation. In this case, Yammer's value to the organisation lies in providing a conversation space for building social connections and a shared background.

Engaging staff

cupcakes.yammer.pngDeloitte's social media report from 2012 says that its use of Yammer helps to "remove the tyranny of distance, to traverse the divides of business units, and to set aside the barriers created by hierarchy and share ideas, links, files, photos and comments."

Deloitte's t-shirt campaign also illustrates Yammer's role in staff engagement, with a 70% staff participation rate. David Redhill, Chief Marketing Officer explains the company's (admittedly slightly Orwellian) approach in its social media report :

"We used a simple principle: get your people inside your brand, and you’ll get your brand inside your people. We used yammer to showcase 650 designs for t-shirts submitted by employees, and our people connected beyond anything we could have imagined. We ended up with our 6,000 people getting 10,000 t-shirts for themselves and their loved ones."

Collaboration & crowdsourcing solutions

Susan Gautsch, from Pepperdine University in the U.S., writes, "we’re starting to use Yammer to crowdsource our helpdesk and support models. It’s just in its infancy, but this holds great promise to not only reduce our load and resource pull."

Could this have implications for ICT, CIS or MyUni services? Diane Gaines, of Mentor Graphics, has some ideas around ICT implementation, which she has posted on the Yammer blog.

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Online training and project collaboration

Training courses can be posted online using Yammer's group functionality, complete with documents and resources that participants need to access. Facilitators and other course participants can post and answer questions, and threads are visible to other group members.

For some courses, it may prove to be an advantage that the facilitator and group members need not all be available at the same place and time.

Online training provider Mindflash, for example, has integrated a training app into Yammer. Training that's location-independent and doesn't need timetable coordination? Might be useful for University staff scattered across eight campuses.

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Yammer may also have the potential to dismantle 'silos' – for example by making interaction between staff and academics easier, more spontaneous, and perhaps more likely. It could also facilitate cross-faculty collaboration, exposing staff across the University to projects and ideas that would otherwise remain within departments or schools.

Social and recreational use

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Café Ella, Abercrombie Street

Discussions about the best coffee on campus, lunchtime footy and car-pooling – are they work related? The University's Charles Perkins Centre, or its Sustainable Campus initiative, might argue that they are.

Discussions on Yammer might, in fact, feed directly into the objectives of these initiatives. For instance, Simon Hope, Head of Communications and Customer Relations at Wakefield Council in the UK, writes about groups and activities that may not have emerged without a platform to facilitate them.

"In the short time that we’ve had Yammer, the most used discussion group has been around cycling, both cycling to work and in people’s own time, and a work based running club has also emerged. Born from Yammer, runners who are mostly based in our new building now meet once a week after work to go for a run, which is just fantastic."

Information overload

Another social network – isn't it just something else vying for our attention? Yes and no. Yammer has the potential to reconfigure the way information is channelled, and could reduce the amount of information transmitted in other ways.

For instance, the Yammer platform lends itself to announcements and simple updates, which could trim email chatter. Yammer CEO David Sacks argues that Yammer might complement or even replace email, in some cases.

"With Yammer, you don’t have to figure out who the recipients are. If you’ve got information that would be valuable to the company, you just publish it on Yammer and people find it on their own and don’t have to worry about their inboxes being cluttered. That information could be discovered by people you wouldn’t have thought to address in your email, and new employees can use it to get up to speed. It’s a more efficient way of sharing information and having conversations in a company. Email just becomes about things that require an active response."

Flattening hierarchies

Social enterprise networks have the potential to flatten hierarchies, and leverage the resources of the entire organisation. In a social enterprise network, anyone in a company can comment on a post or introduce a new idea, from the work experience kid to the CEO.

Cristóbal Conde, President and CEO of SunGard, regards Yammer as integral in building a meritocracy within an organisation. In an interview for the New York Times, he explains how employees can transcend their role in an organisation.

"How do people get recognised? How do you establish a meritocracy in a highly dispersed environment? The answer is to allow employees to develop a name for themselves that is irrespective of their organizational ranking or where they sit in the org chart. And it actually is not a question about monetary incentives. They do it because recognition from their peers is, I think, an extremely strong motivating factor, and something that is broadly unused in modern management."

Executive involvement

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The degree to which the executives in an organisation 'buy in' to the network seems to be integral to its success. Not only are employees interested in what the CEO (or Vice-Chancellor) has to say, executive leaders can also leverage a network quite effectively as a tool. High-level executives often meet with correspondingly senior clients, suppliers or partners, who communicate their priorities, needs and obstacles. Executives might then use Yammer as a tool to pass this valuable information on to employees.

As Conde notes, "I’m not going to send that out in a broadcast voice mail to every employee. I’m not even going to write a long e-mail about it to every employee, because even that is almost too formal. But I can write five lines on Yammer, which is about all it takes."

Adopting Yammer

It will be interesting to see whether the University of Sydney formally adopts Yammer as an 'online water cooler' for its academic and general staff. If it does, it will also be important for it to grow organically, rather than being implemented through a top-down approach.

Resources

About Yammer in 5 Minutes (Vimeo video)

A Beginner's Guide to Yammer (PDF Download, 979KB)

Powercrowd: Enterprise Social Networking in Professional Service Work: A Case Study of Yammer at Deloitte Australia

Yammer 101: Getting started (YouTube video)

Curtin University guide to Yammer and policy