An honest appraisal of Yammer

(…and perhaps enterprise social networks in general)

Over the last three years I’ve worked (sometimes unofficially) on encouraging the use of Yammer within my organisation. For whatever reason, Yammer and social enterprise tools in general seem to have circulated back into conversation lately, so I thought it might be a good time to do a bit of a brain dump in terms of lessons learned to date.

It’s not so much about the tool, it’s about the culture.

When people look at tools like Yammer, they get hung up on the technology. When you run into the inevitable first wave of resistance, it’s not so much because of the tool itself, but how you’re challenging and changing the culture in the workplace.

Enterprise Social Networks (hereafter referred to as ESN’s) are aimed at getting information flowing freely inside your organisation. Depending on the age of your organisation, you might be flying in the face of a decade or two of ferreting information away in silos (emails, network drives, meetings etc. etc.).

I think it’s important to recognise the scale of the cultural challenge at the outset because you’ll keep hearing the same sort of objections that are really rooted in trying to change how people communicate with each other.

  • I don’t have anything to share.
  • I don’t have time.
  • I don’t use Facebook at home, I’m definitely not going to use it in work.
  • Nobody reads Yammer.

Be in it for the long haul

We officially launched Yammer about two years ago. And a small dedicated group were using Yammer unofficially for about a year before that.

It is only just NOW that I’m starting to see some of the staff who were resistant to it at the outset using it tentatively as a channel of communication. It’s as if suddenly the penny has dropped about what it is and why it’s better than email for certain things.

If you’re going to champion the use of ESN’s, be prepared to lead by example for an extended period of time and get used to talking to yourself! You’re probably going to find a small group of people who are really excited about it, a small group of people who vocally despise it and everyone else in the middle who are totally indifferent.

Keep plugging away sharing stuff, even if you’re the only lone voice to start with. I think people need to time to observe how it works and get comfortable with the idea of using it themselves. I’m sure for some they were also expecting it to be a passing fad, so were hesitant to invest time in it at the outset.

Your leaders need to endorse it AND actively use it

When we first introduced people to Yammer, there was this feeling that any time spent on it is wasted time. You need your leaders to not only endorse it as a valid communication channel for the organisation, but they have to be actively using it to show people that they really do mean it.

Our Chief Executive (Chris O’Meara) jumped in with both feet and encouraged others to get on Yammer and start talking. She regularly combs through posts from staff and offers encouragement, questions or comment. She also posts video blogs to as a way of providing transparency about what’s happening inside and outside the organisation.

These things combined legitimise Yammer as a tool and remove the taboo factor that “this might not be actual work”.

The “nobody reads Yammer” conundrum

Getting momentum going at the start is hard. There’s was a stubborn perception that Yammer isn’t read by anyone internally (I still hear it from time to time). This despite being able to point at lovely usage charts and demonstrate that their colleagues were actively using it daily.

People often work with their inboxes open (terrible bad habit) and so are super responsive when new stuff comes in. In contrast very few people have Yammer open. Because we’ve been spoiled by this ‘always on’ culture of email, many people seemed to expect the same prompt response when they post on Yammer.

We tried to address this a few different ways.

  • Switching on email notifications — but people got fed up with how super spammy they can be.
  • Installing Yammer desktop notifier — worked better! But if you follow a lot of people that can get a bit overwhelming too.
  • Advising that they could install Yammer on their mobile phones. This had potential, but Yammer mobile notifications are super buggy and don’t appear consistently (on iPhones most notably).

We have tried to convey that Yammer is a bit like how you would use Facebook and Twitter. You don’t need actively monitor it all the time. It’s just something you dip in and out of when you’ve got a few moments to spare.

In terms of getting timely responses, we advised that if anything is super urgent there’s better channels for it. Pick up the phone or go and speak to that person at their desk.

We did briefly ponder whether it was worth writing or drawing something about defining the use of each communication channel (email is for this, Yammer is for this etc.). I was conflicted about whether this is too heavy handed or helpful. I’m still on the fence.

Use private departmental groups as a way to onboard staff

At first people would rather run from the room screaming than post something on Yammer. Largely because there’s a fear that EVERYONE is reading what they post.

One way I’ve found of mitigating this initial fear is encouraging the use of private departmental Yammer groups. People are often more confident of posting something (or even just commenting) if they feel that it’s just their immediate team members who can see it. Over time as they build confidence, they might be encouraged to be a bit more bold in their Yammer use.

I’m not overly keen on private groups as it locks information away, but being pragmatic I’d rather that people were at least on Yammer using it than being afraid of it and ignoring it. We’re all on a journey!

Yammer as a replacement for email

All of us send too much email. We know this and it remains a stubborn problem to tackle. We had a go at positioning Yammer as an alternative communication channel to cut down on the amount of stuff that arrives in inboxes.

We ran this for a couple of months, and whilst we did reduce email volume by a small amount we found that many things shared via email were deemed too urgent or too sensitive for sharing on Yammer.

In some cases that was because it contained confidential information. In others it was where people were reticent to share things public that they only wanted a select group to see. And there were many more cases where people would send email because they knew the recipient was watching their inbox, whereas they felt Yammer was checked less frequently (or not at all).

I think the crux of it is that Yammer and emails are different communication channels for different purposes. It would be wonderful to think that Yammer could be the solution to our email addiction, but I think we just need to focus on better habits for email use.

Making Yammer the hub for collaboration

For one to one communication, I’ll often use email. For one to many, email is absolutely atrocious so I’d much prefer to use Yammer (or indeed, anything other than email).

At first I was posting collaborative work on Yammer and then having to chase via another method when I discovered they’d not read it or even seen it.

To counter this, I started doing a long post on Yammer and then sending a short bulleted summary via email with a link back to the Yammer post. This ensured that people were at least aware of the Yammer post, and it funneled them towards that for more information and discussion.

This doesn’t work all the time as some people do enjoy living in their inbox. But I think it’s a tactic that’s worth persisting with to underline where Yammer’s strengths are (… and as I write this I wonder if I need to reflect/review it).

If you’re looking for reasons why you should use Yammer as your collaboration platform, here’s some good ones I keep tucked in my pocket.

  • Posting project work on Yammer gives it visibility to everyone in the organisation. Email often assumes who needs to know what.
  • Having discussions on Yammer gives you the ability to automatically record your decision making process. A year or so down the line, you can remember why you chose option A over option B.
  • Yammer can serve as your institutional memory. We’re all doing loads of really great and important work, but it’s often locked away inside of emails. Get it in the open available to everyone.

Finding stuff in Yammer could be easier

For those who willingly try and use Yammer there’s one consistent complaint that keeps resurfacing.

“I can’t find anything”

Part of this is due to the timeline algorithm that is enabled by default. It’ll try and surface the most relevant posts first, but like most algorithmic things it can be quite hit and miss. Instead we advise to change the sort order to chronological so at least everyone knows the new stuff is on the top.

The other major obstacle is that search is a bit pants. If you type Housing Report into the search box, it’ll find anything (conversations, files, people) containing Housing *or* Report. This means you often end up with a load of extra results you don’t really need.

This is easily rectified by typing Housing AND Report instead, but this isn’t particularly intuitive for most people, and their search expectations have been set really high by the likes of Google which just figures it out.

Enough moaning — here’s the good stuff

I’ve recently noticed a bit of an uptick in Yammer use. Not so much in terms of quantity, but in terms of quality. People are starting to share as a way to form links between different areas of the organisation. Here’s a good example..

I really like this. Not just because it’s underlining the importance of what the organisation does, but it’s also an example of a colleague sharing about what they specifically do. People often assume that everyone else knows what their job involves day to day and wouldn’t be interested in hearing more about it — actually the opposite is often true. Also, I love the use of the audio clip! Far more emotive than a wall of text.

Here’s another example..

Here’s someone offering a contribution to colleagues as a means to develop their skills. When I first spotted Yammer, this is exactly how I thought it could enhance the workplace. It’s brilliant to see stuff like this emerge and with zero prompting or cajoling from anyone else.

And another example..

This is not so work related, but no less important for it. Every organisation works better with a bit of social lubrication. When you know more about someone than merely their name and job title, interesting stuff can happen.

Increasingly, these sort of social posts are starting to head towards Yammer rather than being bounced around internal email. I think it’s because Yammer is seen as a less formal communication channel, and people are automatically included by default (no office drama over which mailing list it was circulated on and who wasn’t invited).

What’s next?

It’s taken longer than I expected, but it seems like we’re in a good spot. There’s a broader realisation that we have a business need for Yammer and that it serves an important purposes that was unfulfilled before. In retrospect, that feels like a big win on its own.

What would I like to see more of? Failure! Open reflections on work that highlight what went well and what didn’t to share + amplify the learning. In terms of cultural shift this is a biggie and I think we’re going to need a few brave souls to lead the charge on that.

Got thoughts or comments? I’d really love to hear them!


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