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why yammering during work time makes good business sense ...

Yammer is an internal social networking site for business. It burns silos and allows people to connect. How does it work?

by Steve Finegan

Why taking in a hedgehog won’t help with having to pay the bedroom tax and how having less control over internal communications can be a good thing ...

"At Northwards Housing something very strange is happening with internal communications and it’s all thanks to the recent implementation of Yammer – a social enterprise network for businesses, sometimes referred to as the twitter or facebook of the workplace.

Northwards Housing is a medium sized organisation in Manchester employing just over 300 staff.  As a not for profit housing provider in the public sector, we’re proud of our track record in communications.  Our strategy to engage and empower both our employees and our customers has been achieved using some very creative and innovative campaigns, all designed to motivate, maintain morale and build customer loyalty.  We have supported the organisation through a cultural change programme, aligning our new business and communication objectives through a range of different media channels, so as to ensure consistency of both our internal and external communications and to develop our brand reputation.

Despite this background of success, we’re far from complacent and recently reviewed our communications strategy and restructured our existing resources, building in more capacity for digital communications, and then around a month ago, Yammer evolved.

I’d like to share with you some of our early (indeed, very early) lessons about the concept of a social intranet, the implementation of Yammer and our vision for internal communications.

Last year we started to think about taking internal communications to a new level.  We had already established weekly e-bulletins with news and updates to all our employees, cascade briefings where everyone comes together to network and hear corporate presentations, and of course we also have the usual mechanisms such as newsletters and team meetings.  Our Achilles heal however, was our intranet.  Over time it started to lack the functionality to truly engage and inspire people.  We struggled to keep it up to date, in fact we failed.  Maintaining content to ensure the corporate message was appropriately crafted and fit for wider consumption was frustrating, particularly to those who were keen to communicate their area of the business using a style that said more about them as people, rather than what the corporate style ought to be.  This tension between brand and individual style was unhelpful; as was a general disinterest in updating intranet content from the wider business.  As such, we set about researching a new social intranet. We wanted one that would enable a much better user experience i.e. incorporating the latest in technology to enable us to interact with our employees.  Our vision was clear: we wanted a site that could be personalised by individual users and to include instant messaging and forum discussion.  At the same time we wanted the Communications Team to control and manage the content efficiently and without spending a disproportionate amount of time on technical updating and content management.  We came across some interesting products and it was during this early research that we found Yammer.  

Yammer is a secure internal social network for the workplace that allows users to set up profiles, form groups and ‘follow’ each other’s status updates.  It encourages collaboration and sharing of information and it has the ability to be empowering for its users.  There is growing interest in Yammer and companies can even register and try it out for free, although the free version does have some limitations, such as no admin control or functionality, which is why we’ve taken the plunge and signed up for the full enterprise version.

As I implied earlier, it’s far too soon to even begin to assess the impact of Yammer, but what I can share are some interesting nuggets.

One of the most difficult aspects is knowing you’ve opened up something and you’re not entirely clear where it’ll end up.  The risks, however, are small so we are going to use Yammer to replace our intranet.  We are presently setting up integration with SharePoint and in the coming months the old intranet will finally disappear forever, although I’m not sure anyone will notice; everyone is too busy Yammering!  Now when I say everyone, I mean around 50% of the organisation, which is quite remarkable because we’ve never had an official Yammer launch.  Last week we posted an interview on the network with one of our Directors talking about Yammer’s potential, which is the closest we’ve come to giving Yammer official corporate endorsement.  A month earlier, we began by giving a smaller group of staff access to Yammer, initially as an experiment and to gauge their reaction.  We decided not to pour cold water over it by announcing the latest workplace tool and it paid off.  Within hours users were inviting colleagues to join the network and we had Northwards’ first viral success.  There are currently 161 users registered with 53% engaged in some way by writing, responding or liking messages.  In just over a month we’ve had 1,649 messages posted and 144 private messages.  Files have also been uploaded, most users are accessing Yammer via the website and 24% are even using mobile devices.

We have Yammer user groups that focus on: Crime and ASB, Welfare Reform, Value for Money, Employee Benefits and a range of groups for individual teams as well as a Yammer – Learn the Benefits group, full of hints and tips on how to get the best out of the system and where users can ask questions if they get stuck.  The police in Manchester are very active on Twitter, so we make sure daily tweets appear in the Crime and ASB group which is fast becoming a valuable source of intelligence for staff.

As we’ve decided not to be prescriptive about its use at the moment there is, as you might imagine, plenty of frivolous conversations on the network, but that in itself is an interesting development as people start to feel confident enough to express an opinion which might be contrary to the corporate viewpoint.  

When users first register they are required to accept the usage policy.  It states that there are no rules, just common sense and a reminder not to post anything that might be offensive, otherwise they can Yam whatever they like.  This relaxed approach has quite understandably raised a few eyebrows; after all, we don’t want staff wasting their valuable time messaging lots of non work related content do we?  Of course we don’t, but I compare this to what has been referred to as ‘water cooler conversations’ and I suspect Yammering for most of our staff is going to be no different to the time spent informally in office banter and casual face-to-face chatter about last night’s TV.

A bit of a surprise has been some of our generation Y employees being a little slow to engage with Yammer, seemingly suspicious or unsure what they are permitted to say.  I’ve had one manager contact me to ask if there are any guidelines and another employee email me asking if it was really true that they could set up a group on Yammer that wasn’t directly related to work.  This made me wonder whether we had been controlling and communicating the corporate rhetoric for too long.  We have started to address this new anxiety by reassuring people and leading by example.  Senior management buy-in is critical to this process and simple measures, such as ‘liking’ a message to inform people that we value their opinion, is worth its weight in gold.  I am now exchanging messages with staff I have never spoken to before on a range of trivia, but behind every frivolous remark are opportunities to make the link to work and already some staff are beginning to do the same.

Here is a quick snapshot of some early Yams and how our social enterprise is helping to create a more open culture of collaboration across Northwards Housing:

•    anyone fluent in Spanish?  We’ve received a letter that needs translating.   Attracted 16 responses both humorous and serious and, more importantly, two staff who could actually translate.

•    on the way home one night I decided to yam about my poor customer experience at Asda with the dreaded self checkout tills.  This led to a conversation thread about other people’s experience of customer service and a suggestion that, like Northwards, maybe Asda should consider some ‘systems thinking.’

•    when someone randomly posted a picture of a hedgehog with a strawberry on its head reading a newspaper, it led to a number of frivolous remarks including the comment: “taking in a hedgehog won’t help with having to pay the bedroom tax!”  Raising awareness on any topic is a great way to spark a debate and encourage others to do the same.

•    a number of people are posting messages telling others what they’re working on, like the staff who posted messages one evening whilst out on patrol with the police as part of an ASB initiative.

Information is now being uploaded to the Northwards Housing Yammer network not just by the Communications Team, but also by other staff, including those who are based remotely in our retirement housing schemes and of course our Caretaking staff.  At the moment it is taking up quite a lot of Communications time but once everyone is active on the network we think it will be self sustaining in the main and of course it will replace some of our other channels such as weekly e-bulletins and broadcast emails.  

Relinquishing control of a big chunk of internal communications to the power of Yammer has not been instinctive or without a little nervousness, but so far it appears our decision was right.  Yammer is likely to have a huge impact on the way we communicate and collaborate as an organisation.  Yammer also gives us the ability to connect with separate networks if we choose to, whilst keeping our own network private and secure, raising further the possibilities of greater collaboration with our partners, contractors and potentially our customers. 

It’s very early days, but already there is evidence that some messages are appearing on Yammer instead of email and from a communication point of view, I’m more than happy to see the back of occupational spam in my email, preferring to control my Yammer feed instead.  Imagine a day when internal email no longer exists. 

We’re very excited about the potential of Yammer, it is a bit strange, especially for someone who isn’t of generation Y, but once we get used to talking about hedgehogs and welfare reform in the same sentence, I have every reason to believe that having less control is good and for our internal communications, it’s the right thing to do."

Steve Finegan is Head of Business Effectiveness and Communications at Northwards Housing

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Reader Comments (6)

I didn't realise we could integrate particular twitter feeds into our yammer feed! It's great to hear what you're doing with yammer, thanks for the post.

May 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAmanda

thanks for this update Steve, really interesting and useful - as homeworking and variety of geographical locations increase, this is a fab way of keeping everybody involved...

August 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCatherine

Hi Steve, a year on from this post, do you have any update on how its going? Our team have been using Yammer for a long while and enjoying its many benefits, but its only just starting to take off further in the department. I'd be interested in how its going for you now. Thanks.

May 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCharlotte

Hi Charlotte

As it happens, Steve wrote a great follow-up post 12-months on - The Year our Business Went Social...



May 3, 2013 | Registered CommenterDarren Caveney

I'm the Internal Comms manager at Bournemouth Borough Council and have been 'skirting' around Yammer for about a year. We have similar issues to you as our intranet is suffering from content inertia and we need to find some truly collabroative methods to communicate particularly with our 'non-connected' staff who are based in the field and around 90 office locations.

Your article made very interesting reading and I suspect some of your experiences will find their way into the business case that our Head of IT and I are starting to prepare to bring Yammer into your organisation.

July 29, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDuncan Flint

Hi Duncan

The lessons I took from using Yammer at my previous local authority were this...

- When you launch it don't promote it. We used it purely as a trial within the comms team and it accidentally 'escaped' - it grew naturally and organically without ever being promoted. Within six months we had 1,200 staff signed up. Others comms colleagues elsewhere have talked of similar experiences

- 90% of the conversations on Yammer were work related (some people had suggested that colleagues would talk about non-work related content there. They didn't)

- Of those signed up, around a quarter were what I would call active, and probably 100 were what I would call very active. That may sound small but good things came from those 100 people

- There seems to be a common experience around the 'product life cycle' of Yammer - approx 18-months in, interest and use seems to wane and you'll need to find ways to refresh staff interest in the platform (or they naturally move to other options of course)

- Finally, don't forget with the free version you are not able to remove staff comments (in the event of someone saying something daft you'll have to ask them to remove it - we had a case where a member of staff put politcal comments on the platform, and it was purdah just to make it doubly unwise)

Good luck with your Yammer adventure and let us know how it goes.



July 29, 2014 | Registered CommenterDarren Caveney

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