Next up for Yammer: Making Office the best way to work as a network

Credit:Mary Branscombe

If some people in your company don't get on with enterprise social tools and would rather stick to email, Yammer has a clever trick coming to help: Making them think they're using email when they're actually joining in on Yammer.

A new feature that's in the process of rolling out to all Yammer networks lets you @mention someone using their email address instead of their name, which sends them the update as an email message. When they reply, their email shows up in the Yammer conversation. If they attach files, those get uploaded to Yammer. You can do that for emails you receive as well, so if a customer or partner emails you a document that you want colleagues to weigh in on, you can just forward it to the Yammer email address of the group you want it in.

It's also easier to share private conversations when you want to include more people in them. Once a private discussion gets to the point where it's time to get more people involved, you can invite them to just that conversation instead of having to share everything in the private group.

There are also updates to several of the Yammer clients. The iPad app launched in December had a new design to get you right to new messages, showing groups with unread messages right under your inbox. That app is getting another tweak so you can see the full feed for your company. The iPhone app already lets you see who is in a group and join (or leave) a group straight from your phone, and soon you'll be able to search Yammer from the iPhone app. The Android app already has the search tool and lets you join groups and edit your own profile; this month's update is about "making it more native," says chief product office Pavan Tapadia.

All the mobile apps will keep improving, he told us: "It's an iterative process." Some of that will be bringing tools like Yammer Now to more devices than iOS; this lets you use a mobile messaging client to send messages that show up in Yammer, so colleagues don't have to pull out their phone to read and reply messages when they're sitting at their desk.

Other improvements, like adding external networks to the Windows 8 app, take more work on the main Yammer system. "External networks were built fairly early on and they're actually fairly heavy to work with, you have to keep switching, you have multiple inboxes you have to check. We want to make it much easier to collaborate with people, to just in your own company by externally. So there's some short term pain but over the next year we plan to improve your ability to collaborate with people outside your company, so you don't have to go to multiple networks and have multiple inboxes," said Tapadia.

The Yammer SharePoint app -- for companies that want to add Yammer discussions to SharePoint rather than taking Microsoft's recommended step of replacing the SharePoint social feed with Yammer entirely -- doesn't get new features in this update, just security and reliability improvements. That's part of some of the backend developments Yammer is making to get to the point where it could be the default social network setting in Office 365, the first of which is integrating identity.

Tapadia calls this the first of several "foundational features" that are coming. "It shows the direction we want to head ad some of the rest you'll start to see in the next two to three months." The first step is that Office 365 users are automatically signed in to Yammer with the same password and credentials they use for Office 365 (which could now include multi-factor authentication). "If you come to Yammer and start to log in with an email address ad we know you're on Office 365, we'll just redirect you."

But he also wants to take much more advantage of Azure Active Directory and features like distribution lists and groups that could make getting started with Yammer much easier for companies. "You shouldn't have to build that membership list again," he points out. He also want to see "some kind of single concept of your profile and your identity across Office 365. so we can drive the idea of social across the whole suite".

That doesn't mean a Facebook-style feed showing up everywhere in Office, Tapadia promises. "Yammer started from the ideas of consumer social networks that are all oriented around discovery -- and casual discovery at that. If you miss something on Facebook, that's fine. Over time we've added elements like the inbox and groups and workflow. One of the bigger shifts in the product that you'll see over the next few months is that we want to maintain the benefits of discovering things in your social network but we want to do something different to give you the ability to manage workflow and get something done. Today we do an OK job but we can do better. We can be clearer that the reward of working in Yammer is not coming in and discovering something, it's working more openly."

More information is always better -- in context

CTO Adam Pisoni has even larger ambitions for how Yammer will be useful and how it will integrate with other Microsoft products like Skype.

"We think companies are trying to work more like networks and that's not just in communications. It's also how do we communicate with customers, how do we collaborate with documents, it's about the meetings, both verbal and video conferencing that you have. Also of those tools are going to become more like networks. We're integrating with all those tools because trying to make that happen. We're turning Office into a network productivity tool."

Some of those integration points are obvious. "We can do integrations like you're in a conversation [on Yammer] and you want to escalate it to a video conference or a call. Certainly when you're working on documents the conversations around documents should be social but you should also be able to edit it in place while you're in you're in the conversation."

But in the longer term, everything will get connected, Pisoni believes. "Yammer today is a separate social network. Where we're heading is that Yammer is part of Office 365, where your user profiles and files and conversations will be pervasive."

Won't that get overwhelming?

"More information available to you is always better," Pisoni claims. "As long as it's available to you and not forced on you. If you can open up more information inside the organization, we can use the breadth of technology to surface the right information at the right time. So more information is always better but it is incumbent on us to work to surface the right information at the right time. I think we're only at the beginning stages of both the technology and the cultural change around working as a network so it's easy to see why people look at Facebook, Twitter or sometimes Yammer and say it's a bunch of noise. But what we're doing is we’re adding information that's valuable -- and we're creating the situation where we have to have to get better at surfacing it."

"Where we think this is going is that when you're working socially, working like a network, you will work much like do today. You open up email, you open up a file and the system will know there is relevant information to you, at that moment, and it will surface it because other people are working on similar files, people having similar conversations, having similar meetings. There are other people that know about these things that you're working on. It's in a way that's unintrusive and that leverages the value of the network in a way that doesn't overload you."

That fits in perfectly with Microsoft's devices and services plans. Once Yammer is threaded through Office as the way your business works, you're going to keep using the Office and Yammer services -- on all your devices.

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