How Microsoft got its own employees to use Yammer

Yammer' founder David Sacks and Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, at the announcement of Microsoft's Yammer acquisition last year. Credit:Reuters

When Microsoft bought Yammer last year for $1.2 billion, it didn't just get a new product for its lineup. It also got a product to use in its own operations.

One of the primary goals of enterprise social has always been to provide a more efficient alternative to email as the chief means of collaborating and sharing files, and with Yammer, Microsoft is beginning to achieve that.

Chris Slemp of Microsoft's IT department told me that 100,000 employees and suppliers have created Yammer accounts to date. From that pool, the company is seeing 34,000 people using Yammer each month.

Slemp explained the primary Yammer usage scenario to this point has been a gradual replacement of their extensive email distribution lists.

"For example, our marketing and sales teams are sharing research faster than ever before. Newsletters and other forms of internal communications are also moving to Yammer groups. We have engineering teams working on their projects, divisions holding same-time 'YamJams' to align on strategy, and all employees chiming in on topics of broad interest" Slemp said.

But he admits the transition hasn't always been smooth.

One problem was that they had built an internal microblogging solution at about the same they bought Yammer, and as you might imagine that caused some confusion internally about which one to use. "My biggest challenge for the first 6 months was answering 100 times a day: 'Which one do I use?'"

Recently, that's started to ease up.

"That’s become much easier with more recent signaling from the product group that while they’re still committed to SharePoint social features for on-premise customers, Yammer will be the social solution for the cloud," he told me.

The other problem was a common cultural challenge companies face when moving to a new social system: Trying to get people to move certain tasks off email. 

"We’re still an email-driven company," Slemp told me. "The truth is that people use other apps all the time, such as Lync and SharePoint, and they’ve just learned over time when to use which for the best results. As these apps become more seamlessly integrated, we know this tug of war will go away."

Some business units have also been reluctant to work in a transparent system like Yammer. He said one way to deal with that reticence is to start with private groups and work up to more public interactions.

Overall, getting people to use the system has been an internal public relations challenge -- something that all companies must undertake to get people using their enterprise social tool of choice. It didn't matter that Microsoft had bought Yammer for a considerable sum. It still took work to get employees to gravitate to a new tool and to make it part of their natural workflow throughout the day.

"Our plan for driving adoption includes a mix of broad value proposition messaging such as 'Amplify your influence,' working with teams to replace their distribution lists, and lining up line of business applications for integration with the social platform," he said. "We believe that it’s this integration that will drive the biggest culture shift. Employees will just naturally be using social feeds as a part of their jobs in the CRM or engineering tools they use every day."

Another key to success was not exercising too much control. "The power of Yammer is in its ability to enable employees to very quickly self-organize across geographic or organizational boundaries, and around any project or initiative. To realize this benefit, governance is kept to a bare minimum," he explained.

While there are non-work groups as part of the mix, Slemp said that the vast majority of the work on Yammer is business-related and for the most part people have been civil on the network. "As long as the conversation doesn’t get into personal attacks or offensive material, pretty much anything goes. We handle offensive social posts exactly the same way we would an offensive email. It hasn’t been an issue," he said.

Microsoft hasn't done too much work to quantify the benefits of using Yammer yet -- for now they are simply satisfied to let the system grow organically and develop metrics over time. "We’re just scratching the surface on this, and it’s a big focus for next year. For now, we’re tracking adoption and identifying key influencers. We’re also using that network of influencers to identify compelling use cases that we use in telling the value story to the rest of the company. The use cases are maturing and interest is growing in using social analytics to drive and measure business impact," he said.

The biggest surprise so far has been the amount of traction. "As much as we’d all like the adoption to be much broader and deeper, I’m actually pleasantly surprised with the amount of traction we already have, and with the eagerness that many are signing up to be Yammer 'Champions' to help drive change management locally," he said.

Ultimately, he says, "there’s a healthy amount of chatter on the network to help it feel more like a community, but not so much that it feels like a distraction or a toy." And if it can reduce the dependence on email, all the better.

Join the discussion
Be the first to comment on this article. Our Commenting Policies