Legitimising the grapevine

I stumbled across our work Yammer network the other day. I had no idea that it was there – I just logged into the corporate Office 365 portal doodad and saw a link to it, and being the curious little kitten I am I clicked on it. What I found was a fledgling collection of others from around the University, with no seeming rhyme or reason to indicate from whence they had come. Probably just other rubberneckers like me, poking their nose in to see what it was all about. A few ‘Hello World’ posts, a couple of attempts at sharing links – and not much else.

Just to test the waters, I made my first post an admission that I’ve used Yammer quite a bit in years gone past, and that I should write a blog post that clarified what I saw as the conditions for success. I even got a few ‘likes’ on it, and so I figured I’d better follow through with this post.

Now as far as Yammer the technology goes, I’m ambivalent. Some will love/hate it purely because its owned by Microsoft. Some will love/hate it because of its features, or its technology innards, or whatever else. Whatever. I’m more interested in the concept of Yammer-like tools and where they can fit in the communication landscape for a mid-sized or larger organisation, so if I use the term ‘Yammer’ a lot in this post, then its because its easier than saying ‘Online Organisational Networking Environment’.

To point out the problems that I’ve seen Yammer at least partially address, I want to share a few phrases that I swear I’ve heard in every place I’ve worked that had more than a handful of people on the payroll, and they go like this:

  • ‘Nobody tells anyone anything around here’
  • ‘Communication is always crap in this place’
  • ‘Would have been nice if my manager had told me <whatever> rather than having to hear it from the grapevine’

Sound familiar?

The proponents of Yammer and similar tools will sometimes make big claims that their tools will solve all the world’s organisational communication problems. Build it and they will come. Of course this isn’t the case, and like any other technology solution, without the right conditions being in place within an organisation, Yammer and its friends will fail.

I’m going to pose that there are four main prerequisites for a corporate social network like Yammer to be successful, but before that, I’ll try to define ‘success’ a little better.

The kinds of comments I listed above illustrate that there are individuals who, for whatever reason, do not perceive that they get the information they want in a timely manner. Note that I said ‘want’ there – not ‘need’. There is a difference between an employee getting the information they ‘need to know’ to do their work each day and them getting the information they want in order to feel that they are part of a community.

It is this latter concept that I’ll use as the definition of success – that the individual feels that they are part of a community which is empowered by the availability of information, rather than frustrated by the lack of it. There is more to it than this, but I’ll leave it here for now.

So, based on what I’ve seen, what are the four prerequisites for success? Here they are:

  1. People need to know how to be part of the community;
  2. People need to choose to participate;
  3. People need to know how to access the right information for them; and
  4. The organisational culture needs to be one which makes peer sharing of information just as valid as ‘top down’ sharing.

Knowing how to be part of the community

The first of these relates to people knowing what to do and what not to do as part of a corporate social network. The latter – what not to do – is the easy bit. It is usually embedded in every social media guidelines document, every Code of Conduct and every employment contract. Don’t be disrespectful to others, don’t talk out of school about confidential/sensitive stuff, don’t post pictures of yourself downing tequila shots on a Friday night at the staff club. What is of more interest to me is what people should do. When I’ve spoken to people new to Yammer who have maybe logged on and not gone much further I have often heard statements along the lines of ‘What do I say? Nobody will care about what I do, so what’s the point in sharing?’.

More often than not, this isn’t the case. While I’ll admit that a blow-by-blow account of every minute of your day will not make for fascinating reading, the occasional post about what is going on in your area will very probably be of interest to someone, even if just to know that your area exists. If you’re even in a mid-sized organisation you can pretty much guarantee that some other areas won’t even know you exist, so the occasional share about what’s going on in your patch can be useful to remind the rest of the organisation that you are still a thing.

If I’m getting more specific about what kinds of things to share in an organisational community, particularly for new kids to Yammer, then I’d narrow it down to three main kinds of post:

  • sharing updates about what you or your team have been working on;
  • sharing relevant information (including links to external articles) that are of relevance to the community; and
  • asking questions that the community might know the answer to.

I’ve put these in ascending order of maturity of the person in the context of the community. Often sharing the occasional update on what you’re working on is enough to get started. The last of these three start to turn the tables in terms of the information flow within the community, which is the perfect segue to…

Choosing to participate

While the first point focused on knowing what to do, the second is about actually walking the talk. Being a lurker is fine – for a while – but like any other community, there is a need for contributors as well as consumers for the community to be sustainable. Without enough people being willing to make communication a two way street, your Yammer network will end up a ghost town.

‘I don’t have time for this’ is possibly the weakest excuse I’ve heard for not participating in an organisational communication network. Tell me you don’t know how, or that you are afraid, or that you’re a terrible writer, or just about anything else – just don’t tell me you don’t have time.

I say this so strongly because the best organisational networkers I’ve seen write short posts. One, maybe two sentences tops. Total time investment for a post – less than one minute. Conversely, the worst networkers I’ve seen post paragraph upon paragraph of information in a single post, which take a long time to write, a long time to read, and perpetuate the myth that an organisational information network must be filled with lengthy orations. There’s a place for long-winded monologues that need to be read over a cup of tea/vodka – its called email.

Set aside two minutes per day. One minute to reflect on whether you’ve got anything worth sharing with your community, and one minute to write a brief update to your readers.

Set aside two minutes per day. One minute to reflect on whether you’ve got anything worth sharing with your community, and one minute to write a brief update to your readers. If you don’t have anything to share, congrats – you just earned a bonus minute.

Of course choosing not to participate in any organisational communication process can also be indicative of more sinister motives – knowledge is power and all that – but I’ll touch on that later.

Knowing how to access the right information

‘I tried Yammer, but it was full of junk, just the same as when I tried to use Twitter’. Yes, like any social network, an organisational one can full of things that aren’t that interesting beyond a cursory glance. This often depends on the quality/quantity/relevance of the content people are posting, but it also depends on your ability to filter the information to make it suit your needs. There are a couple of easy ways to do this within Yammer, namely:

  1. Join the right groups, and if they don’t exist, create them. Yammer’s groups feature is nothing special, but it does let you follow specific areas of interest very easily. The open nature of groups also allows you to create groups very easily, and in my experience this should be promoted rather than discouraged.
  2. Follow the right people. Some people write and share well. Some curate information well. Find out who these people are and follow them so that their posts will show up in your feed. One neat feature of Yammer is the Leaderboards app, which will quickly show you not only who posts a lot, but also who gets lots of positive feedback. Check out who the community leaders are and follow them.

Having an organsational culture that ‘validates the grapevine’

While the first three of these conditions are nothing too Earth-shattering, this last one is the one that interests me the most, hence the title of this post. In almost all the organisations I’ve worked in, information in and of itself isn’t sufficient – it must also be delivered via an ‘authorised’ source. While receiving timely information via the Appropriate Channels is usually welcomed by the masses, the exact same information transmitted via anything resembling ‘the grapevine’ becomes bitter, poisoned by the fact that it wasn’t shared from ‘Management’. I find this fascinating when I look at the significant focus being put on collaborative learning at all levels of our current education system – we encourage our students to find their own information, that the ‘sage on the stage’ is a thing of the past, and yet somehow when we transition to the role of a ‘knowledge worker’ in a supposed ‘learning organisation’ we somehow slip back into the expectation that the only valid information is the stuff that is spoon fed to us from above.

…information in and of itself isn’t sufficient – it must also be delivered via an ‘authorised’ source

To me, this is the most fundamental criteria for success of an organisational communication network like Yammer – the culture of the organisation needs to be one in which finding out something on Yammer from a peer is considered just as acceptable as receiving it in an email from your line manager. With this comes the need for all staff to feel comfortable in sharing information in the knowledge that the culture of the organisation is indeed one which supports open communication, and this requires demonstrable commitment at the highest echelons of the organisation.

A final word on organisational culture

As I contemplate putting my hand up to ‘germinate’ the fledgling work Yammer network, I think back to my past experiences, and share one significant word of warning – an organisational communication network is only ever a reflection of the culture of the organisation itself. If the culture is toxic, then so the network will almost certainly be. I’ve seen networks start toxic, turn toxic or become ghost towns when staff are so disengaged that there is no ‘community’ at all, and these were all purely reflections of much deeper organisational problems – this is the risk of starting a network like Yammer. Then again, having an understanding of the ‘cultural health’ of an organisation (good or bad) is critical for any leadership team worth it’s salt, and a network like Yammer can brutally expose this health to all and sundry. This is a risk that needs to be considered when implementing a tool like Yammer – it may shine a spotlight on a range of organisational issues.

Footnote: This has, for some reason, been one of the more difficult posts I’ve tried to write, and I’ve no doubt that I’ve missed some important things. I’d appreciate comments from those who have also been down this path to help me further refine my thinking.

9 thoughts on “Legitimising the grapevine

  1. I work at an organisation that has tried to introduce Yammer, and has made sporadic use of it. I seem to be on it. From time to time I watch others show up, and get that curious AA-style: “Take a moment to welcome David” that Yammer does.

    What then interests me is that Yammer proves to be a window on the way in which a university struggles to think of itself as a single organisation. What we seem to have here is a precinct of co-located SMEs, a shopping mall with different stores. Yammer creates small huddles of relevant information sharing but really struggles to bridge the divides in higher education, especially the professional/academic divide which is very wide indeed.

    So that sad old workhorse, email, is dragged out again and again to do this work of communicating with the entire organisation as an organisation.

    I’m curious to know more about Yammer use in higher ed orgs that also have active Twitter use from the senior executive. The Federation University executive conversation on Twitter always creates the impression of an organisation that has its communication strategy well thought out.

    You’re exactly right that higher education organisational culture represents a significant disconnect with good educational practice. That’s interesting.

    • Thanks Kate,

      Good point about universities behaving as a set of disjointed units rather than as a single (albeit diverse) community. I know there is a lot more to be said about this, and if I do end up attempting to promote the use of Yammer here then I’ll no doubt share more on the topic as the story unfolds.

      Mark.

  2. I just wanted to drop back in this morning and say that I don’t know what to think about Yammer as company bulletin board, but that’s what we have here. It’s a jobs notice board; and earlier this week there was a message (the solitary message of the day on the email feed I seem to be stuck to) that someone in some other part of the organisation had called the photocopier technician.

    At some level these messages indicate something real about the minutiae and bleakness of organisational life.

    The big question for Yammer use, I think, is about backchannel. The conversation that’s not happening here: where is it happening? Different institutions will have different cultural needs for backchannel as opposed to upfront engagement with (or in front of) the senior executive, and again I think this speaks to the model that the senior executive themselves use for communicating strategy and asking genuine questions.

    • Again, all good points, but I’ll throw another question at you – could the casualisation of staff actually be a significant driver for implementing organisational communication networks in universities, on the assumption that they are ‘done right’ and cover more than just fixing the photocopier? Could a vibrant network play an important role in providing a sense of community for those who are drifting in and out of university life?

      • OK, that’s the mother of all questions. I’m also just engaged in a workplace communications issue that specifically involves figuring out how best to reach casual university employees to communicate to them a matter that concerns them. As you say, the issue is the intermittence of their employment, and the precise timing for communicating. I’m not sure (and I’d love to know) whether any institution has worked out a communication strategy that enables a persistent organisational community that is effective in including temp workers because, you know, temp.

  3. I was directed to your post via a colleague via Yammer at my home institution. Just a point would be good on your blog if there were sharing links.

  4. Great post, Mark, and was v. happy to read this as have been contemplating Yammer and its potential at my institution (La Trobe Uni – I might as well state it as there aren’t many Tseens around in university world…). The participation of a broad range of staff is a key issue. If Yammer reads like a PR tool to its own staff, there’s a problem. Similarly, if it’s only ever a space for negative remarks and bringing colleagues’ work down, it’s a problem. Yammer has often been described to me as ‘Facebook for work’ – but one of the biggest differences is, of course, that (usually) your Fb account is not under the institutional gaze. I think there are many ways that Yammer can be a v. useful internal community space, but it takes goodwill and leadership within the platform.

    I particularly loved your paragraph:

    With teaching in social media and researcher development, this is one of the most common and vehement refrains. No-one would say, “I can’t be bothered attending conferences – they take up too much time”. Modes of professional networking and connecting with colleagues have changed, but recognition (let alone adoption) of them is slow.

    • Oops! Sorry – the quote paragraph from you should have been:

      “‘I don’t have time for this’ is possibly the weakest excuse I’ve heard for not participating in an organisational communication network. Tell me you don’t know how, or that you are afraid, or that you’re a terrible writer, or just about anything else – just don’t tell me you don’t have time.”

      (my #HTMLfail)

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