In the briefing room: Yammer

A Yammer site shown in Dutch, with the activity feed in the center.

Microblogs and activity feeds, à la Twitter and Facebook, are the kinds of technology tools that can be both alluring and confusing.  Being able to quickly send out short missives about one’s activity and see updates from others in a condensed activity stream is sexy; it is the interface we have grown used to thanks to consumer social software, and the movement to bring that metaphor of communications and collaboration into a business setting is only natural.

The problem is that few people can clearly articulate the specific benefits that an activity stream-based social software tool brings into the workplace.  There is much talk about the positive impact resulting from ambient awareness of what is going on in an organization, the reduction of e-mail loads as users use the software to communicate, and the ability to reach out to experts with questions.  The tricky part is actually demonstrating, in terms of cost, how knowledge workers are made more productive through use of these tools.

We recently sat down with Yammer’s CEO, David Sacks, and Dee Anna McPherson, vice president of communications, to discuss this very point.

Yammer is a social software tool for businesses that allows employees of an organization to set up networks using their work e-mail addresses.  The network is restricted to those within that e-mail domain, which allows for private groups to form organically within the organization.  This is a plus in our view because it allows smaller groups to experiment with Yammer and show the value of the tool before wide scale adoption.  Companies can then upgrade to Yammer Premium, which gives an organization advanced administrative features and allows it to consolidate various networks that have been created by groups and individuals in the company.

Yammer features user profiles, communities, direct messaging, tagging of topics in conversations, group creation around projects or interest areas, and mobile access.  The main point of the interface is the activity feed, which, although not limited to 140 characters in the manner of Twitter, resembles a microblogging platform.

Sacks told us that he believes that Yammer can reduce e-mail loads for knowledge workers by pulling some communications out of the inbox and into the activity feed.  He also noted that some companies have used the service to replace meetings, or utilized Yammer as an expertise locator and question answering solution.

In our view, the potential for services such as Yammer that provide the activity stream interface for communication and collaboration is huge, but far more research needs to be done to show the specific benefits.  Reducing e-mail is an admirable goal; for example, if a question that is sent out in an all-hands e-mail to 5,000 people can be replaced with a post on a social networking tool that saves 5,000 people from an unnecessary interruption.  The use of the social networking tool still might not be the most efficient way to ask the question, but in the absence of a true expertise location system, it might be the best option.

While certain efficiencies can be created by reducing e-mail, it’s worth noting that the introduction of a completely new tool also has the potential to actually increase the amount of information that the knowledge worker is exposed to daily.  This is precisely why it is imperative to proceed with some caution when adopting these tools, although we do believe that tools such as Yammer have great potential for positive impact.

Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex.

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