Yammer: Will viral work in the enterprise?

I work for a very large company and at some point or another someone started a Yammer account based on our email domain. Starting on whatever day that was, Yammer commenced its viral expansion and its spread has really been quite impressive and rapid. Last time I looked we were approaching 3000 users.

The usage demonstrates all the free-scaling behaviors you’d expect though, so not everyone is yammering away. Still both the growth and the impact have been impressive. We are developing a nice network of the kind of weak connections that tend to “small world” a big enterprise like ours. It’s always difficult to quantify the benefits of “soft” collaboration but I’m really happy with what I see and I’ve personally enjoyed the interactions and my expanded network.

I think Yammer has done so well because it’s a really good product with well thought out features that make Twitter seem kinda retro. It has a nice slick interface, threaded conversations, and no pesky 140 char limit (which is countered by a “return key = submit” that inhibits multi-paragraph posts). They are also working to create the kinds of features that enterprises need to feel comfy: an api that includes directory integration, an Outlook module and etc.

However, despite all that, I’m bummed to say I don’t think they are going to make it.

The question of data privacy and ownership comes up over and over in our Yammer discussions. The last time it came up the thread ran for nearly 100 responses. Even though the typical post is something like “Who is using Grails?” or “Is the X application slow for everyone today or just for me?” data privacy is simply one of the biggest concerns going for a lot of companies these days. The mere suggestion that our data isn’t under our control is a big deal.

This point was demonstrated to me in a personal and compelling way during my first week on Yammer. I mentioned a client meeting so that I could share a few tidbits with colleagues. Hours later I was surprised and dismayed when a Google search revealed that my comments had been re-posted to the friendfeed of someone I didn’t even know. Someone on our network had written a quick and dirty app to follow his Yammer RSS feed and re-post everything to friendfeed. Then for good measure he followed everyone in our network. When I “politely suggested” he take it down he equally politely explained to me that I just didn’t get Web 2.0.

Despite that kind of hiccup, I don’t think data privacy is the death knell. After all, no one has told us to stop using it yet. The real problem is that Yammer thinks viral works the same way in the enterprise that it works on the web. It doesn’t.

Yammer, by being free and viral, is demonstrating in that soft benefit kind of way to lots of enterprises like ours that networks of weak connections and “ambient collaboration” are useful. Usage is creating a pool of users and even executives that “get it.” But they are playing their cards too early and are probably going end up as little more than a contribution to someone else’s cost of sales.

Recently a thread started with “does anyone know how to remove people from Yammer that left the company?” Well, it turns out that’s an admin function and only available to paying customers.

While we have grown rapidly and virally, the “admin issue” is coming to a head with only about 1% of the company holding an account and probably more like .1% actively posting. There is no way this is going to be a level of usage that an enterprise like ours sees as lock-in. And it won’t for anyone else’s either.

If the average company has an attrition rate of 10% it means that EVERY company that adopts Yammer virally is going to start to have this conversation well before adoption has locked them in. Every company will face the problem of removing ex-employees by the time they reach relatively low penetration rates. If it’s a 25 person shop it may be easier to just pay the $3/employee per month than worry about it, but for any reasonably sized enterprise this is going to force an off-budget-cycle decision that involves real dollars before adoption has locked them in.

The other problem with viral adoption as a strategy is this: I may love using Yammer, but I’m not Yammer’s customer, our IT department is. And they already have SharePoint. What Yammer doesn’t understand, and what Microsoft has known for years, is that IT makes these decisions, not the users.

While Yammer is going viral with users out at the edge, Microsoft perfected its S1P1 virus to attack the very core of the IT enterprise. So, when it comes to enterprise microblogging, The Microsoft Office SharePoint Server (MOSS) and its various add ons may be mediocrity in code form, but it’s already there. And being there counts.

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  • Carrie Young, Socialcast

    Jim,

    You raise some excellent points about how social tools in the Enterprise can work well, and how they can also create security challenges and put companies at risk.

    I work for Socialcast – another internal collaboration/microblogging vendor. We have heard the same concerns about free tools and the challenges that come with self-policing a network. We have found that without IT support and business support, employees won’t/can’t share important data with each other (and if they do, it causes issues like the one you mentioned above). This directly impacts network usage – the “participation inequality” that you mention doesn’t drive business value because employees are concerned about what they can and can’t share. The result is a network that is more of a water-cooler (“how was your kid’s soccer game?”) versus a business tool (“here is the report on Customer X’s sales last month”).

    Here is the formula that we have found that works for social tools in the Enterprise:

    -Behind the firewall must be an option
    -Directory integration for user account provisioning (removes the burden from users to police the network)
    -Integrate with existing systems, don’t compete with them
    -Mobile access
    -Email client integration (not everyone loves using a new web interface, so make collaboration available where they live – email)

    As social tools in the enterprise become more common and accepted, I think we will see that these features are demanded by clients.

    On a side note – viral *can* still work in the Enterprise, as long as it is controlled. User-to-user invitations really do help with adoption, but the key is to limit invitations to those that are already in a company’s directory and approved for inclusion.

  • matthew w

    It seems like StatusNet‘s FLOSS platform is an obvious solution that combines your need for features and privacy.

  • J.

    We have done some research in this area. The findings may be limited to our case study, but you may find something interesting in our papers:

    “A Case Study of Micro-blogging in the Enterprise: Use,Value, and Related Issues” By Jun Zhang etc. CHI2010.

    http://tinyurl.com/ya3qn9l

  • David Sacks

    Hi Jim-

    I’m glad you’ve enjoyed your personal interactions with Yammer and like the product.

    With respect to privacy and security, I need to clarify a few points:

    1) Yammer includes a free mechanism to remove former employees from your Yammer network at any time:
    https://yammer.zendesk.com/entries/47645-how-do-i-remove-former-employee-access-to-my-network

    In addition, we offer directory integration and single sign-on under our enterprise package.

    2) If a user chooses to inappropriately publish their Yammer messages, that does not make Yammer insecure. Someone could just as easily write a script to publish their emails; does that make email insecure? Employees can always leak sensitive company information. But that’s a violation of company policy, not of the information repository’s security.

    3) Yammer offers companies complete ownership and control over their data. Many large companies have become customers after becoming comfortable with our safeguards (e.g. SunGard, Nationwide, Deloitte, etc.) If you have concerns about this, please talk to us.

    4) Sharepoint (including the 2010 version) does not include Yammer-like micro-sharing. (I assume that’s why you linked to a third-party product.) You’ll be happy to know that Yammer is releasing a Sharepoint web part in time for the release of Sharepoint 2010. So there’s no need to choose between Yammer and Sharepoint. We think Yammer + Sharepoint is a great combination. Yammer will make Sharepoint truly social, and is a small incremental investment to ensure that employees actually engage with and derive value from Sharepoint.

    With respect to your larger point about virality, we see it as a positive for companies because they can evaluate Yammer before deciding whether to buy the product. Unlike most enterprise products, the usage comes before the purchase. This de-risks the value proposition for companies.

    Please let me know if I can answer any questions.

    Thanks for your interest in what Yammer is doing.

    Regards,

    David Sacks
    Founder/CEO, Yammer

  • Jim Stogdill

    David, thanks for the clarifications.

    Regarding your first point, we erroneously came to that conclusion from this description of the api: https://www.yammer.com/api_doc.html I looked around for that capability but didn’t run across the link you point out and all signs seemed to point to needing admin access. It is helpful to know this.

    Regarding your second and third points, I certainly didn’t mean to imply that my bad day was caused by the data being offsite. That was someone being stupid. However, it does speak to the basic sense that the service is outside of the enterprise’s control and that sense can interfere with corporate adoption whether or not it is completely rational. An externally managed service that is extraordinarily more efficient to serve, or has some other compelling advantage, will be adopted regardless of these amorphous concerns. I’m just not sure that is the case here.

    Finally, I know sharepoint doesn’t do this. But I also know there are a bunch of things it doesn’t do or does poorly but somehow its availability gets in the way of adopting anything else. “Oh, sharepoint can be configured to do that” – whatever “that” is.

    In any case, I am happy that we have been using it and I hope that we keep it, but it just seems iffy. Users respond to viral, but enterprises still seem to need someone to sell to them.

  • Ashley Roach, NewsGator

    Thanks for the Social Sites mention, Jim. I think the key thing as you say is what “being there” means. That is, there’s “being there” and then there’s “being THERE”.

    A web part that’s deployed in your environment that’s talking to a cloud service is an integration, but will encourage private data to go outside of your corporate boundaries.

    Actually integrating with the SharePoint event stream, adding interactivity around those events, all behind the firewall really puts the enterprise in enterprise activity streams/microblogging.

  • Kit Plummer

    In order to suspend accounts from Yammer’s API – the Admin-fee must be paid. This means you can come up with some custom integration to an internal “user” database. Accounts CAN be suspended from the web-interface easy enough.

  • David Sacks

    Jim-

    One other point I need to clarify (because I saw it tweeted about):

    RSS is disabled by default in Yammer. The company admin has to turn it on. It’s an optional setting.

    Separately, you said, “Users respond to viral, but enterprises still seem to need someone to sell to them.” Actually, we do both.

    Addressing customer concerns about security, privacy, data ownership, and compliance is a natural part of the sales process for any software company.

    Our account team has done this many times, and that’s why over 1,000 companies are paying customers.

    I would encourage any company that has questions or concerns to contact us.

    Regards,

    David Sacks
    Founder/CEO, Yammer

  • Scott Steadman

    There’s a checkbox on this page https://www.yammer.com/account/display_options called “Enter key does not submit message” you can use to get the behavior you want.

  • Joe Ramirez

    Mr. Sacks has covered most of the errors I found except one small one. You said that Yammer inhibits multi-paragraph posts by making enter=submit. That is changeable in the settings. You can, in fact, make posts as long as you want. At least, I have never hit a limit on post size, and I separate with paragraphs in my Yammer posts

  • Kim Patrick Kobza

    We have used Yammer for about 100 person workforce and find it very effective. We have probably used for about 1 year or so. It flattens out the communications within the company and specifically ties our technical and product development teams together with sales, as well as executive communication and administration.

    On your points above:

    (1) Every employee signs a comprehensive non-disclosure agreement at the time of starting employment. Publication of any confidential information outside of our company whether from email, Yammer or any other medium is cause for termination.

    (2) When an employee terminates we have a checklist of procedures which includes disabling Yammer access at the same time that we disable corporate email. It is an easy procedure (actually much easier than disabling email).

    I don’t see how these procedures are any different than one would otherwise use with other tools. So I don’t see the security issues in that sense.

    The only question that I do have is a clearer explanation by Yammer of their internal security, business continuity procedures. At an enterprise level that would be critical. At Ingage Networks, we have to pass standards for business process routinely and make every effort to educate our workforce including reminder workshops etc. We also will not allow access to any customer data by our workforce on any basis other than need to know as a condition of service etc. That is where Yammer could do a better job.

    But the security issue on the basis of deleting users, data access doesn’t t resonate.

  • Jim Stogdill

    @Kim

    My last company was 250 people and the issue of deleting ex employees wouldn’t have resonated with me then either. All I can tell you is that in a large company you need to connect things like this to the corporate directory – that is the funnel that all of these processes flow through.

    At 100 users you can still foot the lists if you get out of synch and audit yourself pretty easily. Get into the thousands, ten thousands, or ultimately 100’s of thousands and these processes need to be automated and reliable.

    There is nothing about Yammer that keeps this from being doable for a large firm. I’m really just using Yammer as a foil here for the kinds of issues that externally managed provisioned services face in really large enterprises: data privacy and the orthogonal competition that people like MS can bring by being so embedded into the IT department.

    This post originated with my frustration that these concerns, which seem a bit stupid, might make me lose the use of a tool that I like.

  • Isaac Garcia

    The premise of this article really bothers me – that: “The mere suggestion that our data isn’t under our control is a big deal.”

    This is an arcane way of approaching problems and/or addressing SaaS/Cloud applications.

    Yammer’s “rogue” success in the Enterprise is no different than the “rogue” sales reps that paid for Salesforce.com on their own credit card – in opposition to their IT departments requests to “stop putting their customer data on someone elses servers.”

    More and more, government offices, financial services and yes, very large enterprises too, are adopting SaaS applications and are quite comfortable with their data on someone else’s servers.

    We’ve heard the same resistance to CRM SaaS years ago – and today – adoption of SaaS for CRM is pervasive in the Enterprise (even Financial Services and Government).

    Tools like Yammer will hit resistance in the Enterprise – but to write them off would be akin to those that wrote off Salesforce.com for the Enterprise.

  • Jim Stogdill

    @Isaac Yep, SaaS is widely used. And I am not writing off Yammer. I’m a happy user. But… the resistance that I describe is real and there is no burning platform (i.e. massive cost savings with concrete ROI) in the case of microblogging like there was when your Siebel maintenance renewal came due. Can’t wish it away.

  • Jun

    Jim, great article at a perfect timing about Yammer and corporate micro-bloging.

    I have some thoughts regarding your view about IT’s control of Yammer/Sharepoint:

    “the other problem with viral adoption as a strategy is this: I may love using Yammer, but I’m not Yammer’s customer, our IT department is. And they already have SharePoint.”

    Actually, I think the beauty of Yammer is that it gives company employees other than IT department an opportunity to build a community from grass-root instead of one designed and controlled by IT.

    Regarding sharePoint: first, SharePoint currently does not have micro-blogging function; Second (maybe more importantly) SharePoint is build upon a formal hierarchical corporate structure, while Yammer is treating them as flat and informal. It really bring in a true “social” networking effect that Sharepoint has not been able to deliver.

    BTW, there is a workshop at CHI2010 this year about micro-blogging (several papers there are discussing about micro-blogging at work). People interested may check it out at CHI conference.

  • Iain

    Very interesting article.

    Well we (1000+ staff) have had Yammer for about a year – initially picked up by the internal comms team, then by IT – but it hasn’t ‘gone viral’ got to 18 members and is pretty much dead now.

    I think that is partly down to not being able to install the client (still with internal change control) – the web version is OK but not as neat as the client – but much better than twitter.

    But mostly dwon to lack of interest.

    Data security is a concern though – in the end the contnent sits outside our firewall thats always going to be acause for concern. The informal nature of mircoblogging may also lead people to says things they wouldn;t put in an email.

    As for IT control, for any largish userbase it is going to need proper administration to ensure departing users are deleted etc. – that’s probably going to end up with IT.

    We do have Sharepoint and I think the next version features microblogging and other social networking facilities, perhaps we will try again with that.