Lately I’ve been looking into Web 2.0-type tools to improve our commumication and workflow at work. There’s been some Enterprise 2.0 buzz about Twitter as a possible tool for communication on projects, and I’ve been scratching my head trying to figure out exactly how. One problem with Twitter is that it is wide out in the open, for anyone to read. If loose lips sink ships, Twitter is the Bermuda Triangle of company secrets. It hardly seems wise to be encouraging your employees to discuss the intacies of internal projects in such an open forum.
I recently came across Yammer, which is an enterprise-friendly version of Twitter. Basically, it’s the same thing, but your comments are only visible to members of your “company” (currently defined by the domain name of your email address). There are other features like private groups, but you get the idea.
Now, there’s been a lot of talk recently about the importance of quiet time for productivity (c.f. The Productive Programmer). To many “yammers” (or “yams”…?) might appear to be nothing more than an acronym for “Yet Another Method to Molest Everyone Relentlessly”. If there’s nothing more to this Yammer thing than posting your whims to the world, I wholeheartedly agree. We already use email for correspondence, IM for more immediate communication, Skype for voice and text conferences, web forums for context-related discussions, wikis, and on and on. So who needs yet another open window on our desktop, yet another way to have your train of thought interrupted, one more place you have to look to find a comment or note?
First, let’s take a look at the characteristics of the Yammer style of communication:
- It’s written (online)
- Very brief (about the size of an IM message)
- Can include attachments, but not common
- Visible to all in the enterprise (unless posted to private group)
- Messages can be tagged for organization/filtering by keywords
- Only your “followers” (or followers of a tag used) are “notified” – except for messages targeted at an individual, the author doesn’t choose the audience
- Mode of notification is configurable (from in-your-face to I’ll look it up when I remember)
- Messages are searchable by all
Twitter is billed as a microblog, where users post random thoughts and actions of the day (the form for posts asks you “What are you doing?”). The main benefit touted by users is that out of this chaos, you end up learning things about your friends you never knew. Yammer seems to be aiming for the same thing in a business setting (they ask “What are you working on?” in the desktop app. Online, they are more open-ended: “Share something with My Colleagues”). Unlike IMs and email, Twitter doesn’t seem to be for everyone; only those with a yen for connectivity really seem to grok it. In a business setting, particularly in a small company such as mine, it seems unlikely that we could achieve the critical mass necessary to make this work.
But there are some problems with communication out there in the corporate world that I have been looking to solve. The biggest issue I have is the need for a bottom-up “news from the trenches”-style way for developers to let me know what they do and I don’t. The types of things that may get mentioned at the water cooler and then forgotten; the fleeting idea that even the developer soon forgets; the magic shortcut command that only one guy in the corner is using; the little detail in the fine print of the new product we’re buying that means it’s not going to work with our software.
One would think that forums would work for this type of communication, but they don’t. Perhaps the problem is that there’s a certain sense of responsibility when you post to one: what if no one responds to my idea? What if people think it’s crap? A lot of people with really good ideas would rather remain anonymous than stick their necks out for what’s no more than a fleeting thought. But I think another part of the problem is just the sheer overhead involved in using forums: first you have to open the page, look to see if anyone’s posted something similar, create a new topic, write up some sort of backgroud story to fill up the big textarea… And who goes around browsing the forums for new posts, anyway?
Here’s where I think Twitter/Yammer-style communication may come in handy. It takes all of 10 seconds to post a single sentence, you can tag it so that it gets found by the people who care (#yammer #productivity hey! That chain icon on the plugin pastes a link to the current page), and there’s no expectation whatsoever that people will respond. The messages are searchable later, meaning that someone that wasn’t previously watching the tag could go and grab all the #productivity tips if they want to.
The other area I’m looking at is with project coordination and communication. An interesting thing that has evolved here at work is the use of Skype chats created specifically for members of a project team to coordinate their actions, ask questions, and so on. The one complaint I’ve heard about this approach is that people on the “outside” (not added to the chat) have no way of knowing what’s going on in the chat, and no way of looking at the history when they finally are. Yammer could be a solution to that problem, although it’s a terrible medium for active discussions.
So will it work? Will people use it freely, without putting a gun to their heads? Will it increase the sharing of knowledge at work and capture those important but elusive thoughts, or will it be just another icon on the desktop and another distraction from real work? I’m just starting to test it out here where I work, so I don’t have a conclusive answer yet, but I can make some initial observations.
First of all, It’s not a no-brainer. The best ideas catch on without any explanation, but with Yammer, people don’t seem to get it right away (me included). Twitter is the same way, so this doesn’t necessarily spell doom for this little experiment. Still, I sent out a general announcement to about 20 people, and got exactly 1 person who signed up (and since then hasn’t posted a single message). I next took the approach of asking people one at a time to join, explaining the basic concept to them in the process. While they seemed interested in the idea, I find I’m still pretty much the only one posting. Now I’m trying a 2-pronged approach of getting all the members of a small project to try it out for project-related communication, while encouraging developers to post some very specific ideas (around #productivity tips) when they have them.
I find that a few good examples help, and as I myself gain experience with it, I’m getting a feel for when to use it. Just today, I was in a meeting for one project, and had a quick thought about an unrelated subject. I grabbed my iPod and quickly “yammered” the idea out to the related tag. Too bad no one out there is listening…
So, perhaps this is an idea that will work, once people get used to it. Or perhaps Yammer’s value is no more that of Twitter: good for connecting the Web 2.0 addicts of your business in chaotic an unpredictable ways. Which is great for a fortune 500 enterprise, but sure feels lonely for us small guys.