Internal Comms and Social Media – Yammer, Yammer, Yammer

All this time spent bemoaning the increasing hysteria around social media as a marketing/comms tool, its much-vaunted ability to ‘engage’ stakeholders and provide opportunity for ‘in-depth conversations’, all about ‘quality not quantity’, and I never once gave a thought to the possibility of inward-facing social media and their impact against internal audiences. (And a thank-you to the nice people at Cravenhill Publishing for making me think about it.)

You see, for once here is something that falls within the sphere of social media that I actually get. I can relate to this, I can see how it might work. And I can see the pitfalls.

First let’s start by defining what we mean. Social media (OK, if I must – Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn) are exactly that – media relying upon the social instinct of the human condition, the desire to interact with others and to have its voice heard. It is not ‘social’ in the sense of ‘let’s go and have a drink and chat about what we’re doing at the weekend’ – if it was, then LinkedIn would not be a social medium, it would be a ‘commercial medium’. Social media is also boundless and only extremely lightly regulated, often by its users themselves.

Translate that into the internal communications arena. Well, it’s most definitely not a social medium anymore, in either of the senses of the word. Like everything else inside a company, it will be ruled according to the natural hierarchy – for example, if the Pope posts something on LinkedIn that I don’t agree with, then I can (and will) post a reply containing my point of view. In a work situation, on a work-sponsored, work-run social network, I would not take the same liberty with a post from the CEO. I might post about what I’m doing at the weekend, but again, why would I when I don’t know who’s reading it.

And that’s the other difference between a social network harnessed as an internal comms tool and a real, free-to-air social network. The ersatz social network in your company is not boundless – your IT department will see to that – and it is not lightly regulated – your HR department will see to that.

Which brings me neatly to Yammer. It’s a cool idea – an off-the-shelf intranet with many of the functions and ‘feels’ of a social network. Clearly, another difference is that your company pays for it – the top of the range package of $5 per person per month (and, if you’re Cap Gemini, with 86,000 employees – well, that’s quite a chunk of your $8.7bn revenue in 2007. Oh – no…..hold on. It isn’t.) rather than it being free-to-air, like Facebook.

In fact (apparently, and according to the case history) Andy Mulholland, Cap Gemini CTO, was so breathlessly enthusiastic that he was prompted to say “So now I have a social networking tool, with real-time micro-blogging and current-topic searching, and it’s all integrated with email as well as being a web service. At last!” At last, indeed, Andy. I could understand if he’d said “So now I have a Sunseeker yacht, with jet-skis and a sundeck, and it’s all paid for by the company as well as being tax-free. At last!” But no-one says “At last!” about an intranet tool. No-one.

(I’d also like to make it clear that I have no idea whether Mr Mulholland has a Sunseeker yacht or not, and, if he does have one, how it is funded.)

Since 2000, I’ve been trying to find a way of getting employees to participate in two-way conversations through intranets and message-boards. I have tried all sorts ( I won’t say ‘everything’ because maybe there’s something I haven’t tried) which has included training sessions, briefings from Board-level execs, staff events, newsletters (print and electronic), prizes, donations to charity, one-on-one conversations, printed messages on payslips, roadshows and feature articles on intranets. And the result? Nada, niente, rien, nicht, zip, jack, squat – nothing.

As time has gone by, the tools that I’ve wanted employees to work with have become simpler and richer in functionality. At the beginning, it was simple bulletin boards. Post a short message on a topic that interests you, or ask a question of the directors. It was like pulling teeth. In the end, I had a tool on the intranet to which people could post pictures, video, audio, they could start their own polls, they could get a group discussion going – it was genius. And still, no-one used it.

So, back to Yammer – have they cracked it? Is Andy “At last!” Mulholland justified in his schoolboyish enthusiasm? Well, there’s nothing like asking, so I posted a question on LinkedIn – I thought ‘these social networking types will be up for it – Yammer expertise, here I come!’ So, go on, guess how many answers I got? Hmmm? Go on, have a guess. How many do you think? Hmm? (Oh……………yeah.) Actually, two. Two whole people. One of whom had no opinion of his own, but recommended me to an academic in Texas. Can’t work out whether this is because no-one is using Yammer – which might mean that Andy Mulholland doesn’t exist (NOOOOOOOOOOOO!) – or whether it’s because all the people using Yammer aren’t using LinkedIn.

I did get one answer that was worthwhile, though, and it’s what sparked off this post in the first place. My respondent said that she’d started to use it as a place for interns and the marketing department to interact. It had been slow to take off, but that feedback was positive. (I always got positive feedback for my initiatives, but they NEVER took off.)

What was interesting were her reasons for liking Yammer. First it was that users can set up private and public groups – private groups so that they can interact ‘without fear of anyone else checking in on them’. Apart from HR and their line managers, obviously. Second, it’s nice to post information in an informal setting. I’m guessing this is because it looks like a social network and thus lulls people into a sense of comfort and security. Third, it promotes collaboration and fourth – and here’s the killer – ‘we can control the network’.

This is why employees (and I’m generalising here) don’t want to participate in this sort of stuff. They suspect that Big Brother is watching them and – by George! They’re right. (Mind you, as we all know, they’re quite happy to post pictures of themselves snogging warthogs while drinking Absinthe and wearing inappropriate socks on Facebook because, obviously, Big Brother isn’t watching them there.)

In brief, the internal communicator’s audience is even more skittish that the digital marketer/communicator’s audience. You can scare them off by doing the wrong thing – a boss of mine insisted on doing impromptu visits to different departments at lunchtimes, wheeling a trolley of sandwiches. Of course, if he’d turned up and there’d been no-one there, then he’d have been most unhappy, so I had to issue a three-line whip beforehand, to make sure that, when he made his surprise visit, there were people there to be surprised. They didn’t like it.  And if you do scare them off, it takes some time to get them back.

The best internal comms is done on a one-to-one. There’s a probably a space for an intranet-for-hire like Yammer, but like the whole social media phenomenon, it’s not robust, it lacks substance and it most definitely is not the future.

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