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Summary:

I recently spoke to the AAA to see how its use of Yammer had affected the structure of the business. For what a very traditional organization, the results were quite surprising: a breaking down of silos and much faster decision-making.

demolition

Recently, I’ve been thinking about how the wave of new enterprise social tools have the potential to change the structure of the businesses that use them. In theory, tools like Yammer, tibbr and present.ly have the potential to flatten an organization’s structure and reduce hierarchy. To discover if that really is the case, I decided to speak to a few businesses that have actually implemented social tools, and see what effect (if any) the tool has had on the organization.

One of the first people I spoke to was Jaimee Clements, a social media strategist at the American Automobile Association (AAA). I wanted to talk to the AAA, as I thought it could make for a good case study. It’s a typically “old skool” organization, both in terms of its age (it’s over 100 years old) and the fact that it’s also a very traditionally structured organization, as it’s actually a federation made up of various affiliated auto clubs.

Adoption

The story of the AAA’s adoption of Yammer is an interesting one: Rather than being the top-down software implementation that would be usual in such a traditional organization, Yammer started off being used by just a small group of tech-savvy users on “work from home” days, as a means of communication and keeping everyone up to speed on with goings-on. Usage remained fairly low-key for about a year, until the day the COO mentioned the product and its usefulness in a town hall meeting, whereupon usage exploded. Two years after that initial adoption by a small group, the organization now has around 3,700 Yammer users.

Effects

Even more interesting than the viral way Yammer spread throughout the AAA, though, is the effect its use has had on the structure of the organization itself and its decision-making processes. Clements notes the organization is very old and traditional. It generally moves pretty slowly and suffers from information silos, particularly as it has offices in three states. However, since implementing Yammer, some of those silos have broken down, and some of the more time-consuming committees have been dropped in favor of using Yammer, greatly speeding up the decision-making process in some areas. What’s more, the organization is discovering a rich pool of ideas that otherwise may have been overlooked.

What I found really surprising was the speed of change in such a traditional organization. All these changes have occurred in a pretty short space of time: just one year into widespread adoption of Yammer throughout the business.

Best Practices

I asked Clements if she had any best practices or advice to share with other organizations that are thinking of adopting social tools like Yammer. She noted it’s really important to keep the signal-to-noise ratio high, in order to maintain value for the business and interest for users. Otherwise, the conversations may descend into a free-for-all where people are just chatting about non-work-related matters, or a ghost town with no interesting content. In order to keep the signal-to-noise ratio high, Clements recommends creating a group of “active curators” by identifying super-users and making them into administrators. They can then help to guide the use of the tool, steering conversations onto more useful areas and suggesting topics. Clements mentioned that a great way to drive conversations if things do start to get quiet is to get the curators to ask deliberately provocative questions. They will encourage people to participate and can even be used as a way to get an idea of how the team feels about a particular topic.

Clements also noted that when implementing a social tool, the HR, IT and legal departments are likely to have concerns, so it’s important to get them on board beforehand. IT, in particular, will be concerned if users can use the tool to circumvent regular IT processes. It’s also vital to have a plan in place for when things go wrong.

Knowledge capture can be problematic when using social tools; there may be huge amounts of knowledge stored in the app, but unless it’s stored and organized in such a way that users can find it again, it’s not helpful. Clements says the AAA uses a combination of monthly wrap-ups, a newsletter overview, and summarizing the most interesting or useful conversations on the corporate intranet. The active curators can help to identify the important conversations for capture. While that’s perhaps more labor-intensive than would be ideal, it appears to be working for the AAA.

Overall, I was struck by just how quickly Yammer had spread throughout the AAA, and the speed with which its use had made quite drastic changes to the way the organization worked: breaking down silos and streamlining its decision-making.

If your business has implemented a social tool, tell us about the effect that it’s had in the comments.

Photo courtesy Flickr user AndrewH.uk

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  1. Ya right, the mindless dribble on AAA Yammer has done little to improve the company or overall expereince of our members. This article is self-fulfilling promoting only what you want to believe. Such a waste of space

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    1. Don, I’m sorry you feel that way! I appreciate your feedback – your comment shows me that I need to do a much better job communicating all of the changes, improvements and successes we’ve seen over the past year as a result of Yammer to the rest of our AAA community.

      That said, as with any company, a single tool won’t fix all of our challenges, but with Yammer we are able to discuss them in a transparent way and find potential solutions to them from folks in *any* area of the organization. That kind of dialog, discourse and collaboration just wasn’t possible before we adopted Yammer.

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  2. Well that’s interesting but the question you have to ask is what’s in it for Yammer? As it’s a free service the only way to monetize it (aside from starting to charge for the service)is to subject the users to ads and do what FB is doing sell access to your private profiles to the highest bidder.

    Sorry., I’ll stick to using our corporate Communicator account – we retain all the data.

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    1. Actually, Doug, Yammer is not just a free service. It comes in two flavors: free and premium, which costs $5/user/month (https://www.yammer.com/about/pricing). IIRC, the AAA uses the Premium version.

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    2. Another possible solution that’s “free” / open source, is Eureka Streams.

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  3. This is one of the better articles/stories I’ve read about social media in the enterprise in some time; nice reporting. It gets right to the heart of how things work inside large organizations like AAA. One of the most fascinating aspects of this particular company is that they actually UNDERSTAND process and how to curate the stream of information and even pull out tacit knowledge. This is the dog wagging the tail.

    Our start-up is working on how to help the active curation workflow by giving users tools that meld into their daily information processing. This is where a lot of productive work is getting done.

    Very impressed that AAA has a dedicated social media guru working inside to guide the adoption and use of tools like Yammer.

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    1. thanks for the comment, Scott. Having spoken to a few businesses about their use of social tools, it’s clear that some, like AAA, believe that active curation is necessary, while others do not.

      I think it depends on the culture of the business that existed before the social tools were implemented. If the team already had a spirit of open dialogue and sharing, then curation may not be necessary (and could even be seen as stifling). On the other hand, for more traditional orgs like AAA, not curating risks leaving a ghost town.

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      1. Simon,

        I was referring more specifically to the task of knowledge capture and management. I saw firsthand with a large technology company in Santa Clara that much of their tacit “field/customer” knowledge was lost in conversations/meetings/notes.

        The problem of knowledge capture has been with this technology company long before social tools were deployed. However, now that they have better information flow with their network, they still haven’t solved the human pattern recognition problem. You need humans to do curation in this example. And when they do it, it’s very good.

        I encourage you to keep covering this subject. As I said, it’s the first article I’ve read that really scopes it out in general terms with concrete examples. The organizational behavior aspects are probably more interesting and challenging than the technical challenges of deploying social networks in an enterprise.

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    2. The attempt to capture knowledge is challenging. Yammer and tools like it are providing a level of accessibility, visibility and an initial level of ‘findability’ to help avoid the loss of that knowledge (or its lack of capture) by way of the conversations/meetings/notes.

      An ongoing challenge, in my opinion) is how to efficiently and effectively integrate at least 3 sources of that knowledge and to make it both accessible and ‘findable’ by anyone with a legitimate interest. The 3 sources being:
      -Structured information – the documents and datastores
      -Unstructured information – the conversations, notes, microblogging conversations, etc.
      -Idividuals/groups containing expertis – those folks that that self-identify in some fashion and those folks that are identified by third parties or other sources as having skills, knowledge or expertise in the domain being searched for.
      These are all things that make worklife interesting!

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      1. We have an app designed for active curation and it’s server-based so companies/users can decide if they want to run standalone or embedded within their favorite social network platform that supports widgets/iFrames etc. We’ve tested it with Socialtext and with a large LMS like Blackboard Learn (courseware); both platforms do a nice job of supporting customization via embedded media/iframes.

        I’m still impressed that AAA has a person in place to help make the social media tools and process work. No amount of software can replace training, leadership and vision. Maybe companies are now ready to hire chief collaboration officers?

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  4. Xavier Guilera Wednesday, March 2, 2011

    That is a good study-case, based on real facts. I think that the important issue is not the Yammer choose, but the use it has ahieved, the value for the institution and the change in the corporate culture. That’s great!

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    1. Indeed, Xavier, regardless of the specific tool used, social tools are transforming businesses.

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  5. Thanks for the post – a great example. For the SME Yammer has limited use, but larger, geographically dispersed organisations have so much more opportunity to benefit. The problem is buy-in from the older and more senior employees. But, I guess that shouldn’t stop them.

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    1. Actually, in many of the businesses I’ve spoken to, older, more senior employees tend to become very active users of social software once they come to realize the benefits it offers in terms of direct lines of communication. Both AAA and Deloitte Australia, for example, report senior “C-level” staff being very enthusiastic users of social tools.

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  6. [...] Yammer Is Breaking Down the AAA’s Silos (fra [...]

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  7. Kudos, Jaimee, for the mention!

    One thing I would like to clarify is that this applies tremendously for AAA NCNU (Jaimee’s Club) but isn’t adopted on the same level across clubs. My club (AAA Mid-Atlantic) doesn’t utilize Yammer in the same way, opting for the older intranet community style (blogs, forums, etc). Yammer has helped to stir cross-club collaboration in many instances (especially for us Social folk), but isn’t adopted at the same rate across the organization.

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