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.
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.
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.
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.