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Jessica covers Australia's technology start-up scene, writing on breaking news and trends in entrepreneurialism, media and marketing. She was previously named Australia's best New IT Journalist for 2011.

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In-house email gets social

Published 19 August 2010 06:33, Updated 09 September 2010 05:19

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Rapid expansion threw up some communication growing pains for medical recruitment firm Wavelength International. “When there was only 10 of us you just leant over your shoulder and talked,” co-director Dr John Bethell says. “As we grew it became increasingly obvious that lines of communication required a bit of effort.”

By the time the company had 50 employees, management decisions weren’t being filtered down, feedback from staff wasn’t being pushed up and there was a tendency for group emails, which “breed like rabbits,” to clog up inboxes, he says.

Bethell introduced his firm to Yammer, a social media-inspired communication platform. Known in technology circles as the Twitter for business, Yammer allows firms to operate a secure social network, not open to public view. Employees log in via their work email address and post messages that their work colleagues can comment on. Yammer is accessed via the web, meaning companies don’t need to host the service on their internal servers. Firms can sign up for free or pay a monthly fee per user for extra services. Bethell pays about $2400 a year for Wavelength’s access.

Though there were some early adopters of the new tool, Bethell says not all of his staff were enthusiastic and this became a problem as management began to use Yammer exclusively for formal announcements. To ensure there was company-wide take-up of the service, Bethell removed Wavelength’s “all staff” email group. Now, six months on, staff are embracing the tool, he says. Management use Yammer to announce targets, financial progress and promotions, while staff use it formally to share news items and information about clients but also informally, such as notifying each other when parking inspectors are about or even trying to start a band. “I like the fact that there’s still that social element to the business but it’s not clogging up people’s emails,” Bethell says. “Yammer takes those conversations off to the side and that makes it a really good tool to increase productivity.”

Users can access Yammer through an internet browser, a desktop application or mobile devices such as the iPhone. “From my perspective I’m never without Yammer,” Bethell says. “It makes it really easy for me to keep my finger on the pulse even when I’m out of the office.” Wavelength employees are able to work one day a week from home and Bethell says remote access to Yammer facilitates this.

According to Yammer, 70 per cent of Fortune 500 companies are using the service, with more than 1 million users globally. In Australia there are 500 networks, with the NSW Department of Education and Training boasting the greatest number of users. Previously, this title was held by Deloitte Australia, one of the first Australian firms to sign up.

In late 2008, a few pockets of digital-savvy employees within Deloitte were experimenting and using Yammer for their own purposes, online consultancy partner Jamie Pride says. In 2009, chief executive Giam Swiegers was looking to solicit staff input for a new marketing campaign and the online team suggested he try Yammer to gather the information.

“Within the space of a few days . . . we had a little under 1200 ideas for our marketing campaign,” Pride says. “The most amazing thing is it was never mandated from a corporate perspective. It was more of a groundswell.”

About 2700 employees have signed up, just over half of the firm. Deloitte has kept the tool for collaboration and knowledge sharing rather than enforcing its use for formal communication. By facilitating open discussion on what employees are working on, the firm hopes to uncover good ideas and link up specialist knowledge between different areas of the company. “Any large firm will have various silos,” Pride says. “[Yammer] is a great tool for breaking down those formal barriers.”

Yammer can also open up communication vertically. Rarely would an official email from the chief executive garner a reply from staff, however a post in a social network will receive comments because it’s a more open and naturally collaborative environment, Pride says. He adds that the number of responses isn’t necessarily in proportion to the authority of the person asking. “You have our CEO asking a question or an analyst asking a question and they’ll get an equal number of responses.”

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