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Microsoft looks to give Yammer a new lease of life; can it?

The once-popular enterprise social media app is getting a redesign and new focus on communities, but faces competition from the likes of Slack and even Microsoft Teams

While Teams may be the focal point of Microsoft’s current collaboration strategy these days, Yammer — the enterprise social network it acquired in 2012 for $1.2 billion — hasn’t been exactly left for dead.

In fact, Microsoft unveiled a complete redesign of the enterprise social network at last year’s Ignite conference, offering up a new user interface based on Microsoft’s Fluent Design system, smart news feed recommendations, and tighter integration with Outlook, SharePoint and, of course, Teams. The ‘New Yammer,’ as Microsoft calls it, should be available to users this year.

While Yammer was previously broadly seen as a collaboration and communications tool, its focus has been refined in three areas, said Murali Sitaram, Yammer general manager.

“One is about building community at scale across organisations," Sitaram said. "The second is sharing and leveraging knowledge that is inherent in people that communicate and collaborate within organisations. And the third is ensuring that we can engage leaders and employees at scale."

The company’s continued investment in Yammer as a separate entity contrasts with other Microsoft apps that have been subsumed by Teams — most notably Skype for Business. That trend has led to questions about Yammer’s future.

But Microsoft apparently sees it as a distinct way to connect larger communities of workers with long-tail information to share, rather than the smaller, focused groups more likely to use Teams for immediate communication.

“Yammer is great at what we call longer half-life conversations, things that are not serviced through a chat mechanism alone,” said Sitaram. “Whereas a chat or conversation within a team is almost not that useful 24 hours later, Yammer conversations may be useful six months or a year from now.”

While some users may have expected Teams to “cannibalise” Yammer, articulating the difference between the two to Office 365 customers has helped drive adoption.

“Yammer growth has taken off because of that clarity. Customers are gravitating towards Yammer for more of those top-down scenarios, from leaders to employees to broad communities, whereas Teams is more about bottom-up adoption connecting teams.”

The company did not offer up new stats on how many users Yammer, which is bundled with most versions of Office 365, now has. The last available usage figure — eight million registered seats — was for the year after acquisition, though Microsoft says it is in use at 85 per cent of Fortune 500 companies.

Even so, Microsoft faces a significant challenge gaining momentum for Yammer given the recent focus on Teams and a wider shift towards team collaboration, said Angela Ashenden, principal analyst at CCS Insight.

“Yammer is a long way from being the high-demand product that it was pre-acquisition, when it was very much the poster child for enterprise social networking. And with the growth in market awareness and demand for Microsoft Teams, Yammer has fallen even further into the shadows, despite Microsoft’s attempts to reinvigorate it,” she said.

She did acknowledge Microsoft’s efforts to reassure users that it is not giving up on the app with its planned revamp.

“Yammer is being clearly positioned as a communities, knowledge and engagement platform — where Teams is for focused working teams, Yammer is for corporate communications and knowledge sharing at a company-wide level,” she said.

“Perhaps more significantly, Yammer is now being fully integrated into Teams as a first-party app, with the full Yammer functionality available within the Teams environment. I think this is Microsoft’s best opportunity for Yammer, which frankly has struggled with its identity and direction in since its acquisition in 2012.”

Enterprise social is evolving

Yammer emerged as a frontrunner when software vendors sought to replicate the success of Facebook’s social network in the late 2000s. Others with a similar focus include IBM Connections (sold to service provider HCL in 2018), Salesforce Chatter and Jive Software.

But companies that invested in enterprise social networks didn’t achieve the worker engagement they’d hoped for. At the same time interest in corporate social networks declined, the focus shifted to the potential of chat-based apps like Slack and Teams to replace email for routine workplace collaboration and communication.

Rather than falling away entirely, enterprise social networking apps have evolved. Facebook, most notably, introduced its business focused “Workplace by Facebook” in 2017, and has attracted a number of large customers — and more than three million paid users.

Google, meanwhile, rebranded Google Plus for G Suite (while killing off the consumer app) as Currents last year. And others such as social intranet vendor LumApps have emerged, targeting similar ways to connect large groups of employees.

Facebook has clearly drawn the most attention in the market, however, with large Yammer customers switching to Workplace, such as GlaxoSmithKline and Virgin Atlantic. It has benefited from adapting its approach for the business market, with Workplace’s functions influenced by the demand for team collaboration capabilities, said Ashenden.

“More broadly, the appetite for feed-based and broadcast-style solutions has certainly waned in the enterprise; even Facebook’s Workplace is more oriented around work-based groups and chat, rather than posting and the activity feed per se,” she said.

Why use Yammer?

Yammer has also continued to evolve to meet user demands, argued Sitaram. One of the big changes has been deeper integration with SharePoint, Outlook and Teams.

It is now possible to take part in Yammer conversations directly from the Outlook inbox, with interactive threads that users can like or reply to. There is a Yammer tab in Teams that lets team members engage in Yammer conversations, watch live and on-demand events, and browse communities without switching apps. And for SharePoint, Yammer conversations can be embedded into the intranet using the Yammer conversations web part. 

While Yammer may have initially positioned itself as an email replacement, it is now another mode of communication.

Yammer is being positioned as an app that can let business leaders better connect with employeesCredit: Microsoft
Yammer is being positioned as an app that can let business leaders better connect with employees

“It is not a product you go to to build a small team or group, or a channel, or to do instant communications with people within your immediate team,” said Sitaram. "That's the purpose and goal of Teams. It is not the tool that tries to replace email, which in the past was the goal for Yammer.”

For Yammer to succeed, it needs to meet users where they carry out most of their work, he said. With employees bouncing between a variety of apps each day, convincing them to check in to yet another can be a tough sell.

“Some people who are really inclined to share or to connect were inclined to go to [Yammer], but most people didn't have time to do that,” said Sitaram. “I think that was a miss on our part in the past. We feel that the way to resolve that is to bring the superpowers of Yammer to where people are, so they can access it in the line of their work.”

One large organisation using Yammer extensively is Cerner. The healthcare technology provider added all of its workers to Yammer in 2018 following the company’s deployment of Office 365.

“Today, nearly all of Cerner’s 29,000 associates are using Yammer. Of those, close to 80 per cent have been active over the past quarter, translating to millions of activities,” said John Moore, Cerner’s senior technology architect, Shared Services Engineering.

The company uses Yammer for knowledge sharing and organisational communications, as well as for creating shared interest groups. It also lets executives engage in discussions with staffers  across the business — and has even led to business solutions.

Two employees who connected over Yammer worked together to create an automated process that saves more than 1,000 hours of manual work.

“In a company the size of Cerner, it is important to be able to quickly find and share information effectively,” said Moore.

He noted there are distinct use cases for Yammer, Teams and SharePoint. “For collaboration among the people you know, we use Teams. But there is also a need to build communities with groups you may not know personally. For that, we use Yammer,” he said.

Building communities

A key part of Microsoft’s Yammer strategy is to emphasise building and supporting communities at work, particularly at companies with large and disparate workforces. Communities can center around anything from business units to location to shared interests.

“Where Yammer really shines is when you have a large company with complex regions, languages,” said Sitaram. “These are customers that have hundreds of thousands of employees and complex different business units. In some cases they are holding companies, and they have a combination of employees that are attached to a core entity, plus folks that are frontline.”

To that end, Yammer Groups is now Yammer Communities to better reflect its intended use case.

“That is an intentional change that allows us to be clear. In the past, you could create groups within Yammer and in many ways the groups nomenclature was very close to a team or a channel nomenclature,” Sitaram said. “We felt that the core usage of Yammer is around communities…. We want to be very intentional in terms of how we use this tool.”

Wayne Kurtzman, a research director at IDC, pointed to a “significant increase in demand for social communities” in the enterprise.

“As companies try to communicate more effectively with the employees, partners and customers, these communities are similar to how people communicate outside of work,” he said. “Yammer becomes most effective, as are most communities, when they are staffed with community leaders. This helps to create the same type of dynamics that an ‘in real life’ community has, but with the benefits of connecting the enterprise.

“Where these dynamics exist, the community — really the company — becomes more cohesive, better informed and can improve governance at the same time,” he said.

Another focus involves knowledge sharing and could mean integration with Project Cortex, the “intelligent knowledge management” system unveiled last year as Microsoft’s first major new product since Teams.

“We think that knowledge is an important area that we can invest in,” said Sitaram, because it can  bring together “community-generated knowledge associated with document-centric knowledge …so that people can then find one place to go, to a topic page, that has an amalgamation of all of this.  It is something we are working on, but not something our customers have seen yet.”

Despite the company’s continuing commitment to Yammer, building momentum for it will depend on how the application is positioned, said Ashenden.

“For Microsoft, there’s also the challenge that Office 365 and Teams is sold into the IT department primarily, whereas tools like Yammer and Workplace need to be driven out of Corporate Communications and HR. [Facebook’s] Workplace is very clearly targeting this audience and is getting a lot of traction, whereas Yammer has tended to get rather lost since its acquisition by Microsoft.”

That could mean it eventually gets folded into Teams.“I think in the long run it will inevitably be absorbed, particularly as Teams becomes more established as the platform and entry point for Office 365,” said Ashenden. “But for now Microsoft seems determined to rebuild the Yammer brand.”