When I started working here at ICO Partners, I noticed a challenge I’ve seen before in large global companies with multiple offices in different locations: there’s no water cooler or kitchen shared by everyone in the company. No place where information is passed on naturally from one person to the other, gradually making its way to each staff member until everyone ‘magically’ knows.
Even though we’re small enough to all fit into one cozy room, our people are located in three different cities, and often above the clouds on their way to clients or conventions on other continents. We really started to think about the information gaps when I, as a fresh starter, wanted to know more about what each person is doing (the typical “what are you working on right now?” question).
When you’re in a company with multiple offices, it’s dangerous to believe that just because everyone in your office knows about what’s going on, that means everyone at all the other locations knows it, too. Some information might have been shared with a few people via email and selectively passed along, which can create an impression that the info is common knowledge when it really isn’t.
Meanwhile…in another time zone…. remote colleagues wake up several hours later, open their inboxes and find this:
No-one sent anything. Because everyone else around them in the other office already knew about it, no person thought it would be necessary to send an email around. After all, we all want to keep the number of messages in our inboxes as low as possible. Maybe someone even thought “We should send something to the guys at the other office, but…is it up to me? Ah well, someone else has probably already done it.”
b) Short email thread or even just one single mail without a conclusion
In that case, people started a discussion, then realised that the situation gets resolved quicker offline and had a meeting but failed to send the result of it. An equally bad scenario is that no-one responds to the request for discussion, afraid of spamming others – or they answer just to the original sender, holding back potentially interesting solutions for problems from the rest of the company. When you see an obviously unresolved thread like this hours later, you can only imagine what’s going on and guess whether a reply is still needed.
c) Endless email thread, containing insane amount of opinions, eventually concluded but congesting your inbox and taking time to read through
The positive thing about this possibility is that, since the discussion was not taken offline, the other offices at least get all the information, but everyone is bombarded with info and people may be hesitant to contribute at the risk of warming up the thread again by replying to all and asking for further clarifications.
I could continue with more variations on these examples, but to make it short, we’ve decided to avoid these scenarios and to give the social enterprise communication tool Yammer a try. The key thinking behind it was that since people often learn more about what their distant friends, acquaintances or even ex-colleagues are up to through platforms like Facebook than they know about their current colleagues’ daily lives. You can imagine Yammer like a closed Facebook style system, accessible only by your work colleagues.
It’s possible to follow individual colleagues and specific hash tags, as well as setting up groups which usually represent company divisions. In a large company, one would get overloaded with info when following everyone, but with clever choices (e.g. follow only the head of a division you’re not too engaged with) it’s possible to stay on top of things. By following hash tags (e.g. #<specific_campaign_name>) you’d also make sure to not miss out on any conversation about it, even if not usually following those colleagues normally.
Granted, it would be a mistake to think that deploying Yammer alone would solve communication gaps instantly. Opening up and interact socially, sharing information within and outside the team would need to become a work philosophy and the platform’s success depends on as many people as possible taking part. Everyone would need to know that it exists and information can be found there. Otherwise you risk an even wider information gap.
After using it for half a year now my experience with it is very positive. Even though it’s very rare that all of us are present in the same room, I feel closer to everyone than before. Communication is essential to function as a team and we are having healthy discussions, ask for help (“Does anyone know where document xyz can be found?”) or even just gossip about the latest developments without letting it collide with our external communication in our normal email inboxes.
Let me finish with three main points how Yammer supports our communication:
1) Keeps email inboxes clean
A wonderful thing. Looking at the email inbox, almost everything is external communication and it’s easy to focus on what needs to be done and followed up there. In numbers, we have done
~5000 messages in 6 months
That’s around 40 messages less in our inboxes per work day. Quite likely Yammer also encouraged sharing more but the main point is that this communication does not get in the way with external communication.
2) Knowledge base
We’ve introduced heavy tagging to our Yammer messages and just by clicking on a tag it’s easy to follow up what has been discussed about the topic before. Very important when coming back from holidays or someone new is joining the company. Even if for obvious reasons the new starter could not receive an email before, it’s easy to get up to speed. Thomas still keeps his plans to secretly take over the world with an army of vampires to himself but we can now conveniently follow up on what he is doing when he is at the other side of the ocean.
Do not underestimate the power of the water cooler! This is where people bond and get to know each other. In our case Yammer is some sort of virtual water cooler and we share what we are working on and where progress has been made – or challenges arise on the horizon. Yes, we also have the popular #spam tag, which classifies less important topics but gets you familiar with each other’s personalities.
Social enterprise or Enterprise 2.0 platforms and tools are on the rise. What has to be understood though is that tools will not suddenly improve your communication. It’s still down to the people. No book or article has been written by MS Word, it has been written by the author with the software. No shared folder has filled itself with content. When thinking about deploying such a system, don’t forget that new thinking and behaviours have to be introduced, too. “Old dog new tricks” – it can be quite a challenge but something definitely worth thinking about if you want to improve your communication.