the year our business went social

Just under a year ago, Northwards Housing introduced Yammer to their organisation, changing the face of internal communications.  One year on and Steve Finegan brings us right up to date with more fascinating insights into the benefits of implementing a social enterprise network.

by Steve Finegan

In 2012, my guest post described how Yammer had been an instant hit with our employees as we set about finding a replacement for our out-dated intranet.  Our voluntary adoption strategy of simply allowing employees to join the Yammer network started us on a journey, quite literally, into the unknown.  This journey was also reflective of the wider business of course, because we’re constantly evolving and responding to the environment around us.  This is an area where Yammer is strong.  It can be very responsive to change and discussions on the network regularly reflect live issues rising organically from literally anywhere across the organisation. 

At the moment there is an interesting discussion on our network (27 participants and not a meeting in sight, how efficient is that!) about the BBC3 reality TV series ‘People Like Us,’ which is filmed in one of the neighbourhoods we manage.  Even now I’m still surprised how issues pop up from anywhere, sometimes quite unexpectedly, igniting the passions of those employees who are not normally active on the network, but who suddenly feel compelled to join in a debate. 

After more than 50% of our employees had joined the network voluntarily, we decided to register the remainder and encouraged them to login and get social, and many of them did. 

In the early days of adoption, several employees told me they had no intention of getting social at work. Why would they? It just wasn’t for them.  Almost a year on, some of these same people appear to have come to terms with their initial reticence.  “Who is going to be the first person to be sacked for posting inappropriate content on Yammer?” was a regular question in the early days.  The response of course was “probably the same person who thinks it’s acceptable to be equally offensive speaking to someone in the kitchen making a cup of coffee, or stood at the water cooler.”  I’m pleased to report that no one has even come close to being dismissed.  We have a simple to follow usage policy and network members police one another. 

At Christmas, there was a discussion on the network about whether non-Christians celebrate Christmas.  They don’t of course, at least not in terms of the true religious meaning, but it was very enlightening how people’s own experiences and choice of words generated a rather lively discussion. The business benefit was a better understanding amongst our employees of different people’s perspectives, why they held those views, and being able to apply this understanding in the work we undertake with different communities across north Manchester.

Following the initial peak of activity, the network appears to have settled down over the last few months. Our network activity report tells us that during the last six months, 75% of all our employees actively engaged with the network, with 40% contributing content and a further 35% logging in to read it.  I doubt very much that we had 35% of employees who bothered to read our old intranet.  24% of staff are choosing to receive updates on network activity via weekly or daily digest emails (old habits die hard!) and reassuringly only 1% of employees  are still to login.  So what does this tell us? 

Firstly, I think we can safely say that we’re starting to have the impact we wanted, which is all the more amazing given that we have done very little by way of formal introduction to Yammer.  We also know that, for some, a briefing and soon-to-be published user guide will probably make all the difference to them and their ability to feel more confident in joining in.  

By far the biggest single driver of engagement has been the network content, much of which has been bottom up.  In summary, these are the key things which have helped us:

  • A community manager to help drive and steer content and encourage participation in fun and engaging ways (yours truly!)
  • Senior level buy-in and engagement is an absolute must.  Our CEO regularly participates in discussions, posts links to topical news stories from the sector to promote learning and development, welcomes new starters to the network and publishes a fortnightly news blog
  • Our Executive Directors, despite their initial reservations about the potential benefits, are now actively posting content, joining in discussions and answering queries on a range of issues, both work and non-work related content

We also publish a weekly email bulletin summarising some of the more interesting discussions on the Yammer network from the previous week, including the links to read the content.  This helps encourage anyone who is still to embrace the benefits of getting social.

Our team of volunteer Yambassadors are scattered around the organisation providing support to employees and championing the value of a social intranet.  We also interface with Sharepoint, so behind Yammer sits a document library where employees can access less dynamic content such as policies and procedures, a number of which transferred across from our old intranet site.  Even those who are less active on the network can be heard discussing and commenting on the content.  We have a range of groups to encourage fun and engagement, such as the Retro Group, Friday Feel Good Tune, For Sale/Items Wanted, football supporters’ groups, the Northern and Rare Soul group, the Holiday Snaps Competition, Book Club and a cycling group.  We also have work related and employee well-being groups covering topics including Welfare Reform, crime and ASB, healthy eating, ICT issues, staff suggestions, learning the benefits of Yammer, employee benefits and health and safety. There’s also a range of private groups and team and office groups, many of them driven by employee interest.

So what of the ROI and business benefits?  It is best if I share a few examples with you here.  Yammer at Northwards Housing is simply an internal communication tool and our new social intranet.  There are, however, a number of positive outcomes for us and we have been monitoring these for sometime, often tagging tangible benefits as #yamwin’s on the network.  Our culture has changed.  We are a more open organisation; employees are expressing opinions and sharing information openly, asking questions, debating and solving problems.  We are seeing the benefits of relationships across different locations and at all levels which is helping to break down silos, encouraging greater levels of collaboration.  As well as the conversations, we use the Yammer notes feature which allows multiple users to create and annotate notes together and in real time.  This is helping to reduce email traffic and we have already ceased producing email news bulletins and broadcasts in favour of network updates. 

I can’t possibly share all the positive benefits of our Yammer network in this short post so here’s a very selective snapshot of some of my personal favourites.

  • How about the employee who started a discussion on the network because a local resident had been burgled just before Christmas and had all her presents stolen?  They’d seen a local news report and shared this on the network, suggesting colleagues might want to help raise some cash to replace the stolen gifts.  Not only did the conversation grow, it led to a very generous donation and regional television news coverage, raising the profile of the organisation – read more about it in our Facebook post
  • Yammer, Yammer, Yammer, Yammer – Batman!  It takes all sorts, but when one of our employees began using the network to discuss their fascination with the caped crusader, it was a timely connection, because of our plan to recruit confident volunteer actors to star in a film to raise the profile of health & safety in the workplace.  “Batman” and a number of other Yammer users subsequently came together to produce our first ever film, engaging employees in what would otherwise have been a very dry subject.
  • A customer contacted us via Twitter to say they liked the new communal lighting we had fitted where they lived.  They asked how much money it would save on energy bills each year, which prompted a request on Yammer for an answer and a number of responses came back, some with a lot of technical detail.  Not only did we find out the answer, but the discussion on the network also enabled everyone else to see that the new lighting would save £2725.43 a year and 18.06 tonnes of carbon. The response was subsequently tweeted back to the customer who suggested we shout the figures from the rooftop, so we did, with a press release endorsed by the customer!
  • Another example of Yammer’s business agility followed the announcement on the network of structural changes in one part of the business to help us to deliver our green energy objectives.  This prompted a spontaneous good luck message from the CEO and wider support for the initiative, including the volunteering of data to the new team from someone in the organisation who was already monitoring C02 emissions for all vehicles claiming car mileage.
  • On the day the ICT Forum was set up, an employee asked if they could ask about IT issues at home as well as work.  They were given a comprehensive answer to their current problem with advice on how to access free office compatible software.  Furthermore, he was encouraged to post as many queries as he liked in return for a fee - a packet of chocolate biscuits for the IT team.
  • A manager posted a directory to mental health services on the network, thinking it might be useful for those working directly with customers.  Three hours later a reply came back, “That’s a fantastic resource and one that I can probably make use of several times a day.”
  • One of our more fiercely debated conversations involved the merits of storing wheelie bins inside void properties. What was interesting here wasn’t the rights or wrongs of the idea, but that the existing policy wasn’t being applied consistently across the business, triggering a long debate about the best approach

I am delighted with the success of Yammer and how it has helped our organisation become more social.  I also believe my Communications Team deserves a lot of the credit here, for relinquishing control and for helping to promote and steer content in a carefully crafted and skilful way.  We are looking forward to further enhancements, particularly since Yammer’s acquisition by Microsoft, but we’re now well on the way to embedding Yammer across the business.

Outside of the organisation, we’ve also established a number of external Yammer networks, including a Tenants’ Network to improve communication between our tenant scrutineers, and two further networks for the Northwards Board and our colleagues at our Customer Service Centre.  Last month we also launched our first event network, using Yammer to plan and collaborate with our sponsors and the organisers of our Annual Employee Awards ceremony.

But don’t just take my word for how good Yammer’s been for Northwards. We’ve received some great feedback on the network from employees:

“I think Yammer has improved our relationships with those who we would not normally communicate with,” wrote one of our surveyors. “It enhances networking between different sectors of the business, not to mention improving our knowledge, motivation, general happiness, allowing free expression within the work place. The list is endless.” 

Our money adviser has been particularly inspired: “One of the best things about Yammer is it’s helped me start using social media, not something I am naturally comfortable with,” she wrote. I’m also much more confident sharing my opinions. I’ve even started my own blog!”

Steve Finegan is Head of Business Effectiveness and Communications at Northwards Housing