If someone asks Do you Yammer?, chances are that they aren't asking whether you rabbit on a bit. Instead, they will be wondering if you use the office communication tool that has already replaced the intranet in many companies, and will soon sign its death warrant in many more.
Yammer is everything the intranet is not. Intranet sites are built by companies in order to control the way that employees communicate. Yammer comes from the grass roots, and then finds its way up to director level. Yet the networking tool is used by big name businesses from AstraZeneca to the BBC, and devotees believe it has revolutionised their company's internal cultures.
'After we'd been using Yammer for a few months we asked staff whether they felt more connected to their colleagues in other offices,' says Niall Cook, worldwide director of marketing technology at public relations group Hill & Knowlton. 'The resounding response was affirmative. It's not a replacement for formal internal communication from managers but it does provide a new outlet for informal communication in a way that many of our staff are already used to.'
Put simply, Yammer is Twitter for businesses. It is a microblogging site where users must be authenticated through their company email. The service came almost from nowhere to win the prestigious TechCrunch 50 prize in 2008, and at the time many experts were unimpressed. Chris Cardinal, from web development group Synapse Studios, was among the experts who branded the service a 'Twitter clone'.
'Call me crazy, but any company that has essentially refactored another, popular site's concept into a small, microcosm, tightly focused business model is in for a major ass-kicking when papa bear decides to build their own iteration of this functionality,' says Cardinal. 'With absolutely nothing else to differentiate here, there is nearly no innovation and definitely no justification for them to have won this year's TechCrunch 50'.
A democratic service
Despite its initial storm of abuse, Yammer has gone from strength to strength. One thousand companies have upgraded to a paid-for Yammer service, and many more use a free version.
'In just 18 months, Yammer has more than 70,000 organisations using the product. We do very little traditional marketing or sales, so our momentum is driven by word of mouth support from customers,' explains Dee Anna McPherson, Yammer's director of communications. 'With Yammer, there is no risk of failure because companies don't decide to purchase the software until they see value.'
The company only tries to sell its paid-for service to organisations who are already using Yammer, but any employee can set up a Yammer account for free. All that is needed is a company email. Other members of the office are invited to join and use the site as an internal messaging service.
The site allows specific groups to receive messages (called Yams), and for anyone in the same company to respond to the information and data that has been distributed.
'Typically, Yammer takes off organically within a company, then a director recognises that Yammer can be very useful in driving some of their corporate initiatives, and then they officially support and endorse Yammer,' says McPherson. 'Social software becomes more valuable as more people use it.'
Companies that like using Yammer enjoy its democratic nature. 'It first started as a bit of an in-house social chat room,' says Peter Williams, chief executive, digital, at accountancy firm Deloitte Australia. 'But it wasn't long before the imperatives of doing business seeped into the conversation and the team started to pose questions and solve problems. It has proved to be a great way to seek input, test ideas and gather feedback quickly.'
An open network
Hill & Knowlton's Cook says that the site has changed office culture, whether staff are discussing work or not. 'There will be an occasional discussion about the weather, but even these topics provide opportunities for people to connect with their colleagues on a human level, contributing to a greater sense of belonging among our employee community who may find themselves working together in the future,' he explains.
Social networking expert Euan Semple says that Yammer is popular because employees can choose whose missives they read, and therefore it is not perceived as timewasting.
'Email is push. In other words I can be sent emails without much control of what I get sent or by whom, whereas with Yammer or Twitter I choose to follow people I find useful or interesting,' he says. 'If I choose to I can make my Yammer conversations open and searchable by other people in my network by default whereas email tends to stay to and fro between individuals or small groups.
'The benefit of being more open is that if I answer a question in Yammer the answer can be seen by lots of people who then don't have to bother me by asking me the question again. It also opens up the potential to offer answers to a wider group who may collectively improve the answer.'
Neville Hobson, head of social media Europe at global communications agency WCG, says that Yammer and similar products 'disrupt' a company's email culture and can be 'a terrific productivity aid, particularly for companies where employees operate in different locations. It focuses interaction with your colleagues.'
Although many firms see the benefit of Yammer, the site does come with a health warning for some. 'I hear a lot of alarmed noises from IT Departments,' Hobson says. 'Some view it as a security risk. Also it tends to be taken up by early adopters within companies without the directors knowing about it. Only the paid version gives the directors of the company any control over it.'
'The easy option for companies is to prohibit anything like this, but it is better for them to have policies on this and take a calculated risk,' he adds. McPherson sees the openness as a positive. 'Social software that is selected by IT and then imposed on employees does not tend to be as rapidly or enthusiastically adopted, which diminishes its value,' she says.
Customers must pay for Yammer if they want additional security measures for their microsite, for example the ability to stop users who are not inside the building with a local IP address from posting and viewing the site as long as they have a local email address.
The site does have several rivals in the workplace microblogging sphere, including Presently, which describes itself as 'Twitter meets LinkedIn' and claims it has a safer model for companies. Yoshi Maisami, senior partner at Washington-based web innovations company Intridea, which runs Presently, says that the company has a version that can be installed behind an organisation's firewall on the premises. 'Security minded clients do not want their corporate intelligence floating on someone else's cloud,' he says. Presently has more than 50,000 clients, against Yammer's 70,000. 'Our customers are people who have tried Yammer first, but then contacted us because they wanted a safe and secure alternative, behind-the-firewall, that they could install on their own servers. Plus we provide all sorts of archiving, reporting, search, and retrieval capabilities,' says Maisami. Whichever product companies choose to use, the world of office microblogging looks set to take over internal communications. Yammer may not be entirely original, but it is filling a space that many companies need.