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Is your intranet fit for the future?

What would it look like if the rapidly-evolving social world of Web 2.0 collided with the sterile and static corporate Intranet? What would happen if information flowed from the outside in, instead of inside out?

Those are the questions at the heart of an interesting experiment unfolding at global consulting firm Capgemini.

A few years ago, in response to disruptive changes in its operating environment, Capgemini began experimenting with Yammer, a private and secure enterprise social network that allows employees to hold conversations, read posts, and actively collaborate with their co-workers in real-time. Chief Technology Officer Andy Mulholland says that activity is feeding the "collective consciousness of the 20,000 people who subscribe to Yammer internally."

Yammer is decentralising the information flow at Capgemini to create greater collaboration from the outside in. Far-flung IT consultants who work at client locations around the world make up about half of the firm's 110,000-person workforce. Those "edge-dwellers" are the most active users of Yammer. They're using it as a tool to help them deal with the variability they encounter in the field and to do more by tapping into a corporate knowledge bank in real time.

Of course, it's vital that those at the center climb aboard as well. Mulholland says, "Those senior managers who don't Yammer are making a huge mistake. The threads that are generated on Yammer provide vital insight into what's going on across our business."

Capgemini's CEO is known to regularly go on to Yammer and check out who the top thread followers and creators are and what they're discussing. Other board directors have made "YamJams"--webcasts where Yammer works as a back channel for people to hold conversations and comment directly during an executive presentation.

The concept of threads is a key feature of Yammer. A thread shows all the replies to a specific message underneath the original update, making it easier to follow conversations. Problem solving is the biggest area of usage, with Yammers asking for support or help in tracking down a colleague or information resource. One thread starts with the request: "We need more Level 3 and 4 Certified Software Engineers." Other threads revolve around building communities of interest on a particular topic, such as "We are working on Technovision 2011 [a thought leadership publication]. What Technology trends should we absolutely not forget to include?"

What has been something of a surprise is the speed at which threads grow. Andy Mulholland says: "It's almost a kind of outsourcing whereby you ask a question and one, two or three or four people will come back with some take on the answer. And, unlike email, which is targeted to a group of people you already know, a Yammer request goes out to anyone interested in a topic. Very quickly, you'll have a discussion underway that may involve six to ten people as they debate the issue and work it. The speed with which people join and extend the thread is remarkable. This sort of interaction is simply not possible within the constraints of email."

There are three distinct groups of Yammer users inside the company. The most active group involves some 50 technology focused people who have become "super-users" by managing communities and monitoring the technology on a volunteer basis. Then there is a group of 300 less-passionate but regular users of the service. Finally, there are the "listeners," who dip into and out of Yammer to read a specific blog post or follow a particular thread but rarely to leave a comment.

Perhaps most instructive is how the social media group at Capgemini has approached the tension between the need for controls and the essentially ungovernable nature of social technology. To safeguard client information and competitive intelligence, no confidential or client-specific matters are discussed. Beyond that boundary, there is a code of conduct, which begins: Yammer is "a source of instant inspiration to strengthen and empower its members to face their daily impediments and foster the development of international social networks around common areas of interest." The stated values are: honesty, boldness, trust, freedom and fun.

Capgemini's experiment in opening up the organizational conversation offers some important lessons for leaders seeking to open up the conversation in their organizations and to learn from the edge:

Do you understand the limits of technology?

No single technology will ever meet the full array of needs that a large company like Capgemini has. The evidence is that Yammer is good for solving specific problems, sharing information quickly, and generating immediate buzz on a topic. But it is not so good for other things. As the group's social media strategist Rick Mans observes: "Yammer isn't very well-suited for distributing static information that doesn't change very often; and for most colleagues to really collaborate with each other in a structured way is also difficult." So if you picture a spectrum of increasingly complex and interactive tasks in a big company, Yammer works best in the middle of that spectrum.

Are managers doing the right work?

Capgemini uses Yammer for aligning activities, problem solving, and information sharing. Now think about the things managers do for a living--and you quickly end up with a pretty similar list. Social networking technologies, in other words, are increasingly being used to provide the support and input that employees used to get from their managers. This frees up managers, in turn, to spend more time on the real value-added work--such as motivating their employees, structuring work to make it more engaging, developing skills, securing access to resources, and making linkages to other parts of the organisation. Warren Buffett is famous for saying that it is only when the tide goes out that you can see who is swimming naked. The same metaphor applies here--when employees can get all the basic support they need for their work through Yammer, rather than through their line manager, the tide goes out pretty quickly.

Are you blurring the boundaries between work and play?

When social networking sites first came on the scene, most companies banned their use at work--they were seen as a security threat or as a distraction from real work. But the boundaries between social networking sites and corporate Intranets have officially blurred. Yammer is just one of many technologies that sit in this grey zone between the two worlds. And the boundaries are murkier still in the minds of employees, many of whom feel it is entirely appropriate to blur their work and home lives. If we are available by email in the evenings or on the weekends, why shouldn't we also log onto Facebook, or book our holidays, during work hours? This message is not lost on Capgemini--Yammer encourages a mix of the practical, the profound and the trivial. One thread started with the question "When did anyone last buy a tie?" Another high-traffic topic: the World Cup 2010.

As a means of connecting a disparate workforce Yammer is proving its worth at Capgemini. It maintains a largely business focus, acting as a pool of best practice and offering experience from the front line. It allows people working on similar assignments to connect with colleagues they may not have been aware were working in the same field. It acts as a conduit, feeding in information from the edge of the business to transform the whole process of internal communication. This is social networking with an enterprise signature.

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