The Confusion around Yammer and Office 365 Groups

The Confusion around Yammer and Office 365 Groups

I wrote about my experiences of using Microsoft’s Yammer-based Office 365 Community network last July and concluded that Yammer seemed to be a technology looking for a solution to fill. Recent developments, such as the launch of Office 365 Groups, don’t make it any easier to figure out how best to communicate given the broad range of methods now available to users.

In fact, the introduction of Office 365 Groups caused some to question whether this marked the end of Yammer, pointing to the departure of the original CEO and other senior staff as evidence that Yammer was on its way out. I am not so sure that this theory is correct and have seen no signs that Microsoft will cancel Yammer and replace it with Groups.

But to return to functionality for a moment, I have observed two positive things about how Microsoft uses Yammer since July. First, (IMHO) it provides a better way to engage with customers than the older TechNet forums. I hang out in the Office 365 Community Yammer network (now supporting > 43,000 members) most days to learn about topics like Office Delve and to answer questions (that I can) in the Exchange IT Pro group. Second, the terribly named but very useful “YamJams” which allow customers to have direct Q&A engagement with Microsoft development groups generate lots of interesting debate. Microsoft has used this approach to brief people about new functionality like Groups and to seek input for the upcoming Ignite event.

Microsoft takes copious notes from each interaction and make those notes available online, so you can get a sense of the information discussed by looking at these documents. For instance, here are links to the Ignite YamJam notes and the notes about Delve.

Anything that helps customers connect to engineers has got to be welcomed. Engineers gain by receiving real-world input that isn’t filtered by marketing. Customers have the chance to express and share their views about technology. Everyone gains by understanding the issues better. So all of this is goodness.

What isn’t so good is the general lack of progress seen in the evolution of Yammer recently. Common complaints that were voiced a year ago still linger. Let's look at some of the most common issues that surface:

There is no way to access Yammer discussions offline or to maintain an offline archive of previous discussions in the way that Outlook allows server folders to be replicated to the OST. In fact, you can participate in Yammer conversations by creating messages offline. When you come online, the messages are sent and show up in the group, but all of this happens without the context provided by previous contributions (unless you have them all filed in email).

The web-based interface used by Yammer makes it difficult to follow conversations. I think this is true. Too much white space and data that could be hidden surrounds the real content, which I think should be the focus of the interface, especially when dealing with threaded conversations.

The occasional misreporting of the new message count in Yammer's Inbox is also irritating to anyone who has worked with email for as long as I have. I'm also unsure whether I like the way that Yammer manages conversation threads. For instance, not being able to move a complete thread from one group to another (more appropriate) group seems odd. You can share a conversation with another group but that's not quite the same. 

But if you don’t like the web interface, Yammer clients are available for iOS, Android, Windows Phone (below), and (several are available for) Mac.

I suspect that the lack of integration between Yammer and Outlook is at the root of many complaints about the web interface. It is possible to have updates sent to you via email that appear in Outlook and to have Outlook filter and file the messages that come in to different folders (where they will be available offline), but that’s not quite the same as a well-designed integration. Perhaps this will come in the next version of Outlook expected in late 2015.

One tip – if you do use Outlook to email contributions to Yammer conversations, consider editing your autosignature to add two hyphens on a line above all the autosignature information so that all that data isn’t sent to Yammer. Far too much duplicated and unwanted autosignature information already clutters up mailbox databases. We don’t need more of it. See this post for more tips about email interaction with Yammer.

Yammer is “noisy” and too many of the contributions are of little value.  Well, there’s actually two points here. Yammer can create a great many notifications to cover the many varied events that can occur inside a group or network. Users have the choice to suppress notifications so that they only receive the ones of interest (see below). The other point refers to the level of contribution made to discussions. Well, Yammer is a social network and social networks are… social. People make good, bad, silly, invaluable, and just plain mad contributions – just like they do in email (like the inane “me too” responses to a large distribution group). Perhaps the nature of social networks is that people offer opinions there that they might not express in email. We've certainly seen this happen in the Facebook group for Exchange 2013 discussions. However, after a while you get to know who make good contributions and where those contributions appear and that’s where you focus your time within the network. It would be nice if a similar feature to Clutter was available to help filter Yammer contributions into important and not-so-important streams.

Yammer lacks good search facilities. True (partially).  It can be difficult to remember where a post was in a busy network of groups and that's when good search is essential. I usually find what I am looking for relatively easily but often need to go through a mass of posts to find the precise one that I want. Then again, Outlook can be frustrating at its inability to find information too. It would be nice if Microsoft could make search work consistently well across all its clients and repositories. Kind of an integration project for someone to take on, don’t you think?

Compliance is a weak point for Yammer. Microsoft has invested heavily in compliance features across Exchange and SharePoint to ensure that information is retained when needed and can be discovered when required. The same features do not seem to be present in Yammer. In an on-premises deployment, you can add third-party products (like Proofpoint Archiver for Yammer or Global Relay Archive for Yammer) to address the need for compliance but there's no good answer within Office 365. A 31 March 2014 statement from the Yammer team indicates that they are working to bring compliance to Yammer, but there's been no news since.

A recent welcomed advance is the support for Office 365 credentials when logging into Yammer as this removed a major deployment block for some.

As evident from the points made above, beauty is in the eye of the beholder and answers do exist for many of the Yammer shortcomings that people complain about. Over time, the work to better integrate Yammer with other Microsoft technology will proceed and some of these rough edges with be smoothened. Better user education will help too as people learn when a question is best posed in Yammer and where it should go. Speaking of which, some control over who can post in the "All Network" group would be nice too (MVP Darrell Webster writes on the topic here). Many large organizations don't allow everyone to send messages to the entire company. I know the concept of enterprise social networking is different to email, but given some of the contributions I've seen in the "All Network" group, I wonder why the ability to moderate or limit postings to approved users isn't available. Or maybe it is and I just haven't found it yet on my journey through Yammer.

But the big issue remains on the table: when should Yammer be deployed ahead of the other options that exist?

The issue is harder for on-premises customers because they have to pay for Yammer. That means a solid business case must exist to support the introduction of social networking software within the enterprise. It also means that the company’s leadership has to support the initiative and be seen to support it else any attempt to make corporate workers share information like the cool kids do for their personal lives through Facebook will fail. Millions of people do use Yammer so this is a technology that works well for companies that devote the resources to help Yammer succeed.

Office 365 enterprise plans include Yammer in the set of services available to tenants. Microsoft increased the reach of Yammer on December 16 by making Yammer available to tenants that use kiosk plans, so acquisition cost is not an issue within Office 365. Although the economics are different, tenants still have to work out how to use Yammer alongside traditional distribution groups and, perhaps even more confusing, the new Office 365 Groups that look as if they do much of what Yammer does and provide a more elegant evolution for traditional distribution groups. No matter what collaborative mechanism is selected, the same need exists for evangelism, education, and leadership to break down information silos that often exist within businesses.

Microsoft promises to integrate Office 365 Groups and Yammer. Today, if you run the Get-GroupMailbox cmdlet to examine a group object, you find the YammerGroupEmailAddress listed in the properties. This might indicate that email will be used to integrate the two networks with a feed from Yammer discussions being able to be directed to a Group and vice versa, It will be interesting to see how this project develops. 

Perhaps we’ll end up with Groups being the preferred option for the email-centric Exchange-style tenants while Yammer is preferred by those who take a less email-centric view of collaboration. Or maybe Microsoft will position Groups as "social networking lite" for companies who are generally happy with distribution groups but like the shared calendar and shared files that Groups provide. In this scenario, Yammer will be the preferred option for companies who want heavy-duty social networking that comes complete with analytics, etc.

It might also be the case that Microsoft is busy transforming the technology used by Yammer to incorporate its core products like Exchange, SharePoint, and Active Directory to create a single code base that serves multiple purposes. If this is what's happening, it would be important to keep the existing implementation of Yammer as stable as possible while everything changes underneath, which might be the reason why not much change has being seen there recently.

One thing's for sure. Having Yammer and Groups seemingly compete is not healthy. Some work is necessary to create clearer positioning the two technologies so that customers can understand how and when to use each. And you would hope that the lessons learned from Yammer will inform the development of Groups. Given the sheer scale of Office 365 and the radically different requirements for sharing that exist within the customer base, there is room for both - or an integrated whole that serves many purposes.

Follow Tony @12Knocksinna

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