Garbage In, Garbage Out

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For those of you who are not connected to me on Facebook, you may not have seen that I posted the picture to the right with a snarky response to Microsoft’s tagline: “Don’t let your next great idea get lost in someone’s inbox.” to which I replied “No, instead let your next great idea get lost in an untagged, ungrouped social stream.”

The Yammerfication of all Microsoft channels is in full swing. I’m not trying to beat up on Yammer – I actually really like the platform, and participate in multiple public and private networks on a daily basis. But what bugs me is the heavy-handed marketing push around Yammer without context. I think my comment nails the problem on the head: for those who believe moving your entire dialog will break down every data silo, think again. Social improves the story, but organizations that have no process, that tend to bury ideas, will find that moving to social only moves the problem.

Don’t believe me? Deploy Yammer within your enterprise and watch how, early on, people will create logical groups, tag up content. Then wait a week. That’s about how long it takes for people to create illogical, mostly redundant groups, and stop tagging content as they upload documents, share links, and comment. Give it a couple more days, and most people stop adding anything to the groups, with all content, links, and conversations happening at the root site. Want to tap into the wonderful search features? Hopefully the tags you need to find that relevant content were used somewhere along the way.

I’ve been writing a lot about the differences between structured and unstructured collaboration (Links will trickle in as the content goes live, so be sure to follow me at @buckleyplanet) with SharePoint representing structured (yes, it has unstructured capabilities, as well) and Yammer on the other end of the spectrum as the hottest unstructured collaboration solution on the market. The poster shown above, which is being posted across the Microsoft campus as a tool to encourage employees to use the platform, is a great example of the disconnect in messaging.  With unstructured and structured collaboration, it is not an either/or proposition. Organizations need a blended experience. Tools like Yammer, to be effective within the enterprise, must be connected to the structured experience if we are going to truly build a tool or environment where innovative ideas are not lost within our silos of information.

If I post an update on my Facebook page, people can read it and comment. I might respond. They may comment again, Like it, attach a link, a picture, or a file. I might @mention people or #tag the content within the body of my message. All of this interaction is unstructured. It is data that is stored unconnected to any taxonomy, project or site hierarchy, albeit with limited search value. Maybe someone wants to search for conversations around a person or a particular tag, but that is rare from an end user standpoint (most search is done on the back-end to position advertising). And who cares? You don’t expect Facebook to serve as an analytical business tool. It serves its purpose.

However, with SharePoint you *do* expect these interactions to tie into a broader body of content. I want to have the social dialog around my project documentation, but i want that conversation to be within context of my project, my team, my business activities. If I am a legal team, where eDiscovery is a core aspect of my environment, I want to have similar social interactions – but need that threaded discussion around my documents to be a part of my eDiscovery results. Simply adding a Yammer feed within my SharePoint environment does not meet my business needs – Yammer needs to be able to connect to and pull from my taxonomy, add to my folksonomy, and adhere to my governance rules.

I didn’t mean to get on a soapbox here, but obviously it is something at the top of mind, and messaging like the poster above is misleading – it fogs the underlying business need for unstructured collaboration engine atop a structured chassis, if you will. It’s why I was quoted by RedmondMag’s Jeffrey Schwartz as saying Microsoft’s social strategy was “clear as mud.” Unless the messaging gets cleaned up and points to a roadmap of integration, I predict a lot of angry customers one year from now looking to migrate off of Yammer into something with a few more rules and some structure.

Christian Buckley

Christian is a Microsoft Regional Director and Office Servers and Services MVP, the Founder & CEO of CollabTalk LLC, an independent research and technical marketing services firm based in Salt Lake City, Utah, and CMO of revealit.io, a blockchain-based video technology company.

4 Responses

  1. Excellent post Christian which touches on one of the biggest challenges facing Yammer & Other ESN’s!
    I think it’s important to remember that very few organisations have trained employees consistently in how to use email, and it’s the exact same issue facing ESN vendors. It’s the opportunity that most organisations have been waiting for, and wipe the slate clean.
    With so many people raising the same “how to avoid moving the mess” question it’s time for all ESN vendors to step up. The fact is that people are generally lazy, and the belief that social tools solve information overload is a fallacy.
    One way I think Yammer could improve could be through implementation of auto/predictive tagging features. When setting up new groups you simply define a few basic tags which are applied to all posts/content within that group. Then extend this further where additional tags are suggested based on existing posts etc.? It’s not dissimilar to the Google “Did you mean” or Amazon’s “Other Customers Bought”.
    Extend this yet again by indexing/crawling the contents of documents, or a photo’s metadata to help surface a plethora of tags, both existing and new. Finesse is needed of course to avoid over tagging which would effectively render conversations and content useless.
    Posts & content without tags is yet another conversion metric which community/group managers need to take action on to prove the value of their ESN.
    On a positive not though, this is also a great way to score groups/communities based on their tagging prowess. “Tag Sprints” would be a great way for teams to end their week, where they spend an hour or so tagging the conversations & content facing an identity crisis.
    If ESN really is superior (which I think it is), and the vendors can solve the classification challenges in a more compelling fashion, then I think people would be more willing to adopt. We cannot automate everything though, and people still need to be willing to learn how to use these new tools.

  2. Thanks for the feedback, Greg. I think there is tremendous value in ad hoc collaboration without the burdens of overhead and structure. I helped create a SharePoint-like platform for E2open 12 years ago to do this somewhat, and in the early days of SharePoint it was also viewed as a way to quick collaborate in a somewhat unstructured way…which is part of the reason why it grew so quickly. And then as it matured, it needed to become a much more structured platform. I think Yammer needs to remain largely unstructured — but have the ability to plug into the taxonomy, the content types, etc so that it can work with the structured, when necessary. The hard part is to keep it simple enough that you don’t over-complicate the product, and as a result, drive away end users.

  3. Stevenflinn says:

    Pretty much agree with Greg’s sentiments. While enterprise IT has done a decent fast follower act with respect to consumer IT from a social interface standpoint (variations of the Facebook motif) it has lagged under the covers in intelligently applying the social data that is generated.
    Such intelligence still requires sufficient behavioral information from which to make its inferences, so users need to do their part, to your point Christian. But the system ought to be doing a lot more heavy lifting. For example, let’s take tags. Whether Yammer or SharePoint, in their native form they are structured to primarily enable humans to do simple look-ups based on individual tags. But the machine can do much more sophisticated things with these humble tags. It can calculate tag frequency and apply the insight that infrequently used tags are more informative of affinities between content items than frequently used tags, everything else being equal. It can also keep track of individual usage patterns with respect to tagged content, and infer affinities between users and tags. (And cross-contextualization of tags between Yammer and SharePoint can be *automatically* learned from usage patterns between the two platforms.)
    Add to this the insights that can be derived from comments, likes, ratings, following patterns, etc., and it is easy to see that what Amazon and Google do in the consumer world (and more!) can and should be delivered in the enterprise right now. And I happen to know one company that is doing so . . . 🙂

  4. Steven, you’ve just touched on what I think is the major disconnect between social tools and enterprise content management: how metadata is applied and then utilized. Most users of social platforms ignore the long-term value of conscientiously tagging content and conversations because of the future value of their actions, and instead focus on the immediate need to chat and share. Maybe that’s where machine-based tagging needs to come into play — automate what we can’t seem to do manually, thus allowing us to begin identifying all of those patterns, and get more value out of these platforms.

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