What if you could have a Twitter-like microblogging service just for your company? What if you could share small updates of information… but include customer names inside of it? What if you could talk about internal deals or projects without worrying about exposing confidential company information? How could we trust such a service? How would we interact with it?
Those were the kinds of questions we were asking ourselves as we started doing some experimentation with corporate/enterprise microblogging. Those of you who follow our blogs know that as a company we’re extremely interested in understanding how the ways we communicate and the tools we use to communicate are changing – and anyone reading our Voxeo Developers Corner blog will notice that a lot of the demo applications we’ve written for various shows tend to involve interacting with microblogging sites like Twitter or identi.ca. In fact, you can subscribe to our Twitter account to follow the posts we publish on our site.
So you could kind of expect that we would experiment with corporate/enterprise microblogging….
Given that I had twittered about our experimentation with Yammer, and spoken about it on my weekly Thursday reports into the For Immediate Release, I’ve been asked by multiple people how the experience has been. So, to answer those questions, I naturally decided to write up this blog post.
It will, of course, be longer than 140 characters. (MUCH longer…)
CORPORATE MICROBLOGGING BENEFITS
Before I write about the tools, though, let’s perhaps take a look at the value I have seen in a corporate microblogging service. In the short period of time that we’ve been using a corporate microblogging service, there have definitely been some benefits that I have seen:
- Breaking down silos – In any company, no matter how large or small, there are inherent silos of information. The “Sales” folks talk to each other… the “Engineering” folks talk to each other… the “Operations” folks talk to each other. It’s not necessarily intentional, but more just an outgrowth of the fact that you interact with the people with whom you directly work. They know about what you are doing, and you know what they are doing… but you don’t necessarily know what the people in other teams are doing – especially as a company becomes larger. With the posting of microblogging updates, you are able to passively observe what people are doing… either for the entire company or for a subset of employees you choose to follow. It allows you to get a better understanding of what is happening across the company.
- Connecting a distributed work force – I work in a home office about 1,300 miles away from our central office in Orlando, FL. My peers in the Office of the CTO work in Orlando, Atlanta and San Jose and our CTO, RJ, nominally has a desk in Orlando but seems to spend more of his time on planes. We have other employees who work in home offices or branch offices scattered around the globe. For the remote employees, there is a sense of being connected into what is happening in the main office. Main office employees also get a sense of what these people are doing out in the distributed offices.
- Presence – Related to that, the corporate microblog can help fill in presence information not necessarily found in a group calendaring system (which we also use). I can know when someone is out at lunch, for instance, or away from the office – assuming they’ve updated the microblog with that info.
- Understanding progress – If people update their microblog, you can understand if they are working on a project with which you are involved. If you’ve asked them to do something – and they indicate later that they are working on it, you can know what progress is being made without having to ask or bother them.
- Understanding impending sales – For some folks who are involved in delivering services to customers, it has been useful for them to be aware of impending sales (when microblogged by a sales rep) so that they know it will be coming their way soon.
- Connecting on related activities – One of the benefits of sharing across silos is that sometimes people can learn of real-time activities that are connected to something else going on. For instance, at least once I know of a case where someone learned via the microblog of a conference call going on that could help on a project they were starting – and joined the conference call.
- Status reports – Many of us prepare weekly status reports and a benefit of regularly updating a microblog is that creating a status report becomes easy in that you can scan back through your updates for the week and easily know what you did.
- Inspiration – This one was a bit of a surprise to me and I almost hesitate to include it, but I will admit that I personally found some inspiration in a co-worker’s updates about the nightly biking he was doing for exercise. I do admit that this partly has motivated me to actually start doing some daily walking I kept finding reasons not to do. Perhaps “inspiration” is not the right word for the general category, but it’s the sharing of little things we didn’t know about each other that can help build the community to which we belong.
Now many of these benefits are certainly not unique to microblogging. Many of these benefits could also be found through IM groupchats, or web forums, or add-ons to other collaboration systems… but they are benefits that I’ve seen in the brief time we’ve been using microblogging.
A GETTING-STARTED CAVEAT
One caveat about our experience, and this may be a general item to consider when you look at considering enterprise microblogging – several of us involved with our initial internal efforts were solid Twitter users. Me (Dan York), naturally, as well as RJ and two or three others (who may or may not want their private Twitter accounts named in the corporate blog, so I’ll leave it at that). For those of us who Twitter, making the move to an internal microblogging platform was quite simple – and it provided our trial a ready source of prolific users.
(In truth, it was somewhat of a relief in the sense that you had the freedom to be able to microblog about work-related items without having to run the perpetual self-censorship filter that I do out on Twitter.)
The fun part was to see how rapidly a good number of others who did NOT use Twitter took to using the tool.
So let’s talk about the tools…
The tool/service we have been using so far for corporate microblogging has been Yammer who came to fame after being the winner at the TechCrunch 50 event last month. Getting started simply involves entering your corporate email address and then being connected to your company’s shared microblogging space. You have to have an email address associated with the company’s domain – and you have to confirm through an email sent to your address there – so unless someone is somehow compromising your company’s mail servers, it seems a reasonable way to restrict access. We obviously set ours up for voxeo.com.
Yammer is a hosted service, which has both some strengths as well as weaknesses I’ll discuss below.
IT’S ABOUT THE CLIENTS, STUPID
One of Yammer’s strength’s certainly is the number of different ways in which you can send and receive Yammer updates. There is a “Desktop” client based on AIR (so it runs across operating systems) pictured on the right that in many ways resembles Twhirl or several of the other Twitter clients. It operates decently, although is currently suffering from some resizing/moving/focus issues which the Yammer folks indicate will be cleaned up in an update real soon now.
There’s also a Jabber/XMPP IM interface, which allows those of us using IM clients (like Adium) and Jabber/XMPP accounts (like GoogleTalk) to very easily add Yammer interaction into our normal workflow using our standard IM client. Generally the IM service has been good, although there have been some periods where I’ve been able to receive Yammer updates via IM but not to send. While annoying, I guess the good news is that even with occasional interruptions, Yammer’s IM service beats that of Twitter since Twitter has now formally put IM on hold.
The mobile interaction story is also good. Before we switched our corporate cell phones from Blackberries to iPhones, I used the Blackberry Yammer app and it worked okay. I’ve found the iPhone app works better but in fairness I didn’t use the Blackberry app too long. It’s nice because if I’m out and about, I can very easily either read what co-workers are doing or provide my own updates. For traveling it’s been great.
Yammer also supports sending/receiving updates via SMS, although to be honest with the native iPhone app SMS has not really been of interest. It’s nice to have the option, though. There’s also an option to update via email, but in a limited test it seemed not overly useful. Because email addresses could be trivially spoofed, in order to secure the sending of the update, you have to confirm the posting via an email you get back… so you send an email, get an email response, and then reply back to that email. Seemed like a bit of extra work. Now, of course, you could turn off the email confirmation, but then you are opening it up so that anyone could send to Yammer’s site spoofing your email address. Anyway, I guess it’s a nice-to-have other option for updating.
Finally, of course, there’s the Yammer web interface which is really what you need to use to set yourself up and then can of course continue to use.
The folks at Yammer go into this in a bit more detail in their blog post: “7 Ways to Send and Receive Yammer Updates“. They also note that because of their API, Twitter clients like Twhirl may soon add interaction with Yammer, which would be quite nice.
IT’S ALSO ABOUT THE API
Regarding their API, it was great to see Yammer announce the availability of their API, something that was missing at the launch. One value this brings is that existing microblogging clients, like Twhirl, can then hook into Yammer so that those of us who use microblogging services don’t have to run yet-another client. Another advantage is that enterprises can potentially tie in other services into the Yammer microblogging service. For instance, you could imagine a trouble-ticketing service that might automatically post new critical-priority tickets out in the microblogging stream. Or a reporting system that might send out daily reports into the stream.
The only downside of the Yammer API is that it is yet-another-microblogging-API that developers have to learn. The good news is that the API documentation shows it being RESTful. The bad news is that it is rather different from the Twitter API that a number of the other microblogging services are embracing. This just means it is not as easy for the maker of a Twitter-based tool/service to modify their tool to work with Yammer.
WHAT ABOUT THE ADMINISTRATIVE “FEE”?
The one huge criticism people in the blogosphere have leveled at Yammer is the business model where anyone at a company can start a Yammer network, but for a company to administer that network, they have to pay Yammer $1/user/month. It’s a clever business model, in many ways… take away the resistance of a typical IT department by letting anyone start it up… but then require the company to pay if the want to administer the network.
The “gotcha” is – what happens when someone who is a Yammer user leaves the company? They still have full access to the flow of internal (and probably confidential) information in the Yammer feed because the login to the Yammer website is separate from your company. You need a company email to establish a Yammer account, but after that you simply login to the website (or clients) as you would to any other website. Once you’re in, you are there until you are removed by someone administering the Yammer site.
Which of course, the company has to pay for. (Which is why some in the blogosphere have referred to it less charitably than a “fee”.)
Now in fairness to Yammer, they: a) have set it up so that you can have a 30-day free trial period for admin privileges; b) do provide a range of other services for your fee which do allow you to further secure the service; and c) have to make money somehow if you realistically want to use them in your company for a while. (Companies without business models have this odd tendency to fade away. It’s also “only” $1/user/month, which depending upon the size of your company may not be an overly outrageous amount. Consider that for a 100-person company, the cost would be $1200/year which is less than you are going to pay for a decent server to run software on – and you don’t have to administer it… it lives in the cloud.
UPDATE: Shortly after posting this article, someone at Yammer contacted me (via Twitter) to point out that there actually is a current solution for the “employee that is no longer with the company” situation that does NOT require you to obtain administrative credentials. Any user can go to any other user’s page in the Yammer directory and on that user’s page in the bottom right corner of the second column there is a simple link to click to indicate someone is no longer part of the company network (shown in the image to the right). After a confirmation screen, the user’s account is then suspended. All the user’s updates are saved, and they can get back in to the account if they re-confirm via a new message sent to their company email address. So assuming a user who is no longer with the company no longer has access to their company email address, they should not be able to confirm their account and will therefore be kept out of the company Yammer network.
While this is a simple and easy way to address the problem, I would note that it does of course open up the “annoyance” angle where a Yammer user could go and disable some other Yammer user’s account (until the target reconfirmed via email). Hopefully people would not do that…
BUT WHAT ABOUT THE CLOUD? HOW SECURE IS IT? HOW AVAILABLE?
So what about pushing corporate microblogging out into the cloud, anyway? How secure is it? How can you trust it will be there?
All good questions.
Of course, given that we provide a hosted “cloud” for voice applications, talk/write about hosted/cloud systems a good bit and in fact even allow companies to re-brand our voice application platform running on our computing cloud, we are perhaps more open to trying hosted services than others may be.
And how available will Yammer’s network be? What kind of redundancy/reliability is baked into their network? All those other questions I asked in a post a while back: “Can you trust the cloud (platform) to be there?” Given that we provide a 100% uptime guarantee on our hosted voice application services – and have built the robust/redundant/reliable network to back up that guarantee, these questions about reliability are ones that I do wonder about when I evaluate other hosted services.
The reality is that certainly right now our use of Yammer is not “mission-critical” and is really more of an experiment… one that we’re finding beneficial and will continue to use, but still not critical for the functioning of its business. I do think, though, that Yammer ultimately needs to provide more information about the reliability and availability of their service. What kind of redundancy to they have? What’s their architecture like? (and other questions).
In the end I think with any hosted service (including ours) you have to do what due diligence you can on security and availability and then trust in the provider to do what they say they will do. (Or pay for an appropriate Service Level Agreement/SLA) There’s a balancing act between “security” and “access” that must be dealt with. On the one hand, we have access from anywhere using all these different clients/services mentioned above. On the other hand, we are trusting in the security of the hosted service.
OTHER COMPARISONS TO TWITTER
So let me end my Yammer comments with just a couple of comparisons to how Twitter works.
First, Yammer does let you “follow” users in your network just as you do within Twitter. Right now, as our own network is still rather small, I think most of us are simply reading the “All” feed which is the Yammer equivalent of the Twitter “Everyone” feed. It shows all posts from all employees who are part of your Yammer network. Right now that’s very manageable for me, but I could see as the network grows that there may come a point when I may want to switch to my “Following” feed and reduce the updates I see to only certain people.
Second, one nice aspect of Yammer is that it doesn’t enforce the 140 character restriction of Twitter. You can type longer messages and they still go through. (Although I haven’t used the SMS interface to see how the messages appear there.) While you might think this could lead to people typing longer email-length updates, in practice most people right now seem to be limiting themselves to smaller updates. The good news is that you’re not spending time rewriting your update so that you can get it to fit in under 140 characters!
Third, like Twitter, Yammer also supports the convention of replying to people with “@name“, so if I type “@rj” in an update, it becomes a clickable link to his profile and also (if configured) will send him an email notifying him of the reply. Yammer also has another “reply” method that winds up writing out “in reply to” which users can also use.
Fourth, I’ll note that Yammer supports the use of “hashtags” like Twitter where you can include “#text” in your update and then easily see updates related to that hashtag in the Yammer web interface.
There’s also a directory which easily lets you see who from your company is in the Yammer network, who you are following, who is following you, etc. There’s also a search function as well.
Two features One feature Yammer does NOT have that Twitter does are the ability to easily see who has replied to you and is the ability to send direct messages. It would be great if they could add a Replies tab at some point as Twitter does. I could see direct messages being useful, too.
UPDATE: Shortly after posting this article, someone from Yammer contacte me and noted that there is a “Received” tab that lets you see messages that are replies to you (either by the Yammer “reply” mechanism or the Twitter “@” convention).
In the end, I would say our experience with Yammer so far has overall been positive. The minor but annoying technical issues have probably been the biggest down side, but then again considering the service only launched September 8th I’d have to say it’s not doing too badly. If they can make the AIR Desktop client work a bit better (or if the folks at Seesmic roll out a Twhirl version with Yammer support) and fix the intermittent IM issues, they will be doing well.
Being a “security guy”, I’m still not 100% sure how much I’d bring Yammer into “production” usage until there are some of those availability/reliability questions answered: how can we trust Yammer to be there? What kind of network architecture do they have? What kind of redundancy? Is there a way we can get backup copies of all messages sent? (Hmmm… perhaps subscribing to the “All” RSS feed?)
Anyway, if you are okay with a hosted/cloud/SaaS service (and the reality is that so many services are heading that way) and understand Yammer’s business model up front, I’d say it’s worth your time to check out. (And I’d suggest finding some existing Twitter/microblogging users to help you do so.)
I’ve been asked now several times what my thoughts are on another new service, present.ly that launched 8 days after Yammer. I did explore it’s capabilities a bit and did create a small test network. Like Yammer, it’s a hosted service but it does have some differences (shown in their tour):
- A “network” is created by someone who is then the administrator for that network. The administrator agrees to one of the pricing plans and then invites people to participate. Pricing is very clear up front as you have to step through that in the process of signing up.
- I’ll note that anyone can create a network and then invite anyone into that network, so in many respects it’s not much different from Yammer, except that you don’t need a company email address and you have administrative powers from the beginning.
- To that point, the person creating the “network” starts off with full administrative powers and can also give others administration privileges. There is no separate fee as in Yammer for admin access.
- You can create “groups” of users and then send updates or “broadcasts” to only members of that group.
- You can attach files to an update (similar to Pownce).
- The API is Twitter-compatible, allowing apps that work with Twitter to, in theory, be easily modified to work with present.ly.
- There is both a Replies tab and the ability to send direct messages as you can in Twitter. (Replies are the same “@name” form as Twitter and Yammer.)
- Updates are limited to 140 characters but there is an “Attach Text” button that allows you to add more text to your update.
- A URL-shortener is included in the interface (which Yammer does not need as it removes the 140 character limit).
- It supports hashtags but also includes the ability to flag updates as “Urgent” and also to send out system broadcasts.
- You can invite people into your network who do not have a corporate email address. So you could, for instance, include partners or contract workers.
Perhaps the largest difference between present.ly and Yammer is that there was mention in their launch that Present.ly could also be licensed for a premise installation in addition to be being a hosted offering. I certainly understand that some companies want their services behind their firewall (in fact, we have a premise version of our voice application platform for this reason) and so it’s interesting that present.ly promises to offer that.
Overall it seems to also provide a fairly compelling offering for corporate microblogging – but I do see a couple of challenges:
- Limited client support – It’s great that present.ly has a Twitter-compatible API and I commend them for doing this. But the API is not of much value unless it is actually being used. I think present.ly needs to come out with some desktop clients that will work with it’s service. It’s excellent that Twitterific can be configured to support present.ly with a command-line hack, but I think that really needs to be included into some clients in an easy-to-configure way.
- “Mobile apps” limited to mobile web sites – It’s great that they have a mobile web interface for the presentlyapp.com web site… but viewing a mobile web site is very definitely NOT the same user experience as using a native app on an iPhone or Blackberry. At a very basic level, I can look through information in my Yammer client on the iPhone or my Blackberry when I am offline or in an area with no service coverage. The user experience in general is much better in my experience with a native app. I think the present.ly folks need to figure out how to get some apps like those.
- IM and SMS not included in the ‘Free’ plan – It’s somewhat annoying to me that IM and SMS access are not in the “Free” plan but only in the “Basic” plan or higher, for which you need to pay $14/month or more. Yes, you can do a 60-day free trial to try it out, but then you have to pay. Now having said all this, I do understand Present.ly’s need to differentiate between different service levels.
- SSL not in Free plan – However, as a security guy, it concerns me when I see on the Present.ly payment plans page that “Secure SSL” is NOT part of the “Free” plan. To me, potentially sending confidential corporate information over the public Internet without transport protection when such protection is easily available isn’t that bright. I know that Present.ly needs to differentiate plans, but basically offering 3 paid “secure” plans and one free “insecure” plan doesn’t seem like the right approach.
- Security story? – What is Present.ly’s security story? What do they do to protect your data? What are they doing to ensure the availability of their service? I have all the same questions I had earlier for Yammer… but with even less published information. All they have is the Terms of Service, which says very little about what they actually do at a technical level.
Over time I’m sure many of these points will be addressed. Present.ly seems to be a decent offering and given that it’s just over a month old, I’m sure it will change and evolve in the months ahead.
UPDATE (Oct 2009): Laconi.ca has been renamed Status.net
“So why don’t you just run your own Laconi.ca server?” I am asked by friends who know my preference for and advocacy of open source and free software. Laconi.ca is the open source software that powers the Identi.ca microblogging service and is available for anyone to download and install and use on their own network.
I could. But I just don’t want to… for a couple of reasons.
I should preface this by saying that I’m a huge fan of both Identi.ca and Laconi.ca. I’m an Identi.ca user, wrote about “The real meaning – and power – of Identi.ca” back in July, recorded founder Evan Prodomou’s OSCON talk so he could make it available and used Identi.ca for all the voice application demos in my own OSCON talk. So I’m definitely a fan and looking forward to seeing what evolves out of the great work going on with the project.
But here’s the basic problem:
I don’t personally want to run my own infrastructure….. today.
I don’t want to deal with installation, maintenance and upgrades. I don’t want to be responsible for the sysadmin and security of another server. I don’t want to deal with firewall and NAT traversal issues – or of having another Internet-facing server so that remote/traveling users can participate.
I just want to micro-blog. Period. End-of-story.
Now, having said this, Laconi.ca does offer some very tangible benefits for corporate microblogging:
- Security – It’s open source, premise software. It’s behind your firewall… or within your security perimeter running on your own servers. The code is completely available to you and so you can inspect it as much as you want.
- Clients – Because Laconi.ca uses a Twitter-compatible API, several desktop clients are available for it already, most notably Twhirl which can be configured for Identi.ca or any Laconi.ca installation. There’s a wide range of desktop, mobile and web clients listed on the Apps page of the wiki.
- Mobile Clients – There is an iPhone app, La Twit, that will post to Twitter as well as to multiple Laconi.ca instances (in fact, it will cross-post to the different sites, i.e. you type once it goes to multiple services). You can also use Fring on the iPhone to connect in via XMPP/Jabber.
- Excellent IM support – Laconi.ca uses XMPP/Jabber extensively and so can easily provide IM support for users… thus allowing people to simply interact right from their existing IM clients.
- APIs and Integration – There is a Twitter-compatible API and others in development so you can link Laconi.ca into other systems quite easily. You also, of course, have the source code so you can hack away to your heart’s content.
- Distributed architecture – Laconi.ca was designed from the start to be a distributed micro-blogging system… so you could install multiple Laconi.ca instances within a larger network (think corporate WAN) and have then interoperate.
There is great potential for using Laconi.ca for corporate microblogging for companies that want to take on the sysadmin and management tasks themselves. The parts and pieces are all there to build an outstanding system. I just don’t personally have the cycles to do so at the current time. We’ll see… maybe I’ll do so at some future point.
THE OTHER ZILLION CONTENDERS
And what about the zillion other contenders entering this space? Laura Fitton at Pistachio Consulting has been maintaining a growing list as has Jeremiah Owyang over at Forrester with his own list. Laura’s even posted an “Enterprise Microsharing Matrix” comparing Yammer and 14 other offerings.
The truth it that there’s a LOT going on in this space right now… from small startups to large companies like, oh, IBM, SAP (Developer Network) and Oracle… and pretty much everybody is just entering the game. It’s an evolving, emerging market with all the standard churn and risks of such a space. You have to expect that Microsoft will enter the space at some point, too (perhaps with a SharePoint add-on?) – and you do have to wonder if Twitter themselves will jump into the enterprise microblogging space more directly. (And what of Google?)
So what to do? Well, on our end we’ll keep on experimenting. I think it’s definitely clear to a number of us that there’s value in having an internal microblogging service available. The question now is really… which one? Will we satisfy our concerns and continue to use Yammer? Will we use another hosted service? Will we try out a Laconi.ca option? Will we use something completely different?
Stay tuned… the corporate microblogging journey is just getting started…
P.S. Have you tried a corporate microblogging solution? Which one did you opt for? What has your experience been? What do you see as issues? Where do you see this space going?
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