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Microblogs Get Down To Business

Twitter and Yammer can offer companies a free focus group and a cheap option for collaboration.
Twitter Collaboration
One of the more interesting possibilities of microblogging services like Twitter is group collaboration. Yammer is like Twitter for business. It has a simple security scheme--users confirm accounts by using a corporate e-mail address, and they can only see messages (called "yams" on this service) from other users who registered from the same e-mail domain.

Like Twitter, Yammer is a hosted service; unlike tweets, yams can be any length and can include embedded images and other multimedia content.

Yammer is a lot like a corporate discussion and knowledge management forum, such as Jive Social Business Software (formerly Clearspace) or Socialcast. But where other services can veer into complicated organizational hierarchies, Yammer shares Twitter's simple, linear flow. As with Twitter, you follow conversations by following users; unlike Twitter, Yammer also offers groups for discussions on a subject or between people on the same workgroup.

"It's an in-box you don't have to check all the time. You're not obligated to respond to every message," Yammer CEO David Sacks says. Yammer offers basic service for free, with premium add-ons for administration, directory integration, and data export starting at $1 per user per month.

Alcatel-Lucent uses Yammer to break down barriers between business units and employees around the world, says Greg Lowe, social media architect for the company. The company now has 1,000 users on Yammer, with 200 posts a day, discussing subjects such as how they use their own products internally, corporate policies, and cultural issues.

"I think what's really interesting is that people seem more engaged because it's an open platform that isn't bound by organization," Lowe says. Normal collaboration initiatives begin in individual business units and are often limited to that business unit, but Yammer collaboration crosses company boundaries.

To be sure, while Yammer is more secure than Twitter, it's not very secure. Like Twitter, it runs on servers outside your company's firewall. Indeed, when I mentioned--on Twitter--that I was trying out Yammer, a couple of IT managers who follow me in Twitter sent me private messages saying Yammer scares them because it makes it easy for employees to set up accounts and discuss confidential company business without the service having been audited for compliance and security.

Moreover, while it's free for employees to start discussions, Yammer charges IT departments fees for the tools to manage the conversation. At least with Twitter, it's obvious that the discussions aren't secure, and employees are likely to be more cautious.

There are potential legal implications to using Twitter and Yammer, especially where liability is concerned. The informal nature of these tools may lead employees to blurt sensitive or damaging information. Businesses should institute policies around Twitter usage and communicate to employees.

There's also the risk that Twitter can become a distraction. Employees need to be careful not to tweet the workday away.

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