A couple of days ago news broke that Microsoft is laying off its entire team of Yammer (now Office365) Customer Success Managers (CSMs). To me this is the strongest indicator yet that Microsoft has missed the point of what Yammer embodies and that the company has not come to grips with the opportunity that the acquisition of Yammer presented. However, I am not surprised. It was always an uphill battle for Microsoft to understand the nature and potential of Yammer, because its very idea was so very different to the business that Microsoft engages in.
Yammer the startup had a vision. It was to make the world of work more transparent and connected, to break open the rigid structures in corporations and to let information travel freely for the good of more collaboration, innovation and responsiveness. Yammer the platform was the conduit, the trojan-horse so to speak, to achieve such an ambitious social change agenda.
In 2012 I had the fortune to visit Yammer the company at its old headquarters in San Francisco to carry out a set of interviews. It became clear very quickly that the company very much embodied and lived this ideal and was drawing on its own experience in driving the development of Yammer the platform and the change in its customer organisations: “we want our customers to become more like Yammer the company” was a frequently heard statement. To become a place in which work happens in the open, where problems do not linger, help is offered and acknowledged, and people are motivated by being part of something they understand and believe in. Yammer was to be the platform that enabled customer organisations to pursue this vision. And the CSMs were the people who worked with those organisations in guiding them in this process. The crucial role of the CSM was stressed often and for good reason.
So what is Yammer (the platform)? A simple enough question. But for a company that starts out on the implementation process not an easy one to answer. Yes, it is social software, it is an ESN, but what to do with it? Things are what they are for. But what is Yammer for? Many things, different things. The point is, it is an infrastructure for making change happen – its uses and affordances are specific to a context, they have to be discovered through experimentation over time – they might not initially be clear. As a consequence the adoption process is not straight-forward, because Yammer is not a tool for a particular task, it doesn’t plug a hole or address an immediate problem for the most part. I have written and talked about this crucial difference between tool and infrastructure previously.
This is now where the role of the CSM comes in – CSMs understand this process, how it can be guided, how adoption and diffusion can be grown, the success stories be shared, users be encouraged to persist even as adoption might not proceed smoothly and linearly (as illustrated in the SNEP model). In other words, what CSMs do is crucial to the success of Yammer and its vision of openness with all the associated benefits. CSMs help organisations find a place for Yammer, what we call “place-making“.
But Microsoft at heart is a software company, it builds tools and sells products. A look at its licencing models should be enough to understand the way in which the company understands the world. If you are in this business, the focus is on products and its features, on selling licenses. The vision is very different naturally. To literally see what Yammer is (a platform for change, not a tool for a job) is difficult, if the corporate ontology doesn’t have a place for it.
So, Yammer became an add-on to other products. This is not to say that Microsoft lacks commitment to Yammer, but to say that Yammer the product for Microsoft is very different to what it was for Yammer the company. Take the statement by Microsoft Office Division Senior Director Jared Spataro who in 2013 confirm the commitment of Microsoft to Yammer:
“Yammer is our big bet for enterprise social, and we’re committed to making it the underlying social layer for all of our products. It will power the social experiences in SharePoint, Office 365, Dynamics and more. Yammer’s unique adoption model appeals directly to end users and makes it easy to start enjoying the benefits of social immediately.”
Note two things: 1) Yammer is a product, a social layer for other products (not a vision for change), and more importantly, 2) “users enjoy the benefits of social immediately”. But far from it. Granted, you can start exchanging messages straight away once you have a login. But the true and deep implementation and adoption of ESN is non-trivial, needs work and commitment. The true benefits will only emerge over time. In many cases it was the CSMs who did the hard work with organisations in making it happen.
But in a product world, where business is selling licences, in installing products, what role does a CSM play? After-sales services at best, a hidden cost at worst, dispensable the moment the company takes to cust-cutting.
We are only at the beginning of the evolution of social technologies and the changes that these platforms have to offer to organisations in rethinking management models, in finding new ways of engagement internally and externally. But it is clear to me that it requires different approaches to managing technology, to integrating technology into businesses. CSMs were Microsoft’s champions, experts, true assets and bearers of knowledge of how to innovate this part of technology management.
Their role could have been elevated, the company could have learned a lot from their expertise. Letting them go is a curious business decision. I am sure there were good business reasons that made much sense for Microsoft in letting them go – that is if you are in the tool, not in the infrastructure business.
The people in question will find good employment elsewhere, they have much needed skills to drive transformative change in organisations. What it will do to Yammer and its success is a different question that only time will answer.