Posted by: karisyd | January 24, 2016

Microsoft and Yammer – a misunderstanding?

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.



  1. Interesting. It sounds like the CSM took on a consulting role in the customer projects. Helping companies to implement enterprise social, helping to have it as a driver for change. For Yammer the company this made a lot of sense. Only by this they could make sure that their software platform is having the positive impact they envisioned.

    Now we have to understand that apart from some exceptions Microsoft is no consulting company. Sure they have a consulting services department and they engage in some pre-sales or support project, but it’s not really part of Microsoft’s business. That’s why they have one of the biggest partner network in the world (certainly in the IT industry). That makes them a much different organization than Apple, for example.

    And with all the software going into the cloud, the business of their partners is shifting, too. It’s shifting from a implementation focused approach to a business consulting approach. Companies still need hell with IT and how they can use IT to improve their processes, the way they work, collaborate. But they don’t need as much help in keeping the infrastructure running.

    That’s where Microsoft’s partners are still needed if they make that shift and don’t hold on to the good old days. And Microsoft wants to provide these “new” business opportunities to their partners in a cloud-based work. They don’t want to compete with them. They even really can’t. The customer base of Yammer the company was a lot different and so much smaller. By Yammer the platform being the integral part of the social functionality of the whole Office 365 line-up suddenly the whole world is a potential Yammer customer. They could not handle auch a customer base with that small CSM team. That’s what they have their partners for. That’s why they need partners. They just cannot handke it on their own.

    Maybe there’s a great opportunity for that CSM team to create a new consulting company together where they can provide this first-hand experience as a Microsoft partner.

    • That certainly makes sense from a Microsoft perspective – no they are not in the consulting business, they are a product company. But that also proves my point that Yammer was never a good fit for Microsoft in the first place as I have tried to argue in my analysis. Microsoft is a product company; they focus on adoption. Adoption is looking from the product towards the user. The CSMs were change agents; they embodied the original Yammer approach. Change agents look from the user (or organisation) towards the product – it is a very different approach managing the implementation of ESN focusing on changing the ways people work to simply driving the uptake of a product (the onboarding of users). A true commitment to the vision of ESN and Yammer however would have meant a change in approach for Microsoft. Letting the CSMs go shows that this is not the case. The question to me is whey did they buy Yammer in the first place? Everything that made Yammer unique – its vision, its community (the YCN), its expertise (the people), the way it developed software – Microsoft seems to discard or water down (out of lack of understanding in my view). Yammer as a feature set was never very spectacular or unique. In my view we are seeing the demise of a very promising idea by being absorbed into a very traditional product focused culture, that is not very suited to delivering on the promises of ESN.

  2. […] You can read a couple of takes on the Microsoft decision here: and here: […]

  3. […] Kai Riemer writers here about Microsoft’s axing of the Yammer Customer Success team. There’s two points worth discussing here. […]

  4. Thank you Kai – reply here:

  5. […] Und wie geht es weiter im Bereich „Social“ / „ESN – Enterprise Social Networks“ bei Microsoft? Prof. Kai Riemer schreibt nicht viel Gutes über die Strategie von MS anlässlich der Entscheidung, alle CSM (Customer Success Manager) im Bereich Yammer zu entlassen: Microsoft and Yammer – a misunderstanding? […]

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