012: What TFA can teach us about Yammer

using the Whole Whale PodcastLearn how Teach For America has been able to use Yammer to increase communication, knowledge sharing, and deepen relationships across the country. Aaron French, who runs internal communications at TFA shares his insight on what worked in rolling out this platform. We focus on the people, process and products that went into adoption of this technology.


Musical Thanks to…

The Freak Fandango Orchestra, a hilarious and just plain fun gypsy alt rock band from Barcelona.



Episode 12

Speaker 1: This is Using the Whole Whale. The podcast that brings you stories about data and technology in the nonprofit world. My name is George Weiner, your host and the Chief Whaler of wholewhale.com. Thanks for joining us.

Internal communications can be a challenge for organizations of any size. You’re trying to increase communication. You’re trying to boost technology sharing. You’re trying to build relationships between teams and people. This gets even more complicated when you factor in that you may have regional offices across the country and even the world.

Welcome to episode 12 where we’re talking with Teach for America about how they did this exact thing. Aaron French of their internal communications team chose a tool called Yammer, which is kind of like an internal social network, kind of like a Facebook but only your organization can get access to it to tackle this internal communications challenge. While talking to Aaron we want to pay attention to the elements of data culture as we roll this out people, process and product. Who is doing the work? Who is it that’s trying to use it? How are they using it, what is the process? Again, the product, which is Yammer. Alright, let’s jump on the phone and talk to Aaron.

Speaker 1: Alright, we’re here with Aaron from Teach for America! Aaron, tell us who are you, what do you do?

Speaker 2: My name is Aaron French. I am a director on the internal communications team at Teach for America, which is a nonprofit that focuses on recruiting, training and developing teachers for highest needs classrooms across the US.

Speaker 1: Great! How long have you been there?

Speaker 2: I have been at Teach for America going on four years now, about two years on our internal communications team. Before that I was an evil financial analyst for the org.

Speaker 1: Booooo!

Speaker 2: Yeah, boooo! Rain check.

Speaker 1: Not at all. Welcome to the force. Welcome to the good side.

Speaker 2: Thanks for having me.

Speaker 1: Alright, so you’ve been up to something interesting. Teach for America’s pretty large. How big are you?

Speaker 2: We’re 2,000 staff now with over 10,000 teachers currently in the classroom.

Speaker 1: Interesting. You are on this internal communications team. What is it that you are trying to accomplish? What is a win for you?

Speaker 2: Yeah. The internal communications team here is largely focused on connecting our staff to each other and to our mission. We do that through many different mediums, whether it be videography, a podcast, even internal networks, social networks that we use. It’s a way to really just connect folks to make sure everybody knows what’s going on and still make them feel like the work they’re doing behind the scenes actually matters when it comes down to a student getting really great outcomes.

Speaker 1: I love that! So I think you know there’s some lessons that I hope to pull from you here. Be it thousands plus staff or even a smaller one, I think we live in a bit more disconnected time where a team over on the west coast or east coast, or even on the other side of a busy, plugged in office might not know what’s going on. So you just rolled out Yammer as a tool. Can you tell us a little bit about how that roll out has been and what you’re trying to accomplish with it?

Speaker 2: Yeah, the roll out has actually been kind of slow. We actually started back in 2010, rolling Yammer out. As a nonprofit we actually don’t pay for it. One of the reasons that we decided to roll it out is, we have now in 2014, we have about 50 regional offices spread across the US. Along with 10% of workforce who works from home. So there’s really this need to connect people to one another in a virtual space to share information. So what we did back in 2010 was we realized that Yammer could be the solution for us because what it is is or the way that I describe it to folks, it’s kind of a mashup of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram all rolled into one that allows people to connect with each other, make posts, interact on those posts, collaborate on certain documents or just learn when somebody’s birthday is to be honest with you. So that’s kind of the spirit behind what we were doing.

Speaker 1: Yeah, thank you for describing a bit about Yammer. So I guess one of the questions that I imagine would be levied against you is heck, why not just have a social e-mail go around and a professional e-mail go around? An internal newsletter, like a Google group where everyone can e-mail each other.

Speaker 2: That’s actually a really good question. That’s actually something we were trying to prevent when we started implementing Yammer. We’re continually trying to prevent folks from doing that. I think, and this is my own personal view and probably the view of my team as well, is that e-mail isn’t necessarily a communications tool. It often turns into a crutch. Relationships aren’t built off of e-mails. At the core of our work, at the core of what we do, our work is about relationships. Relationships with students and teachers and school systems. It just feels stale if we communicate by e-mail on the corporate level, right? So what we, What Yammer does, that e-mail doesn’t is that everybody can see if it’s on the main feed. Of course, there’s private groups as well but everybody can see and interact with content at the same time. So the newsletter gets released and then you Bobby Sue or Bobby Joe and Susie May trading e-mails back and forth about what they liked. Whereas on Yammer, they can interact right there, on the platform, talk to each other and bring other people into the conversation as well.

Speaker 1: Yeah, I’m forced to agree. I think e-mail is more misused then used properly and a noisy communication channel. I love that though, that you just said that about terrible for relationships. Well interesting. Can you tell me some practical use cases so far that you’ve seen on the platform that you would consider wins?

Speaker 2: On internal communications we do realize that no one communications medium will reach 100% of your audience. So we’ve had to think about creative ways to actually drive traffic to the network that is Yammer. We feel like probably close to 80% of our staff is actually signed up on Yammer. It follows that 90, 9, 1 rule, so 90% of the content out there is generated by 9% of the users, of which 1% of are the power users. We’ve really got to figure out how to get those people who aren’t the power users into the conversation.

So there’s a couple of things that we’ve done to do that. One in particular is we use the Yammer platform as a chat function during our bi-weekly calls with our CEO. So the CEO signs on to this org wide conference call, we make a post on Yammer and everybody that is on the call and wants to discuss things makes a post on that same thread. If anybody out there is familiar with Reddit’s “Ask Me Anything”, it kind of operates like that. Same thing, another thing that we do is called a Yam Jam. A Yam Jam is something where we have a guest from across our organization somewhere, they could be a leader of a team, they can be just an individual but they sign on for a dedicated hour every other week and we virtually interview them. It’s a really quick fire, Q and A session that drives traffic. For example, coming up we have a couple folks from our research partnership team so it will staff from across the organization the opportunity to sign on during this dedicated hour to talk about research related to Teach for America, how we actually communicate that research, whether the research is valid or not. A really candid, easy way to get in touch with folks. Those are a couple of ways that we drive traffic there.

Speaker 1: That’s great because you’re actually using it as a means to educate aside from also build relationships. Is there an underlying goal that you have that you’re measuring toward? I hear you saying things like we have 80% on board and engagement rates. What are the sort of outcomes that you envision for a successful implementation of Yammer?

Speaker 2: Yeah, that’s a great question. To be honest with you, we’re still trying to figure that out. Since 2010 we’ve really let the network grow organically. We’ve never actually put any guardrails or policed the network at all. People are really good about doing it themselves. We’ve curated content a little bit in a way to move it off the main feed and into different groups so that we can use the main feed for information that’s pertinent to everybody. So, I think really our goal right now is just that, making sure that the main feed when people sign on is pretty navigable in allowing people to get the information they need right then and there.

I think beyond that, it’s really going to be… I stated at the beginning here too. We use the free network of Yammer, which really limits us in certain ways about how we can curate content but we’ve made it work. So when we think about goals that we want to go after, it’s making sure that good content is on the main feed. It’s making sure that people are engaged. That Yammer operates in a way that if people can’t get the information quickly anywhere else, they can sign onto Yammer and know where to find it. That’s what we’re working towards right now.

Speaker 1: It’s interesting because I think another sort of knock on e-mail is it’s very much a broadcast channel and very poor at being a listening channel. How much would you that the executive team, or people more closer to the top are listening to this for ideas and desk practices are bubbling up?

Speaker 2: Yeah, that’s a great question. I will have to say that our senior leaders here are pretty engaged in Yammer. Of course, as any company will likely tell you, they’d love them to be more invested in it but they are very busy people. You see when I talk about let’s say using Yammer as the chat feed for our calls with the co-seat CEOs, they are actually on Yammer with the staff at that time. They are monitoring questions, they are responding to feedback. They come back and comment. Both our CEOs, we have a co-seat CEO model here, sign on to Yammer periodically, answer questions. People tag them in posts in Yammer as well. They respond.

So in a lot of ways our senior leadership, I’m not talking just at the top level but managers, senior managers and vice presidents also use Yammer and definitely sign on to see what people are thinking. Because aside from the uses I’ve already given you guys, other things that will come up are articles about Teach for America in the news that people want to get some opinions on or understand if it’s true. Articles just in general about the work that Teach for America is involved in. Let’s say charter schools or the common core, which is a really big fight right now in Congress and states across the US. Just to kind of share information a little bit and there are content experts across the US so they’re constantly listening and I think it’s a two way street. Like if I have a question I can ask it and then I listen as well to kind of feed my own knowledge.

Speaker 1: Yeah, I love that. We’re going to play a game here. We’re going to go in our podcast time machine. We’re going back to 2010, we’re doing it. We’re having this conversation and you’re actually on a call with yourself. What advice would you give Aaron of 2010 on rolling out Yammer? What advice would you give that guy about the roll out process and strategy.

Speaker 2: I think the first thing I would probably say to myself is,”You need to have a clearer vision about what the content is that you want on the network.” That’s the number one piece of advice I would give. Simply because even though we let the network grow organically and it was a really good way to let people feel safe and that it was a confidential space to share whatever they wanted to share. We also ended up having a lot of posts about people’s birthdays and their dogs being house trained and you know, birth. Which is all great, we get to celebrate one another as people in an organization because we are all people but that’s not the information that necessarily belongs on the main feed. We’ve done a lot of work over the past three or four years to move that into groups off to the side. So that’s one thing.

The second thing I would do is really gauge who your power users are going to be right off the bat. These are the people that are going to help initiatives either succeed or fail. We’ve learned who those power users are over the years. They’ve stayed a really good stalwart of the network itself but knowing that upfront and having those people invested and knowing what the correct uses of the network would be is paramount to success. I think those are the two pieces of advice I’d give.

Speaker 1: Yeah, I’d say pretty strong ones. Have you, I mean at this point you have 80% penetration standard per law of engagement it seems like for content creators. Is this a success when you look at it internally based and the amount of time you put into it?

Speaker 2: I think so, yeah. I do believe it’s something that we continually try to drive home. You know, I’ve talked to other organizations that have tried to implement Yammer and it’s been a massive failure. Then they just quit. Facebook started, I’ll use that as kind of it’s counterpart, Facebook started on a campus by campus basis, right? They kept plugging along trying to figure out what worked for people, how people wanted to connect. I think Yammer is continuing to do that too. Any initiative no matter what especially in the communications world, it doesn’t happen overnight. You’ve got to at least give it a year or two to see if people pick up on it. So I consider it a success here. Do I want it to be more successful? Absolutely, because what we’re finding is that especially national staff, so the people who are kind of the hub of our organization, they tend to be the heaviest Yammer users. When you look out into the regions, they are not. The fact of the matter is, it’s pretty easy to determine why. It’s because if I’m in a region and I have a question about something that is specific to my region, I can just pop my head up out of my cubicle and ask the person next to me. That’s not necessarily the case with national people spread across everywhere, in the United States. So that’s where Yammer provides use for national. The challenge now and what I think will make us more successful, is to really figure out the content that our regions can engage in as well as our national teams. I think once we get to that point, I will put the feather in my cap at that point.

Speaker 1: Ooohh! Feather in the cap! Sounds like a nice ceremony.

Speaker 2: Fancy. Fancy, right?

Speaker 1: Yeah. You look at Yammer as a connecting tool, as a productivity tool a resource. Is there a sort of minimum size organization you’d be like if you just got two people, don’t freaking use this tool. What would you say is the threshold of people where this becomes a useful tool.

Speaker 2: Yeah, I would actually say if you’re two people that are not in the same office then Yammer absolutely becomes a tool that you could potentially use. If you’re two people in the same room, no. Probably not. I don’t know, that’s a hard question to answer. I used Yammer at my old organization. It was about a 1,500 to 1,700 person consulting firm and they used it. It worked pretty well there, as well. I guess what my advice would be if any size company that has employees spread in different places, Yammer becomes a really good option. If it’s a small company that’s all located on one floor of one building, all doing very similar work then it becomes a moot point because Yammer at its core is a place to connect people that aren’t necessarily always working on the same thing. It has the capability to help those people through groups, live document editing, and cloud storage, things of that sort but until you get into a bigger organization with a more matrix structure or decentralized structure it’s not going to be helpful.

Speaker 1: Gotcha. Because we’re talking about basically an internal social network, I have to ask, have their been any internal Yammer fails? Funny things that have happened? Cautionary tales that you would want to share?

Speaker 2: Actually, the only issue that we’ve ever had on Yammer really is somebody posting something about a political candidate. The only reason that we can’t allow that on our network is because we’re a nonprofit and it threatens our 501 Z3 status. People are. The great thing about Yammer that I’ve realized over the years that I’ve been using it, and I’ve used it well before 2010, is that because your name and your picture could generally associate with everything that you post, people are really good about policing themselves and understanding what’s what. So we’ve never had the issue with a disgruntled employee coming onto the network and blasting something. We’ve never had issues with people posting inappropriate things that aren’t suitable for the workplace. Nothing like that. I think there’s just an inherent amount of integrity that is related to Yammer because no one can be on the network without what’s after the at symbol in your e-mail address. I think that’s a really smart move on their part.

Speaker 1: Yeah, that’s an interesting thing. So you kind of had the, that social reputation tied to your career in the same way that LinkedIn does.

Speaker 2: Exactly!

Speaker 1: That you can kind of miss on Twitter, definitely.

Speaker 2: I think it’s interesting to monitor success engagement.

Speaker 1: The metrics within the network of what you’re actually looking for the first time.

Speaker 2: Yeah, yeah. So some of the things we use it for is to identify the power users so we can figure out how much interaction we are getting on the network over any specific number of days. The presets are at 30 and 90 days, so that kind of tells me who’s interacting the most. Actually, your top five tend to stay the same but everything after that changes actually pretty frequently, depending on what’s going on on the network. That’s one way we use it.

We actually use it to monitor keywords right now. In Yammer you can use hashtags much like you do on Twitter. We use one… We monitor one keyword in particular called Yammer solved which is when somebody asks a question on Yammer and they get their answer. That’s eliminating an e-mail right there.

Speaker 1: Playing on that a little bit, I’m curious, you see these top engaged users but this it’s nice but so what kind of data. How do you make that actionable? How do you leverage that to further the usage?

Speaker 2: So what we end up doing is Power users are good for a lot of things. We actually protect that group under an umbrella that’s pretty large. We don’t want people to use the power users. We want them to be partners with them. A lot of times people will come to us if they want to promote something on Yammer and ask us who the power users are so that they can contact them and have them bolster the content on the network. We don’t necessarily always allow that because what we don’t want is a bunch of requests going to these people who are finding value in the network, right? If we just consistently ask people to push content, they don’t become a partner or a user anymore. They just become kind of your lackey, that’s not what we want. So the power users are used. They’re kind of in the circle of if we want something board wide that needs to be out there we let them know it’s out there. Then it kind of becomes this web, right? So we let them know and they let other people know, that may not be power users and those people that other people know. We end up gaining a lot more traction on the network.

Speaker 1: You basically decentralized your power in communicating a message and now have to rely on your own employees.

Speaker 2: Right.

Speaker 1: Not based on rank or title but based sort of on digital reputation.

Speaker 2: Exactly. We’re okay with that because you will see some of the power users on here, they range from VP level or Executive Director level of our regions all the way down to assistants, which is actually a really cool thing. It lends itself to being an even more open and honest space where people can share ideas because there technically is no title that comes to Yammer. At least that’s the culture we want to breed.

Speaker 1: That’s fantastic. As long as they don’t mutiny against you in social revolution.

Speaker 2: [Laughing] Right.

Speaker 1: Well Aaron, thank you so much for being on the podcast today. How do people get in touch with you on the interwebs?

Speaker 2: Yeah, absolutely. You guys can always e-mail me at Aaron, that’s double A-R-O-N dot French just like the language at teachforamerica.org and you can definitely hit me up on Twitter, that handle is aaron mofo french and it’s spelled just like it sounds.

Speaker 1: [Laughing]

Speaker 2: Yeah, I love that Twitter handle for that reaction only.

Speaker 1: It’s loud. You know what I couldn’t have asked for a better way to end this. Thank you again buddy.

Speaker 2: Thank you.

[Music Plays]

Speaker 1: There were so many helpful elements of this cast. I’m definitely going to be listening to again myself. You’re hearing how it was a very patient roll out. They managed the expectation of how long it’ll take. Then paying attention to the super users. These are the people that are most active. He’s being sensitive about how they interact with them. He measures what is actually going on in the community and trying to build and layer on top of it. An important note in internal communication is that, I think there is an initial assumption that it’s top down, like if only we had a bigger megaphone we could just yell everything we wanted new staff members to know. This is exactly the opposite approach. They’re giving the megaphone to their community. In fact, if they want one message broadcasted out, they have to bring it to those super users who are then going to make sure that it’s amplified in the network, which I love. By the way that doesn’t just apply to an internal social network. This also applies to your social media strategy in general. Are you respecting it? Are you treating it just like a broadcast channel? Yammer is a powerful tool but it’s just that. It’s just the product side, without the people, without the process of how we’re using it, it could really fall flat. This is a great story about how it’s being rolled out properly, managed and carefully tended to.

Another case study that is interesting to consider, is how the Gates Foundation is currently using Yammer. I was recently asked to join a panel of different experts, technology experts and others, to join a Yammer community curated by the Gates Foundation, where all of their funders have access to as well. It became this community where these questions could be asked and answered by experts. Knowledge could be shared with a curated community. It’s still just a pretty, new idea but it’s something that maybe you could take back to the different foundations or organizations you work with. Today’s resources as always will be found at wholewhale.com/podcast. Thanks for listening.

This extension, you may dial it at anytime. To apply to Teach for America or for basic information about our organization, visit our website at www.teachforamerica.org