There can be no doubt that use of social media for external enterprise communications is on the rise. However, its role in internal communications could be more significant. The questions raised are, why, how and what will it replace?

There are rumblings from some analysts about the demise of email. As a universal external medium, this is most unlikely in the short term, but there are already companies contemplating and even moving in this direction internally. The most visible recent pronouncement has been from the IT services firm Atos, where, after a realisation that around 85% of emails were a waste of time, its internal use has been banned.

This could be seen as only addressing a symptom rather than root cause of the messaging overload problem. After all why are employees sending each other so many worthless messages? And as employees will still need to communicate with each other, what will they use instead of email and how will that be different or more efficient or will they simply replicate old bad habits in a new medium?

The thought is generally that other forms of more instant communication will ‘pick up’, in particular those oriented around real time interaction, such as instant messaging and social media. However, while these have the right viral qualities for user adoption, the boundaries between social and work are not as clear as they should be for achieving the end goals – more efficient communication and more productive staff.

Implementing enterprise social media tools might be a good approach for reducing communications stress and improving efficiency, but exactly how to go about it is not always clear – should it be a grass roots initiative or something mandated from the top?

The path taken by insurance technology and software provider, Agencyport, with regard to enterprise social media, is very interesting and demonstrates some surprising and unexpected value from the process, in addition to the hoped for benefit of using new communications tools.

Agencyport is by its own admission not in the most ‘glamorous’ industry sector, but recognises it has to be very customer centric and understands the value of being highly responsive to its customers’ needs and the changes and challenges that are affecting them. It had an internal appreciation of the challenging impact of change too, through a recent acquisition which led it to become a global company with a distributed presence and therefore a mixture of corporate as well as regional cultures to deal with.

Within the organisation, there was a realisation that it needed to sort out its internal and external communications confusion and thought enterprise social media would help. Not knowing the market, some research was undertaken and a tool was chosen that had not been well known internally, Yammer, and they just dug in.

Although there was an ‘official’ launch, it was first tested with a select group of employees. The relatively young workforce – the majority being aged under 40 – took to it rapidly and within a week it had gone viral well beyond the initial trial group, even prior to the official launch. Within a matter of months adoption was over 95% of the workforce, and two thirds are now active members posting and using daily.

The use of other social media tools within the workplace is not uniform, and although some offices are allowed to use public sites such as Facebook, others are not permitted because of their need to hold and securely manage customer data. Employee usage of Yammer has become ‘Facebook at work’, where employees realise they have to behave differently.

There were early problems with informality when some employees forgot where they were, but Agencyport did the right thing and set out a few simple rules for acceptable use, rapped knuckles where they were transgressed, and now everyone behaves responsibly and professionally. There is no need for a long dusty company policy handbook sitting on a shelf if a few common sense rules are uniformly applied.

So has Yammer replaced email for Agencyport? Yes and no.

Massive emails and long trails that are forwarded and replied to all as a self preservation mechanism have all but dried up, but the sort of chat or email exchanges between two or three people have not. The social media direction of Yammer has lead to a change towards increasing openness and dialogue, instead of edicts and management controls.

Rather than the formal hierarchical chains of command and artificial silos of departmental secrecy that often pervade organisations as they grow, Agencyport found that small ad hoc working groups formed to fix issues and work through problems.

Conversations now happen spontaneously and their use of Yammer is peppered with a large number of specialist groups, which form the online conference rooms and water coolers for the company, irrespective of physical location.

This is a major unexpected side benefit as the company, emerging from an acquisition, with new international locations and employees uncertain how to integrate in a new organisation. It now has a common culture and a medium of efficient information exchange that span the entire organisation. Structure has emerged out of the chaos rather than being imposed; employees are happy and the business is thriving. Enterprise social media has given the organisation more than just a way to communicate better, but a way to think and feel better.