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Conversation: Let's get it started…

By in Tips & Guides on April 26, 2011

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One of the questions that I get asked most often is how to get a conversation started (and keeping it going) on a Yammer network. At Alcatel-Lucent (ALU), it took 6 months of contributing and starting conversations every single day before the network reached a self-sustainable level. This was a challenging time since Yammer had just launched (2008), microblogging was so new, that there were no success stories to share, and our company had a lot of priorities besides launching a social network. But, it was a great opportunity as well. Here are some of the things that I believe are absolutely imperative in a healthy, sustainable network.

Be a leader –  You do not need to be an executive or even a manager for that fact. Demonstrating leadership in the network is a great way to influence the direction and tone of your Yammer network.

Define what you are trying to do – To get people to understand Yammer better, they need to see the vision. Share with your community (no matter how small), what the vision is. Do this frequently in the beginning until more people ‘get it’. For me, it was “I see Yammer as being a way for us to find answers quickly in the company from areas that we would not have access to using any other tool.” It’s even better if your community helps shape the vision.

Be Interesting – This is possibly one of the most challenging things for people. Nobody likes to think that they are not interesting. But in business communications, interesting has traditionally not been one of the key objectives. In Yammer, you are trying to get people to consume your content and pay attention to what you have to say. If your contribution is boring, chances are people will see it that way, even if you are the CEO. Think about what draws your interest or what might matter to the people you are trying to influence. Sometimes that may mean being clever, colorful or even a little mischievous. One of my favorite words actually came from one of my bosses. He said, “Go! Be provocative!”. One way to be interesting is to draw upon your passion. Passion comes through in your writing.

Be Patient - This is harder than you may think. You are passionate, you know the answer, but letting the community respond instead of you is very powerful and important.

Lead conversation by asking questions – I had a vision for how I thought Yammer could be leveraged, but telling others would do little more than get them to say, “So what?” or “Yea, Right.”. Instead, I asked a lot of questions. I would examine what challenges we faced within the company and then ask if Yammer could help to make it better. Sometimes this by itself was not enough; I would also throw out an idea if nobody responded to the original question. However, the idea was stated in a very approachable way, encouraging a response. For example: “What would be the value of providing Yammer on mobile to Sales teams to get answers for customers faster?”

Define Actions - The power of Yammer really comes through when you can can move a conversation from having a discussion to taking action. When asking questions, especially early on, try to identify if there are actions that you or someone in the community can own and execute on. This will help to demonstrate that Yammer is just not about talking, it’s about getting things done.

Have an opinion, but be open to changing it - Most would call me opinionated, and I would agree. I use my opinion to start a conversation, to seek better understanding. I wouldn’t hesitate to put a stake in the ground and make my opinion strong, to be provocative. Most of the time, this was what I thought, but sometimes it was just to get a conversation going on a topic that seemed to be going nowhere. When I made my strong opinion, people at first thought I was arrogant, ignorant and/or just plain wrong. But, what people came to realize was that through conversation, I was able to be influenced. I used my opinion to start a conversation, not end one. I would encourage people to challenge my opinion and then I’d acknowledge their points; then I’d challenge them back if I felt that their points fell short of the mark, with the purpose of finding a single view that all could agree on.

Help others solve their problems – I spent most of my time trying to provide value to the company. I have a varied background, and when someone asked a question that I knew the answer to, I answered it; when I knew someone else who could, I made a connection. Even though I was not in IT anymore, I was able to help people with things like password resets, SharePoint and Instant Messaging, just to name a few. These were not things I was responsible for, but I was trying to create an environment where people helped each other. I was trying to demonstrate the change I wanted to see in the company.

Be willing to make mistakes – Many companies have a low tolerance for mistakes. There are many reasons for this. Most of them are political, so you need to be careful here. In many debates online, you are going to realize that you are just dead wrong. Sometimes the tendency is to keep fighting just so you don’t have to admit you made a mistake. When you are trying to develop an ESN, this type of behavior will kill conversations (or at least make you irrelevant and ignored very quickly). Freely and publicly admitting you were wrong and willing to listen will go a long way to help people want to engage with you.

Create a positive work environment – The tone of a network is defined by the community. You will have new people coming into the community every day. These new people will have varying levels of experience and expectations. If they come in and see that your ESN is a battleground, the likelihood of new people participating are slim to none. One way to help newcomers feel welcome is to acknowledge them as they join and ask them to introduce themselves. Once people are engaged in conversation, don’t hesitate to nudge them if they seem stuck in a situation. It’s through this assistance that people will feel comfortable sharing the things that they really need to know. Quickly interject if you see a post that state things like, “Boy, that was a stupid question!” Remind people that we are not here to judge each other, but solve business problems, and that it’s a great way to get the answer broadly socialized across the company.

Avoid Sarcasm – (at least without labeling it as such) I throw this in because I’ve been burned by this in an effort to be funny, ironic, or challenging. Sarcasm rarely comes out online in a way we intended, due to non-verbal cues. My answer for this was to be a little geeky and use “<sarcasm>Who cares about security?</sarcasm>”. This makes it clearer that you are trying to make a point instead of stating an opinion.

Have a Support Network - The part that helped me solve the challenges the most and have the strength to keep going was having an active support network that related to the challenges that I was facing in my efforts to drive change through an organization. For me, it was the 2.0 Adoption Council. Their help and support brings the experience of many into each of its member networks. I highly recommend finding a group like this and actively participating.

Even if you have been using Yammer for a while, and the network has a defined tone, it’s not too late to influence and shift the tone to be more productive with a little work. These core principles will help drive a healthy Enterprise Social Network (ESN) in your company whether it is 50 or 50,000 people.

While I’ve tried to share some of my techniques for driving conversations in an Enterprise Social Network, they are far from exhaustive, and may not work in your particular circumstance. Use common sense when leading your network. Please share the techniques you use to drive conversation in your Yammer network.

Image source: lumaxart

10 Responses to Conversation: Let's get it started…

  1. Linda White says:

    This is very helpful. Thanks. This is exactly why I’m on the best practices network. I’m fairly new to yammer and not in management, so sometimes I haven’t know if or how to use yammer. Now I have some ideas.

  2. Maciej Fita says:

    Starting conversations and keeping them going require a variety of efforts including persistence. With so many conversations going on online at any given moment it is important to realize that things are going to take time to get rolling.

  3. Greg Lowe says:

    That’s a great point Maciej. This is where the support network really helped. Some days it was difficult to keep up the fight, other days you are on cloud 9, thinking that you’ve reached sustainability, only to realize it was fleeting and you were back to square one. You absolutely need to be convinced that this is the right thing to do because the patience and persistence required will be a challenge.

  4. Miriam Tops says:

    Good initiative Roos!!!

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  10. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on best practices. Regards

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