The Yammer vs SharePoint Governance Taste Test

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Do you remember the Folgers Crystals instant coffee commercials from the 1980s? In these 30-second advertisements, a surreptitious survey is taken of diners in a fancy and presumably expensive restaurant. Served after-dinner coffee, they inevitably describe for the camera how fantastic it tastes and smells. Just as inevitably, the shock of the coffee drinkers when they discovered they’d actually been served Folgers Crystals -- instant coffee, not the freshly-brewed European blends they’d been expecting -- gave their snobbish expectations the lie.

In many ways the governance of Yammer vis-à-vis the high-powered governance features of SharePoint is similar to that cup of Folgers coffee versus flavor expected of the freshly-brewed premium blends.

The shocked diners are your SharePoint admins. That’s because enterprise social governance features are softer, lighter and exist to guide collaboration, as opposed to the SharePoint model of restricting people from talking to one another in any but approved circumstances. But -- and here’s the rub -- they can be just as effective in influencing user behaviors when deployed properly.

That is the point of governance in Yammer: it’s a lighter footprint and it’s very different, but it’s just as good as governance in SharePoint or a similar platform.

It’s All About the Baseline

When embracing enterprise social on the Microsoft platform, it's important to understand the differences between modern, cloud-based social collaboration and the collaboration characteristics of older, document-first systems, like many legacy SharePoint environments. If you’re used to thinking of “governance” in a SharePoint context, it can be a difficult transition -- even an unnatural one -- into governing a Yammer network properly while still encouraging user engagement. The baseline systems serve different purposes. Simply put, SharePoint is for files, Yammer is for people.

Yammer, whether as a standalone enterprise social network or the evolving web of social services behind Microsoft’s Office 365, is hugely popular. While Microsoft still has a ways to go to provide a cohesive, unified social user experience across its cloud platform, Yammer is clearly providing the services at the heart of its social strategy.

These social services -- whether within the context of the Yammer UI or wired beneath other applications such as Exchange, CRM and SharePoint, are well on their way to being woven throughout the Microsoft platform. Enterprise social will become less of a solution and more a part of the fabric holding productivity applications together.

The Philosophy of Governance

Governing social interactions versus governing documents represents a complete about-face, not so much a change of philosophy as an inversion of it.

A good deal of SharePoint governance efforts focus on making the right configuration choices and settings for an organization, from how you architect your content, to the user groups and permissions you set. However, features and functions are merely the switches you flip. The reasons why you flip those switches, and the choices you make to arrive at a clear understanding of those reasons with respect to enterprise social networks? That is informed by your philosophy of governance -- a truth that will apply and guide your decisions on both Yammer itself and the greater platform it exists within.

The concepts and principles behind governing enterprise social networks are very different from the concepts and principles behind governing a document-centric collaboration environment such as SharePoint. This is rooted in the basic purposes of these similar, overlapping, but ultimately different applications. Social networks are meant to encourage people to connect with, converse with and collaborate with other people. Only by first connecting with people do you connect to their files and data.

While people connecting to files is a bit reminiscent of SharePoint, in the case of Yammer, the value is as much in the conversations around those files as it is the files themselves. It’s creating and automatically curating the knowledge base of people connecting to people and the conversations that they have, and having shortcuts -- human connections, most often -- to answers that used to take forever to find.  This emphasis on people, not files, is a significant point when considering why and how to govern social networks.

Meanwhile, a document collaboration platform is a place to store, manage and secure documents before any sort of collaboration can take place. SharePoint's primary concern is files -- how people access the files, how they interact with the files -- well before the people who created, consumed or cared about those files are engaged. It’s being able to keep those files from falling into hands that aren’t supposed to have them. That understanding is the key to security, to access, to roles and responsibilities any time governance in SharePoint is discussed.

This is the fundamental difference between social networks like Yammer and more traditional collaboration platforms like SharePoint. The difficulty of bridging this divide continues to hamper the efforts of software companies to bring the two purposes together.

What Microsoft is proposing to do with Office 365 -- enabling Yammer’s social services across that platform -- represents the most ambitious attempt yet to bring social connectivity and document collaboration together in a way that makes sense. The challenge is not in the eyes of the users. They intuitively connect people with the content those people produce and share.

The challenge is for the administrator, the person used to storing, categorizing and securing content, the person charged with implementing compliance controls and preventing data from falling into the wrong hands. These persons -- coming as they often do from a SharePoint or document management world -- are often underwhelmed by what they find in Yammer. They make the common mistake of thinking features before they think philosophy. That can lead to some dangerous misconceptions.

Consider the model below. The left-hand pyramid represents the traditional SharePoint model of governance, while its opposite number symbolizes the grass-roots, bottoms-up Yammer approach to governance.

Rated ‘G,’ for Graphic Governance Model

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SharePoint vs. Yammer – Inverted Governance Model

In the common model for governance in SharePoint, the central portal is represented by the very top of the pyramid. This corporate portal is followed downward in ever greater width as you descend the pyramid by divisional public sites, then secured collaboration zones for groups and teams, projects and workspaces, and finally people’s personal sites, where they have the most access and control, provide the wide baseline of the pyramid.

The bottom of the pyramid is where people have full control over all the content they produce, their one individual “My Site” that is all about them (and so very often underused in enterprise SharePoint deployments). Conversely, that tiny triangle at the top of the pyramid -- where everybody has access, and all users presumably can read the same news and look at the same documents and employ the same search scope -- individuals have the least amount of control.

This is how we have come to think of document collaboration. When it comes to Yammer and enterprise social, however, it’s more helpful to turn that old thought process upside down, as seen in the pyramid on the right.

Your initial login in SharePoint is to your enterprise portal homepage -- the top of the pyramid -- with its very limited access (excepting the “Full Control” owners and/or administrators of that Intranet site). With Yammer and Enterprise Social, the user population has the most rights up top in the common areas. This is an extremely important differentiator. In a Yammer social network, every user is immediately able (and intuitively encouraged) to join existing conversations, create new conversations, ask questions, look for answers, @target other users and #hashtag topics of interest.

Imagine being able to @target another user -- implicitly invading their privacy -- in SharePoint! You couldn’t even have done that much four or five years ago. In Yammer, this is a fundamental part of how work is done, because if you want to ask a question that gets visibility, you ask the question and you @target it directly at another user or group of users who might presumably know the answer -- or have followers that do.

Security groups, role separation and segregation, and classification of content is core to how SharePoint is architected and configured. Security runs through the heart of what SharePoint is and has become. SharePoint is, essentially, like the old Eastern Bloc of Soviet influence, SharePoint is the Warsaw Pact of Communist dictatorships. Yammer, meanwhile, encourages and promotes free and open collaboration for the value it engenders and intrinsically provides. Yammer is baseball, motherhood and apple pie; Yammer is freedom.

This comes as a shock to most administrators, who are used to addressing matters of governance from a “lockdown” perspective. The idea of opening access up by default is, like cheap Folgers crystals to the intelligentsia of the 1980s, confusing and even confounding -- but that’s how you make Yammer work. 

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic LicenseTitle image cropped from original by  chichacha