Yammer and Office 365: The mixed message of functionality overlaps

Microsoft's strategy has created a confusing overlap between Yammer and Office 365 functionality. Will the mixed message for users be resolved?

Ever since Microsoft acquired Yammer for a cool $1.2 billion back in 2012, it has been gaining traction as the premier enterprise social networking platform. Microsoft adopted Yammer as a part of its Office product line, and Yammer Enterprise is even included with the Office 365 subscriptions for medium-sized businesses and enterprises.

Yammer has a lot going for it. Yammer has even been called Facebook for business because its interface is almost identical to that of Facebook. This similarity to Facebook is one of the reasons why Yammer has become so popular. Anyone who is accustomed to using Facebook should be able to use Yammer without a significant learning curve.

Even so, Yammer isn't perfect. Some subscribers have complained of bugs in Yammer, as well as inadequacies in the mobile app. Even without those issues, Yammer has a lot of room for improvement. It isn't so much that Yammer itself is flawed, but rather that Microsoft is confusing customers with the overlapping functionality in Yammer and Office 365. This holds true for both administrators and end users.

End-user confusion

When Microsoft introduced Outlook back during the 1990s, I attended one of the events related to the product launch, and a speaker predicted that Outlook was going to be the application that users spent most of their day in. The statement made sense. After all, Outlook was the interface for email, users' calendar, their contact list and more.

Today, Microsoft may want Yammer to become the go-to application for users. The problem is that users have some confusing choices because features in other Office 365 applications overlap with those in Yammer. Some user questions may include the following:

  • Should I communicate with other users through Yammer or Lync?
  • Should I use my Yammer mailbox, or my Exchange Server mailbox (which is exposed through Outlook)?
  • Which tasks should I perform in SharePoint, and what should I now be doing in Yammer?

As you can see, there are functionality overlaps between Yammer, SharePoint, Exchange and Lync. This overlap could potentially lead to confusion. One department, for example, may use Yammer for collaboration, while another uses SharePoint. This could become a problem if the two departments need to collaborate with each other.

The administrative burden of Yammer and Office 365

Eventually Microsoft will redesign its products to reduce these functional overlaps. When that day comes however, administrators may have a tough time migrating content. Suppose, for instance, that Yammer is updated to make use of Exchange Server mail. If that happens, administrators will have to find a way to migrate messages from Yammer mail to Exchange Server.

Microsoft is also causing a fair amount of confusion for administrators, especially in organizations that have adopted Microsoft Office 365. One source of confusion is that Microsoft offers two editions of Yammer, a basic and an enterprise edition. The basic edition is free; the enterprise edition has licensing fees. Organizations that have an Office 365 enterprise subscription are entitled to use Yammer Enterprise at no additional cost.

The problem is that Microsoft Office 365 defaults to using the basic edition of Yammer, even for enterprise customers who are entitled to the Enterprise edition. An administrator must activate Yammer Enterprise, which can be problematic.

To give you a concrete example, I subscribe to an Office 365 Enterprise plan. While my subscription entitles me to Yammer Enterprise, the option to activate Yammer Enterprise is conspicuously missing from my Office 365 dashboard. I have contacted Microsoft's technical support, which confirmed my eligibility for Yammer Enterprise, but it has so far been unable to resolve the problem.

Another area in which Yammer could improve is the administrative interface in Microsoft Office 365. Yammer isn't a cohesive part of Microsoft Office 365, but rather was bolted on after the core cloud suite was in place. When you click on the Yammer link, for example, Yammer opens in a separate browser window. This behavior is unique to Yammer. All other Office 365 applications open within a single browser window.

For the present, Yammer behaves like a square peg that has been wedged into a round hole. Even so, I think that if Microsoft can solve Yammer's identity crisis, Yammer could become indispensable to the Office 365 suite.

Next Steps

Why are companies hesitant to use collaboration tools?

Finding value in enterprise social media

When collaboration tools hinder collaboration

This was first published in August 2014

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