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Is Yammer really an appropriate communication tool for universities?

Yammer.tesnHave you heard about Yammer? If not, you are not alone. Many people, who are otherwise familiar with social media like Facebook and Twitter, haven’t.

The reason for the relative obscurity of this social network service, which was launched in 2008 and acquired by Microsoft in 2012, is probably that it is designed for communication within organisations. Users can join a Yammer network only if they have an email address from the organisation’s domain. In that respect, Yammer differs from almost all other social media. Yammer works inside organisations, not in the public domain.

Its relative obscurity shouldn’t be taken as a sign of weakness, however. Described as a “Facebook for business”, Yammer has become a success in the corporate world; it is said to penetrate 85% of the Fortune 500 business, and sales are increasing rapidly. For good reasons — it is actually a pretty well-designed tool and probably well worth the price-tag of $1.2 billion for Microsoft that can now integrate it into its other products and help business customers strengthen their internal communication and culture.

Yammer is also spreading to universities around the world (see examples here). For example, here at the University of Copenhagen, Yammer has recently been introduced as a networking tool for the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences — and other faculties may follow suit.

But while Yammer may be good for business development it is not necessarily good for universities. This has everything to do with what kind of an organisation a university is supposed to be, and what role its staff and faculty members are thought to have in relation to the university versus to the outside world.

Bok MarketplaceYammer is probably good for universities to the extent that they define themselves as corporate organisations. Which they increasingly do. As former Harvard University President Derek Bok pointed out a decade ago in Universities in the Marketplace: The Commercialization of Higher Education (Princeton University Press, 2004), the notion of universities as private enterprises has spread throughout the entire university world.

That universities are in the marketplace means not only that they focus on the interaction with the corporate world (commercialisation). It also means that they begin to behave as if they too were companies competing with each other and other knowledge institutions on the global market (corporatisation).

The consequences of this increasing corporatisation of universities is all too well known: it means that students are viewed as customers, that professors and others members of faculty are redefined as ’employees’, and that the results of research and teaching activities are measured in quantifiable productivity units.

Corporatisation also has consequences for the way universities think about communication. Twenty years ago, hardly any university in the world thought about branding itself like business corporations. Now most universities use considerable amounts of money on branding and they strengthen their communication and business relations departments to become more competitive.

I think this is the context in which the implementation of Yammer in universities has to be seen. Designed as a tool for enterprise social networking (its official name is actually ‘Yammer: The Enterprise Social Network’), might help build a stronger internal university organisation. But since it is explicitly designed not to involve actors outside the organisation, it will not enhance interaction and flow of information and knowledge between universities, or between universities and the public. On the contrary, the more we use tools like Yammer, the less time we will spend on outer-directed communication.

And this is, in my view, highly problematic for a university. Because by operating behind closed doors (you cannot find Yammer conversations through search machines), and by prioritising intra-corporate communication over peer-to-peer and public communication, closed enterprise networks in universities are working against one of the most celebrated norm sets for good scientific conduct (scientific ethos), formulated by the American sociologist Robert K. Merton.

MertonThe Mertonian norm set includes four basic rules for scientific conduct, viz., communalism, universalism, disinterestedness, and organized skepticism (the ‘cudos’). Merton’s point was that science and scholarship can only thrive if universities and their researchers and scholars operate in full openness, share their knowledge with all interested colleagues, collaborate on a global scale, and criticize each others work in the public sphere. Science and academic scholarship is about collaborating and sharing, not about keeping information restricted to the own organisation.

So even though Yammer and similar closed corporate social network tools may be useful for communicating experiences about the administrative work in universities, they are not particularly appropriate for academic interaction and the promotion of a scientific culture. Yammer’s focus on closed communication at the expense of universal peer-to-peer and public communication is in direct opposition to the Mertonian norm set — which universities otherwise use to celebrate as a fundamental ethos for responsible conduct of research.

In contrast, most other social media are designed as platforms for communal and universal communication, and not least for organised skepticism. And therefore I think academics are better advised to embrace such platforms to create peer-to-peer bonds across universities and research institutions and engage with the public concerns about science and its technological implications.

Yammer is a nicely designed and easy-to-use web tool, but there are good reasons to question its implementation university settings. I suggest researchers and scholars take an organised skeptical attitude to Yammer — unless we want to accelerate the development of the corporate university further.


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PS: Another argument against corporate networking tools in academic settings, which my colleague Louise Whiteley has pointed out to me in a conversation, is that many PhDs and postdocs (actually the majority of the research staff in universities these days) are employed temporarily and expect they should be able to take professional communication with them when they move to another institution. So unlike a business, where your project-related communication belong to the company, in universities communication is part of work that you have ownership over, and so you are unlikely to want to situate intellectual discussions on such a platform.

Thomas Söderqvist

Author Thomas Söderqvist

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