Sociable solutions

Sociable solutions

A convergence of technology trends presents a dilemma. How do CIOs embrace changes driven by user demand and also maintain security?

Do you Yammer … and if so, should you? Growth in adoption of this collaboration tool in the corporate and government enterprise sectors seems to have gone viral this year – demonstrating the power of a new breed of cloud-based platforms. I've spoken to many CIOs during the year that have remarked on the way Yammer has sprung up in their organisation – like a weed, some would say. But whether it's a weed to eradicate or a wildflower to be nurtured is a matter of judgment. Yammer's viral adoption sales model means that any user can germinate a social network for their enterprise on Yammer without charge. The network can spread freely – anyone with the enterprise email domain name can join. Payment is only required once somebody works out that admin controls are desirable (such as the ability to moderate posts and terminate members from the network if they no longer work for the business).

Users appear to be embracing Yammer because it is ideally tuned to bottom-up, emergent, social computing dynamics but some CIOs regard it with suspicion, uncertain of its financial and security credentials. They are also wary of being backed into a corner by something that gains a critical mass of ­adoption without traditional IT governance processes and administrative controls. Once a critical mass of users has infiltrated the enterprise, the CIO is faced with the unenviable task of financing a commercial subscription or blocking the service in the firewall – invoking the ire of now passionate users.

Irrespective of the merits of Yammer itself, CIOs should pay close attention to how this scenario develops. It is a good example of what we call "proliferative innovation" in action. Innovation is increasingly being driven from the edges of organisations by users who are willing and able to make technology ­decisions. The result is the ad hoc proliferation of solutions. We've seen this before and know that it often ends in tears, which is why enterprise IT strategy is founded on the dogma of consolidate, rationalise and standardise. Fewer moving parts are necessary to reduce complexity, costs and risks and to ­promote integration.

Innovations in devices and cloud computing are quickly putting a wider and richer range of technology solutions within the grasp of enterprise employees. The ability of IT departments to provide efficient, safe, enterprise solutions is not, however, accelerating at anything like the same rate, so CIOs face a growing innovation gap. Conflict arises when being anti-proliferation – computer says "no" – is perceived by users as anti-innovation.

Why would users turn to a solution like Yammer? The likely reason is that the enterprise IT environment does not provide ­adequate support for social-computing- ­powered collaboration – either because no social networking solution is provided or because the corporate solution is too rigid and inflexible. Yammer's barriers to entry are low and it works. Some organisations are ­puzzled that spontaneous social networks based on Yammer achieve high levels of participation while the corporate collaboration platform stagnates. Bottom-up adoption of Yammer is an expression of unmet user needs that need to be understood for a few reasons.

First, passionate users have sought out a tool and used it to create new collaborative behaviours. Even if much of the content in the network is purely social there is still value in the creation of habits of use, interaction and information sharing. These new behaviours are hard to manufacture top-down so need to be valued and nurtured, not stomped out.

Second, Yammer is a good example of the unfolding governance challenges created by proliferative innovation. CIOs need to be on the front foot in order to sense the emergence of user adoption of new DIY solutions and make decisions on how to react. The instinctive reaction may be to "ban and block" Yammer to defend the integrity of the standard operating environment. However, the likelihood is that Yammer is a symptom of a pending explosion of innovative enterprise solutions that cloud delivery models will make available to users. Ban and block is a fast way for CIOs to lose relevance in the eyes of users.

Bottom-up: Yammer adoption shows that some CIOs are losing their status as a monopoly provider of IT services to the enterprise. The genie is out of the bottle so the onus is on CIOs to either embrace new solutions or view them as expressions of user requirements and provide something even better.

Dr Steve Hodgkinson ( is research director, public sector, at Ovum.

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