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In March this year I wrote an article about how The Dream Team Catalyst are using Yammer as a social media platform for internal communication.  It was a revelation for me.

While chatting with Carol Milner, a friend who works for Sappi, the subject came up and she said Sappi had been using Yammer in the workplace and it was very popular. I jumped at the chance to meet with some peeps over at Sappi to find out how it is working for them.

In the case of Dream Team, Yammer made sense.  They are a small,  tight-knit, fun bunch of people who do team building.  How would it go down in a large, 75 year old company of around 6000+ employees across the country and even more abroad? You don’t get more stiff and corporate than that.

The results are at first surprising but when you think about it,  quite obvious. Having a platform where people from remote regions can and do interact socially with people at head office or similarly remote regions is a great way to spread the culture of a company.

In one case someone in a mill has started a private group in which he shares messages of support and inspiration.  This group is growing and it highlights one of the more liberating aspects of social media in general where ordinary people become influencers and leaders. Positions of community leadership become open to all and not bestowed by title. Historically mills have been isolated silos with almost no contact with either head office or other mills.  Not so anymore.

There’s a saying I’ve always favoured: “It is easier to apologise than to ask for permission.” This certainly seemed the case with the use of Yammer at Sappi.  Daryl Potgieter from IT encountered natural resistance to such a move.  However he registered and the idea was to keep it small – maybe just among the IT guys and techies.  It’s hard to keep news like this quiet.  In April this year staff began inviting each other and it quickly went viral and now close to 1000 employees are actively interacting and being social and the number is growing daily.

In addition to just being a social platform it is also beginning to take shape as a production medium, a way for people to collaborate on projects.  Cheryl King, the HR manager, says she is able to advertise jobs internally and reach people who in all likely hood wouldn’t have seen notice board postings.

Social Media satisfies our human need to belong and it is clear from Sappi’s experiment that there is a place for this.  I would also argue a highly valued place that will benefit business in ways they just cannot see or appreciate right now.

On the cautionary side of things Sappi did have to quickly establish ground rules or at least strong suggestions that clarified that although it’s a social medium you want to maintain an air of respectability and your co-workers don’t need to know about your drunken exploits. Darryl says that the vast majority of those participating respect the rules and I believe as it grows there will be greater efforts to protect the community that each staff member is playing a part to create.

The only sting in the tail is that I believe the social community will quickly get ahead of corporate will or appetite and Sappi will soon need to work on a integrated digital strategy that will take advantage of the enthusiasm being created by its workforce.