Ultimate & Yammer - When social media meets HR

When traditional HR technology is fused with newer social & collaboration technology, it's time to rethink how performance management will really get done.
Written by Brian Sommer, Contributor

A few days ago, Ultimate Software, a leading cloud HR software vendor, announced a relationship with Yammer. Yammer is a newer collaboration/social network tool that competes with products like Salesforce.com's Chatter.

Ultimate executives showed how the two products could be integrated and how these two solutions would provide joint value. Specifically, they showed how a manager could recognize a team member's contributions via an electronic "attaboy". For example, the manager could award up to 5 stars, a "+1" or other acknowledgement to a team member.

Later, when someone is preparing a performance review for the team member, they could see how many accolades this individual has accumulated during the review period. In theory, this creates a work environment where:

  • Employees/team members get immediate feedback
  • The feedback is easy to offer
  • The feedback can occur in the collaboration tool itself
  • No additional effort is required for the attaboys to be included in the performance management tool
  • Millennials can get their instant gratification while businesses can document performance in their annual cycle

Ultimate's been a Yammer user for a while (about 2 years). Approximately 1000 of their 1400 or so employees are users. These two firms are still in the discovery or honeymoon stage of their budding relationship.  That said, I couldn't resist the urge to probe, poke and explore just how far their thinking in this area has evolved.  So, here are my questions:

  • "Won't litigators be keenly interested in this information?" Can't you see some fired employee telling an employment lawyer that they were stunned at their dismissal especially since they got all of those attaboys?

  • "How will the Ultimate performance management software tell the difference between a "5" from a hard grader versus a soft grader?" Seriously, I'm a tough evaluator. If I ever give you a 5, you've really done something great. Other people give workers a "5" just for showing up to work that day. Not all scores mean the same thing.

  • "Likewise, would an attaboy from a superior carry the same weight as one from a colleague? From a third party working on the same project?"
  • "Will Ultimate eventually create an influence map that shows who are the go-to people within an employer's workforce?" Not all employees are good about sharing their expertise with colleagues. Some don't because they lack knowledge. Some lack time. And, some simply lack the interest or will to help anyone but themselves. This is actually important as some people really help the organization succeed while others simply take from their peers.

  • "Will Ultimate create a relevancy map to illustrate the value others derived from an employee's contributions to the social/collaboration knowledge base?" Don't you hate people who simply re-tweet links? They really don't add anything to the dialogue. They don't really contribute anything. The same goes for folks who post to blogs with comments like "Great post". A collaboration tool needs a mechanism for identifying whose content is best.

  • "How will Ultimate or Yammer ensure that the busiest people of all, top executives, actually use this technology?" - There are some groups of workers who have little time for technology. Their time is consumed with phone calls, meetings with bankers, customer visits, plant tours, etc. How will they get commitment from the top? If no one from above is listening or using the technology, who would ever get an attaboy or an attaboy that counts?
  • "How will Ultimate decide which attaboys are more important than others?" - I had a boss once who famously told me "There are bosses and there are bosses that count." He's right. You almost need to tie these attaboys to some sort of power map or organization chart just to see who in your firm is tending to the needs/wants/desires of the people who count.

  • "How do you spot people who are gaming the attaboy system?" - Can't you already see it. Two co-workers each agreeing to post glowing praise about each other on the Yammer system? Better still, an entire team from a failing project is giving each other gushing accolades. The opportunity to subvert the very purpose of these systems is there. A perfectly good collaboration tool becomes something to be gamed once people figure out that others are looking at the contents for a completely different purpose. For example, when I started getting lots of LinkedIn recommendation requests from software salespeople, I knew that headhunters were using the LinkedIn service to find highly recommended salespeople. Oops - you probably weren't supposed to know this.

Bottom Line:

I applaud Ultimate and Yammer for trying to connect two very different technologies. In time, I'm quite confident that they will see all-new aspects of the work world and how workers will engage (for good and bad) with these products.

Performance management is a very personal (not just personnel) thing as it affects people on such a deep and economic level. When a new technology becomes part of the work landscape, then businesses will need to ensure that all workers understand the new technology and the new rules of success within their firm. I can already predict that adoption of social/collaboration technology within a firm is not a fiat accompli.  A change program is required and some follow-up may be needed, too. Remember, not every employee has a smart phone and some don't even have a mobile phone.

Game theory may be the best guide to understanding how different groups of users will interact with a new technology. Some users will use it as desired. Some will try to pervert it for their own self-interest. Some will ignore it. Yammer, Ultimate and the joint customers they'll have will need to consider all of these groups and their potential interactions.

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