The quest for the online water-cooler experience

Watercooler people Creating those natural, informal meetings is considered by many as a critical part of getting the most from employees

Good communication within business is a problem as old as business itself.

Millions are spent on "solutions" to "facilitate" better chat among colleagues - often through the company intranet that employees grudgingly skim read while they wait for a more interesting web page to load.

Technology of Business

Or the weekly all-staff email newsletter which seemed like a great idea in that meeting six months ago, but now forms the Thursday-night nightmares of the poor office assistant tasked with sending it out every Friday.

Even something as simple as email can hinder rather than help, with messages critically misinterpreted to the point of destroying inter-office relations: it's not what you wrote, you understand, but the way that you wrote it.

All these well-intentioned schemes hope to do is recreate the water-cooler effect: the incidental discussions, those informal links between departments that are the very foundation of sustaining success and encouraging great ideas.

Such natural interactions are rare - particularly when forced. Orders to get involved are barked by an under pressure IT manager, nervously aware of the £10,000 he or she has just invested in a new system.

'Drift away'

"Let's be honest," remarks Georg Ell from business social networking site Yammer, "the problem with typical enterprise systems is that they weren't built by people who were passionate about user-interface design.

Georg Ell, Yammer Georg Ell's Yammer works with businesses to integrate the service into existing systems

"And if it's hard to use, people will drift away."

Yammer began life in 2008 as, quite simply, a Twitter-like tool for businesses. Rather than public messages, Yammer would instead offer companies a walled garden, accessible only to those with a company email address.

"Instead of 'What are you up to right now?'" explains Mr Ell, "the question is 'What are you working on?'"

The site now has five million users, 30% of whom use its paid services - which begin at about $5 a month per person - although bigger companies typically strike deals with Yammer over the precise cost.

Like both Facebook and Twitter, Yammer can be found across the multitude of devices in use by your typical business person. Smartphone and tablet apps mean intricate office communication can happen anywhere.

A crucial part of Yammer's approach is its technical staff, who are tasked with integrating Yammer into existing shared working areas - a softly-softly approach to help wean businesses onto a more social platform without giving up the trusted tools that its staff are trained in.

In addition, rather than assume a "build it and they will come" stance with getting staff on board - a common mistake, apparently - Yammer says it looks at the company's culture.

"Instead of spending time thinking about the individual user training of how to use a product, instead we think about how it can be used, and to what end," says Mr Ell.

"And we think about who we need to involve to get those changes adopted. It's a more interesting conversation."

One-man-band

Conversations - apart from those with yourself - generally require at least two people. So what about the lone worker? Who does the one-man-band IT manager talk to about work-related problems they may have?

Traditionally, nobody - aside from maybe an understanding partner at home.

But sites like Spiceworks help that specialised employee trade expertise with another solitary expert in another small company.

The service, which launched in 2006, offer free tools to manage IT networks - but beyond that is something a lot more powerful: an entire community of IT professionals, sharing expertise and advice on best practice.

Jay Hallberg, Spiceworks Spiceworks' Jay Hallberg says his service acts as a "level ground" for sharing advice

The results of such relationships are very powerful.

"They come for the community," says Jay Hallberg, co-founder and vice president of marketing at Spiceworks.

"If you're the IT pro in an accounting firm, you can say: 'Hey guys I'm stuck on this problem.' Within a few minutes people will give you an answer."

Interactions are built around a trust mechanism, similar to that of eBay, where members who post good advice consistently will have a high reputation score.

"These guys can go into the community and they're connected with millions of people like them," Mr Hallberg continues.

"What industry changes faster than technology? By definition, no-one can be the expert in everything.

"You might know for example printers, but you don't know how to manage email real well. That's a level ground for everyone. Everybody's in there to help."

Mr Hallberg says that the interactions between IT professionals online have now spilled into the "real" world, with regular meet-ups and Spiceworks Universities, classes put on by experts to help others skill up in new areas.

Such new tools are in stark contrast to the tumbleweed-ridden intranets still plaguing many offices.

And for any senior manager reluctant to try out such new methods, Yammer's Mr Ell offers an incentive in the shape of Andy Mulholland, chief technology officer at Capgemini.

Mr Ell says Mr Mulholland has seen his email inbox reduce in volume "by 40%" since using Yammer - an enlightening statistic for any boss struggling to emerge from their ever-growing email pile.

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