Yammer CoFounder Wants to Change Your Work Again

Adam Pisoni likes to change lives — or at least the way people work.

Pisoni and former PayPal COO David Sacks founded Yammer in 2008.

The enterprise social network arguably changed the way millions of people work. Microsoft bought Yammer for $1.2 billion in 2012.

Three years later, Pisoni is still trying to create change.

This time, he's trying to instigate an entire ideological shift in the way enterprises approach work. In February, he left Microsoft to devote more attention to a number of things, including a project called Responsive.org.

The Big Picture

Forget about software or process. Go beyond single companies. Responsive.org was founded to create a fundamental shift in the way we work and organize, Pisoni explained.

According to the organization's mission statement, "the world has become one giant network," and "this accelerating connectivity has created an ever increasing rate of change. As a result, the future is becoming impossible to predict."

Everything has changed — except the way we work.

"The tension between organizations optimized for predictability and the unpredictable world they inhabit has reached a breaking point."

Organizations are struggling to keep up with their customers. Workers caught between dissatisfied customers and uninspiring leaders are becoming disillusioned and disengaged. Executives caught between discontented investors and disruptive competitors are struggling to find a path forward. And people who want a better world for themselves and their communities are looking to new ambitious organizations to shape our collective future."

In short, Responsive.org. claims in a press release, "Companies are quickly realizing that the old way of working is simply not adaptive enough for today's fast-paced and unpredictable world -- just ask Radio Shack, Blockbuster or Tower Records."

Instead, it wants to develop a shared language and independent global community that promotes and enables a fundamental shift in our way of working and organizing — to "act as the central hub for Responsive thinkers and practitioners."

Power Thinkers

Its founding members read like a go-to guide of digital business power thinkers. There’s Pisoni, of course, as well as Aaron Dignan, CEO of Undercurrent, Matthew Partovi, senior product marketing manager at Microsoft, Steve Hopkins, business manager at Yammer, and Mike Arauz and Celestine Maddy, both directors at Undercurrent.

"A Responsive Organization is one that is built to learn and respond rapidly by optimizing for the open flow of information; encouraging experimentation and learning on rapid cycles; and organizing as a network of employees, customers, and partners motivated by shared purpose," the group maintains.

Responsive is about creating more productive organizations by creating workforces that are more engaged with their work.

The unhappy worker is like the canary in the coal mine. The unhappy worker is not the problem, it’s the symptom. The problem is that the workers feel so disconnected from what their works is to what would provide value to their customers. Every day they encounter new information that they can’t react to, which is extraordinarily disempowering or disillusioning and disengaging."

Information Intensive Enterprises

This is the core of the problem -- too much information or rather a lot of information that is badly managed. Here, Pisoni ties together two problems that crop up repeatedly for enterprises trying to develop customer strategies.

The first problem is information overload. The second is a result of this: the poor customer engagement that results from it.

There are, of course technologies that can offer insights into customer information, but again, the technology is not the problem, he said.

Sometimes enterprises buy a product or a technology because they think it will solve a problem. But it doesn’t. "It requires changing your message to get better use out of the technology,” he said.

Pisoni said his interest in the future of work began with Yammer. "It became really clear that to get the most out of a social tool like Yammer you had to change your business practices. The technology wasn’t the hard part of it. We identified the No. 1 problem that organizations are facing is that they are failing to keep up with their own customers. The reason they are failing to keep up with their own customers is specifically around the pace of information,” he said.

Over the last ten to 15 years, the "whole world turned into a giant information network," he explained.

People are learning and consuming at an incredible pace. But companies have remained in rigid hierarchies. They were built to be efficient, to be predictable,and to capitalize on economies of scope and scale, he added.

A Better Way

But it's a mistake to think enterprises are unwilling to change. In reality, most long to create environments that generate more productive and creative workers.

He calls the solution a “holacracy:” an organization where people are organized in small groups and circles. Each circle has a set of tasks or goals. But the people within each circle defines his or her own roles.

It enables the rapid exchange of information, offers workers direct access to an entire project so they can see where it is they fit in, and creates an environment where information exchange speeds up work processes rather than slows them down.

From a technology perspective this also means changes.

Even this early, we can see viscerally that the difference between Google and an internal search engine. With Google I have access to the whole world’s information in just under a second. When I work in a company I can see virtually nothing. I can see my own email, my own documents and that’s it,” he said.

More importantly for vendors is as this model gathers steam, vendors will have to change to accommodate this new model. It will be difficult, but it has been done before.

Think about agile software development as far back as 2001. Agile software development is a group of software development methods in which requirements and solutions evolve through collaboration between self-organizing, cross-functional teams.

Compare this to the principals outlined in the Responsive.org manifesto:

  • Purpose over Profit: Profit is not the primary goal of an organization. Progressive leaders see profit as a byproduct of success through a clear and visionary purpose
  • Empowering over controlling: The best insight and decision-making ability are often people closest to the customers
  • Emergence over planning: Planning is a less valuable investment than embracing agile methods that encourage experimentation and fuel rapid learning
  • Adaption over Efficiency: Organizations need to be designed for change and continuous learning. Rather than seeking consistency
  • Transparency over Privacy: The organization’s purpose to act on information as they see fit usually outweigh the potential risks

If these seem revolutionary, they should resonate with agile software developers, with many organizations already implementing new business practices to achieve at least some of these goals. Pisoni cites the example of General Mills, a more than 100-year-old company that has done away with offices in its headquarters.

"Employees don’t even have an assigned seat. Workers can sit where ever they want and every three months, they walk around with infra-red sensors to understand the movement of people in the HQ,” he said.

Responsive.org is based on the idea that the massive information explosion we are living through requires new work practices to fit this new reality.

How much attention traditional C-Suites pay to it is another thing entirely? Adam Pisoni is a persuasive man though with a track record to prove it. Can he change the prevailing business winds?