By Gloria Lombardi

Häme University of Applied Sciences (HAMK) in Finland has turned to Microsoft to build their new intranet on SharePoint Online and have successfully integrated Yammer into the site. The platform is part of the Office 365 cloud services, which include e-mail, calendar, contacts, newsfeed, OneDrive, sites, tasks, online Office applications, and Yammer.

With 7,000 students and 700 members of staff operating in 7 different locations, the vision was to “make work more digital, collaborative and communicative,” as Manager of Online Communications Lotta Linko, puts it.

The new system was planned to serve three main purposes: functioning as a publishing site; being an interactive communications channel for staff and students; and acting as a collaboration tool for project work. The initial planning took also into consideration mobility needs – the intranet had to be accessible on different mobile devices – from smartphones to large-screen phones, tablets and laptops.

Making the leap

The change was going to be big for two reasons. Firstly, there was the social element, something new for the University. “So far, we had been using an old intranet portal without two-way communications. No social activities, no interactions, no opportunity to share or comment. Nothing.”

Secondly, they wanted to build an environment where not only staff could connect and collaborate among each other, but also interact with their students. “With the old system we had an intranet for students and a separate intranet for staff members. Now we wanted to unify the two worlds.”

Not an easy task. Turning the system into the new way of working and communicating across the whole business would be very disruptive. But the good intentions were and still are there, which might just be all what is needed. “Digital collaboration is the only way forward. All we have is our people and the knowledge they have in their heads. It is how information spreads across the whole business that helps us to innovate. All the value comes from that: individuals – what they know, what they do, how they communicate and work together.”

After small-scale initial pilots in Spring 2014, one of the campuses switched to the new intranet in the autumn. Ultimately, the whole University moved onto the new system at the beginning of March 2015.

Leadership commitment

The new platform was a major challenge for the organisation – technically, since many users wanted to retain their old operating methods. But most importantly at the cultural level: “changing an operating culture is much more challenging than technical implementation – but also more rewarding.”

The management of the University played a crucial role in helping to embrace the change. “Our leaders were very committed. They endorsed the project from the start. Today, they keep saying to everyone that this is a must but at the same time they know change doesn’t happen overnight.” They also make use of other channels such as steering groups to encourage further participation on the social network.

Championing the new system

Finding use cases and communicating the benefits of the new system to the less enthusiastic is key. “We gather real examples and stories from across the University. We show people that using SharePoint with Yammer and Office 365 can make their work easier and faster. Even more enjoyable and fun.”

Linko is tasked with discovering champions who can help spread the word. How does she spot those evangelists? “Most of them are the ‘usual suspects’ – in every organisation there are employees who are always curious about new things and want to experiment. That is where we started.”

When the old intranet was still in place, Linko used to invite those people directly asking them to be involved with the first pilots. Now that Yammer is fully in use, she uses the platform to find new champions. A community called Ask about Office 365 Cloud Services seems to be particularly fruitful in that respect. This group is open to everyone who wants to explore the new Office service used at the University. Currently, there are 350 members of staff who discuss anything from updating pages, to editing workspaces, or handling documents. Theoretically, Linko believes that those 350 people could be turned into ambassadors because “they are naturally interested in the new tools.”

The Ask about Office 365 Cloud Services community also acts as a valuable listening tool for the Communications Team. “This is a relevant group for us to gather feedback – we can see how our people experience the new way of working. We do Q&A asking for their opinions and feelings.”

In fact there is plenty to learn from the way people express their observations and problems, report their need for guidance, share their own tips as well as various concerns. Ultimately, that feedback can inform the creation of specific training programs.

Yammer – the main channel for communications

To date, there are over 200 groups on the Yammer social networks, which can be either private or open. While some groups are exclusively for staff and some others are just for students, there is a big number of communities where both staff and students collaborate together.

Linko thinks that “Yammer will become the main channel for communications.” One of the main goals is specifically to reduce the use of emails.

In fact, many types of conversations that used to happen via in-box have been moved to the social platform. At least, the ones that are more suitable to group discussions.

While the whole journey has started fairly recently, the number of emails with active Yammer users has already decreased and the quality of communications improved. “People have started to share more. They realise that not everything requires a one-page bulletin that is approved by 10 people. Although this culture of sharing and commenting may be a little foreign in our organisation, users have also become bolder in terms of encouraging and advising each other.”

A good example comes from the Jobs and projects / Technology group. The group gives students access to work placement instructions and a selection of assignments in the technology field. It is open to both staff members and students, who can easily publish and share an assignment or job that he or she has become aware of.

“Before all that information was not available to everyone. Staff may be pinning it on a paper across a campus. Some teachers may be sending a note through email to their students. But it was impossible to notify and interact with everyone that way.”

Now the whole process has become more transparent. “Staff has become more active in terms of communicating about jobs, and students have been satisfied with the new practice.”

More benefits

Concrete improvements in communications have also been seen by the Educational Support Services. Here, Yammer has cut down the number of individuals’ e-mails, instant messaging and phone calls. By using the platform this unit can do customer service and inform staff members in one group in one go rather than give advice to staff members separately. “Using Yammer means anyone with the interest and the need can access the information regardless of their position, unit, campus, superior, or other traditional organization ‘barrier’.”

Active staff members in a degree programme also report the benefit of having a better grasp of what is going on in multiple departments such as Library, HR, Finance, Facilities, and IT. “Everybody welcomed the human aspect of Yammer: people talk to people instead of admin to user.”

The power of Skype for Business

HAMK staff have also found value in using Skype for Business in combination with the social platform. For example, each week 20 Heads of the Degree Programme have a one-hour online meeting by using the instant messaging and online meetings tool. Skype for Business provides them with a quick and concise forum for handling matters that require joint agreement, various introductions, communications issues, and clearly defined tasks. Depending on the topics, those conversations are recorded.

Holding meetings online is saving a lot of time. “Physically travelling to the same place on a weekly basis would take three times as much as online meetings. Skype for Business makes it possible for each participant to quickly move to the next task on his or her campus.”

Additionally, these senior academics have created a workspace on the social platform where they collaborate and discuss on the agenda, memos and further material from the meetings.

uKeep going

The digital workplace journey has just started for HAMK. Yet, the beginning is very promising; the University has a very dedicated team who similarly to Linko, are all very excited. “We all see the future.”

They will continue using Yammer to enable the forming of different communities. “It is a tool for efficiently following through feeds, providing a method for targeting messages around topics and themes rather than organisational units. It makes information widely available.”

Last but not the least, Linko likes the fact that “the social network makes communication more ‘humans-to-humans’ rather than ‘organization-to-staff’.”

This is what her team aims at: opening up information; making it widely available to those who need it when they need it, which they believe fosters innovation.

Will they succeed? Only time can tell. But if they continue walking the talk, applying purposeful analysis of social activities as well as an open-minded approach to learning new things, they look likely to prevail.

University of Applied Sciences: perhaps the clue is in the name.

This article originally appeared on simply-communicate