In Arlington County, Va., a forward-thinking bring-your-own-device policy was taking off throughout the workforce. But along with the infusion of new personal smartphones and tablets came a number of questions around how to effectively use personal devices to increase productivity at work.

CIO Jack Belcher explained to Government Technology that employees wanted to know things like how to integrate with the county’s email system, advice on the best note-taking app, and how to maximize device battery life.

As many jurisdictions have found, support needs can spiral when many different kinds of devices are introduced in the workplace. The solution in Arlington County was the collaboration tool, Yammer.

Purchased by Microsoft in a deal announced last week, Yammer offers an internal communications network within an organization where employees can create groups and collaborate on issues of shared interest. Simply put, Yammer has been described as Facebook for the enterprise.

Branded Site Provides Layer of Privacy

Initially the county accessed the tool through the Yammer website, but concerns about security and privacy led them to pursue a branded site, which they use today.

“I think there's a sense of security that they know they're now in the Arlington County space, and they can share information,” Belcher said.

Many employees have already made their way to the site, and a full communications effort for the initial pilot is expected in the next month or so.

LaTanya Blackman, manager for collaborative services the county’s Technology Services Department, explained that county employees find Yammer easy to use. They can sign up using their “Arlington.va.us” email suffix, create a group, invite members and start collaborating — all without submitting a support ticket to the IT Help Desk.

The human resources team uses Yammer to supplement more traditional communications methods, like e-newsletters and the county intranet site. Training and occupational development use it to work together in between regularly scheduled meetings.

"A lot of people are using FB and Twitter in their real lives, and they're doing it because they see some value in it,” Blackman explained. “But you can get that same type of value from Yammer in an enterprise environment."

And while Yammer won’t replace email in Arlington County, officials see it as an important new communications platform that can be more effective than an email exchange. “It’s busting down silos and making sure that you're not having that one-on-one conversation when maybe there are other people who should be engaged in the discussion,” Blackman said.

Use of the site is inspiring new collaborative opportunities throughout the county government. Bringing new employees into the county involves the typical interactions with human resources on benefits, payroll, insurance and the like. But a less formal set of resources has popped up on the Yammer site, offering advice on places to eat, local gyms and parking spots.

The county plans to leverage the tool as well to capture the institutional memory of employees retiring from service. Yammer’s multimedia capabilities mean this can be far more sophisticated, and useful, than a how-to document located on a shared network drive. They plan to engage the county workforce with an online town hall meeting dubbed a “Yam Jam,” where Belcher will take questions and facilitate a discussion on the service.

The county also may extend Yammer to external groups that serve in an advisory capacity to elected officials, as a way to keep them engaged beyond their scheduled public meetings.

Will the Acquisition by Microsoft Hamper Agility?

IT officials are hoping the purchase by Microsoft doesn’t impact Yammer’s responsive service model that offers frequent product innovations.

“The concern we have is that somehow [Microsoft] will try to restrict the imagination and innovation we see taking place in Yammer,” Belcher said. “They are leading and so you hope that they would give them their bit and let them run.”

Yammer’s recent purchase of OneDrum, for example, as described in a recent article from TechCrunch, will bring real-time document sharing capabilities, similar to Google Docs, to its product suite. Officials in Arlington County hope to be able to use this added functionality.

“They seem to do a lot of upgrades to their product,” said Blackman. “We just hope that they're allowed to continue to be agile and really responsive to feedback from their user base.”

Noelle Knell, Assistant Web Editor Noelle Knell  |  Managing Editor

Government Technology managing editor Noelle Knell has more than 15 years of marketing and communications experience, writing about public projects, transportation, business and technology. A California native, she graduated from the University of California, Davis, with majors in political science and American history. She can be reached via email and @GovTechNoelle on Twitter.