Communication, democracy and a good old sing. Microsoft’s enterprise social networking tool ‘Yammer’ at the UCAS Annual Admissions Conference

A member-focussed organisation uses Yammer as part of a general drive to make its annual Admissions conference more interactive, responsive and democratic. In the process, members and staff come to appreciate what Yammer can do for their organisation as a whole.

Admissions Officers Annual Conference

Every year, over 400 college and university admissions officers from across the UK come together in the annual admissions conference of UCAS, the UK Universities and Colleges Admissions Service. The aim is to bring members up to date with the always fast-moving changes in the HE sector, enable them to exchange best practice, and feed back their views to UCAS leadership. The ultimate purpose, of course, is to provide the best possible service to the young people whose contact with UCAS comes at one of the most anxious and important periods of their lives.

The conference this year (2013) was held in March at the Celtic Manor Resort in Newport, South Wales, and it was clear from the outset that the organisers were intent on making the event as interactive, and responsive to membership needs, as possible. Preliminary information said,

‘The more interactive style of this year’s event will include increased opportunities for group-based discussion and workshops, and more networking opportunities’

The point, says UCAS Communications Manager Kay Harper, is that ‘It was so important to give our members the voice that they wanted.’

And on that theme of ‘giving voice’, delegates would also have the chance to join the ‘Only Admissions Aloud’ choir, led by Craig Yates, member of the ‘Only Men Aloud’ Choir (winners of BBC's Last Choir Standing in 2008). Final performance from the conference below.

Technology adds the key ingredient

Structural changes, though, could only go part way to achieving what the members wanted. The clear need was for a technological underpinning – a way by which delegates, presenters and organisers could interact, respond, provide feedback and achieve a sense of participation, all in real time.

At many conferences, of course, existing social media, such as ‘Twitter’ are extensively deployed ‘bottom up’ by the delegates, and sometimes encouraged. In this case, though, something more was needed -- a core communication channel, established by the organisation, to be used by everyone. It had to be confined securely within the event, providing confidentiality and be in keeping with the UCAS brand.

‘We were looking at the various available options, and it was looking really expensive,’ says Kay Harper. ‘We were under real time pressure, and while waiting for a budget decision we wondered why we couldn’t use Yammer. We already had it in use for communication among our own employees so decided to extend that into an external network.'

Once that decision was made, the UCAS technical team swung into action and with Microsoft support provided what was needed, cost effectively, efficiently and on time.

‘Microsoft provided fifty loan laptops for the event, which was a great help and a lovely surprise,’ says Kay Harper.

A possible question here is why the laptops were needed. Could delegates not be left to use their own devices?

Kay Harper says,

‘We had three weeks to plan using Yammer and we couldn’t be certain that someone at every single table in the business sessions would bring a device or download the Yammer app. Too much margin for error!’

What was Yammer used for at the conference?

  • Ahead of the opening of the conference, to build early links between delegates and permit continuing agenda adjustments
  • During the conference, to encourage interaction between members, speakers and the UCAS communications team, enabling the proceedings to be fluid and responsive to demand
  • To enable anonymous feedback, comments, questions and voting by delegates
  • To gather and share in real time agreed responses from tables/groups in the table discussions in the business sessions. The feedback was from a table account and not a named individual which allowed for more frank and honest feedback. This also eliminated the need for time-consuming and often repetitive ‘report back’ sessions

The Yammer network opened three days before the conference, and a majority of delegates became immediate users, building links with other participants, asking questions about workshops, effectively giving the conference something of a rolling start. Similarly, it was possible for non-attending members to have a virtual presence at the Conference.

An important additional feature was the use of the third party application ‘Yammerfall’ which allows a stream of Yammer comments and questions to be displayed to delegates on screens and monitors.

That the Yammer installation was embarked upon at such short notice might be construed as a calculated high-risk strategy and its completion was a remarkable achievement by the technical and administrative team at UCAS.


The impact

The whole culture of this Conference was changed and enhanced by the immediacy and interactivity provided by Yammer. Steve Crompton, a Customer Success Manager for Yammer, who was responsible for Microsoft’s input, including the fifty loan laptops, points out, for example, that the agility of communication at and around the Conference enabled changes to the agenda and the programme to be made right up to the last minute.

‘It takes three months to plan the event, but with Yammer in place the agenda could change at a micro level in response to changing news. And we saw presenters messaging each other behind the scenes, making last minute script alterations.’

UCAS senior managers were enthusiastic about the success of Conference, and the part played by the interactivity and immediacy of an effective networking tool which enabled them to have direct contact with the delegates. CEO Mary Curnock Cook sums up the general feeling,

‘The Admissions Conference this year was great - really constructive. Yammer worked extremely well to get everyone engaged without having to stand up in front of 300 people.’

UCAS Stakeholder Communications Manager Paul Dring adds,

‘We were delighted that our conference delegates embraced Yammer with so much enthusiasm. We were keen to embrace social media at our conference but wanted something more bespoke than Twitter could provide. Yammer was the ideal solution and having Yammerfall visible on the big stage screens meant that delegates could share their thoughts, and comment on the postings of their colleagues as well.’

Paul Dring also mentions Yammerfall, which, he says,

‘…proved to be a fantastic way of using technology to allow delegates to see feedback from other tables in real time and helped to stimulate conversation which created a palpable buzz to the business sessions. Although participation and feedback were our primary aims in using the tool, Yammer actually provided so much more. The Yammer network was used before, during and after the event and helped to create a real community feel to this year’s conference.’

Dominic Green, Chair of the 2013 UCAS Annual Admissions Conference, also kindly shared his thoughts on Yammer via this short video.

What the delegates thought

In the business sessions of the conference, delegates worked in groups – tables – of about twelve people. Each table had its discussion and then posted an agreed response on Yammer. It was a popular solution to what, in a large conference, can be a problem. Feedback comments centred on the much improved interaction, the simultaneous expression of multiple viewpoints, and the remarkable experience of being able to hold a meaningful discussion involving such a large number of people. One delegate said it was ‘Like a family’. (The success and popularity of the ‘Only Admissions Aloud’ choir is a marker here. It couldn’t have happened in quite the same way had delegates not felt so included, in touch and comfortable with each other.)

Several feedback posters, too, emphasised the way that Yammer allowed each delegate the same opportunity to have their say, a point well summed up by these two comments,

‘It was great, there are many people that turn up to these events and don't get their opinion across because they don't like shouting out in a large room full of people. This offered everyone a fair say.’

‘Yammer provided an opportunity for people who are not comfortable with making comments in large groups to put across their point. Excellent idea.’

After the conference

The success of Yammer at the conference continues to resonate. The network remains open and the discussion continues. At the practical level, as Paul Dring puts it.

‘Now that the conference is over, we are able to use the captured feedback and conversations to inform our work going forward – without having to decipher pages of minutes first!’

Following the success at the conference UCAS has also started to expand the use of Yammer for various representative groups.

Even more important is the way that the use of Yammer among UCAS staff has significantly increased. Executive members have established their own online group, and also use Yammer for updates and direct contact with colleagues.

What are the lessons?

It’s already known that the use of social media can enhance a traditionally constructed conference by making possible real time comments, communication and feedback. Usually, though, it’s an optional extra. The conference is essentially unchanged, and many attend without using it.

In this case, however, UCAS have demonstrated that where an effective and appropriate social networking tool is embedded into the structure of the conference from the planning stage, something much more transformational is possible.

That said, UCAS also demonstrated here another basic principle of technological innovation, which is that you don’t begin with the technology.

In this case, the starting point was the desire to respond to a need to make the annual conference more inclusive, interactive and democratic. To this end, a number of structural changes were planned -- more networking, more group discussion, more workshops. Once that was decided upon it seemed both natural and inevitable to move to the next step, providing a technological means by which all of those structural changes were immeasurably enriched.

But perhaps the most significant lesson of all is that a successful, seemingly one-off success like this can – as it has with UCAS – become a transformational moment for the whole organisation. (Steve Crompton actually calls this kind of experience a ‘lightbulb moment’). Yammer was in use at UCAS before March 2013, but the powerful demonstration of its capabilities at the annual conference has resulted in it being used much more extensively and creatively. The full effects of this on the organisation’s culture will emerge over time.


For at least fifty years, business and enterprise conferences have hardly changed. Sound systems are better, presentation software has appeared and improved. Essentially though the problems have remained the same – how to give each delegate a voice, how to collect and distribute the results of group discussions, how to keep the agenda flexible and up to the minute. Where there’s the will and capacity to address those issues, then an effective, appropriate and purpose-built enterprise networking tool such as Yammer can be a game changer. Not only that, in demonstrating its ability to change the culture of a one-off event, it will, at the same time, show what it can do for the organisation as a whole.

Guest post from Gerald Haigh. Gerald writes regularly for the Microsoft Education Blogs.

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