Communities in the making: Penn Staters come together through Yammer

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Communities in the making: Penn Staters come together through Yammer

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Sean Graham bikes to work every morning to the twittering of birds, scampering of squirrels and the stirring of his sleepy State College neighborhood. A computer programmer in Student Affairs, Graham makes the 3.5-mile journey from his home in the northern part of town to University Park campus in the rain, snow and summer heat, but it’s dodging golf balls on the White Course bike path that really ignites his sense of adventure.

“For cyclists, campus can sometimes be like the Wild West,” said Graham. “With construction, detours, cars, others bikers and pedestrians, just getting to work is an experience in itself.”

To help navigate the streets and bike culture at Penn State, and encourage positive relationships between bikers, pedestrians and drivers on campus, Graham assembled a community of cyclists that convenes online through Yammer at Penn State. There, they talk about everything from bike etiquette to the best gear.    

Yammer is a communication and collaboration tool — available to every student, faculty and staff member — that is helping people across Penn State build connections in ways beyond what is possible through email.

In the three years since Yammer’s University-wide release, about 15,000 Penn Staters, the majority of whom are students in class groups, and staff in the IT and learning design communities, have joined the social networking site.

“Yammer is helping take a large university and make it feel smaller by enabling people to build community beyond work and class,” said Derek Gittler, community coordinator for Yammer. “If you want to start a hobby group or promote an athletic or performing arts event, do it on Yammer."

Though the majority of Penn State’s 1,900 Yammer groups are created for classes, there are still ample opportunities for foodies, bookworms, gamers and shutterbugs to connect with each other on the collaboration platform.

For three years, the 150 members in the public Bike Commuters of PSU group have been using Yammer to offer each other advice, encouragement, support for injured bikers and even pass along weather, construction and travel advisories related to biking in town and on campus.

Graham started the Yammer group because he felt Penn State lacked a community for cyclists and wanted to help connect his peers with biking information, resources and people — and an email list wasn’t going to cut it.

“Email was designed decades ago as a tool for person-to-person communication, yet we use it today for broadcasting messages to large groups, sharing files and managing our work,” Gittler said. “Yammer can do all of that and more — it’s one central communication hub and can be the place where your work is done, too.”

While the bike club is helping cyclists on campus, Penn Staters interested in sustainability and eco initiatives such as möbius — an Office of Physical Plant and Housing initiative working to dramatically reduce University Park’s waste stream — are also establishing a community on the platform.  

The möbius group’s home on Yammer has attracted nearly 100 faculty and staff who use the forum to ask questions and share tips on how to recycle and compost solid waste.

“It’s fun to think of new and different ways to use Yammer,” says Alex Novak, who directs communications for Penn State's Sustainability Institute and Office of Physical Plant (OPP) and who founded the möbius Yammer group. “The möbius group on Yammer is a place where people can talk and think about waste differently. The program is an opportunity — not a mandate — for creating a community centered around reducing, reusing and recycling.”

Al Matyasovsky, the University’s resident expert in waste management and manager of central support services in OPP, fields questions on the möbius group and loves that so many students, faculty and staff are taking an interest in making Penn State more sustainable.    

“Everyone’s questions are well thought out and demonstrate a desire to support our waste management programs and make a difference. It’s because of this kind of community support that Penn State’s waste diversion numbers have grown to 75 percent,” Matyasovsky said.

From questions about how plastic gift cards, yogurt cups and Keurig coffee pods can be recycled to whether instant oatmeal packets are compostable, Matyasovsky has the answer — or is willing to find out. He often asks people to mail him samples of their product or material in question.

Shelly Aina, an IT manager in the Office of the Vice Provost for Educational Equity and a former member of the Boucke Green Team, used to email her questions to Al but now appreciates how Yammer has made it possible to expand the reach of his know-how.  

“Having a direct line to Al — and his experience and expertise — is priceless,” Aina said. “Prior to the Yammer group, I would email my recycling and composting questions to Al and then share his response with Green Team members, but Yammer enables anyone at Penn State to learn and benefit from his knowledge.”   

While large groups connect over shared interests, smaller groups also use the platform for private discussions.

This summer, 25 IT staff members in the Read to Lead leadership book club are reading “You Don't Need a Title to Be a Leader” by Mark Sanborn. In addition to meeting monthly to discuss the book, the group keeps their conversations going over Yammer between face-to-face sessions.

In an effort to add a social dimension to reading, Kari Williamson, an IT manager in the Office of the Vice President for Commonwealth Campuses, helped found Read to Lead after participating in an inspiring book discussion with colleagues.

“I got so much out of that conversation that I wanted to create a place to do that on a regular basis with other IT professionals,” Williamson said. “My goal with Read to Lead is to encourage people to learn about leadership through reading. Yammer has helped make it possible for us to come together regularly in a safe atmosphere to discuss our ideas.”

Yammer is also helping staff in OPP build new relationships and sell their old stuff.

Dale Eckley, who works in janitorial services, is selling his family’s 1985 Shasta trailer and wants to find a buyer in Up for Grabs, a Yammer group for OPP employees to buy, trade and sell used merchandise.

A digital bulletin board and a connection point for 1,300 OPP staff, Up for Grabs is a good example of how Yammer can be used. Since 2012, group members have used Up for Grabs to sell such items as furniture, cameras and cars as well as meet new OPP colleagues.  

“Meeting people and building relationships online can open us up to amazing opportunities,” Gittler said. “I love Yammer and often get lost collaborating and chatting with people I didn’t know before or didn’t realize I had anything in common with. It’s truly my connection to the whole University.”

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