The University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center is a comprehensive cancer center that delivers cancer care to thousands of patients, and seeks advances in treatment and diagnosis through research (www.mdanderson.org). In my laboratory we are interested in understanding glioblastoma, a very aggressive form of brain cancer. I have 10 co-workers, who spend their day moving between the laboratory, instrument rooms, tissue culture rooms, seminars and their desks. Meanwhile, I am either at my computer in my office, or often at meetings all over the Texas Medical Center or even out of town at conferences. Keeping up good communication is, therefore, a major challenge. I try to walk through the lab once or twice a day, and have an open door when I’m in my office, but I don’t catch up with everyone often enough. More importantly, I am no longer an efficient information conduit between members of my team – I am tired of checking whether the right people were cc’d on e-mail, or forwarding messages to others who need to be involved in the conversation.
About a year ago I started holding a weekly “huddle” to improve our communication – we stand in a circle in the lab, and everyone says, in a few sentences, what they achieved in the past week and what they are working on. We stand to encourage brevity and form a circle, as the idea is for everyone to listen equally to everyone else. It is amazing how often connections are made at the huddle – “I could use that, too” or “I did that in my previous lab, and you should try such-and-such an approach” is said almost every week. It also builds a good team spirit as people feel comfortable sharing their problems, not least because they often get help. Once a week for half an hour is great, but how do you keep it going the rest of the week?
That is when I heard about Yammer. With Yammer we can keep a virtual conversation going all the time. There are several key aspects of Yammer that distinguishes it from other microblogs – the main one for us is that you can easily control who sees what you write. Yammer requires an employer-issued e-mail address to access the site, and it is easy to make a private area for your own group within that. So, while we sometimes Yammer in the broader @mdanderson.org area, we usually communicate within our Bogler lab private thread – this gives everyone security that what they say is only heard within the team. Adoption by my lab was almost instantaneous. As people move around during work and circle back to their computers several times a day, they catch up on what is being said and chime in. Sometimes they logon from home, too. I often Yammer from my iPhone as I go from meeting to meeting, or when I’m traveling. Even when I don’t post myself, I like to read what others are saying to keep in touch. A key feature is that the posts persist forever, so that if you miss a little you can catch up. It has proved to be a great tool that fills the gap between e-mail and face-to-face meetings, helping us to keep the conversation going. I would like to give a big thanks to Jennifer Texada, our social media guru at M. D. Anderson, for bringing us these great tools.
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