With Yammer, Microsoft May Hope to Grab Corporate Secrets

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- There's an old saying that "loose lips sink ships."

It's an evergreen reminder that acquiring intelligence about an enemy (from careless chatter by those with important information) can lead to military victories.

In business (if masked sufficiently), gathering such intelligence is often considered a good strategy.

That's why Microsoft's ( MSFT) $1.2 billion purchase of of Yammer, a company that bills itself as "the Facebook" for corporations, is a lot smarter than many observers admit.

It is no secret that for Facebook ( FB), one of its biggest challenges has always been managing user privacy.

Although it has made decent strides in that area, its hundreds of millions of users don't always do what they should to protect their own privacy.

Many corporations have created their own Facebook pages as an advertising platform, but they have strict corporate policies against using the site on their networks. This created a market for Yammer, because it is considered somewhat more secure.

Yammer, which is only 4 years old, currently has 5 million users. Its so-called "in-company" social network allows workers to form groups and interact freely with each other.

But I wonder how much of that freedom will now become restricted? I see this acquisition as making perfect sense.

Microsoft, which already owns a stake in Facebook, has been looking to fill this "social void" for quite some time. Its SharePoint application was once touted as a Yammer-like idea, although it never fully took off.

Furthermore, the company has been struggling to find a way to make its suite of Office programs more interactive to fend off threats from Google ( GOOG) and its free apps service, and I think it has now solved that problem.

Moreover, Yammer does not rely on ads and is strictly subscription-based. That makes it the ideal "spying tool" because in order to subscribe one has to provide verifiable information in order to pay for the subscription.

For this reason I think this deal is likely Microsoft's smartest move since it bought DOS almost four decades ago.

Although many will look at this as Microsoft simply acquiring a social networking company, this deal also gives it potential access to internal communications, employee postings and advance notice of projects that corporations may be considering.

(Of course, I would expect Microsoft to respect the law in its gathering of information.)

One would think this would give it a competitive advantage and based on its collected data, it will allow it to strategically deploy its R&D resources based on corporate needs.

I wonder what effect this will have or the companies that are currently using the service. Where Yammer (as an independent) was considered harmless or impartial, under Microsoft it will come with much more scrutiny -- and rightfully so.

Not only does Microsoft now becomes a force of social media, but it now has a way to compete and build Yammer into a rival of LinkedIn ( LNKD).

One of the benefits of Yammer is that it allows corporate employees to use private company directories to contact each other, chat and share information, including links or news posts.

How hard would it be for Microsoft to then access any company's internal job posting which includes cover letters and resumes? The opportunities seem to be endless.

In discussing Facebook and its dealings with privacy, I asked whether users are really mistaking the perceived problem with their own stupidity.

I don't know about you, but I have seen and heard some really dumb things on many corporate networks, including instances where employees discuss corporate secrets, potential mergers or even "leak" images of a new product before it launches -- all of this as if it's not being recorded.

So are employees going to now suddenly tighten those loose lips? I think that's a tall task. For that matter, I think Microsoft hopes they don't.

At the time of publication, the author held no positions in any of the stocks mentioned.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

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