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Why It’s Not Just Filter Failure: Managing Tasks in the Unstructured, Social World

June 1, 2011

One of the main benefits to social technology — and the Web in general — rests in its lack of structure. Or at least in our ability to surrender structure as a concept we held dear for ages.

The Google founders were the first to figure this out in a meaningful way. They realized that packaging data into tidy, digital folders was an unrealistic endeavor. On the Web, too much information was already being created every second. We’d drive ourselves mad trying to keep up. Just let all that data be, they said. Google will go back and find the most relevant information for you whenever you need it.  Other features in the Web 2.0 era, mainly tagging, assisted in making things findable in this unstructured world.

Then came Facebook, Twitter, and the general emergence of Activity Streams. These firehoses deliver a wealthy stream of unstructured data and information generated by both people and machines. Some of it might be annotated and tagged, but it’s still lightweight in its organization.

Many ask, isn’t that too much data and information for people to process?

Every consultant or social media expert, for their part, will cite Clay Shirky’s “it’s not information overload, it’s filter failure” theory to answer that issue for you. The problem is, when it comes to using these tools inside companies to get work done, it’s not filter failure that worries me; it’s an execution and prioritization failure within those filters.

Filters have improved and are getting better (in fact, it’s an area where enterprise social networking is ahead of  consumer social networks). In many enterprise social platforms, you can filter by group or virtually any object type, which helps put relevant information at people’s fingertips.

But while filtered enterprise social networking tools give people greater awareness for colleagues, projects and initiatives inside their company, it’s harder to keep track of which things need doing first. If we collaborate around enough work issues in a social environment, something needs to be done to ensure the individual — and the groups he or she interacts with — knows where they stand on a certain set of tasks, projects and issues within this collaborative context. And this  needs be done without imposing too much structure since business processes change so quickly.

Right now, I think the enterprise social networking world has just scratched the surface of how to deal with this challenge.

At Socialtext, our developers are probably ahead of the curve. They use a Kanban process that tracks key state changes in their development efforts via tagging. When they build a new feature, it’s chronicled on a wiki page as a “story.” With each crucial step along the way, they use different tags to mark that state change. Those changes are broadcasted in our activity stream, as well as on a visual representation built on a page (think: “assigned,” “in progress” and “completed” types of steps). We have actually made this into a widget for our customers to use to map to their business processes. In this case, our engineers used the lightweight tools within a social software platform (mainly tags, wikis and activity streams) to monitor these key changes without resorting to an overly structured system that would hamper innovation.

One area that will also help is bidirectional task executions within the stream. Whether it’s approving a task in another external system, the ability to stay in the context helps end users immeasurably in getting their work done.

I’m posting this with the obvious caveat that I’m not a social design expert. But what the Socialtext devs have done with Kanban might represent a larger trend with social software and enterprise social networking moving forward, and it’s something I’m listening to closely right now in my visits with companies utilizing these tools internally.

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