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Making The Case for Enterprise Activity Streams (And Why It’s Not Just “Another Tool”)

July 7, 2010

Whenever people ask me about my job, I tell them what you’d probably expect: I work for a company that takes technologies with social dynamics that you enjoy on the consumer Web, like Facebook and Twitter, and adapt them to the way we work inside companies. And lately, I’ve called upon activity streams to help communicate the value, focusing on Facebook’s News Feed as the best possible analogy.

Instead of interacting with the pictures you took during the weekend, I explain, you share what document you edited or a transaction you took in your sales system. This gives you and your colleagues the ability to take action on that information in real-time.

But even if the conversation progresses to that level of granularity, and the person I’m talking to agrees that activity streams represent a better way to consume business information and connect with colleagues, I’ve been often dogged by one important question, “Well, what you’re saying might be true. But in the end, how isn’t this just another tool for me to deal with at work? As it is today, I can barely get through my e-mail, which, as you point out, stinks.”

Overall, it’s a question that the Enterprise 2.0 industry — software companies that sell social technologies to businesses — has handled poorly. Even today, we still see blog posts that call for the end of e-mail or bombastic presentations that call upon companies to cast the “dusty” systems of record that they invested millions on into the corner.

We need a more pragmatic approach that tackles the “why isn’t this just another tool?” question more substantively. The phrases like “this is like Facebook for your company” or the “why aren’t your tools at work like the ones you have home?” are tired, old and not good enough. They especially don’t work in communicating the value of enterprise activity streams.

Ultimately, the real value with activity streams will be to provide a social layer on top of your current business systems. Before many companies get there, however, they need some more practical reasons why they need activity streams in the first place.

So let’s get a few things straight:

1. Admit Activity Streams Are Another Tool (It’s OK That It Is)

From a purely practical standpoint, various activity streams, and social software in general, are extra tools layered on top of the current systems a worker has in place.
This is inherently true because we’re not replacing systems of record; social software should be designed to complement them and make them more useful. Activity streams don’t replace your e-mails; it makes the e-mails you receive more relevant. As system updates flow to you and pass downstream more efficiently, and you put filters in place to catch what you want to examine later, your communications (including e-mail) can be for more focused and relevant.

2. When Done Right, Activity Streams Quell, Not Add To, Information Overload

The New York Times has been running an interesting series called “Your Brain on Computers.” In a recent article that detailed how much we tether ourselves to the devices and systems around us, we saw just how acute the information overload problem is at work.

In 2008, people consumed three times as much information each day as they did in 1960. And they are constantly shifting their attention. Computer users at work change windows or check e-mail or other programs nearly 37 times an hour, new research shows.

Activity streams take information overload by the horns and pare it down to size by putting your employees in control of the information they consume. Rather than tab toggle to various applications all day, you can select what information from those systems you wanted pulled to you. You can check on it at your convenience, and it’s not pushed to you against your will like e-mail.

Filtering by tags, groups and transaction types from a system will create control that e-mail notifications (a popular refrain for Activity Stream skeptics) only does minimally, and badly.

3. You don’t have to stare at activity streams all day

Geeks stare at activity streams all day, but normal people don’t. Too often, we try to push the value of Activity Streams (and to a degree microblogging) by presuming in our argument that things would be better if people watched the stream all day. This is simply not realistic.

Someone who isn’t on Facebook all day still gets immense value from it, and the same is true with enterprise activity streams, mainly because:

  1. Activity streams encourage relevance. Today, if you went on vacation, you can return to work and go through all the e-mails you missed, but you’ll be limited to what information you were addressed on, and a good portion of those messages will be largely irrelevant. With Activity Streams and microblogging, you can seek out keywords and tags relevant to your job, and find out what happened while you were away that really mattered (you can also look at ranked content).
  2. Activity streams aggregate information from systems. Similarly, you don’t need to go to each system of record to see what you missed while you were away. Instead, you set up filters and aggregate the specific information you want from each of these systems, as well as the information generated by colleagues that matter to you.
  3. Activity streams and microblogging are reply-optional. The reply expectation we have with e-mail doesn’t apply. Although Activity Streams are persistent in their real-time nature, you can passively examine the information that’s relevant to you as many times a day as you find valuable. This, again, speaks to the power of pull (versus push).

4. They’re Cheaper and Easier

Some of the biggest winners in the move to enterprise activity streams are casual (or non) users of traditional enterprise systems. Today, to get information locked in an ERP or CRM system, you must be a licensed user of that system or be on an e-mail list that pulls certain information from them (that, most likely, someone other than you decided might be relevant).

Now, since companies have the ability to utilize open web standards to pull vital information into an enterprise activity stream, a company’s employees can get more from their systems of record, without having to be trained on one of these complicated systems.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. michael ricard permalink
    July 24, 2010 2:04 pm

    Activity streams are the proof of concept of Enterprise 2.0. They are the visible evidence that people are sharing and connecting through the use of these tools. A few well chosen examples offer management more ROI than consultant-inspired white papers.

    There is also the potential for disruption and serendipity: streams can act as ‘teasers’ – drawing out the passive by piquing their interest and drawing them into the activity stream. The business begins to tap into the collective consciousness of its primary resource – its people.

  2. July 28, 2010 3:08 am

    I’d be interested to hear some stats on the usage of activity streams within the enterprise. IE What percentage of employees are using them? Is it really worth the effort?

    The main barrier that I see to it’s value is inane chatter which cause people to quickly lose interest and stop “sharing and connecting”

  3. Michael Ricard permalink
    July 28, 2010 9:03 am

    People soon realize that what they say in an Enterprise 2.0 setting is visible to all, especially their line manager. Therefore, only the totally stupid will say and do things in an activity stream which reflects badly on themselves. It’s like someone cc:’ing the entire business with personal chit chat. If they are that dumb, they would probably be let go soon even without the existence of E2.0.

    Call it social capital, personal brand, whatever – your personal reputation accrues by what you say, what you do and what you share. The next level is for HR to include recognition of positive E2.0 contributions into personal assessments. Once that kicks in, then E2.0 has the opportunity to radically affect an organization’s culture.

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