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I recently got the chance to get away from my desk for a few days and I used the opportunity to get in some hiking in the nearby high country. At one point I stopped for a rest on the bank of a mountain stream. As I sat there like Huckleberry Finn, idly watching the flotsam and jetsam float by, it got me thinking about social activity streams

Social activity streams are by their nature a constant flow of information and as you sit on the metaphorical river bank, viewing your activity stream, you get a point-in-time view of the information as it flows by. They are the potential gathering place for all manner of items -- status updates, photos, documents, discussions, suggestions, system alerts, etc. -- and are the communication medium de jour.

The phenomenal rise in popularity of public social networks and more recently of enterprise social networks have led many to consider that activity streams should be primary corporate communication medium and even that email is dead.

To the last point, few with a corporate email inbox would disagree that email overload is a considerable issue for your average information worker. But is another channel the answer? Or are we simply spreading the inflow across more bins we have to constantly check?

When Activity Streams Work

Certainly, activity streams bring some genuine benefits, for example:

  • Team awareness -- Status updates let us know what our teammates are working on and are akin to "working aloud."  It has lots of benefits, such as being able to quickly spot complimentary or duplicate activities. The working aloud benefit increases further where we can see the status of those outside of our team or business unit, or location.
  • Finding and sharing knowledge -- For those trying to find or share knowledge, expertise or ideas, a social activity stream will connect them to the widest possible group, providing maximum reach. Such communications work well in an activity stream, where they can be targeted, using hash tags (topics), at those most willing and able to respond.
  • Open, accessible history -- Content in an activity stream is discoverable to anyone with access to it and prior discussions, etc. Become part of an accessible history.

These are great capabilities and major for reason for why social tools are gaining momentum. However, I do not believe that activity streams are ready to be the sole -- or even the major -- enterprise communications channel. Let's do a quick review of some of the common areas of communication and collaboration in a modern organization.

Which Tools to Use When 

One to one communications

Instant messaging (IM) for 1-1 communications can be done using social tools, but there are some existing best-of-breed corporate IM tools out there, such as Microsoft Lync and Lotus Sametime, that perform this function perfectly well and with added capabilities, like online presence, desktop sharing and click-to-call. Even the French tech firm Atos, whose CEO famously declared a zero email policy last year, use Office Communicator (the precursor to Lync) as a key part of their collaborative tools mix.

The counter argument to using an instant messaging tool for 1-1 communications is that doing so removes the interaction from the social information pool, i.e. if John and Jackie discuss a business issue via Lync, then only they benefit from the discussion; if instead they discuss it via a social tool (using @ targeting), then everybody can derive value.

While I get this argument, I suspect it's being too black and white -- not all discussions belong in a public forum. For example: "Can you meet at 1:30 tomorrow, Jackie?" is not something that needs to be broadcast.

Of course, tools like Lync and Sametime can also be used for group communications, but the same points apply as for 1-1 communications. If a group discussion is around a short term, tactical issue, of interest to the participants only, then using Lync or Sametime makes sense. However, if the content is of potential interest to other persons, e.g. someone joining the team at a later date, then a social tool may be a better choice.

Documents 

Documents simply do not belong in an activity stream. Documents should be stored in document management systems, with key lifecycle features, like check in/out, versioning, approvals, reviews, full classification (multiple property types) and disposal/retention policies. Activity streams do not offer these capabilities. Sure, you can apply tags to a document in a social tool, but this is a very limited form of classification.

What activity streams should be used for is for sharing links to documents, whether manually ("Hi all, just added this interesting report on the social tools market. Check it out here."), or via an automated notification from the document management system ("John Brown has added the document 'Social Tools Market Report'").

Discussions 

We have all experienced the confusion that comes from trying to follow an email-based discussion, where context is repeatedly lost as participants reply to different emails, sometimes including the previous content, sometimes responding at the start of the email, sometimes in line, etc. Email tools are getting better at handling this.

First Google Mail, then later, Outlook, added the ability to have threaded conversations. However, the same argument about openness applies here and it makes sense that discussions of potentially longer term value should be in a public location.Twitter annoyingly lacks the ability to group threads of a discussion, but many of the leading enterprise social tools can do this.

The downside is that the discussions are quickly lost in the ever-moving stream of activity. Personally, I am a bit old-school here, preferring the traditional forum model, where discussion threads can be grouped and sorted, giving better context. Ultimately, group discussions may best belong with communities of interest, e.g. in collaboration site for the particular project, bid or initiative. This provides the convenience of an activity stream and keeps the discussion in the context of the community to which it relates.

Personal gripes and complaints 

Maybe it goes without saying, but group emails and activity streams are not the place for personal gripes. If you have a beef with someone, by far the best way to resolve it is face to face. Second best is by phone. Next best is a politely written email (no CAPS!). Use the CC only if you have to make a formal complaint.

Important communications 

For the time-being, at least, email is the go-to tool for important corporate communications. If you really want to be sure that someone gets your message, then email (and perhaps texting) wins hands down over the activity stream. This point is recognized by the social tool vendors, who have been careful to include email notifications as core capabilities.

Communicating with other organizations 

Email remains the primary communication medium for inter-organization communication. Federating instant messaging tools (i.e. allowing staff in partner organizations to conduct IM sessions) is another excellent way for staff in different organizations to collaborate across organizational boundaries.

My teenage kids, digital natives all, communicate solely via social networks and texting, but that is in the private realm. When they apply for their first jobs they will need email accounts to send their resumes to their prospective employers. For sure, there is a generational element at play here and as the "email generation" move out and the digital natives move in, social tools may well assume ascendancy in the corporation.

The Challenges Ahead

Activity streams are not always the best choice for communications and collaboration, but they are nevertheless compelling tools for sharing with our colleagues.

A challenge for all knowledge workers as we go forward is that we don't simply move our email inbox problem into one or more activity streams -- same amount of clutter, but with more places we now have to check. Where the number of persons and groups being followed is large, the potential volume of information in the stream is massive, leading to a new form of information overload -- let's call it "activity update overload." Improvements in search and filtering tools by the social tool vendors have made the task of finding information in an activity stream easier, though there is still room for improvement here.

In closing, activity streams are a new capability and as a relatively immature enterprise tool, organizations are still working out how best to use them. Perhaps the key benefit of activity streams will be not that they replace email, but that they help us to finally get control of our email inboxes, by removing the large proportion of useful, but non-time critical communications (to the activity streams) and leaving us with just the emails that we need to work on today.

Title image courtesy of Dominik Michalek (Shutterstock)