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Social Activity Streams: Can They Replace Email?

shutterstock_104120120.jpgI 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.

 

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