Stay Alert The Future of the Activity Stream

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How do you keep track of everything going on that might affect your work? It’s probably a combination of internal and external social media, email, word of mouth and a whole range of other notifications, an approach that can be both ineffective and overwhelming. Even if you achieve the pristine state of inbox zero, there’s no such thing as Twitter zero.

What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it." -- Herb Simon, "Designing Organizations for an Information-Rich World"

Keeping track matters because the quality of business decision making is heavily influenced by the information that can be accessed in the time available, rather than the theoretical "best information." It matters too because the ROI for enterprise social networks rests on the ability of the networks to amplify signal over noise. Valuable practices such as working out loud can make it even harder to manage notification volumes. Network growth can also stall if people see it as “yet another channel,” rather than an integrated information source.

Email Isn’t Working

What we need is a unified activity stream to start managing the notifications more systematically and with powerful filters. In the absence of anything else, email has often played this role, but it does so in a cumbersome way. For example, when you order something, you get emails saying “Order placed,” “processed,” “despatched” and so on. These are all individual items that need to be managed as if they are unique when really they are just status changes of the same thing.

The desire to stay informed also means we sign up to bacn too, but each one is grit in our productivity wheels. Solutions such as Google Inbox and Outlook Clutter try to help by prioritizing, but they ignore the systemic error, like having a waiter point out the salad after you've piled your plate high at the information buffet.

Mobile Shows the Way

One of the areas where mobile platforms are evolving quickly is in the management of notifications. By incorporating a standard protocol for apps to alert the user, they make it much easier to get an integrated view from any source. For example, Apple’s iOS8 lets you interact with notifications, so that the easily addressed ones become less of a cognitive load. Android Lollipop lets you assign priority levels to notifications so only certain sources can interrupt you. You can even have different settings for the weekend.

Activity Streams in the Digital Workplace

Sadly, within the digital workplace, we’re much further from having a unified view. This is paradoxical: in the outside world, we might expect that the diversity of information sources would make integration hard, but in the enterprise environment, with a more streamlined set of services, a single activity stream has a strong business case for improving productivity, and a smaller set of integrations to manage.

So far, we have seen many activity streams for social interactions such as Chatter and Tibber. It is time for them to expand beyond social; there are important workplace signals from documents, databases and systems too (an intRAnet of things).

Should Intranets Fill the Gap?

Intranets have been proposed as the glue in a digital workplace for a long time. When "portal" was a popular synonym, the idea was that they would be a one stop shop for corporate information. In practice, they rarely did more than link out to systems outside their own repository. Potentially, though, a unified activity feed would be a great role for an intranet to fulfil, provided it is built with mobile in mind.

At the moment, few intranet tools are doing this well.

Both Jive and Harmon.ie Collage are starting to fill the gap, but the list of connectors is currently short. Collage’s feeds bring together Office 365, Salesforce and Yammer feeds only. More collaboration focused, Slack is developing its maxim of "everything in one place" by connecting to Twitter, Dropbox, Trello, Zendesk and many more, but they are all cloud services.

Australian finance company AMP did a good job, putting the activity stream as the dominant homepage feature, but the content didn’t cover systems outside the intranet. Still, it signaled a potential shift in mindset for intranets, from “what we want to tell you” to “what you want to know.”

What About Office 365 and SharePoint?

SharePoint 2013 started off well with the introduction of the Newsfeed, which combined activity by people in social media, but also changes to documents and events with a common #tag. It wasn’t perfect, but Microsoft’s switch to Yammer has effectively killed it off. Microsoft now recommends its Office 365 clients replace the Newsfeed with Yammer’s updates, which only cover social posts.

Delve too, is squeezing SharePoint out by acting as an activity stream for documents, images and videos (plus Yammer content coming soon). Indeed if you look at the list of things in a SharePoint newsfeed and deduct what is covered by Yammer and Delve, you’re left with one killer app for SharePoint itself: birthdays.

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SharePoint is getting squeezed out

What’s Trending?

In the short term, I expect more vendors will announce connectors that aggregate activity outside of their own products. I’m hoping that these will also have strong mobile clients, so that we can process notifications once, and from any device (even my smartwatch, whenever I get it). Until then, I’ll be watching my mailbox closely for any updates.

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