"Rather than following a process, I follow a cloud of activities.”

That’s how a colleague of mine, a software developer, described the nature of his work. To me this also captures the nature of how knowledge work is evolving: it is becoming more fluid and unpredictable, with little structure and repeatability. Add to this that knowledge work is becoming increasingly interdependent; completing a task often requires many interactions with information entities from different sources as well as with people from different locations, organizations and time zones.

Rather than relying on bringing people and resources together at a set physical space during office hours, knowledge work today relies on connecting the right people and enabling them to meet and interact wherever and whenever they see fit. Rather than relying on people’s ability to internalize and follow predefined procedures, it relies on their autonomy, knowledge, creativity and ability to deal with uncertainty.

Organizations Suffer from Decreased Workspace Awareness

Until recently, the digitalization of work focused almost entirely on individual productivity and supporting functional tasks. At the same time knowledge work has become more interdependent, unpredictable and our digital workplaces have become more fragmented.

The distribution of teams and the isolation of teams from the rest of the workforce lead to decreased workspace awareness. Not only does this make it harder to collaborate in teams, but also to coordinate the efforts and decisions of different teams. The symptoms can be seen in the form of duplicate work, sub-optimization, inefficiencies, bad decision-making and low ability to innovate; all of which can be fatal in a fast-paced and competitive business environment.

Although the execution isn’t simple, seeing what we need to change is. We need to break this isolation and enable collaboration and value-creation in networks. We need to create digital environments that increase the visibility of people and information, and provide mechanisms that allow people to find and discover relevant people and information, without drowning in a rising sea of information.

A Necessary Shift: From Social Tools to Social Integration

The challenges ahead call for a defragmentation of the digital work environment and connecting a dispersed but highly interdependent workforce. Social software has proved to help a great deal by shrinking the distance between people and allowing greater intimacy and interaction on a much greater scale than previously possible.

When introducing these new technologies in enterprises, the first step for most organizations has been to bring new communication and collaboration tools such as blogs, wikis and micro-blogging to the users. Social networking platforms have been introduced next to existing systems in order to facilitate social collaboration.

However, social software should not merely be seen as a set of features to add to existing systems or as a new system to put next to the existing ones; it should be seen as a means to integrate people and information resources across organizations, locations and systems, as a layer on top of existing systems that allows activities and information to flow as they need. When implemented in such a way, social software can become a game-changer for knowledge worker productivity.

Sharing of more contextual information is key to increase workspace awareness. Activity streams are in this context instrumental mechanisms for integrating our digital workplaces, since they help to aggregate activities and resources from different systems and bring them to the fingertips of knowledge workers.

Creating Meaningful Patterns from Seemingly Meaningless Data

Much like pointillism, a technique of painting with small and distinct color dots that relies on the ability of your eyes and mind to turn the dots into a picture, activity streams rely on your eyes and cognitive processes to paint a picture of what is happening at work and provide signals to act upon when appropriate.

In the New York Times article "Brave New World of Digital Intimacy" from 2008, Clive Thompson made the concept of ambient awareness that has been used by social scientists available to a wider audience. He used the news feed in Facebook as an example of an environment that creates ambient awareness:

Each little update -- each individual bit of social information -- is insignificant on its own, even supremely mundane. But taken together, over time, the little snippets coalesce into a surprisingly sophisticated portrait of your friends’ and family members’ lives, like thousands of dots making a pointillist painting.”

Thompson described the news feed as something that “… brings back the dynamics of small-town life, where everybody knows your business.” According to Thompson, Mark Zuckerberg attributed the introduction of the news feed feature, providing Facebook users with constant, up-to-the-minute updates on what other people they know are up to, as central to Facebook’s success.

An activity stream is essentially the equivalent of the Facebook news feed. From an enterprise perspective, it can be seen as a new and intelligent mechanism for information discovery that integrates activities and information from systems in a scattered enterprise IT landscape and puts relevant and actionable information at the fingertips of each and every user. Their activity streams will make them aware of what the people they work with, or should be working with, are doing and thus enable them to know when, why and how to act in collaborative work contexts.

When seen in the bigger picture, activity streams can help to turn large and distributed organizations with a disconnected workforce into a highly connected and integrated company that almost resembles a small company. The promise for the organization lies in becoming almost as lean, agile, innovative and responsive to customers as it once was when it was a small company with only a few dozen people onboard.

Expect a Shift in Focus from Some Social Software Vendors

As activity streams are getting traction among organizations for their potential to integrate multiple systems from the user’s point of view, there is clearly a shift also in the social software vendor space from providing end-to-end but isolated social collaboration solutions to providing social integration services such as activity streams to which every system can publish activities and information.

We can see this in the way products such as Tibbr and Yammer are evolving. More and more organizations will consider implementing social integration services instead of implementing a complete social collaboration platform, especially since many organizations already have many of the required core capabilities for ECM, Team Collaboration and Unified Communications already in place but have some gaps to fill when it comes to social collaboration capabilities.

Social software vendors will need to make up their minds and make their customers understand if they are offering complete end-to-end solutions that sit next to their existing systems or if they offer integration software that leverages existing systems by adding social collaboration capabilities.

Although activity streams have been along for some time as features in social collaboration products, the technology is yet in its infancy. We can all be sure that the concept of activity streams will be further developed and that we will see numerous technological innovations that aim to bring better workspace awareness to knowledge workers in the years ahead.

I personally expect to see APIs allowing any system to publish activities into the activity streams; increased ability to interact with activities and information in the activity steam; use of mobile sensors such as location to make the activity stream situation-aware; and new innovative uses of the enterprise social graph, search technology and social analytics to improve findability and discovery of relevant information and people.

Perhaps the activity stream will be the central piece in the ”serendipity engine” that Google’s Eric Schmidt envisions their search engine will evolve into in the future. It is definitely a central piece in any solution aiming to address the decreasing workspace awareness that cripples performance in organizations.

Title image courtesy of iQoncept (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: To read more by Oscar Berg: