bear with paw over face
PHOTO: Bradley Howington

In "The Essential Glue for Your Digital Workplace," Sam Marshall suggested two main elements can act as the glue for the many disparate elements of a digital workplace: search and notifications. I am currently working in a search-focused role for a major bank, and have worked on many intranet and digital workplace projects where search was quite rightly a very big deal. However, Marshall's article did not provoke yet another Jed article on search (YAJAOS?) but instead pushed me to revisit the notifications element of the digital workplace. We're currently examining notifications in the team I work on, as part of defining our future intranet and where it sits in the broader digital workplace.

Marshall wrote, "Two dominant problems plague most digital workplaces at the moment: search and notifications. If we don’t get these right, the employee experience will always suffer. The only practical way to integrate is a much looser coupling — and that’s where search and notifications come in as a very flexible form of glue."

I agree, as I have investigated this problem before. Some five or six years ago, when working for a different bank, we were going through demos to help select an enterprise social network (ESN) platform: IBM Connections, Microsoft Yammer, Jive and Tibco's Tibbr. I remember thinking at the time that Tibbr had the greatest potential for integrations and providing a single enterprise activity feed, providing input from various systems as well as the humans using the system, and bringing all the "notifications" together in one interface.

A lot has happened since then. Working out loud (WOL) became a thing. ESNs have matured, Office365 appeared, and many more vendors and products provide open, REST-based APIs, allowing integration, rather than providing proprietary "connectors." Marshall is right when he says having a consolidated presentation layer that brings together notifications should be an easy way to integrate desperate digital workplace tools. 

But nothing is ever that simple, and in these days of information overload and punctures in our filters bubbles, Marshall notes that mobile operating systems seem to provide the best user experience in dealing with notifications: giving us the ability to mute the noise, and decide what can claim our attention and in what ways.

Not All Workplace Notifications Are Equal

Not all notifications are equal. We can split them into four main categories: alerts, approvals, notifications, subscriptions. I present them below as a Venn diagram due to the potential overlap between the categories. And of course, they all come together at the user:

alerts, notifications, subscriptions, approvals

  • Alerts: The enterprise equivalent of an Amber alert or other Government warning system activating loud tones on your cell phone. Alerts need you to know something or do something e.g. evacuate your building or tend to an ailing system or a crashed server. They can often be pushed to employee's personal cell phones (if they have signed up) and also to desktop client software.
  • Approvals: Not as pressing as alerts, but still require an action on your part, such as approving or rejecting a workflow step, a spend against a budget, an expense claim, or a request for time off.
  • Notifications: From people, systems or machines. You may receive push notifications from a system to let you know an item has changed status within some business process, or that a threshold has been met or that someone has read something you published. Notifications might include corporate communications activities, such as the publishing of a new video from the CEO, or workforce communications informing you a new policy is in force.
  • Subscriptions: Overall more pull than the push model of the above categories, you subscribe to something when you are interested in seeing updates, whether this is a news channel on the corporate portal, a discussion forum in the ESN, or a single document in a DMS.

So if we can categorize the broad subject of "notifications" into these different types, will that help us manage them? I would suggest it does. If we standardized this taxonomy, we could set our preferences on how we receive and manage these different updates.

Related Article: Taming Notifications Before They Run Rampant

Where and How Do I Receive Updates?

Categorizing these updates helps, but where do I receive and read them? As ever, this is highly contextual, depending on the organization and the workforce. In some places, an Alert will take the form of flashing lights and sirens and announcements over the PA system. In others, employees might be requested to sign up to a corporate alerting system with their private cell phone numbers, to receive SMS based alerts. Those with corporate mobile devices, or their own who are enrolled in corporate BYOD programs will have other options.

Approvals often come in by email, with a description of what you're approving or rejecting and a link or buttons to click on. This can work well in a mobile scenario, email remaining somewhat of a lowest common denominator for enterprise technology — just about everyone has an email address (but not always). In some industries the email client remains the core technology of a professional's day — the lawyers I worked with until recently spring to mind here — and an email client can also act as an RSS client for subscriptions. It can also have rules and business logic to allow you to manage notification emails, including those daily or weekly digest types you can request from many systems.

Conversely many of the enterprise portals / digital workplace front ends I have seen as a judge for the Digital Workplace of the Year awards have an area to display alerts, notifications and approval tasks to the individual in a consolidated, easy to digest and easy to manage place. This can take the form of a personalized home page, an area on a non-personalized page, or an overlay layer (a fly out from the edge of the page for example). This could work well if the portal is fully responsive or there is a corresponding mobile app to allow users to read and manage their notifications on the move.

What I have never seen in real life is an example of a single, highly integrated, personalized news feed which presents notifications from systems and applications as well as the individuals I have subscribed to (followed). If you have such a system, using Tibbr or any other platform, please let us know in the comments.  In the Microsoft Office365 ecosystem it looked like Delve was going to play this role, but it now appears more likely you will be pushed towards Teams as a digital workplace "hub" or maybe a "modern" SharePoint Home site experience will serve you your alerts and notifications (although there is still Outlook) .... Flexibility and choice can be a good thing!

Related Article: Is the Solution to Information Overload More Technology?

The Glue That Binds

Marshall is right that alerts, notifications (including approvals) and subscriptions can be a good "glue layer" for the loose integration of a heterogeneous digital workplace. There are many ways to make this happen, with many potential interfaces and strengths that play to different industry scenarios and individual user preferences. How would you prefer to get your alerts and notifications on the operation to free the alien captives from Area 51?