Enterprise collaboration tools are adopting activity streams a la Twitter or Facebook, but how many streams do you really need?
One of the hallmarks of an enterprise social media product is the activity stream, that ticker of activity from coworkers and collaborators including announcements, questions, ad hoc discussions, and so on, each note decorated with the profile picture or some other avatar for the author.
This is one of the core features that allows social software products and cloud services to promote themselves as "Twitter for the enterprise" or "Facebook for the enterprise," even though they may also want to tell a story of deeper integration with enterprise systems. The activity stream is a big deal, even though it's not clear to everyone whether this is an improvement over what has gone before. Gartner's Craig Roth has a good blog post asking whether activity stream overload is really an improvement over email. Good question. But the question that's more on my mind is how many activity streams we really need in our work lives.
For enterprise collaboration, it strikes me that the right answer is probably just one, but it's easy to end up with several. As with most technologies, there is the danger of different departments adopting different standards. But as tools for everything from business intelligence to customer relationship management add social features, many of them are adding their own activity streams that don't necessarily link to any others. The social media managers who monitor public communities like Twitter and Facebook have adopted desktop and dashboard tools that try to aggregate all their feeds, but should every employee need something like that just to get access to the electronic water cooler?
I raise the issue because a couple of the startups I've talked with lately have shown me products that have something that looks like an activity stream at their core. Well, of course--that's how we know that these are "social" products, right? And yet, both looked to me like niche products. I'm thinking of the "social goals" system from WorkSimple and the service for tracking and commenting on news about companies from GageIn.
These are potentially interesting tools, but I had to wonder whether they might do better to provide a feed into Yammer, Jive, SharePoint, or some other more all-encompassing platform. In both cases, the vendors said they were thinking about such possibilities but hadn't worked out the details.
I think if my organization had invested in an enterprise social media standard, I'd want to make integration with that standard a pretty high priority. If the idea is to give employees a quick overview of what's going on, what are people talking about in the company (or in the circle of coworkers and collaborators whose activities they've decided to follow), I'd want to make that one consolidated view. Being able to segment the one view into communities of interest is good, so that it doesn't get overwhelming in a large organization. Building technologically segregated, stove-piped communities is not so good. On his personal blog, Cisco's Mike Gotta has a good take on the need for activity stream integration and the standards for achieving it.
This does not necessarily mean that specialty products having their own way of displaying an activity stream is a bad thing. I can imagine a competitive intelligence specialist living in a tool like GageIn and only occasionally coming up for air to see what's going on in the rest of the company. Such a tool probably should have its own activity stream, or dashboard, or whatever you want to call it. But it will be more valuable if it also feeds into a broader view of what's happening in the enterprise.