E L S U A ~ A KM Blog by Luis Suarez

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5 Reasons Why Activity Streams Will Save You From Information Overload

Gran Canaria - Pozo de las Nieves in the WinterI heart Activity Streams. I mean, I *love* them to bits! From the very first beginning that I got exposed to them over at Twitter, over 4 years ago, till today, where I am using a bunch of various different microblogging / microsharing services, both internal and external, I couldn’t work, nor get much done!, without them. I live them. I think they are probably one of the most fundamental, critical and relevant 2.0 capabilities that any company can turn into, if they would want to dive into the fascinating world of Enterprise Social Computing, and start seeing the business value right away. It probably cannot get any easier than that. In my own experience, next to my blog(s), they are the most significant component from the 2.0 world that have managed to help me live, rather successfully, “A World Without Email” for the last 4 years and counting… Now, do I feel overloaded because of them? Do I feel they are heading the same way our Inbox has been heading for the last few years? Absolutely not! Quite the opposite. It’s been, all along, if I can say so, quite a liberating experience so far altogether! And here is why.

Over at Gartner, Craig Roth put together, just recently, a rather thought provoking blog post where he is questioning whether Activity Streams are heading in the very same direction as our Inboxes have been heading over the course of time; that one of Information Overload. That one of the Kraken. Have a look and read through “If You Thought Your Inbox Was Overloaded, Wait Until Activity Streams” to see where Craig is coming from. Equally interesting are the various different comments that plenty of smart folks have been leaving behind. Now, I do realise that Activity Streams is no perfect world out there. There is still plenty of room for growth in the areas of hitting the right context, collaborative / social filtering, awareness, full integration with business processes, pervasiveness and so forth. However, I still feel, very strongly, that Activity Streams will never become your next overloaded Inbox.

As a starting point, I have blogged a little while ago how Activity Streams can help you reduce your Inbox clutter, as well as look for better venues to host conversations that before were trapped inside your Inbox, but I thought I would go ahead and spend some time today sharing another 5 reasons as to why I believe Activity Streams won’t embrace Information Overload any time soon, if they continue to evolve, that is, of course, without even having to mention Clay Shirky‘s “It’s not information overload. It’s filter failure“. So let’s go! Let’s see what those other 5 reasons would be like:

  • Activity Streams permeate throughout transparency and openness: Therefore helping reduce the amount of noise you are exposed to, while interacting with others. Call it ambient intimacy, declarative living or, my all time favourite, “narrate your work“, Activity Streams will help, over time, reduce the amount of transactions and frictions you will be exposed to, provoking that opportunity for knowledge workers to be on top of the knowledge flow thanks to that openness, clarity and transparency of what’s happening around you. It may take a bit of fine tuning for knowledge workers to figure out the amount of signals they would want to digest and be exposed to over time, that’s an initial required learning exercise for us all, just like when we all first started making use of email as a corporate communication tool.

    The thing is that one of the main issues behind our overloaded Inboxes today is that lack of awareness of what’s happening out there. Remember “Reply to All” and how much we all like it?… NOT!! Exactly! Much of that unnecessary, unsolicited, spam-ish generation of emails could be stopped by just simply becoming more transparent, trustworthy in what we do for our day to day interactions through those Activity Streams. Without having, of course, to detail every single aspect of what we do, which seems to go in the opposite direction of our overloaded Inboxes when, time and time again, we feel compelled about sending across plenty of emails to our peers AND bosses (Not to mention our boss’ boss!), as a way to justify our workload or cover our a**e. Talking about how critical the role of Activity Streams is in helping generate plenty of social capital and trust amongst yourself and your peers, including your manager(s), to help reduce, eventually, some of that noise.

  • They help you, greatly, be done with the obsession to read AND respond to everything: Eventually, teaching us all how we need to start letting things go. Just like with Twitter (And perhaps both Facebook and LinkedIn as well), pretty much, we have learned over time how we no longer need to read and respond to everything that comes across our way, like we use to do with our Inboxes, as my good friend Peter Kim recently blogged about, quite accurately, a couple of times over at “Why do we care so deeply about the Inbox?” and “Email: option vs. obligation” (Worth while reading both of those articles as well, by the way!).

    I still live by that trend of thought started by Stowe Boyd, if I recall correctly, a few years back, that if information shared across is really relevant for you, and I mean, really relevant, it will eventually bump into you at some point in time. Regardless. The only thing that we would need to do is to be alert and ready for it in order to act upon it accordingly. As an example, when I got things started with living “A World Without Email” one of the first things I did was to unsubscribe from all of the several dozens of newsletters I use to receive at work. 4 years later, I still need to find the first instance where a piece of information shared across in any of them would be heading my way as relevant info I would need to act upon. It hasn’t happened yet. 

    Thank you, Twitter, for showing us all how we need to start learning to disembarrass ourselves from that obsession of wanting to read everything and act on everything that comes across our way, when we all know we shouldn’t! We have got better things to do.

  • They facilitate serendipity and Informal Learning: When was the last time that you associated those two crucial concepts to your Inbox and the emails you receive? Probably, not that often, right? Yet, in the world of Activity Streams both serendipitous knowledge discoveries and informal learning, a.k.a. social learning, are fully immersed, rich experiences that one cannot avoid, but fully embrace when bumping into them time and time again. It’s those Activity Streams that help facilitate those accidental knowledge discoveries as well as learning while on the job, as the always insightful Harold Jarche shared across, just recently, under the inspiring heading “Fix the workplace“. 

    It all eventually results in helping accelerate innovation, through those facilitated informal exchanges, amongst knowledge workers, by not only learning new things, but trying them out as well, which is going to produce a new set of outcomes that could be reused by everyone else with a whole lot less effort, but still with that outstanding quality. Essentially, helping avoid having to reinvent the wheel time and time again, which is what seems to have been the trend of that siloed corporate environment ruled by our Inboxes where only us, and a few others, get exposed to those conversations in the first place. Free them up, and you will be, very soon, accelerating how innovation happens around you, your customers and your business. No time for overload.

  • They help flatten organisations and traditionally hierarchical structures: Helping, therefore, businesses become more agile, proactive and responsive to customers’ problems, requirements, needs and wants. When was the last time you felt that part of that overloaded Inbox was due to that fight for power that involves a political game from both top down, to bottom up? When was the last time you spent more time thinking about your reply to that email you were just sent based on the people who were on the .cc field than on the original .to one? I bet that was not so long ago. And it probably gets even worse when folks invoke “Reply to All”. 

    If we switch over to Activity Streams, which are public, open, transparent, clearer exchanges of information and knowledge, the first thing that we notice is that reduction on the amount of noise we get exposed to, because both the political and fight for power games are completely, or to a high degree, diminished, if not vanished altogether, since in social networks there aren’t any traditional structures or hierarchies behaving that way in the first place. Knowledge workers need to put a lot of effort, energy, commitment and hard work in helping gain that trust from their peers and increase their social capital and, as such, it does no longer work with those semi-secret, private, hidden exchanges happening through email, but instead they need to earn that trust through authenticity, through being helpful, through demonstrating their subject matter expertise on a regular basis and their willingness to not only share it, but to engage with others on it fully, as well as embracing that transparency and meritocracy that social networks seem to be thriving on all along.

    So you will probably be much better off reducing all of that noise coming through your Inbox by starting to rely on those open, transparent Activity Streams where being honest, authentic and trustworthy pays off more than those treacherous behaviours that seem to permeate, every so often, through our hidden, secretive email exchanges.

  • They inspire an open knowledge sharing culture: Where “Knowledge SHARED *is* power” is the new mantra that percolates into the corporate world as we know it today, resulting in a much more dynamic, agile, understanding, public, clearer and innovative corporate environment where knowledge is no longer hoarded, but shared across openly. So, eventually, Activity Streams will manage to help us all make the switch from that mentality of “Need to Know” to that other one, much more rewarding and gratifying, of “Need to Share“, which will mean that once knowledge is out there we will no longer depend, as much, on reaching out to people, through private interactions, to gather and collect that knowledge. Instead, it will all become a lot more self-serving for all knowledge workers, to the point where before they need to reach out to anyone out there, they may as well have got the answer to their questions by searching, filtering, annotating further those various streams.

    Essentially, there may well be an initial influx of content shared across openly and difficult to contain, since up until now it’s all been pretty much hidden away, in people’s Inboxes, computers, or even in our heads! In the end, that tacit knowledge will be shared across through multiple social networks, reach a plateau of sustainable flows and from there onwards we would be able to manage it all much better. Now, some of you folks may have already reached that status. For the vast majority though, they would need to do a little bit of a catchup, but since we are not in a hurry, what matters at the end of the day is that it happens. And you know what? It’s totally ok to ask that same question again you have been looking for an answer already, if you haven’t found it just yet in that river of news that you have been getting exposed to all along. May reason why? Well, because not everyone has read it all, done it all, know it all! So understanding and fully embracing those limits and learning from your social networks is probably what’s going to help you manage those flows much easier eventually. Teach and show them what interests you, so they can learn more about what you are passionate about and they would be the first ones helping you reduce that noise. Something that is almost impossible to achieve through your Inbox interactions. They are the ones in control, not you AND them, which is where we need to be.

Gran Canaria - Roque Nublo in the WinterNow, I do realise that at some point in time we may still be bumping into that Information Overload feeling for Activity Streams as well. I am sure though that, whenever that happens, it will be completely different than whatever we are exposed to today with our own Inboxes, and the main reason for it is that if for email we were just ourselves the ones fighting the corporation to keep up with it all, with Activity Streams it’s me, my own context, my social networks and the right collaborative and social filters the ones that will surely help me reduce as much of that noise as one could expect. The challenge though is for Activity Streams to keep growing, to learn from knowledge workers’ habits, to find the sweet spots of what’s needed and for whom and for what context, based on a whole bunch of metadata that’s been made available along the way, with the standard content shared across. And I feel that at that point in time, our main worry is going to be having, or not having, a powerful social search engine that would help us nail down most of that content…

Which is why I am pretty excited about research projects, like “Social Networking & Discovery” (a.k.a. SaND), becoming a reality as it integrates fully in Enterprise Social Software systems where Activity Streams is one of the many components that would help us keep up a better grasp of what’s happening around us. Information Overload? No, thanks! Got Activity Streams (AND Collaborative Filtering) helping out nicely tame the beast… And you? Still suffering from information overload?

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  1. Estoy de acuerdo en que los modelos red social en la empresa la hacen ganar en competitividad, y en que estar al día de la actividad de la gente que te interesa en cualquier lugar, medio social o sistema en tiempo real con un formato cross-plataforma como ActivityStreams puede generar eficiencia empresarial por descubrimientos aparentemente casuales.

    En ese punto te doy la razón, y también en que la innovación y la economía del conocimiento encajan mal con la jerarquía y hay que dejar que los flujos de conocimiento circulen con más espontaneidad.

    Claro que podríamos hablar bastante de las barreras al cambio, de la necesidad de implicación de los CEOs y de todas esas causas que hacen que ese nuevo estilo no acabe de salir de la orbita de unos pocos, y en algunos pocos puestos y sectores, pero de eso mejor hablamos otro momento.

    Volviendo a las Streams- que también me parecen una de las propuestas mas interesantes del momento -no soy tan optimista. Al modelar lo que hacemos y comunicárlo de un modo sencillo, con un claro cambio de foco hacia la persona que puede elegir y filtrar, creo que nos van a traer mucho de bueno, pero la sobrecarga de información no tiene arreglo.

    Hubo un momento en que pensé que ante la avalancha la única solución era la personalización, pero ahora creo (y supongo que lo he leído en alguna parte que se me ha olvidado:-) que cuanto mas personalizas es peor, cuanto más relevancia peor, porque todo te interesa todo y no llegas.

    Hay que aprender a vivir con la superabundancia, simplemente. Eso sí –mientras leemos y digerimos- lo menos que podemos pedir es que nos interese –y si nos libramos de filtrar ¡Bienvenido sea!

  2. Information Overload today:
    Enemy = Get Zero Inbox => Work => Mission accomplished

    Information Overload tomorrow: ?

    Some people set them selfs goals like “this evening I get my inbox empty”. Or describe uncomfortably with “I have xyz unread mails”.

    One challenge of activity streams: People loose their ‘virtual’ goals – and need to describe feelings in different words…

    Personally I know what people are doing if a (social) place gets too crowded – they simply escape. MySpace, partly Twitter, Facebook Groups – they all show trends of loosing people sometimes. But what happens if the social place/activity stream is mandatory for your work? If you could not escape? #Panic

  3. Nice post, Luis. The second point, specifically, caught my attention because it is not an obvious way to think! That’s somewhat paradoxical and I love (and believe in) paradoxes. You get the stuff bombarded from all sides and therefore force the user to apply thought and filter what’s important.

    A metaphor that occurred to me is reading a book in your room vs reading a book in a library which allows you to see what others are reading, strike a conversation with them, announce something interesting you just read etc. While there are days when you will want to and must read something in solitude, it is fun to use the library for a group-reading session as well! 🙂

  4. I will integrate all five reasons in one, and I will use all five points in my support. So in this way we can support next one in search for answers, guidance or support. I no longer feel agree with the fact that every day I need to write and read emails, when I care for my technical growth and development. And specially when those emails are not in any ways related to my current tasks, and could be all solved using activity steams. What would I do when I am dedicated to an important project, but I do need to be updated with information flow around me. I use micro tools and streams to be updated. But taking the facts that I need to care about my Inbox, I wont be very happy to write stories, when I need to focus on more important things. I call it ease of use! Great post, thank you Luis!

  5. Nice read in that it makes you think about how we handle the information flow. I would comment that my experience has been that the higher an individual moves in an organization, the less you’ll see them using “social media” in any real transparent mode.

  6. Luis, One thing is funny. Reply to all is exactly what Twitter is.
    One giant reply to all.
    If I post anything even as a reply to someone, everyone else sees it.
    The good thing, as pointed out, is, yes, we no longer care about every little message.
    Luck or serendipity will bring us the information we need, when we need it? Searching or asking for it.
    The problem is this also breeds more of the dumber generation. The one that can no longer think for themselves and needs to ask “how to do” all the time.
    Like in the Matrix movie, if I need to fly a helicopter, it could get downloaded into me(don’t I wish!) but does this make us more or less prepared for the unexpected?
    Sorry to go off on a tangent but I guess I don’t entirely agree with the premise of this post.
    It is all information overload. We just have decided to ignore it favoring when we want data or details. The I generation indeed.

  7. nice article – i can see the potential …

    how can i quickly test / implement activity streams in my organization? i have to be able to host the solution inside my net infra – because of security policies …

    i know about open source versions of twitter style of communication – but i am wondering what is the standard / fastest way to start …

    some pointers would be greatly appreciated!


  8. I am going to be so dumb right now and ask how I get activity streams.

    I am not even on twitter, I get lots of discussions on Linked-in in my inbox, I want to know – is there a cool way to collate all this.

    Excuse my ignorance and social media web 2.0 infancy

    I would love some help



  9. I always remember this GREAT advice form Nobel laureate Herb Simon, who in the 1950s(!) had this great idea/method for keeping track of important info/knowledge.

    When asked why he always seemed to know something about anything/everything, he purportedly responded. “Oh that’s easy — I keep my knowledge in my network” (i.e.NOT my head).

    So, in the network of life/business, what will you focus on? Your Node or Your Links? Probably should do both, but focus on the Links is more and more important.

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