5 Reasons Why Activity Streams Will Save You From Information Overload

Luis Suarez By Luis Suarez
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I 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.

Now, 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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About Luis Suarez
Luis Suarez has been working in the fields of Knowledge Management, collaboration, communities, and learning for the past seven years, and is heavily involved in social computing and its adoption within the enterprise. Luis shares his insights on important KM issues of today through The Knowledge Management Blog and ELSUA.NET, and is an active participant in the ITtoolbox blogging community.

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