I describe the core capabilities of enterprise attention management as pulling important information forward and pushing less important information back. When analyzing the attentional characteristics of a system, those are the two capabilities I check for.
Notifications play an important part of pulling important information forward, so information workers are more likely to notice important content or messages out of the large repositories and streams they have access to.
The notifications issue divides up into two components: the back-end heuristics used to determine if an event, content, or message is noteworthy and the front-end interface used to focus attention.
I was speaking with IBM today, who has a good example of notifications in IBM Lotus Connections. The new 3.0 release (that came out before Thanksgiving) has a Facebook-like wall to summarize notifications from various sources such as people, blogs, forums, and wikis.
For the back-end heuristics, many of the notifications important to an information worker may require custom work, such as enabling an ERP system to send a notification when the number of widgets gets too low, a CRM system when sales targets are reached, or an operational system when rejects are piling up. Similarly, monitoring of the external environment, such as competitor’s websites, will need feeds set up manually. That’s not IBM’s fault – those systems are outside of their control. For the information Connections does control – such as people and blogs maintained in Connections – selecting which ones to monitor is easy. There is also a recommendation engine that can find content or people you might be interested in based past behaviors but aren’t currently following.
I tend to focus more on the front-end of systems since the back-end issues are more generally understood and are a simple matter of programming. The front-end is more of an art since user’s haven’t coalesced into a few patterns on how they want to follow information. Accordingly, Connections does a good job of making this configurable through different views (just people or responses to my postings, for example) or bundling options (daily or weekly digests).
One issue not addressed by Connections (or other products I’m aware of) is the need to separate networks. They could be business and personal, role based, or situational. For example, an employee who is looking to move into a marketing role may want to follow all sorts of activity on the marketing side, but may not want her current network to see the new people connections or content she is following. There are good reasons to have visibility across networks too, such as finding out that someone you work with on Project A knows an expert that could help you because he’s also on Project B. But an automated system can’t tell which networks you’d like to span and which you’d like to keep separate without additional metadata and controls in place. This is just one reason why designing the front-end of notification systems is more art than science at this point.