Blog post

If You Thought Your Inbox Was Overloaded, Wait Until Activity Streams

By Craig Roth | March 08, 2011 | 8 Comments

Social softwareAttention Management

Feeling the pain of inbox overload?  Here’s an idea: now add in messages that are status updates from your CRM system (“Jim Chen just hit his monthly AGP quota”), content management system (“Presentation AugConfv2-2.pptx was added”), social networking page (“Jackie Cropper just commented on Susan Hg’s photo”), and project planning system (“Task ‘Get buy-in from VPs’ is now 2 days overdue”).  There, now do you feel more informed?

Activity streams have been around a while as a concept, but are getting a bump in interest.  IBM talked them up at Lotusphere 2011.  Microsoft added an ActivityManager class in SharePoint 2010 for MySite and profile changes, although they didn’t talk about it much or connect it to the rest of SharePoint.  In fact, most categorizations place activity streams under “social software” for historical purposes, not that their value is limited to social status updates.

Definitions of activity streams range from the mundane (something like “an aggregation of real-time feeds”) to new-fangled paradigm shifting like this:

The solution to the information overflow problem is Activity Streams. Activity Streams are the future of enterprise collaboration, uniting people, data, and applications in real-time in a central, accessible, virtual interface. Think of a company social network where every employee, system, and business process exchanged up-to-the-minute information about their activities and outcomes. Now, instead of pockets of knowledge, the company will have one central nervous system that unifies every piece of corporate information. … Activity Streams fundamentally change how companies do business, unlocking the vast amount of information generated by everyday operations and making it instantly available across previously defined boundaries. Activity Streams humanize every business process inside a company, adding a social layer to data and opening up real-time collaboration.

Source: SocialCast

I have cautious optimism about activity streams.  Applying attention management is difficult because there are so many systems to apply it to.  Creating a fulcrum for setting up alerts, filters, recommendation engines, and the like yields more value from the investment in time and money for managing attention. 

Unfortunately, right now the focus seems to be mostly on plugging everything into the streams.  The resulting deluge of status updates may give activity streams a bad name.  For that reason, I’d like to see attention management controls and UI built into activity streams from the start, not evolve over time.  But I am but one voice in the stream of life …

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  • Mike Gotta says:

    Hi Craig,

    You’re absolutely right – activity streams does run the risk of becoming as bad as our inbox is today. I agree, in part, with Monica that there is an obvious need for metadata associated with activity stream items and advanced filters to separate noise-from-signal. However, there is also a need for insight beyond the activity stream itself. Underlying semantic services are needed to understand that’s person’s context – that includes understanding activity streams in relation to their social graph. You also need to consider the back-end analytics. There is a clear intersect between activity streams and complex event processing to identify patterns and triangulate activity stream items that might be relevant to someone, or a collective, although not apparent via simple filters and metadata.

    Nice post…

  • Larry Hawes says:

    I very much agree, Craig, and have been articulating this point for several months now. The deluge of updates in an enterprise activity stream is potentially exponentially higher than new messages in an email inbox. Without proper filters, the activity stream will largely be ignored by people already overwhelmed with incoming information.

    Just as most individuals don’t know how to define an effective search query, I believe most won’t be able to create helpful activity stream filters either. Many enterprise social software vendors are creating rudimentary filters for their users, but, so far, these have not yet explored all the parameters necessary to slice and dice the stream to a focused, manageable trickle.

    Mike beat me to it, but context is key. The most effective way to narrow an enterprise activity stream will be to understand an individual’s work and physical context, and present only relevant updates. For example, social software should understand my role in the organization, expertise, interests, location, assigned tasks, etc. Only if the software intelligently filters the activity stream for individuals will they find it a useful resource.

  • Bill Kirwin says:

    For starters, I certainly agree that this part of a large impending tsunami of content that threatens to swamp the knowledge workers fragile craft.
    Like many human interface issues, this is a complex and to some degree fluid set of problems. The solutions will involve people, process and technology.
    On the people front, a number behavioral changes are needed to cope and conquer the overload factor. Most knowledge workers have never been trained to be knowledge workers. Just as we now train students how to succeed in our educational system (study habits, test taking, prioritizing, time management), we need to train workers for the information economy. Knowledge work is no longer a grass roots skill set. A trained knowledge worker will have more time, focus, coping skills and output than an untrained worker. This is critical because the process and technology improvements are already lagging the rising tide. Training is the most pro-active immediate strategy. Check out for more on this.
    Process will emerge as knowledge workflow is documented, automated and continuously improved. Today it is largely a random set of tasks.
    Technology will only be helpful once the process is understood and behavioral, dare I say cultural, change has begun. Automating a poorly understood process is dangerous and doomed.
    I think from a tech classification point this is a unified communications issue – and email, while a de facto standard dumping ground for collaboration and communication, may not be the best repository for this stuff.

  • Craig Roth says:

    I agree with everyone who has commented so far!

    Monica: It’s hard to have too much metadata, and especially with activity streams it provides another level of value …
    Mike and Larry: … because, as Mike and Larry say, the metadata can be lined up against your context to figure out what to highlight for the user out of the stream.
    Bill: Yes, the behaviors will also have to change to make this successful.

    As for the training comment, that’s a very good point. I was shocked when I finally had a grad school professor who said he welcomed you using the textbook or notes since “in the real world, no one will ask you to solve a particular problem and not allow you to use any reference materials”. The challenge – as in real life – is that you have limited time and need to have the framework in your head to succeed.

  • Craig Roth says:

    Incidentally, I wrote about how schools are not preparing students for real world attention management challenges in “What Business School Case Studies are Not Preparing Students For: Information Overload”. Glad that post finally came in handy!

  • Jack Vinson says:

    I don’t know that “too much email” is the form of “information overload” that activity streams are meant to address. One of the big benefits I see is that they should provide ONE PLACE to go to see what is going on, rather than multiple places (email, CMS, web, etc etc) to see what is happening. It’s the new version of RSS as a way to monitor all your news feeds. It’s just that those feeds are coming from many different types of application, not just news.

    That said, dumping it all into your email inbox probably isn’t the most effective way to process an activity stream.

  • We’ve had the opportunity to work on intelligent filtering strategies for streams for a while. We saw a similar overload problem with RSS, so we investigated a few strategies there.

    The good news is that activity streams in a social product have a very rich set of data available to use for filtering. Semantic analysis of the text can be useful, but microblog messages and activity stream events tend to have relatively few words.

    We’re running an internal experiment right now using a model that analyzes five primary dimensions, and it looks like it’s performing pretty well. We’ll probably have a blog post in a couple months when we release this as a feature of Social Sites.