It’s time for enterprises to come on in to the (activity) stream. The water’s fine!2013-07-12
(c) Can Stock PhotoNot too long ago, if you read a post on this blog, odds were you found it in an RSS reader. Subscribing to RSS feeds was a great way to stay current on what people were writing about. Companies like Siemens USA encouraged employees to subscribe to internal feeds. Whole business models emerged around using RSS readers as an enterprise tool for keeping up to date.
RSS readers were great; just look at how many people expressed anguish over Google euthanizing Google Reader. And RSS (contrary to popular belief) is alive and well as a core component of web infrastructure. (RSS and RSS readers are related but not synonymous.) Readers never took off in the enterprise despite their promise and utility, though, for a couple reasons. First, they weren’t exactly intuitive to non-geeks. And second, they represented only one tool an employee would need to use to feel connected and informed. If something occurred that didn’t generate a feed item, it wouldn’t show up in the reader.
Fast-forward to today. If you’re reading this post, odds are you found it in an activity stream. You found it as a link shared via Twitter, LinkedIn or Facebook. (Or AppNet, or…)
Most everybody uses an activity stream, although it might be labeled a news feed or some other monicker. They require no geek credentials to figure out. If you follow people or brands on Facebook, stuff shows up in your activity stream, which is the default view we all see when we open Facebook. (It reminds me of a bit in the play/movie The Odd Couple. Oscar is cooking dinner in anticipation of the arrival of the Pigeon Sisters. Felix asks where the gravy is. Oscar replies, “I thought it just came with the meat.” Your activity stream is the gravy that just comes with the meat.)
The activity stream keeps you connected and informed. This guy shared a photo. A colleague shared a link to a provocative article. A distant cousin let his community know about a birthday party. Another relative posted a funny graphic. That woman wrote a quick review of the movie she saw last night.
The reason checking into Facebook has become a necessity is because most everyone we know is there and if we don’t check it, we feel disconnected and uninformed.
The activity stream should be the default view on the intranet. It is the best means by which employees can stay informed and connected.
Plenty of tools are available to bring the activity stream into the enterprise. There’s Yammer, for instance, Salesforce.com’s Chatter, and a long list of intranet solutions. But most of these solutions don’t quite get us there. In most organizations I’ve worked with that have implemented Yammer, for example, it has been a resounding flop. There’s nothing wrong with the tool itself, per se, but if you look at the stream, it’s loaded with updates that read something like this: “I’m checking out this Yammer thing, but all that anyone seems to have posted is notes saying they’re checking out this Yammer thing. What a waste of time!”
(To be fair, there are companies like Dell that have done a great job of introducing the activity stream. Dell’s employees rely so much on Chatter that there was no longer a need for the EmployeeStorm tool, which was retired some time ago.)
The laser-like focus on deployment with little or no attention too many companies pay to adoption is just one problem. To be really useful in the enterprise, employees need to be able to subscribe to or follow more than just other people, and what shows up in the feed needs to include more than just status updates written by those people. Let’s look at a fabricated employee in a fictional company by way of example.
Lloyd works in sales. He’d like to know not only when his sales colleagues write an update or reply to somebody else’s post, but also when they upload a PowerPoint presentation or upload a Word document. He doesn’t care much about what comes out of headquarters since he works in a remote region, but he’d love to know when there’s any news from the region office. He’d like updates on the products he reps, including notifications of any manufacturing issues, such as inventory problems or shipping delays. Of course, if there’s a major announcement from the company, like an acquisition, he wants to know about it before he hears it on the news. When the monthly sales reports are distributed, having that show up in the stream would be great. It helps to stay connected to what his fellow sales staff are up to, and then there are those great internal blog posts by that woman in HR who manages to make benefits information laugh-out-loud funny.
While scrolling through the aggregated stream is great, there are times when he needs more focused information, and he’s really like to be able to switch to a view that shows only brand information, corporate items or uploads of presentation decks. And even though he’s not all that interested in news that doesn’t relate directly to his job, there are times he’d like to take a quick trip through the latest headlines.
You get the idea.
The idea of the activity stream as the front page of the intranet may rub employee communicators the wrong way. The front page should be like a newspaper or magazine, right? The problem is that these pages, while sometimes praised to the heavens by employees, are often seen as something to do in addition to their jobs, not an integral part of their jobs. It would be far more relevant if those articles (available on a second-tier news page in that magazine format) showed up in the activity stream as soon as they were published. It’s already second nature to anybody using Twitter, Facebook and a host of other social media platforms.
Of course, the activity stream isn’t the only thing on the landing page. Typical navigation bars and sidebar columns can contain other material. But an easily customized activity stream as the dominant part of the intranet home page would make the intranet an indispensable resource to every employee. It would improve engagement (since it would be much harder for employees to feel disconnected), improve efficiency, deliver more information in a very digestible format, and keep everyone not just in the loop, but in all the right loops.
Another significant benefit: Activity streams achieve the genuine integration of internal social media and traditional intranet-based employee communication. Need to know when the travel policy is updated? Click (or tap) the button on the travel policy page and you’ll now get an notification in the stream whenever an update is published.
Add to that the fact that activity streams are every bit as useful on a mobile device as they are on a laptop or desktop, and you’ve got a can’t-miss enterprise communication tool.
So, what needs to happen before activity streams can assume their proper place as the centerpiece of the intranet?
Here’s a short list:
- The tools available need to get more sophisticated, particularly in terms of customization. The best elements of the RSS news reader need to be integrated into enterprise activity streams, allowing employees to subscribe and then choose the views that meets their needs at the moment.
- Search of the activity stream needs to be robust.
- A “top topics” view of the stream needs to extract the most relevant material based on the profile and preferences of the employee using it.
- Communications, training and IT need to work together on a strategic plan to promote the adoption of the tool. One great approach is to find a department or team that has a serious need for the stream. Pilot the tool with them, then use their experience to help other employees understand how it improves efficiencies and reduces hassles. If it’s just one more place to go, adoption will be sparse, but if employees understand that it makes the job easier, they’ll jump all over it.
- The tools employees use for their various interactions need to be integrated with the feed. If your staff still upload presentation decks to a shared drive, the stream doesn’t do much good. But if the act of sharing the deck on an internal SlideShare-like service produces an update to the stream that says, “Lloyd uploaded a PowerPoint deck titled New Techniques for Selling to the Agriculture Industry with a link to the deck, then that particular activity becomes knowledge to those who can benefit from it.
- Any internal social tools the company uses also need to be woven into the stream. If someone an employee has opted to follow has published a new blog post, for instance, or made an edit to a wiki, that needs to appear in the stream, too.
- Without social profiles an employee can follow, the stream doesn’t exist. Just as you follow someone with a Twitter profile or friend someone with a Facebook account, employees would want to search profiles to find people who have the knowledge they’re looking for or check out the profile of someone whose activity was shared by someone they’re already following.
- Since Yammer and Chatter (and others) have some sophisticated features—like groups—some training needs to be provided when the feature isn’t intuitive. Short videos, IT chat- or phone-based support and other resources would support adoption.
Being able to conduct a robust search of the stream and to analyze the data it contains is vital. In an IBM research paper assessing the potential of the company’s activity stream, the authors suggest a sales person might want to, for example, “identify overlapping activities with the same customer…We are a big company and often times we act in parallel, duplicating efforts and generating complexity without being aware.” That’s just one example. Another, from an HR staffer, looks like this: “Analyze the flow of information and collaboration between departments and countries…who is talking to whom and where do gaps exist?” As for IT, one example goes, “Get a sense of the ‘popularity’ of tools by the number of activities that refer to them…view popularity over time using custom topic visualization.”
The good news is that none of these requirements are fantasies or science fiction. We’re very close. Our role as communicators is simple. We need to make advocate for the activity stream. We need to promote the adoption of streams. We need to let the suppliers of the streams know about the upgrades and enhancements our employees need. We need to create content that is so compelling that when it crosses the feed, those employees who need that information are driven to click through to it.
Is the activity stream working its magic in your organization? Do tell!