Why Activity Streams and Social Analytics promise to be the future of enterprise collaboration

By David Bicknell

One of the most eagerly anticipated reports each year is Gartner’s Hype Cycle, which assesses more than 1,900 technologies on their maturity, business benefit and future direction.

It provides a cross-industry perspective on the trends that IT managers should consider adopting within their ‘must-watch this technology’ portfolios.

Throughout 2011, two of the most-watched technologies have been ‘Social Analytics’ and ‘Activity Streams’ which are in Gartner’s “Peak of Inflated Expectations” where typically a frenzy of publicity generates over-enthusiasm and unrealistic expectations of the technology, and which often means that although there may be some successful applications of a technology, there are likely to be more failures than fanfares.

These two, however, may be different. Activity Streams has been described as the future of enterprise collaboration, uniting people, data, and applications in real-time in a central, accessible, virtual interface. Take the idea of a company social network where every employee, system, and business process exchanges 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 can fundamentally change how companies do business, unlocking and releasing the vast amount of information generated by everyday operations and making it instantly available, humanising every business process inside a company, while adding a social layer to data and opening up real-time collaboration.

As the Cisco Communities blog pointed out earlier this year, the overall concept of Activity Streams is compelling because streams allow applications to publish events that are captured by aggregators that serialise the items into a sequence of posts. Often items include options for people to “like”, comment, or react to the item in some manner through a rating. Aggregating events into a common stream also enables people to easily subscribe (“follow”) a collective set of events from one or more publishers.

Cisco Communities suggests potential benefits are not just accrued by people-centric activity streams. Indeed, applications of all types can also generate activities into a stream to keep people aware of system events (e.g., a new sales win, an urgent alert of some sort). As the enterprise considers how Activity Streams can be leveraged, interest in role-based and process-related streams is also likely to emerge. The idea is that both productivity and collaboration needs can be improved by making events more visible and allowing people to take action more effectively (sometimes collectively) based on that level of event transparency (especially when compared to how people rely on their e-mail inbox for much of this type of group notification and work coordination).

There are some riders, however. As more people and applications create events published into a common stream, the resulting volume and velocity by which events “stream by” can cause people to miss something relevant, which means they end up spending time scrolling up and down searching for things they might have missed. Depending on the way activities are aggregated, there may be limits as to how much information is actually kept around to enable historical review. The risk is that Activity Streams can become just as messy and burdensome as an email inbox. Better filtering may help – but this is still a developing area.

Where does Social Analytics come in, you might ask?  Social Analytics is closely related to Activity Streams because from the vast amount of real-time and dynamic information available, actionable insights need to be extracted so that the organisation can efficiently and effectively focus itself.

The Mvine platform has already developed this capability so that customers can create reports of what their users are doing with the site in real-time. Information created, detailing data such as age, gender, frequency to the site, downloads, location, job function, can then be used to produce reports and help target marketing campaigns and generate sales leads; providing a bespoke service to customers and an intelligent approach to understanding your user base.

It is important to be aware that when it comes to Social Analytics, one size never fits all. That is why there is a need for ‘Adaptive’ Social Analytics because the analytics will always depend on the context in which they’re being used, on which explicit application you’re using, and on the people and content you’re interested in.

For example, if you’re using an Mvine portal to communicate with a consumer-based client base, then you’ll want to know more about them as individuals, in particular their demographics. Are they ABC1, for example? However, if you’re using it to manage the content and communications in your supply chain, then the analytics required will need to cover roles and relevance i.e. Is the right department receiving and acting on your communications? Who there is receiving it? Is it the right information for their role? If your alerts are targeting Finance Directors, but your event attendees seem to be from HR, why is that? Are your alerts going to the right people, with the right demographics in terms of gender, age, responsibility and location? For example, why are you targeting an event at geographically-spread project managers in the South who never have time to meet, when better targets would be those in closer-knit locations in the North? And are your user group chapter and product discussion groups full of a silent majority of followers, or voluble – and valuable – opinion formers?  

If the company is a business-to-business organisation where regulation is critical, then the analytics information delivered will necessarily be concerned with proof that processes have been appropriately followed and that required review and sign-off complies with the organisation’s designated policies and procedures. Your analytics information will therefore comprise time-stamping information that details who did what, where and when.

Why is this important? Well, it’s all about people, context and content.  Just because we are talking about the Internet does not change the requirement for the basics to be right when it comes to the delivery of effective and usable information. We need the right information to be delivered to the right people, with the right context, in the right place, at the right time, and in the right way. Anything less, then we’re dealing with ineffective information, which is likely to herald an equally ineffective, or worse, a wrong business decision.

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