Email Is Crushing Us, Can Activity Streams Free Us?

Activity streams promise to alleviate the email overload we've all come to know and dread. But we've got a ways to go before they can truly replace email as our main mode of electronic communication.

If you're struggling to keep your email box from overflowing, you are not alone--this morning, my inbox summary told me I had 616 new messages awaiting my attention. Now, that's a daunting way to start the day. 

Email overload is a well-documented phenomenon that has been linked to reduced productivity, inability to focus on important tasks, and even physical and emotional stress. So it is no wonder that alternative forms of communication are being actively pursued to reduce overload, both at home and at the office. One method that is gaining popularity is the activity stream.

Activity streams provide a way to syndicate updates about a user or a group of users within a social network site or across a group of sites. Twitter is the most popular consumer activity stream, although LinkedIn and Facebook have introduced streams as well. In an activity stream, users subscribe to posts from other participants, who broadcast or selectively publish messages called news items. News items are generally text, but they can also include documents, pictures, audio, or video.

The advantages of an activity stream over email are several-fold. A producer of information can simply broadcast information to the world without having to connect to every recipient. In the consumer world, this arrangement makes it easy for Ashton Kutcher to update his nearly 10 million Twitter followers, without having to create a personal connection with each one. In an organizational setting, this type of relationship is particularly well-suited to team operations. For example, when a new employees joins a project team, they can instantly get access to past and current updates simply by subscribing to the project activity stream. Conversely, it is easy for this team member to reach out to colleagues with new ideas, status updates, or questions, without creating an email storm.

Furthermore, activity streams can potentially reduce email overload by eliminating the dreaded infinite email thread. You know, the kind made possible by the malevolent “Reply All” button. The thread that starts innocuously enough with a question for team members; something like “Who is handling the Acme account?” This is instantly followed by 15 responses like “No idea,” “I thought you were,” and “Who is Acme?” which is followed by another round and another, ad infinitum. Just three rounds of this blather creates 45 junk email messages in every members' inbox, which translates to 225 total email messages. When multiplied across an entire organization, it is easy to see how this gets out of control very quickly.

While activity streams eliminate this clutter, anyone who uses Twitter knows that they introduce new problems. For example, if you subscribe to even a few chatty folks (and there is always someone at work like this), an activity stream quickly turns into a torrent of cacophonic noise. The issue is that consecutive messages lack context, which leads to a condition I call a "stream of unconsciousness."

To reduce the noise, activity stream filters are really important. In the consumer world, tools like TweetDeck and HootSuite let you filter content by people, keywords, or tags. Creating filters is easy enough, but striking the right balance between the right quantity of useful information and an overload of noise requires a lot of constant, manual work. Furthermore, when you subscribe to multiple social networks, such as Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, you now need to maintain and follow multiple sets of activity streams.

In the enterprise, the problem is even worse. Individual teams, departments, and divisions are already rolling out their own activity stream generators. Products that include enterprise social networking or microblogging capabilities create activity streams. Tools like Microsoft SharePoint, IBM Connections, Jive Software, Yammer, Chatter, and Newsgator let organizations create new silos of information flows. Combining these products in a meaningful way brings new challenges, since the tools are not interoperable.

It's safe to say that email is not going anywhere anytime soon. Unlike activity streams, email fulfills a basic need for one-to-one communication. Furthermore, email is universal; its standards were hammered out years ago, so you don’t need to use a particular product to send or receive it. And most importantly, everyone feels comfortable with email. And changing user behavior is the biggest impediment to getting new technologies adopted.

Having said that, in my next post, I will look at some practical solutions approaches for creating useful enterprise activity streams.

What do you think? Will activity stream take off in the enterprise? Tell me what you think in the comments; you can also email me at dlavenda1@hotmail.com or tweet me at @dlavenda.

Related: Disgruntled Ex-Googlers Rethink The Way Gmail Works, With Fluent.io

Author David Lavenda is a high tech marketing and product strategy executive who also does academic research on information overload in organizations. He is an international scholar for the Society for the History of Technology.

[Images: Flickr users whistlepunch and Robert Scoble]

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28 Comments

  • Pankaj

    Great post. Although activity streams are an improvement over email in multiple ways, they have their own set of problems. You might want to read my blog entry on the benefits of activity streams - http://www.hyperoffice.com/blo...

    To get away from "activity stream overload", i think they system should have intelligent filters built into it, kind of like what Facebook has. Rather than users having to make the constant effort of filtering out information, the system should be able to learn what is more relevant to them. 

  • johnt

      yeun I'm impressed by your comment that has led me to FMYI. MangoApps has mark read/unread, but I haven't seen show me posts since I was last here...I like the clear and simple filter posts by person
    Great post! The enterprise is a different context to facebook...we need ways to make sure important stuff doesn't stream by. Sooner or later we will have activity stream overload, that's why we need filters just like we see in email: save items in folders/tags, flag for follo-up, filters, sorting. We will get less email as we are not pushed stuff, instead we choose to follow it...if you leave a comment you always are notified of the next comment, which is similar to reply-all, but at least we can unfollow the thread. 

    But this reduction in emails is dwarfed by the river of posts we see based on following lots of people...we will in-fact increase overload.  But then who cares, activity streams don't have mark read/unread, they are not for important stuff, if stuff streams by who cares...WRONG...the whole idea is activity streams are both for awareness and doing work, just like the email client is being used. 

    Perhaps the idea is activity streams will help email be more sacred ie. just for essential content we need to work on...but the thing is enterprise activity streams are where you follow news and questions but also where you do work...it's all mixed, just like it was all mixed in email. 

    I can forsee in the future activity streams will be feature rich as email clients, as well as still offering private conversations...and then one day interoperability between products. Only then will email clients start to fade. 

    Been thinking about managing activity streams lately and decided to post on it the other day, have more posts coming up 

    http://libraryclips.blogsome.c...  

  • Aditya Sanyal

    You still need to use email to collaborate with external parties who don't have access to your collaboration platform, but I agree with your assessment that  activity steams are perfect for the enterprise.  

    A mix of private and public activity streams will help solve the question of activity stream overload. You can also have alerts whenever you are specifically tagged or invited to an item of interest. If the activity stream item is generated by a third party business application, the context gets provided using a special "context point", ensuring that you don't need to switch between apps to understand the context of these items in the activity stream. 

    This has worked very well for us.

    Regards,
    Aditya

    Qontext, Inc
    www.qontext.com

  • Justin Yuen

    This is a topic I've been working on since I first worked on Nike's intranet and especially over the past eight years with our team at FMYI [for my innovation], a social collaboration software company. My thoughts:
    1. Streams: A big difference between social and work streams is that there are certain posts you can't miss in a work setting.We can't treat social and work streams as the same because in a work setting, there are certain projects, client updates, and major announcements that you simply can't miss. When you're using Twitter, it's okay to dip in when you have time to browse posts. When it comes to work posts, you need to have a way to notify you of the most important items, whereas for the rest, you can browse if you'd like, but if you miss those updates, it's not as important. So it's essential that you have an activity stream that can elevate the most important posts to your work.The way we handle this at FMYI is to give numerous options within our Activity Manager. FMYI's Activity Manger is a newsfeed of selectively private interactions, with tools for action, such as setting a bar so you know where you left off reading, flagging items that need your attention or adding a task to later address something important. Besides being able to see all posts on the site (and filter by topic, person, posts since you last signed in), you can view posts for pages you're subscribed to or a member of. Typically this means you're part of the project team for example, meaning you must see those posts. Also, we have an innovative feature where you can "raise the bar" by setting a point in time in the stream that you're caught up with all the posts in the stream, so the next time you sign in you can see what's happened since that point where you set the bar. You can also quickly create a task off an item in the activity stream or flag an activity stream post to follow up on later.2. Email: Let's embrace what email is perfect for (notifications) and realize what it's not so great for (managing workflow and long brainstorms).Emails fill a critical role as an easy to use notification system (just like text messages and mobile push notifications) that brings something timeline to your attention. Once you start using email to try and manage workflow (project management, contact tracking, discussing ideas), the volume of emails can really increase. The key is for collaboration sites to reduce the volume of emails by filtering out less critical items, consolidating important information, and keep things focused on critical high priority notifications.You can't afford to flood your box with team emails, but being in the loop is critical to the success for you and your team. FMYI incorporates a new strategy to make the email less intrusive - we're planning a launch soon for our "StopLightEmail" campaign where you decide to only read updates in your site, get one email a week or a day summarizing all updates, or receive instant alerts with the ability to simply reply by email and have your response filed and distributed automatically. A unique feature of this is the "Urgent" override where select team members can bypass the digest when an emergency email must go out. In the end, allowing users to select the amount of email that works, meeting them where their needs are, leads to instant adoptions. And access without excess reduces stress and increases productivity.

    3. Adoption: Collaboration sites have to be much more than a social space - it needs to be the place of workflow.

    If you look at your inbox, it's probably mostly full of emails to schedule meetings and updates on project tasks, contact tracking, and revisions for key resources. These activities need to happen within collaboration sites for adoption to become more widespread within the enterprise. General updates, questions posted across the organization, and articles posted up will only go so far with generating overall adoption. Until workflow happens with these sites, they will simply be an evolution from an old school Sharepoint-type intranet site as opposed to a revolution in collaborative productivity.

    With our clients, we've found that user adoption goes up when the site is focused on specific audiences (departments, divisions, cross functional groups, external stakeholders, etc) and specific workflow activities (project management, contact tracking, developing resources) within the enterprise. It's the key to sustained user adoption success, and when activity streams can finally reach their potential.

  • Justin Yuen

    Sorry for the crazy formatting - here's an easier to read version:

    This is a topic I've been working on since I first worked on Nike's intranet and especially over the past eight years with our team at FMYI [for my innovation], a social collaboration software company. My thoughts:

    1. Streams: A big difference between social and work streams is that there are certain posts you can't miss in a work setting.
    We can't treat social and work streams as the same because in a work setting, there are certain projects, client updates, and major announcements that you simply can't miss. When you're using Twitter, it's okay to dip in when you have time to browse posts. When it comes to work posts, you need to have a way to notify you of the most important items, whereas for the rest, you can browse if you'd like, but if you miss those updates, it's not as important. So it's essential that you have an activity stream that can elevate the most important posts to your work.The way we handle this at FMYI is to give numerous options within our Activity Manager. FMYI's Activity Manger is a newsfeed of selectively private interactions, with tools for action, such as setting a bar so you know where you left off reading, flagging items that need your attention or adding a task to later address something important. Besides being able to see all posts on the site (and filter by topic, person, posts since you last signed in), you can view posts for pages you're subscribed to or a member of. Typically this means you're part of the project team for example, meaning you must see those posts. Also, we have an innovative feature where you can "raise the bar" by setting a point in time in the stream that you're caught up with all the posts in the stream, so the next time you sign in you can see what's happened since that point where you set the bar. You can also quickly create a task off an item in the activity stream or flag an activity stream post to follow up on later.2. Email: Let's embrace what email is perfect for (notifications) and realize what it's not so great for (managing workflow and long brainstorms).Emails fill a critical role as an easy to use notification system (just like text messages and mobile push notifications) that brings something timeline to your attention. Once you start using email to try and manage workflow (project management, contact tracking, discussing ideas), the volume of emails can really increase. The key is for collaboration sites to reduce the volume of emails by filtering out less critical items, consolidating important information, and keep things focused on critical high priority notifications.You can't afford to flood your box with team emails, but being in the loop is critical to the success for you and your team. FMYI incorporates a new strategy to make the email less intrusive - we're planning a launch soon for our "StopLightEmail" campaign where you decide to only read updates in your site, get one email a week or a day summarizing all updates, or receive instant alerts with the ability to simply reply by email and have your response filed and distributed automatically. A unique feature of this is the "Urgent" override where select team members can bypass the digest when an emergency email must go out. In the end, allowing users to select the amount of email that works, meeting them where their needs are, leads to instant adoptions. And access without excess reduces stress and increases productivity.3. Adoption: Collaboration sites have to be much more than a social space - it needs to be the place of workflow.If you look at your inbox, it's probably mostly full of emails to schedule meetings and updates on project tasks, contact tracking, and revisions for key resources. These activities need to happen within collaboration sites for adoption to become more widespread within the enterprise. General updates, questions posted across the organization, and articles posted up will only go so far with generating overall adoption. Until workflow happens with these sites, they will simply be an evolution from an old school Sharepoint-type intranet site as opposed to a revolution in collaborative productivity.With our clients, we've found that user adoption goes up when the site is focused on specific audiences (departments, divisions, cross functional groups, external stakeholders, etc) and specific workflow activities (project management, contact tracking, developing resources) within the enterprise. It's the key to sustained user adoption success, and when activity streams can finally reach their potential.

  • Teddy Burriss

    I liked this post David. I like the concept of activity stream as well as the death of Email. 
    I got rid of Outlook and Mac Mail a few years ago. I went to Google Mail which has conversation threads. It took time to get used to them, but now easier to delete an entire conversation when needed.
    The Telegraph lasted from mid 1800's until late 1870's (telephone)IBM Punchcard machines from the 1950's are dead and goneFax Machines from the 1960's are still being used, but usage is diminishing
    Land Lines are still in use, but also diminishing - I have not had one in business for 3 yrs.
    Today I do business with people who message primarily via Social Media - no phone, no fax, minimal email.Bureaucracy will keep us using the antique systems. 

  • Michael Weir

    Great post - really succinct about advantages and pitfalls of activity streams. Good filtering is important, but what will make the difference for enterprise and can drive adoption will be visibility and measurability of peoples actual work in the activity stream. The activity stream needs to be focused on making the work (tasks and projects) social rather than the people. If you track tasks, then you can measure and improve, and more importantly, show ROI.

    Secondly,social workflow is important - let the machines do repeated tasks for you and string them together with rules and automations. How big of a pain is it to onboard an employee via email? Do it with social workflow and reduce duplicated efforts and unnecessary communications.

    Last, as far as interoperability goes, that will occur with traditional big iron BPM and back office tools, but too much self interest happening to think that it's going to be easy to connect E20 companies like Yammer, SharePoint and SFDC. - I think it may be best if some of the bigger players adopt a platform strategy and aggressively partner to build out horizontal features rather than build them themselves so we will end up with a few full featured ESN's to choose from.

    Full disclosure - I am CMO @Sparqlight, the Enterprise Social Workflow Application.

  • johnt

    Great post!

    The enterprise is a different context to facebook...we need ways to make sure important stuff doesn't stream by. Sooner or later we will have activity stream overload, that's why we need filters just like we see in email: save items in folders/tags, flag, filters, sorting.

    We will get less email as we are not pushed stuff, instead we choose to follow it...if you leave a comment you always are notified of the next comment, which is similar to reply-all, but at least we can unfollow the thread. But this reduction in emails is dwarfed by the river of posts we see based on following lots of people...we will in-fact increase overload. 

    But then who cares, activity streams don't have mark read/unread, they are not for important stuff, if stuff streams by who cares...WRONG...the whole idea is activity streams are both for awareness and doing work, just like the email client is being used.
    Perhaps the idea is activity streams will help email be more sacred ie. just for essential content we need to work on, and activity stream will take care of occupational spam where it instead becomes self-serve ie. you choose to "follow". But the thing is enterprise activity streams are where you follow news and questions but also where you do work...it's all mixed, just like it was all mixed in email.

    I can forsee in the future activity streams will be feature rich as email clients, as well as still offering private conversations...and then one day interoperability between products. Only then will email clients start to fade.

    Been thinking about managing activity streams lately and decided to post on it the other day, have more posts coming up
    http://libraryclips.blogsome.c... 

  • David Lavenda

    Bart, I agree that activity streams will take their place alongside email, but a number of changes have to happen first, including true vendor inter-operability. Filtering on people works in some instances, not when dealing with larger groups that span more than one project or topic.  Filtering has to be more sophisticated than that, and you don't take into account dealing with multiple activity streams.  That makes life even more complicated.  I will cover more on this later in the week.

  • Bart Schrooten

    It's not either email or activity streams. Both will be there still for a long time. Anyway, an activity stream needs to be tied to work processes and goals, not just microblogging. You should be able to filter activities based on the groups of people that you work with.

  • EmailTray

    Just last week the smart email client EmailTray came out with an Android version. Go to Google Play and download it to your Android phone. On your screen you will then only see the number of mails in your Top Priority Inbox and your Low Priority Inbox. Newsletters and other "No Priority" messages and spam will remain out of sight and mind unless you dig deeper once or twice per day. EmailTray also has an antiphishing function in that email from popular and prolific senders like Facebook is authenticated as real or not before landing in a priority inbox or not.

  • ErinNeer

    Great points, David. I look forward to reading your next post about this. While I think activity streams are a step forward, there's clearly a lot left to do in terms of getting people to use such platforms. We've reduced group mailboxes at work by adding communities of practice (where we include wikis, discussion forums, blogs, etc.). Everyone admits they love the time they've been given back, but there are still pleny of other employees that cling to email.

    Do you not think the email issue at work goes deeper than just the communication aspect? Are people not sharing because they're used to email, or does it go deeper than this? Perhaps they're afraid to post their question or knowledge "out loud" to the masses for various reasons?

  • David Lavenda

    Mark, I completely understand your frustration about trying to get people to use new tools. It turns out that changing user behavior is probably THE biggest impediment to adopting new technologies. Always has been. As you mention, microblogging tools like Yammer are good for the kind of updates that don't necessitate an email 'blast,' however, getting people to not only post, but also follow what others are saying is sometimes challenging. I will write more about this in my next post, but there are several things you need to do to get people to change. One of them is to evolve your existing communication tool - rather than to present people with a revolutionary technology that requires a change in user behavior. I will talk about how this is done in my next post. 

  • David Lavenda

    Erin,  you suggest the ways you prefer to be contacted. Great. Several questions. If you are a work colleague, how would I know this? How would I be able to distinguish between your preferences and the myriad other people with whom I communicate?  There has to be a standard way to communicate or else it won't work. Another reader suggests training. I agree. Email training is important, but it is hard to change peoples' well-worn work habits, so that's not the complete answer either. Also, you mention sharing documents by sending document attachments. Well, I am sure you have probably sent out a document to several colleagues for comment, and gotten back multiple and conflicting sets of comments.  Reconciling those conflicts is not fun and its really unproductive. No, there has to be a more integrated and streamlined approach we can all accept. One-off solutions might help here and there, but they aren't solutions for organizations or society.

  • David Lavenda

    Chris, the market is indeed ripe for a startup to offer a solution to the communications problem you raise. But...I do not believe that creating a new form of email is the solution. The solution must take into account interoperability between existing products and communications modalities, because people will not throw out the tools with which they are comfortable. Email will evolve; but let's distinguish between email 'the place we spend our day' (i.e. the email client) and the email 'the communication technology.' I believe the email client will evolve to include more communication capabilities until we will hardly recognize it. Activity streams, text messages, chats, voice, and other technologies all have their place in communication because they each fulfill slightly different communications needs. But they need to be integrated better. I will try to expand on this theme in my next post.

  • Chris Kirk

    Mr.
    Lavenda,

     

    This
    is a very insightful post which explores the different issues and possible
    solutions to email. More and more, email is becoming an increasingly
    distracting platform which seems to be impeding productivity instead of amplifying
    it. As a tech lover and aspiring entrepreneur I am captivated by the trends and
    shifts that move technology forward; the latest seemingly the way in which
    people communicate online. At a first glance, it’s hard for me to imagine how
    activity streams will eventually replace email. Email is still an integral part
    of many different people’s way for communicating. As you mentioned in your post
    email it is universal (my grandma and every single person I know has email) and
    it fulfills a basic need for one-to-one communication. This is a crucial part
    of the way people communicate and until something else can accomplish these two
    tasks, they will not be able to overtake email. As activity streams currently
    exist, they certainly do not solve these issues. Facebook comes close to
    solving the universality with their huge user base, but it is cluttered with
    other noise that distracts from the instant communication available via email
    and still does not communicate well with other platforms. You mention how the
    activity stream noise can be fixed by filtering tools on the client and
    business side. To me this solution seems imperfect—and perhaps that’s why you
    argue activity streams are not quite ready to replace email—as whatever the
    future communication platform will be, it certainly needs to be easy and
    instant. I doubt the average future-email user can spend the time or attain the
    expertise to tweak these filters to the ideal balance. Do you believe these tools
    will evolve to be user friendly? Is it possible email will still exist, just
    integrated into a much better platform?

     

    Although
    I think we do need to find a viable alternative to succeed email, I am unsure
    how that will happen given the challenge of getting a wide user base and
    adoption. I think this is why a number of alternatives failed to succeed and
    why this area is still ripe for startup disruption, for those who are daring
    enough to tackle this daunting task. Google Wave offered a very useful and new
    form of communication, yet they failed to gain the momentum needed to sustain
    themselves. Although I believe if they offered a better method of integration
    with old email accounts they could have been more successful. Do you think
    Google Wave was moving in the right direction of email replacement? I believe
    that the current startups focusing on email such as ShortMail or OtherInbox
    have the integration with email down well, yet they seem afraid to challenge
    the status quo. They need to offer something different to truly change email—perhaps
    incorporating a filter which will combine email as well as social activity
    streams. If we are going to see the end of productivity draining email, the replacement
    will need to find the perfect balance between old technology and new innovation. 

  • ErinNeer

    If you have an easy question for me, IM me or write on my profile board (internal or external). If it's a more complicated conversation, perhaps an email where an attachment is involved, share the document using an internal platform or on Google and forget the email. I'd much rather access the file and the conversation around it, than have to go back and forth via email. Or worse, later when I need the file, I have to search my inbox or folders for said file. By sharing the file (and the conversation around it), I can easily access it when needed.

    Another thing about email that gets under my skin: REPLY ALL. Sometimes I feel like it was the worst idea ever. I don't need to receive a file then have 27  "RE: this file" messages from people thanking the sender for the file. #annoying

  • Mark Goldstein

    David, I work for the IT organization of a medium-sized global firm and was excited when I read this blog entry this morning. Simple announcements just to our internal IT staff such as "Office X is experiencing an ISP outage" sometimes yield an unbelievable amount of noise and continual follow-ups, like the expected "when will it be restored" every eight minutes, followed by two dozen emails discussing "workarounds" which won't work.

    I envision a very lightweight tool… literally a Twitter-like feed that announces updates/changes/outages or anything else that is relevant for the team but that does not need noise; e.g. “The Brussels office is experiencing an ISP outage, ETR 3 hours” or “the firewall rules at site B were updated today, Joe in the US is on call overnight for EMEA/APAC…” things that are important to disseminate without getting lost in an inbox, do not require further discussion as a group, have a short shelf life, and would be nice to look back at weeks/months later (search/filter) to determine the exact day of an event. E-mail is rife for the sort of noise that could easily bury these short, pertinent bursts of information.

    Unfortunately, I learned that my company had used Yammer in the past on a trial basis for two projects. When the projects were done, the usage on Yammer dropped to nearly nothing; the only posts these days seem to be automated. Everyone returned to what they had been using for years and what they know best: email and IM. We have all learned over the years to spend the time using these simple yet powerful tools and filtering out the noise ourselves instead of adding another tool into our daily lives.

    Besides a directive from management forcing people to use such activity stream tools, how would you make such tools attractive and get people to want to use them organically?

    I am very much looking forward to your follow-up post on practical solutions for enterprises. Thanks.

  • David Lavenda

    Chris, great question. I spent several years trying to sell such a product; one where people use public social networks like Facebook to interface with co-workers, but which stored sensitive data on premise/behind the firewall. We did several big pilots at global companies,  but they all failed and here's why - companies don't feel comfortable using publicly-available social networks for any internal corporate use (other than communicating with customers).  The issue is not only data storage, which is solvable, but rather, exposing employees to potentially offensive ads, for which the company has no control. Also, nobody wants to rely on a third party to supply 'mission-critical' infrastructure when you have no legal relationship with them (for example, no SLA if the service goes down). So this idea was a total non-starter. Just ain't going to happen.

    So companies aren't going to use Facebook for internal communications. Rather, they are already turning to enterprise-class social networking companies who supply organizational social networking tools and services.  Companies like IBM, Microsoft, Yammer, Jive, Chatter/SalesForce, SocialText, and others already supply social networking tools to many organizations securely and with service-level agreements. These are the types of  tools that will play a role in corporate communications going forward.