Activity stream software vs. information architecture

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Activity streams are a central feature of many enterprise social software platforms. Pure play activity stream software like Yammer, Socialcast and Chatter receive much marketing and attention. However, we hear precious little about the major downside of activity streams: they fail to address employees’ needs for an easy-to-browse site navigation and findable intranet content. For instance, how do you organize your HR  policies using an activity stream?

In this post we look at the strengths and weaknesses of activity streams. We also explain how activity streams can play an important role in a more complete social intranet.

Activity stream software is all the rage

An activity stream is a chronological display of status updates, online discussions and notifications of tasks completed. You can often interact with the items in a stream by commenting, liking, favoriting or sharing. In other cases, an activity stream is an automatic activity log with links to the referenced material. Microblogging often sits at the core of an activity stream.

Activity streams can be merely one feature of enterprise social software, like on a social intranet, or they can be the core purpose of a product. Since 2008, ThoughFarmer has included contextual activity streams on every page and aggregated activity streams on the homepage. Recently the more traditional intranet software companies have added activity stream features in order to become more social and competitive.

Yammer, the market leader in enterprise activity streams, has become quite well known due its viral growth model and acquisition by Microsoft. This popularity has resulted in more people being exposed to activity stream software than any other enterprise social software. The result is that some people equate activity streams with social intranets and even think of activity streams as the core manifestation of “social business” itself.

Activity stream software vs. traditional intranets

Activity streams offer a stark contrast to the static, out-of-date content we expect from old-school intranets. We’re all familiar with that archetypal page of low grade intranet content: the poorly written HR instructions that haven’t been updated for years. (See our Intranet Secrets site for a satirical look at the secrets people tell about their low-grade intranets.) By offering a living, constantly-updated stream of updates, activity streams expose the creation of new content and online conversations as they happen. Employees see activity flowing by, can join conversations happening out in the open, and can share their voices.

At the same time, the perpetual flow of updates can overwhelm employees in the same way their email inboxes do. And activity streams don’t provide the structured, findable content employees still need. There is no doubt that activity streams play a key role in this new era of enterprise software, but they also offer their share of shortcomings.

Strengths of activity streams

(+) Communication transparency: Activity streams allow people to have conversations “in the open” rather than in email. Making conversations more visible allows others not originally involved to chime in if they have relevant input.

(+) Serendipitous discovery: Related to transparency, exposing conversations and activity creates opportunities for discovering useful information or relevant conversations that you might not otherwise encounter.

(+) Status updates & sharing thoughts: You wouldn’t send an email that says “I’m working on the Acme Corp proposal right now” or “I really like our newly rebranded website.” But the informality and ephemeral nature of activity streams allows this sort of low-level broadcasting.

(+) Asking questions: Just as in a discussion forum, you can easily post a question, either to a specific group or to everyone.

(+) Keeping up with what’s going on: You can get a snapshot of what people are working on and talking about (at least online) by perusing an activity stream.

Weaknesses of activity streams

(-) Search: Have you ever tried to search for an article a friend posted in Facebook a week ago? What about a Twitter update from 10 days ago? In activity streams the flow of information can grow quite large, yet also be highly granular and unorganized. This results in poor findability through search.

(-) Navigation & wayfinding: A typical website has a sitemap with a clearly organized navigation structure, also known as the “information architecture.” This helps people quickly click through web pages to get to the information they need. Activity stream software, however, doesn’t usually allow the creation of a clear navigation, but instead focuses on “what’s happening right now.”

(-) Reference content: While the hype of social software is all about “conversation vs. monologue,” people will always need to find official company information. The traditional job of the intranet is to help employees get easy-to-access information, such as how to update your healthcare benefits or request leave. Activity stream software typically doesn’t allow the creation of centralized reference content, or offers only a weak solution.

(-) Task completion: Related to reference content, activity streams do poorly at helping staff complete common daily tasks. Looking for the link to the timesheet software? Need to prepare a travel reimbursement form? Where do you find the resources to do this in an activity stream?

(-) Collaborative editing: Activity stream software excels at the lightweight “conversation” aspect of collaboration, but often does not accomodate more intensive collaboration around content creation. Need to draft a proposal and track version histories? A social intranet can do that, but an activity stream may not provide that capability.

The big #FAIL of activity streams: no information architecture

We can aggregate all the weaknesses of activity streams listed above into one major failing: no information architecture. No global site navigation, no sitemap with deeper levels of navigation, little or no content metadata.

A traditional intranet or CMS obviously falls short around interactive communication and collaboration. However, it does offer information architecture. Financial forms, instructions for changing your retirement benefits, company PowerPoint templates, news with images and videos — all of this rich content needs to live somewhere within the site and be findable through search. Activity streams offer virtually no tools for addressing this need.

Activity stream software lets you create groups, but not sections of content. It lets you upload documents to the stream, but not onto a page within a sitemap or into a document list. It lets you type instructions into a discussion thread, but you can’t create an enduring page with rich formatting that fits into a larger navigation.

Activity stream software addresses the weaknesses of traditional intranets, but ignores their strengths. It throws the content baby out with the one-way-communications bathwater. The result is a constant flow of new information that has a short shelf life. Discussions become irrelevant after perhaps just a few days. They accumulate en masse, quickly reducing the effectiveness of search. In activity stream software there is virtually no permanent reference content and no way to make content easier to find.

Social intranets strike a balance

Standing firmly on the middle ground between stale intranets and structureless activity streams you will find social intranet software like ThoughtFarmer.

A social intranet offers a strong hierarchical navigation along with interactive social features such as activity streams. You can experience all the benefits of enterprise social software without sacrificing the value of traditional intranets.

Benefits Activity
Stream
software
Standard
CMS
Social
intranet
software
Communication transparency Strong None Strong
Serendipitous discovery Strong None Strong
Status updates & sharing thoughts Strong None Strong
Asking questions Strong None Strong
Keeping up with what’s going on Strong Weak Strong
Collaborative editing Weak Weak Strong
Search Weak Strong Strong
Navigtion & way-finding None Strong Strong
Reference content None Strong Strong
Task completion None Strong Strong

In ThoughtFarmer you can quickly and easily build a hierarchical site navigation (watch a 2-minute video that shows this being done). You can apply security settings to restrict edit permissions and view permissions. You can offer multilingual versions of content, track changes with version histories and attach and manage files. These ThoughtFarmer features deliver the more traditional value of structured intranet content. But you also get the benefit of true social features integrated at a core level, including:

  • Activity streams
  • Rich employee profile pages
  • Comments on news stories and most intranet pages
  • Wiki-type pages with co-editing
  • Blogs & forums
  • Groups
  • Status updates

Do these sound like features of a static and stale intranet? The reality is that you can have your intranet navigation cake and eat your social software too.

Beware an unfortunate compromise

To compensate for its weaknesses, some companies try running activity stream software alongside their more traditional intranets. This practice requires twice the software maintenance effort, more training and a larger intranet staff. This approach costs more, but the real down side is lack of adoption. If employees need to use two different sites, learn the interfaces of two different systems, and try to figure out which site to use for the content they need, they may just avoid using either of them.

Know your options

Activity stream software can be great for improving collaboration and communication and may be a good fit for your needs. Be careful, though, not to sacrifice too much. If information findability is still important for your organization, you may want a solution that combines the modern, collaborative features of activity stream software with the findability benefits of a well-designed content managment system.

Comments3

Join The Discussion

  1. Claudio Nichele

    You pinpoint the real problem in your post. Users will never be able to do their work with only an activity stream software. They need to retrieve and access quickly the official company information, and be convinced in less than 1 second that this information is the unique reference on which they can rely. This was a strenght of “classic” CMS, or intranets web1.0. This is quite hard to achieve with pure social features only.
    But activity streams and other social features have a lot of big advantages that nowadays we cannot not propose to our users for the benefit of our organisation. They are correcty described in your post. Just want to add that activity streams help to improve the quality and pertinence of content in the classic CMS. I consider activity streams and social features in general as the “best partners” of content in a classic intranet. One weakness of the use of activity streams, not them per se, is the tendency of people to consider a very narrow time window (due to habits on FB and twitter). As a result, the same questions and topics reappear regularly on such streams. The solution would be to consolidate the information out of the stream in a knowledge database (a wiki) and…educate people to look first there before posting their question (hard task :).

    Classic CMS and social feature must be intimately linked but be clearly distinguishable by users. They don’t compete but complement and support each other. That’s for me the true social intranet.

  2. Des Bravington

    I feel that central to the success of any of these tools (activity stream or CMS) is in understanding, 1/ the people using them and, 2/ the way the organisation functions. The digital ecosystem (or workplace) contains a variety of components and it is the quality of their integration that I feel delivers the most value and not just what components are available.

    People are generally familiar now with the idea of short updates and an activity stream or feed of this type can be a really useful barometer of what is happening with the organisation or on a project (based on the updates from those people using that tool of course). As you point out, there can be a lot of “noise” so determining what is useful can sometimes be challenging. Being selective about what is displayed on an aggregated homepage feed for example is one way to tame things, or perhaps in future we will see some curation of aggregated feeds.

    Paying close attention to the reason for displaying an activity stream, and its context, must be key to its usefulness. For example, a homepage stream may contain completely different content to a stream in a project or departmental workspace.

    I have not seen a good search integration of activity streams alongside curated content. In standalone systems the same challenges I have seen with CMS based search is apparent regarding the volume of content and the quality. Once again I think it will be identifying who is a trusted contributor that will play a key role so checking out a known experts’ stream may ultimately prove more useful and the search could be focussed on establishing who those people may be in a particular context?

    Thanks for this article Ephraim – looking forward to reading what others think.

  3. Ephraim Freed

    Thanks for these thoughtful comments Claudio & Des!

    Your comments together highlight an important point: Activity streams are still young and we (collectively) have a long way to go in optimizing them to be truly useful.

    The real trick is to bring an intranet to life with social features that help people find and connect with each other, communicate, cooperate, collaborate and share knowledge.

    These social features not only help people work together better, but turn an otherwise staid online environment into a rich, people-centric ecosystem.

    That’s what a social intranet is – a rich, people-centric online ecosystem. Without the rich content that we expect on traditional intranets, however, a social intranet wouldn’t be a full ecosystem. Instead it would be, like activity stream software, just another enterprise application.

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