Enterprise Activity Streams

“We lost a deal because we failed to bring out a differentiator in our approach strategy to the customer. A few days later, we discovered a working solution that could have made a significant difference to the outcome of the deal! The solution was developed within our organization by the different group but we were not aware of it at the appropriate time. It was frustrating!”

A friend shared this experience with me a few days back. He works for a large software & IT services organization.

In another situation: During a presentation to a potential new customer, the sales person was baffled when the customer told him about the engagement the customer had with the company only a few months back. The sales person, in spite of his best efforts during preparation for the presentation, had failed to gather the information about the past engagement of his company with the customer. If only he had known, he could have approached the meeting differently with a much better understanding of the customer.

As companies grow in size, expand across geographies and serve multiple customers, they are structured for better focus, efficient management and enhanced organizational effectiveness. The basis for an organizational structure could be geography, domain, industry, customer, technology, partner or combination of these. Irrespective of the model a management adopts, a broad and deep structure by nature increases distances and draws boundaries. This leads to significant challenges and demands frameworks to maintain communication and coordination among the various units to leverage one another’s skills, information & knowledge. Companies adopt various tools & techniques to address these bottlenecks. The challenge of leveraging the intangible assets like knowledge and information is far more complex than that of tangible ones such as people and machinery. Knowledge management & information sharing applications such as portals, forums, documents and tool repositories are common in most organisations. They have helped address the knowledge and information “generation & storage” side of the equation. However, instances eluded above are common indicating ample room for further innovation in the “discovery and assimilation” side of the equation which is a true measure of the effectiveness of the intent.

Inspiration can be derived from the concept of “social activity streams”, popular with the online social networking revolution. An activity stream is merely a list of content items, typically in reverse chronological order. For best examples of activity streams in action, login to Orkut or Facebook. You will be presented with a list of updates from your network for friends. These updates represent “an act” in short and further lead to an appropriate photo album or profile for further information.

This concept of social activity streams, within an organization, could help towards bridging gaps in collaboration. This is “Enterprise Activity Stream”- an organization-level structured list of relevant activities performed by different groups, teams or people.

Below dwelling further, here is sample Enterprise Activity Stream of SmartWebWorks Inc, followed by use case.

Enterprise Activity Streams-Sample

This Enterprise Activity Stream is published in the intranet of SmartWebWorks Inc accessible to all mid-level professionals in delivery, pre-sales, sales, marketing & research teams. It helps in looking for leads to achieve a certain objective. For instance, Hiro Nakamura, a sales person preparing for a customer meeting in Japan, realises the need for localising applications in Japanese for his customer. The activity stream provides him a lead to a relevant proposal submitted by Jack. Hiro can refer the proposal document or get in touch with Jack. The activity stream has helped Hiro, without wasting time in telephone calls and emails to peers seeking out for information. The traditional approach is also accompanied with the risk of hitting a dead end with loss of time and no relevant information.

In a real-life scenario, even in mid-sized organization, the number of activities in the stream could potentially grow to thousands in a few weeks, if not days. Hence it is important to design and manage the stream to make it compelling and sustain the usability for information consumers to reap the benefits over the long term. As part of design, well-defined structure is fundamental aspect for every activity. The structure of each activity governs the overall discipline of the stream. Lack of discipline will result in an overload of miscellaneous activities and fail the cause. As a basic structure, every activity must consist of:

  • Text: Concise description about the activity
  • Poster: Contact person or team
  • Date: Date of occurrence of the activity.
  • Tags: Keywords to improve tracking and search
  • Links: Supporting elaboration- case study, blog, proposal document, project report depending on the nature and need.

Besides the structure, the type of activities worthy of inclusion in the stream needs a thorough thought. In the case of SmartWebWorks quoted above, some the options would be: Proposal submissions, Proposal wins/losses, Project milestones, Research projects, Marketing events, New customer acquisitions. Based on feedback on the effectiveness and value of the information to its consumers, the nature of activities will deserve an evaluation periodically.

The next key design question is: How to source the most useful activities into the stream? The idea of manual entry of activities is impractical & error-prone and adds the additional burden of moderating the authenticity and integrity of data. The solution is to source activities from the business enabler applications such as project tracking system, opportunity management system, order management system, CRM system, KM systems and others. Pull or push methods could be used to fuel the activity stream at appropriate stages of workflow in these systems. Here are few scenarios: CRM system introduces activities when a new customer is added; project tracking system creates activities when a project milestone is met; opportunity management system posts activities when a proposal is submitted, won or lost. Such an approach will be trustworthy & consistent. The data integrity in the underlying system percolates to the stream without any additional effort.

On the usability front, the stream must be easily accessible. Features such as sort, filter & search will help consumers find relevant information faster. Subscription to the stream based on tags or activity text or poster would benefit frequent users of the streams.

Kahlil Gibran, a 20th century Lebanese-American poet & philosopher once said, “A little knowledge that acts is worth infinitely more than much knowledge that is idle“. Enterprise Activity Stream attempts to enhance the worth of knowledge and information by generating leads to the asset distributed across systems and people.