Yesterday, Uwe sent me a direct tweet asking me if I would give a talk at an event in November. The whole conversation took place via Twitter. A few weeks ago, Bianca wanted to arrange an interview with me. I first got the message on Xing (and in my private e-mail inbox, as Xing forwards my messages). She then asked me on Facebook and my work e-mail. Martin automatically sends all his e-mails to both my official IBM address and my private account.
I could continue. After all, I haven’t yet mentioned instant messaging – at IBM we use Sametime, privately I can be reached via Google Talk. You can also contact me via text message, WhatsApp and, more traditionally, by phone – on several different numbers. By the way, I’ve just realized that in my case actual letters brought by the mailman barely figure.
To cut a long story short, the number of available communication channels keeps growing. The days of opening the mail with a paper knife every morning are over (at least for me). At some stage, my work e-mail became the standard way I received my mail. But now, as I described above, there are so many channels that it’s all getting quite messy. And as if that weren’t enough, in the age of social networking, the boundaries between work and private communication are becoming increasingly blurred. I use Twitter, for example, for both. And the situation is similar on Facebook, Google+, Xing and LinkedIn.
But that’s not all! It’s not just that the number of channels of communication has exploded, the pace at which this all happens is accelerating dramatically, too. Remember how you used to wait a day or two before answering a letter and slipping your reply into the mailbox? Then fax machines came along, speeding things up a little. Then came e-mail and it all took off exponentially. The triumph of e-mail has led to a general, unspoken expectation that we should answer e-mails quickly, if not to say immediately. Woe betide anyone who leaves the sender waiting! And yet sometimes it is actually worth sleeping on things and sending a more considered response the next day rather than firing off an immediate, often emotional and over-the-top answer. Believe me, I know what I’m talking about…
So: there are more communication channels of many and various types; the back-and-forth of communicating is faster than ever; and people are expecting much more rapid responses. The situation is exacerbated by real-time communication tools like instant messaging. We are always “on”; we are always ready. In the meantime the flood of information is rising; the river is fit to burst its banks. The ability to filter information, to pick up the right information at the right time is becoming a vital skill in society today.
IBM Connections, currently launching in its Version 4.0, tackles these problems with a range of responses including its new Activity Streams. Activity Streams syndicate events, information, tasks and news from various systems into a single stream of activities. The information can come from a vast range of different sources such as e-mail, corporate e-mail, private cloud e-mail, SAP events, tweets, Facebook posts, SharePoint documents, and many more. The Activity Stream Standard serves as the interface for integrating the events from all the different systems. Activity Streams are particularly convenient, economical and efficient when users can directly process the various information and events without having to switch to the source application.
Could Activity Streams become the universal inbox of the future? Perhaps, but that’s not all! This isn’t just a new place to collect messages, it’s an entirely new approach to organizing our working lives – it’s a cultural change. The e-mail generation focuses on its inbox and on dealing with messages that users can sort into a hierarchy of folders. The social networking generation is much more network-oriented, working in real time, multi-tasking, more willing to share information with others within the “swarm”. It is this work paradigm that is reflected in the Activity Streams, a confluence of various cascading and trickling tributaries of information.
Both “generations” are part of today’s workforce and have to work together. This is why it’s important to link the ways they work. The traditional world of e-mail needs to become “more social”. In turn, social networks must integrate e-mail, as is already the case to a certain extent with private use. IBM Connections Mail, which integrates Exchange or Domino e-mail in the enterprise social network, IBM Connections, shows that the two worlds can be merged. It allows you to read, action and file e-mails within the social network. And obviously, it also makes it a lot easier and neater to “socialize” messages, to forward them to blogs or wikis, and to share them. It is also easier to classify activities and to use them in the new “social” way of working. This means moving away from gigantic inboxes and toward a way of sharing business information and processes openly, yet safely. We’re not talking about life outside the inbox here, but rather about “socializing” inboxes.
Will Activity Streams and solutions like IBM Connections solve my problem of multiple inboxes, being constantly inundated with information, always being connected, and latent multitasking? In a word, no. We had to learn how to deal with e-mail, and now we have to get used to and learn the new Web 2.0 style of communicating and working. Tools like IBM Connections that apply familiar patterns from private use of Web 2.0, thus integrating and combining IT applications that are crucial to the company, are useful “enablers” that support the new type of information stream and working style better than e-mail systems do. Step-by-step in this multi-channel information stream, we will have to get used to working and communicating in a swarm-oriented way, constantly under the pressure of the expectations of real-time communication. We live in the “social era” – always plugged into a stream of information and occasionally out of our depth.