TechCrunch recently reported that SalesForce is planning to make Chatter their primary user interface. While the article didn't really surprise me, the comments related to the article did. There seems to be a huge resistance to change with this and a general lack of vision for what SalesForce is going to do.
As most of us know, similar to Microsoft's Yammer, Chatter is a glorified Activity Feed which focuses around users and products. In a Facebook environment, an activity stream might report that someone has reached a new level on FarmVille or commented on someone's photo etc. Similarly in a business environment, an activity feed might report how someone has had a call with a prospect you're working on or how a new release of your product has just reached beta or perhaps someone has "liked" your boss's blog?
The biggest complaint I hear about Activity Feeds is the overwhelming amount of information which they can present to a user. Yammer has similar challenges to overcome. I recently spoke with someone from Deloitte which has approximately 200k employees generating 'activity. How do you decide who should see what and what is most relevant to whom? Without smart filtering and an even smarter implementation strategy, users are so focused on the forest, they can't see the trees - there is just too much information.
In summary, most of the activity sent over business focused activity streams is informational at best.
Next Generation Activity Feeds
Numerous studies have shown that knowledge workers are incredibly inefficient, or more accurately, have potential to become much more efficient. We've tried throwing new communication media at the problem to address this: email, IM, RSS etc., but it hasn't really addressed the underlying problem of too much noise and not enough action. This has potential to change dramatically and, at least in my opinion, activity feeds are the solution.
Activity feeds don't need to be informational only; that's just how they are now. If you look at the most basic of activity feeds such as a "Recent Blogs widget on a random website, you usually have the ability to like or share the content. This is essentially presenting informational content but it also allows people to create activity around it i.e. Like, Share etc.
Extensibility is Key
The Activity Feed of the future will be completely extensible and will allow third party products to create actionable objects in a centralized and meaningful activity stream.
Of course, the success of the Activity Feed is mostly determined by the user interface (UI). The solution described above is incredibly complex especially when considering the scalability requirements, but if the UI gurus behind the next generation of Activity Feed can "Apple-ify" it (make it really simple and user friendly) then it has potential to be a game-changer.
Smart Filtering and Intelligent Feeds
One of the key features of tomorrow's activity feed will be with filtering. With the overwhelming amount of information available, both users and administrators will need control over who should see what. Filtering will need to be available for products, services, departments, accounts and people. There will be additional requirements as well, such as filters to switch between: Latest, Trending and Pinned (requires action).
Once all the filtering is in place, add a "activity feed recommendation engine" to the mix and you're on to a winner. Similar to how Amazon is getting smarter about which products to try to upsell you on, the activity feed will be able to leverage it's big data to try to determine what you should see and when.
With the right UI, together with the right implementation strategy, this should allow the user to focus directly on things they need to take action on and/or view the most relevant informational items.
What about the potential to incorporate workflow, actionable objects and real-time activity status changes?
As a simple example, if a sales person put together an e-proposal for a client then submits it, perhaps the next thing that needs to happen is for their manager to sign off on it? In this instance, the manager would be presented with a "pinned" high priority activity which allows them to view the key elements of the proposal and simply click "Approve" right there in the activity stream itself. This "actioned" object will then update the respective proposal management system which in turn will generate the required workflow. By approving this action item it would gracefully remove itself for the pinned queue.
In a slightly more complex example, let's assume you are using a third-party integrated support system like Desk.com or ZenDesk. A customer submits a support ticket which goes straight to the support desk. The three people in the level one support are notified of the ticket via their activity feed and one of them clicks to view (while remaining in the activity feed). The activity stream for all the other employees then immediately changes status from Open to Being Viewed and removes itself from the support team's list of pinned activities (the status would updated in desk.com also). The support tech realizes the ticket is out of his league and so escalates it to the second line of support (all within this centralized corporate activity feed). A similar process happens in the second line of support, except the person who is viewing the ticket knows how to deal with it so they just click on "respond," enter the solution and updates the status etc.
Nobody has had to go into the desk.com; it's all happened in the activity feed. Desk.com would still generate workflow as it would normally. For example, a few mins after "resolving" the case via the activity feed, the person who did this would see in their stream "customer has been notified the case has been resolved" - again, more activity generated by a third party system. Of course, for more complex scenarios it might be more appropriate to deal with it directly in Desk.com or whatever system you're dealing with. It doesn't have to be perfect initially, it just needs to be useful.
In a case where a user has multiple roles within the org, they have the potential to perform different types of tasks without leaving the activity stream, without needing email or chat. Consider how long it takes for a person to receive an email, open it, click on the link to open the respective app, deal with the issue, go back to email, respond etc. An extensible activity feed has the potential to streamline employee processes and save organizations significant dollars. Of course, for all this to work the way I'm envisioning, the activity feed needs to be incredibly extensible - which is where i think SalesForce will work their magic. Imagine being able to embed simple (or potentially complex) work flow into the native activity feed and producing micro-tasks in an incredibly simple, user friendly environment?
Gamification of Workplace Activities
There are other cool things you could do if all this information and workflow is being generated into a centralized next generation activity feed. Think about the newer, cooler ways in which you can incentivize employees. How about a points system which is tied to different types of engagement generated from different, third party systems? Every actionable activity could be assigned a point value based on the organization's perceived value of that engagement. Points might translate into recognition or prizes - whatever is appropriate for the culture of the organization.
Some employees won't like gamification, some will love it. The key is the flexibility to implement things like this in a way that makes sense - perhaps a particular department vs. the entire company? Perhaps each department gets to set it's own point weightings based on what is important to them? By flowing all activity from every conceivable disparate system into a single, useful, relevant feed, there is huge potential to tie meta data to that feed and mine for business intelligence.
If I'm right about any of the above, the key to success will be with the UI. SalesForce are trying to reinvent the way we do business and this is not just a technology shift, but a culture shift also. Hopefully the UI will allow us to embrace this change a little easier.