Message from the editor

Tackling the challenge of information overload—with social tools

Carmel-by-the-Sea, near Monterey, California, is a quaint little place in a beautiful coastal setting. “A village in a forest overlooking a white sand beach” is how the town describes itself in its general plan. One of Carmel’s quaint features is that its houses don’t have numbers. As a result, the US Postal Service doesn’t deliver mail in Carmel house by house; instead, residents must go to the post office and pick it up themselves. Even express mail delivery services have had to adapt—they use the street name, the cross street name, and the number of houses in from the cross street to direct packages to the right house. This is clearly a system that doesn’t scale.

Back when most people lived agrarian lifestyles in small villages—and rarely left—mail was less essential. But general mobility and the movement of populations to cities created the need to communicate with people you weren’t likely to see very often. Before these migrations, Carmel’s lack of house numbers was fine. Addresses could be loosey-goosey—simply giving the family name or describing something distinctive about the house where the addressee lived would be sufficient.

But today, postal systems must deal with many billions of pieces of mail efficiently and effectively, intended for billions of potential destinations. Providing addresses in the quaint Carmel style would introduce massive overhead. Each envelope would need to be intensively scanned and interpreted, and the people sorting mail would need to have amazing memories for families and the buildings described in addresses. That is why much of the world—where residential delivery of mail to individual houses is possible— uses logical addressing schemes of one form or another. And for the most part, these schemes organize the process very effectively, making it possible for letters to make their way across national boundaries and continents.

Today’s electronic communications don’t suffer from addressing ambiguity or overload. But they are increasingly becoming a problem, as e-mail, chat, voice mail, texting, and, yes, tweets and social network postings gobble up more and more of our time. Between Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP) and unique e-mail and system IDs, the electronic messages meant for us reliably arrive and use very little compute resources in the process. The problem is farther downstream. All of us are spending more and more time filtering all of these communications, trying to separate the important messages from those that are simply distractions.

The reality today is that we receive far more invitations to interact in the electronic domain than we ever did in the world of physical mail. Most of us already ignore many of them, leaving unread—and even unseen—vast numbers of electronic communications directed at us. But our approaches are inefficient and inaccurate—we often miss important messages while deleting low-value ones. We’re like the poor express mail delivery people trying to figure out which house a package should go to in Carmel.

At first glance you might think that social networks just add to the problem. Most companies today are adopting social networking internally without a good plan for taking advantage of its latent potential. They aren’t understanding that each employee’s enterprise social network is the best way to filter and manage electronic communications, so that employees attend to them in their order of importance and potential value. In fact, the social analytics available from the leading enterprise social tools are the first addition to the toolset for electronic communications that can actually reduce the overhead of dealing with enterprise communications.

But this latent potential emerges only if your staff engages fully, links to other staff, and follows topics in ways that reflect the priorities of their work plans—and if they comment and interact in activity streams in ways that mirror the focus of their work challenges and opportunities. It’s a form of organizational learning and cultural change that has defeated some early adopters of social technologies, often because they were unaware of its true potential.

This issue of the Technology Forecast examines social technologies as the solution to electronic communications overload.

“The collaboration paradox” on page 06 considers how an additional layer of information—generated with the help of social tools—can actually help reduce information overload by providing structure and context that connects users and helps them navigate to the content they need.

“Enterprise success with emerging social technology” on page 26 reviews the evolution of enterprise social technology, underscoring the importance of blending social information with workflow from existing applications.

“The CIO’s role in social enterprise strategy” on page 48 identifies a middle ground between allowing all use of social networking and disallowing any, advocating an evolutionary approach to balance the need to motivate staff with the business goals that must be achieved.

This issue also includes interviews with five executives at companies and institutions that are fully engaged in long-term efforts to improve collaboration with the help of social tools:

  • Tony O’Driscoll of Duke University discusses the role of social technology in Duke’s Cross Continent MBA program, an innovative peer learning approach that relies heavily on multimedia for many-to-many information sharing.
  • Sameer Patel of Sovos Group provides an overview of the four main categories of enterprise social software, the challenges enterprises face in incorporating this technology into workflow, and the opportunity in emerging technology.
  • Tim Young of Socialcast explains what can happen to a workforce’s management style when a conversation stream gets blended with workflow from other applications.
  • Keith Griffin of Cisco Systems discusses how modifying data architecture can remove obstacles to effective collaboration.
  • Sheldon Laube of PwC places today’s social technology trends in the context of a 30-year evolution of online enterprise collaboration tools.

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