The potential for surprise

I just adore this post by Dan Woods on forbes.com, entitled IBM’s Strategy to Manufacture Social Networking Surprises:

The news feed from Facebook or LinkedIn is one of the first ways people encounter surprising information that expands understanding. You might see that someone in your network is having a party, getting married, or has gotten a new job at a company you want to do business with or left a company he or she had been at for years. In a consumer environment,Amazon’s book recommendations give us new ideas about relevant content. In both contexts we find out information we were not looking for. That’s what I mean by surprise, an expansion of what is on my mind. I distinguish this from serendipity, which is having the good fortune to encounter something beneficial. Modern systems intend to create surprises instead of leaving them to chance.

Contrast this with most of the business tools we use. There is almost zero potential for surprise in most of our environments. Our email inboxes are about the only place we can truly be surprised by something. In most other business applications, we get answers to questions that we have asked. That’s not to say that the answers in those environments cannot be surprising. I hate being surprised by finding out the sales pipeline for my company has dipped or that my expenses are larger than usual, but these are surprising answers to questions I regularly ask. My pipeline and expenses are always on my mind. Surprises put new things on my mind.

I’d never really considered this before, but aren’t surprises what makes life pleasurable?  Isn’t that what makes romance special?  Or what makes living with children such a joy?

So why shouldn’t work be equally surprising?  And not just in a ‘fire-fighting’ sense, for example dealing with the latest setback on a project plan delivered by email, but instead through the kind of ‘facilitated serendipity’ that social networks allow?

The article goes on to examine IBM’s Social Business campaign, and in particular, why ‘activity streams’ are going to be so crucial in the coming years:

Kevin Cavanaugh, VP, Business and Technical Strategy, IBM Collaboration Solutions, said that there will be native activity stream applications on mobile devices and tablets that will communicate with a cloud-based service that does the aggregation and helps figure out which activity streams are important to you. With lots of applications posting, the stream of potentially relevant news feed items could be huge. The system will be able to be tuned to provide more or less information and will learn from experience what kind of surprises you found most interesting and valuable.

In addition to simple notification, the activity streams data could also include payloads of information that could be used by the device or the cloud-based service to perform activity. For example, an activity stream notification that a new employee has joined the company could contain full contact information. The activity stream applications could then use that contact information to update a contact database. A notification about higher than normal web traffic could include page names or contain a link to a web analytics page for further exploration.

The idea is part of IBM’s vision of social business, the term the company uses for the broad application to business of social networking methods. Powering this vision is a suite of IBM products such as Lotus Notes for email, contacts, and calendaring, Lotus Connections, the social networking environment, Lotus Quickr, the document repository, and Lotus Sametime for unified communications and real time collaboration such as web conferencing and instant messaging. The company extends this social business experience to the B2C realm through its IBM Customer Experience Suite technology. IBM is delivering parts of its suite through the cloud under the banner Lotus Live.

I firmly believe that activity streams are the way ahead, and believe that most of the social collaboration vendors (IBM, Jive, SocialText etc) agree on this point – the merging of status updates, emails, notifications from business applications and alerts from other social sites is a key requirements of achieving the next step on the ‘collaboration continuum’ that we are all on.

It’s great to see IBM at the vanguard of this move, and that folks like Forbes are recognising that.

Stuart McIntyre is a Senior Strategist at Fostering Community Limited. He curates a number of product-focused news sites, is a lapsed podcaster, founded the Social Connections user group and regularly speaks at conferences and events. This blog represents his own slightly-eccentric and usually-controversial opinions!