Social Business Applications Promote Observability via Ambient Awareness

In our previous post, we discussed the issue of work observability, and the fact that in knowledge work, observability is an issue.  In any environment, people are impacted by huge amounts of information. This information is largely ambient – meaning that the information flows to people just by them being present in the environment. Whether hearing a snippet of a conversation, seeing a pile of papers appear and disappear, or simply reading body language, humans make significant judgments about what is going on around them through being bombarded tiny bits of informal, mundane information. These bits of information are so small, and are so much a part of the environment that we don’t notice that we are even processing them. This information is truly ambient – it is part of the environment.

The key to making work observable is feedback. Just like the apprentice artisan received constant feedback and information, teams that work together constantly communicate and share, building team awareness. However, that communication is constrained by time, distance and team boundaries. When working on project with distributed or very large teams, communication becomes compartmentalized even within the team. These communication and awareness boundaries reduce the observability of work.

The foundation of Social Business Application effectiveness is Ambient Awareness. Similarly to the Facebook news feed, social business software provides constant small updates on events related to a project or portfolio. This stream of small pieces of information creates what sociologists call “ambient awareness”. Rather than increasing information overload, this large number of small pieces of information create greater understanding. The New York Times described the paradox while discussing the Facebook news feed:

“This is the paradox of ambient awareness. Each little update — each individual bit of social information — is insignificant on its own, even supremely mundane. But taken together, over time, the little snippets coalesce into a surprisingly sophisticated portrait of your friends’ and family members’ lives, like thousands of dots making a pointillist painting. This was never before possible, because in the real world, no friend would bother to call you up and detail the sandwiches she was eating. The ambient information becomes like “a type of E.S.P.,” as Haley described it to me, an invisible dimension floating over everyday life.

“It’s like I can distantly read everyone’s mind,” Haley went on to say. “I love that. I feel like I’m getting to something raw about my friends. It’s like I’ve got this heads-up display for them.” It can also lead to more real-life contact, because when one member of Haley’s group decides to go out to a bar or see a band and Twitters about his plans, the others see it, and some decide to drop by — ad hoc, self-organizing socializing. And when they do socialize face to face, it feels oddly as if they’ve never actually been apart. They don’t need to ask, “So, what have you been up to?” because they already know. Instead, they’ll begin discussing something that one of the friends Twittered that afternoon, as if picking up a conversation in the middle. [Link to NY Times]

Social Business software creates context specific ambient awareness, which because of the broad set of information provided to the team makes the work visible in “surprisingly sophisticated” ways.


5 responses to “Social Business Applications Promote Observability via Ambient Awareness

  1. Most of the users in our company are using Facebook/twitter for social software. Our
    company has banned public IM’s from our computers and they are in the process
    of banning Facebook as well. If the social software trend continues, most
    companies will host their own business social software such as the one’s from
    IBM connections, Akeni Social Networking, Microsoft Sharepoint, etc.

  2. Brian, you’re right. The trend will definitely be to utilize a Social Business Platform, rather than a public and open platform. These platforms will encourage the development of social business apps that are specific to the business context.

    However, companies may be open to allowing syndication of some content out to public activity streams like Facebook, or from public activity streams into the internal social system.

    What will not work is for businesses to create an island that doesn’t include the relevant social network for the completion of the desired task. It’s going to be an interesting shift from the “private” email paradigm, to the more open social paradigm.

    Should be fun to watch!
    (Thanks for the comment)

  3. Pingback: Peer-to-Project Communication: What if the project itself was a member of the project? | The Project Wall

  4. Pingback: The 5 Questions You Should Ask Any Social Project Management Vendor – Part 1 | The Project Wall

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