The Signal Core

These days, when I want to procrastinate yet still convince myself that I’m accomplishing something useful I have many options beyond the classic of reading email.  I peruse  my Wikipedia and Technorati watchlists.  I do Google blog searches on phrases like "Enterprise 2.0."  I read new posts from the blogs and websites I’m interested in.  I approve new comments and follow new trackbacks to my own blog.  I use Google scholar and HBS’s internal tools to find out if any new papers have been published with the keywords "IT" and "competition."  I check pre-enrollment  for my spring MBA course.  I check to see if any colleagues have added new materials to the various project wikis we’ve set up. 

None of these consist of finding new things to be interested in.  Instead, they’re all about staying on top of things I already know I’m interested in.  And they’re all related to my job; these procrastinations don’t include things like checking the AL East standings (not that we Bostonians are doing that a lot these days).  

I learn about some of the changes-to-things-I’m-interested-in via RSS feeds.  Others come to me via email.  For still others like my Wikipedia watchlist  I have to open up a Web page (Am I missing something?  Is there a way to get WP watchlist updates via RSS or email?).  And for some, I have to open a web page and type in a few terms.  

I was happily doing all this until a team from KnowNow visited my office earlier this week and made me realize how silly it was.  KnowNow concentrates on Signals, the final of the six Enterprise 2.0 technology components described in my Sloan Management Review article and summarized by the acronym SLATES (the others are Search, Links, Authoring, Tags, and Extensions).  Signals are alerts to a knowledge worker that something of interest in her online universe has occurred.

In the article I concentrated on RSS as the enabling technology for signals, but there are clearly others (and as Nick Carr pointed out recently RSS is far from a monolithic technology).  KnowNow’s value proposition, as I understood it, is that they are agnostic about how signals are generated and how they’re communicated to the end user.   Their insight (which escaped me as I was setting up my RSS feeds) is that these details are completely irrelevant to the knowledge worker, who just wants to know when something happened, and what it was.

The signal could have been generated by a blogger putting up a post, a competitor putting out a press release about landing a new customer, a share price rising above a certain level, an inventory level falling to zero, or an HR department that wanted to let people know about new hires.  Some of these signals are generated by humans, others by applications. Some are formatted for transmission by RSS, some by email, and some are not explicitly prepared for transmission at all.  And it bears repeating:  none of these details are important, or even relevant, to the end user.  She just wants to get these signals as quickly and conveniently as possible.

That’s getting harder and harder these days, for a few reasons.  First, the amount of online content continues to explode.  The number of ways to send a signal is also proliferating.  Finally, what is the trusted, robust, enterprise-approved, guaranteed-to-succeed way to transmit a signal to employees these days?

It’s not email.  The KnowNow team told me about a large client of theirs where the CEO had no way to confidently send an email to all employees; some people’s spam filters, he knew, would not let it through.  I laughed, and then realized that HBS’s weekly ‘new faculty research publications‘ email winds up in my junk folder, and I haven’t yet been able to train Thunderbird to treat it better.  

So I think KnowNow’s on to something.1  They talk about a back-end architecture for (for lack of a better term) signals processing —  scanning, collecting, formatting, etc. — and something like a widget that aggregates all these signals and displays them on users’ screens.

As with most things Enterprise 2.0, my crystal ball is very cloudy when I ask it about the future of signals within behind the firewall, but I can discern two important issues.  The first is the user interface —  the design of the widget.  It’ll be very easy to drown in signals, and the race here might go to the team that figures out how to present users’ signals of interest so that interpreting them doesn’t feel like drinking from a firehose, or reading an endless list of headlines.  

The second is the balance between enterprise-selected and user-selected signals.  The CEO mentioned above doesn’t want his employees to have discretion over whether or not to receive his company-wide emails.  In other words, he wants some portion of the widget reserved for enterprise-selected signals —  ones that management wants to send with 0% chance of loss or distortion.  But users also want to be able to configure their widgets to receive the signals they’re interested in.  That kind of autonomy is fundamental to Enterprise 2.0, and will help ensure that the signal widget isn’t ignored or minimized by users.

Leave a comment and tell us what you think —  is your ability to receive signals impaired at present? How valuable would a good signaling infrastructure be within your organization?

1I have no financial interest in KnowNow and have received no money, products, or services from the company.