One of the most annoying habits of self-appointed technology gurus, sheikhs, czars or experts is that they take their own behaviour as the basis for extrapolation to predict how the rest of the world will/could/should use tools. A side effect of this is an inability to empathise or understand the needs and culture of non-geek workers in non-technology companies. What they do as individual consultants sitting in their pyjamas in a home-office, eating Granola and ego-surfing is regarded as a template for people trying to get things done inside a corporation or a government department.
Another effect of this is that the flocking behaviour these people exhibit has both a shorter frequency and a higher amplitude than the corresponding tool habits of people who have a job that is not all about playing with the internets. When they switch tools, the previous tools are “dead” and the new tool is “the future”. Meanwhile, millions of people continue using Outlook as a primary interface to their work, just as they did a decade ago. How can we bring them with us if we are so far ahead of the market?
And so it is that, one by one, commentators have lined up in 2009 to bury RSS. The latest eulogy comes from Steve Gillmor, who writes on TechCrunchIT that:
It’s time to get completely off RSS and switch to Twitter. RSS just doesn’t cut it anymore. The River of News has become the East River of news, which means it’s not worth swimming in if you get my drift.
Earlier this year, Marshall Kirkpatrick started a good debate with a terrific post entitled R.I.P. Enterprise RSS that claimed the market for Enterprise RSS was never really alive. This in turn followed on from Forrester researcher Oliver Young‘s mea culpa about the apparent failure of his prediction that 2008 would be huge for enterprise RSS. Elsewhere, Mike Gotta published a rather pessimistic article that claimed some of the reasons for the ‘failure’ of RSS to catch on can be ascribed to a general backwardness in corporate IT (e.g. if there is nothing interesting on the intranet to subscribe to, then why bother?).
Are they right? Is RSS dead?
Like many others, I have found that I use my RSS reader less than pre-Twitter days, and the majority of interesting links from my network are indeed shared via Twitter, not RSS. But there is a lot of value in my RSS reader still, from efficient delivery of mood-altering LOLcats to broad spectrum updates from my wiki spaces, to saved searches and brand tracking. It is just less real-time than Twitter, which fills a gap between Twitter and email.
Thinking about Enterprise RSS
I am convinced that enterprise RSS is only just beginning it adoption curve, and it has tremendous value to offer both individuals and groups. Solving the information needs of an individual is pretty easy. Finding better ways to co-ordinate the activities of thousands of people is a lot more difficult, and flocking from new tool to new tool every six months is not an option. Weaning people off the Outlook or Blackberry inbox for actionable information and intelligence is widely recognised as an important need, but it will take time. RSS and similar syndication approaches will be a key part of that solution.
Right now, there are only two decent enterprise RSS solutions
that I am familiar with: Newsgator and Attensa, but my impression is that they are making slower progress with adoption than expected.
In his January article, Marshall mentioned that Newsgator, the market leader in enterprise RSS, has required six injections of funding because take-up has been so slow, whilst KnowNow no longer exist and Attensa are (he claimed) struggling. Newsgator’s CEO, JB Holston, came back with a strong retort in an interview with TechCrunch IT:
Who cares? It doesn’t have to be called enterprise RSS because that’s just the backend protocol. From our perspective, enterprise RSS-whether deployed for CMS, or portal enhancement, or social computing, or replacing external information sources-is just the enabling technology.
Our customers don’t come to us and say “we want enterprise RSS”. They come with specific problems like “fix our portal”, “help us drive collaboration”, etc, and then we go use RSS. They don’t care how it happens.
RSS is fabulous technology, and if no one is talking about it, that’s just because the market matured to emphasizing solutions, not technologies.
What I find most interesting about his response is the latter comment about the market emphasising solutions. This is consistent with Newsgator’s re-focus on providing more a fully featured solution that includes RSS, but which is marketed as ‘Facebook for the Enterprise’. However, given that their core technology is RSS aggregation, I think it is fair to say this is a risky strategy. Perhaps reflecting their urgent need to accelerate revenues, Newsgator have also become a lot more aggressive, at least in Europe, in their approach to sales (and partnerships) and seem far less interested in developing the market in which they are leaders, and much more concerned about becoming a commodity Sharepoint plugin. Yet we have barely begun to scratch the surface of the value Enterprise RSS can provide.
Greg Reinacker, also of Newsgator, documented some of the use cases that clients are talking about with the company and, like Holston, refuted claims that Newsgator are not succeeding in driving this new market:
- Portal enhancement
- Competitive tracking
- Knowledge capture
- Social networking
Two former Headshift colleagues made some sensible comments on the debate. Anu reports naturally occurring RSS conversations even in the NHS and remains convinced RSS will evolve as a the default transport layer for information within the enterprise. Suw Charman spoke about some of her experiences of some of the barriers to take-up in companies where she has consulted, and helpfully reminded us that it is all about the people and adoption issues rather than the technology.
Obviously Marshall’s article is indicative of how much value he thinks enterprise RSS has to offer, and was a measure of his surprise that it is taking so long to achieve adoption in large companies. Nevertheless, it raises some real questions about how well (or badly) we are all doing at bringing this to market. I recently met with the KM lead from a major professional services group in Canada, and although he buys into the value of enterprise RSS, he still finds the mechanics of the tools and the subscribe/read/share process too complex for most of his users. He is not alone.
What Problem are we Trying to Solve here?
On a very basic level, email reduction is a major issue for many companies because the cost of managing exploding levels of email traffic is shocking, but most of all because email is probably the biggest productivity drain on individual staff, and one of their biggest sources of workplace anxiety. I sometimes joke that I could sabotage anybody’s day with a stream of faux-corporate looking emails that demand a response, and that is true. The big benefit of RSS for the information sharing aspect of email is that you choose what to subscribe to, and can therefore manage your time and your information inputs more effectively.
RSS readers are also more highly evolved to the job of scanning and processing lots of information than email. I know I am an edge case – still! – but I am able to track the 400+ feeds tat make up my personal radar on a daily basis far, far quicker than I ever could in email. I can also sort, search, prioritise and (most important of all) skim to fit the time available.
I consume several types of RSS feed:
- News (I put these in one folder so I can mark all as read if busy)
- Bookmarks (shared intelligence from people I in my network)
- Alerts (very practical – from server health to market indices)
- Activity feeds (mini updates from all my project wikis showing actions on my projects)
- Presence updates (where people are and what they are doing – this stuff is gradually moving from my RSS reader to my Twitter client)
- Blogs and articles (things I will actually read in full, time allowing)
Alerts and activity feeds have huge potential value for businesses. CRM systems are just one class of tool that always over-estimates our willingness to stop what we are doing and share information. In reality, the basic functionality of CRM systems could be delivered with a Blackberry or mobile micro-blogging interface (I just had lunch with X at Y, talked about Z), a search tool and a series of alert feeds that actually expose that information to the people working on a particular client/sector/market.
For me, this taps into one of the key long-term benefits, which is the value of ambient knowledge sharing – information shared as a by-product of activity that can be of potential importance to others, but with a low interrupt cost. This is why bloggers meetups can appear to outsiders like a psychic gathering – bloggers know a lot of little bits about each other, and therefore do not need to break the ice, because they track updates via RSS.
The big picture version of this behaviour inside a large company is the idea of developing collective intelligence through shared reading and writing. This is really not as esoteric as it sounds. In companies where people are exposed to updates from colleagues and projects, there really does seem to be more of a shared culture than in companies where people rely on email and meetings, which are often much more exclusive. In knowledge intensive organisations such as consultancies, research groups and law firms, I am convinced this is worth a great deal.
This is where the kind of attention metadata produced by Newsgator and Attensa is important. It can not only build up a picture of the topics and feeds people are interested in, or use to do their jobs, but it can also use that data to recommend useful connections and source of information you might not otherwise be aware of.
Incidentally, was it really two years ago that I gave a talk at LIFT about organisational collective intelligence?
From a commercial point of view, as Newsgator and Headshift probably both learned in 2008, it can hurt to be too far ahead of your market sometimes, but that does not mean we are wrong or should give up. Enterprise RSS can deliver astonishing ROI just in terms of time saving alone, but I think there is a real chicken and egg situation that prevents many companies from seeing this clearly enough. First, many of the people we talk to about these solutions are not themselves RSS users, and it is one of those technologies (a bit like wikis) that is hard to communicate in the abstract. Another factor is the fact that existing RSS usage often goes unnoticed either because those users do it for themselves and simply don’t expect the company to offer enterprise RSS, or perhaps because they want to keep it quiet. This suggests a survey of RSS usage both inside and outside the company might be a good starting point. Third, the whole idea of ROI and measurement of value is skewed in favour of the status quo. Few companies measure the time and monetary cost of email use, yet they will ask hard ROI questions of a potential enterprise RSS project.
New flow tools
RSS is not the only river of flow we have today, as Steve Gillmor implied in his article. Just as twitter and microblogging have overtaken blogging, so activity streams and presence updates have overtaken RSS as the update of choice for many people. There is technically little difference between activity feeds and updates via RSS or via twitter-type services, except that the latter often use XMPP as a more appropriate syndication protocol, but the update velocity and the way these are consumed is often quite different.
Microplaza is a great example of how link sharing via Twitter is taking over from RSS as a social information sharing system. It aggregates URLs tweeted by your friends along with any commentary. It is a very neat little service that taps into one of the great benefits of Twitter – quick and easy link sharing among groups.
My colleague Jon Mell recently wrote about Socialtext’s excellent enterprise Twitter extension to their main wiki collaboration product, called Socialtext Signals. In response, Headshift Australia consultant James Dellow derived some generic design considerations for desktop flow tools in the enterprise, and mentioned that even Alfresco, the open source content management system, has an Adobe AIR desktop tool intended to function as an activity stream and updater. Some, such as Mike Gotta, remain sceptical that such tools can thrive in enterprises that take a conservative view of security and compliance, but even he has acknowledged that the current wave of tools appear to be taking these issues seriously.
So does Enterprise RSS have a future? Will email continue to be a dominant messaging system? Will new forms of flow tools find a place in the ecosystem of business systems? Yes, yes and yes, in that order. Here is how I think it will play out:
- Email : gradually relegated back to being a point-tp-point asynchronous messaging medium. The modern equivalent of the memo, but still useful due to its universal usage.
- Feeds : used as originally intended for making it easier to read and track blogs, news articles and things you need to read.
- Twitter tools: used for activity feeds, status updates, presence sharing and other small pieces of ambient information you might acknowledge or consume
I think it is clear that enterprise RSS (or ATOM, ideally) is still on a slow adoption curve, but it will become an important part of the connective tissue that joins together the inputs and outputs of people in companies and large organisations. However, there is a lot of information currently shared via RSS feeds that should probably be in a Twitter-type tool that acts as a kind of universal messaging bus for updates.
Although it may seem that Twitter-type tools have leapfrogged, and in many respects obviated the need for RSS, I don’t think that is true inside the enterprise. First, I think there are limits to the real-time flow approach in many contexts, and slightly more asynchronous flows such as RSS still have a place. Second, much of the value proposition of RSS is based on finding a common transport to share updates, and whilst vendors and sysadmins have made a fair amount of progress RSS-enabling their output in the enterprise, they have barely begun to hook these into XMPP or Twitter-type notification systems, and frankly there is currently no enterprise Twitter tool that is designed to perform the role of a true unified messaging bus for all forms of update across the firm.
Enterprise RSS is a space I shall continue to watch closely, and I think the danger here is that we do not have the patience to see through the adoption process needed to make this work in large companies. These changes take a lot longer inside the firewall than outside, but that does not mean they are any less important or worthwhile.