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Oliver Young has kicked off an interesting debate with his post “Web 2.0 Represents A Fundamental Rethinking Of Business, And The Theory Of The Firm.” Young believes that “[o]ver the next 10 to 15 years, on the back of social software, we will go from a fundamentally closed value creation system to a fundamentally open one”.

Andrew McAfee considers this to be an exaggeration of the current situation. He indicates that:

Most of us who study the new technologies of interaction, collaboration, and collective intelligence agree that they have great potential to enable more open systems for creating economic value. But we need to be very careful with our claims about how closed things are at present. It’s not useful to present our current system a fundamentally closed one in which firms work only within themselves to create value. That’s not a helpful strawman; it’s a counterproductive caricature.

Here are a couple of my thoughts on the matter:

Certainly, new social technologies have the potential to reduce barriers to participation and create value for businesses at the same time as they deliver value to customers (e.g. aggregating and connecting content, ideas, behaviours and resources to create personalised buying recommendations, and new product and service offerings).

However, familiar longstanding challenges remain and are compounded by the effect of those technologies. Namely, that people still need the skill to spot opportunities for creating value, and must now do so from increasing flows of information and interaction. Furthermore, a more open value creation system means companies must relinquish (to a certain degree) control over the creation process. Traditionally this has been very difficult for companies to do. The technology may be there, but it needs to be accompanied by the right mindsets and skills to be truly useful.

Originally posted as a comment by PennyEdwards on Andrew McAfee’s Blog using Disqus.

Think for a minute about how you used to book your holidays, buy your music, find an address or select insurance – 10 or even 5 years ago?  Do you even bother to search for things these days or do you just rely on the recommendations from your network via Facebook, Twitter, Zemanta or even Amazon?

These prolific and radical changes are not limited to social and consumer interactions on the internet.  They also impact the nature, shape and conduct of business both internally and externally.

Companies are increasingly working in networks, whether they be loosely coupled or tightly integrated because of technology and the globalisation that technology has brought with it.  Those networks are essentially virtual entities, and this trend will accelerate over the coming years.  To be in or join a network, people need insight and connections, as well as appropriate processes capable of supporting various business needs across the virtual entity.  That signals fundamental shifts in the way people do business and the underlying business models.

This was one of the issues Leo Apotheker (co-CEO and a member of the Executive Board of SAP AG) and Andrew McAfee discussed during an interview with Charlie Rose earlier this week.

It echoes the message from Pisano & Verganti in their article Which Kind of Collaboration is Right for You? (Harvard Business Review December 2008):

In an era when great ideas can sprout from any corner of the world and IT has dramatically reduced the cost of accessing them, it’s now conventional wisdom that virtually no company should innovate on its own. … [But] greater choice has made the perennial management challenge of selecting the best options much more difficult. … [How] open or closed should your firm’s network of collaborators be? And who should decide which problems the network will tackle and which solutions will be adopted?

Those opportunities and challenges are equally applicable within organisations, with changes affecting the way people are now able to work together and the nature and style of management. Everything happens and needs to happen so much faster just so businesses can stay in the same (market) position and not loose ground to competitors.  But whilst the technology is there to expedite work processes and help people work better and smarter, often barriers in the form of cultural, organisational and behavioural changes are stifling.

As McAfee points out, it’s in this ever-changing technology context that management is being pressed more than ever to rethink the boundary between (i) control -> dictating how things will be executed and by who and (ii) autonomy -> allowing people to organise themselves and seeing what emerges. Frederic Baud explores similar themes in his interesting post Will Enterprise 2.0 ever enter big organisations? More particularly, he considers whether an organisation viewing itself as an internal market where resources can freely recombine to pursue emerging projects can greatly augment the output by loosing control of the nature of that output.  The ensuing discussion is also worth a read!

In any case, the ‘control’ model prevails in many orgaisations, where decision-making processes are closed or simply pay lip-service to employee involvement, the few decide for the many based on their view of what people want, and networking of information and expertise occurs in very localised instances.

Yet when we look around for examples of successful businesses to emulate, who do we look to?  Google?  Proctor & Gamble? Toyota?  Hubbards? Headshift ;-) ? There are plenty more.  And what do they tell us?  Well, to quote Eric Schmidt – Google CEO (The Mckinsey Quarterly November 2008):

There’s a lot of evidence that groups make better decisions than individuals. Especially when the groups are selected to be among the smartest and most interesting people. The wisdom of crowds argument is that you can operate a company by consensus, which is, indeed, how Google operates.  …

One of the things that we’ve tried very hard to avoid at Google is the sort of divisional structure and the business unit structure that prevents collaboration across units. It’s difficult. So, I understand why people want to build business units, and have their presidents. But by doing that you cut down the informal ties that, in an open culture, drive so much collaboration. If people in the organization understand the values of the company, they should be able to self organize to work on the most interesting problems. And if they haven’t, or are not able to do that, you haven’t talked to them about what’s important. You haven’t built a shared value culture.

For me, those views are examples of organisational learning theory in practice.  I’ve described the themes within that theory before, and for present purposes would just like to reiterate a couple of those themes:

  1. Learning requires challenging existing mindsets that form the basis of (possibly out-of-date) behaviour.
  2. Managers should encourage the generation and spreading of new ideas and practices about purpose, values and vision.
  3. That vision requires the maximum number of people to contribute to and share a picture of the where the organisation is going, and how personal and business goals coincide.
  4. Feedback is central to this system as it is critical to learning and adaptation.

Those ideas have been around alot longer than much of the technology that has caused such radical change to the way things are done in the public domain.  That same technology is steadily entering and disrupting the way things are and can be done in organisations.  But for that technology to be of real value, progress needs to occur simultaneously in respect of each of those ‘organisational learning’ elements.  And if you’re reading this thinking that this type of change doesn’t apply to your business or your industry sector, best you start with #1 on that list.

‘Collaboration’ is being used pretty loosely these days and often in the same breath as enterprise 2.0. But, simply because people work together to meet objectives and reach goals, doesn’t mean they are collaborating. Other ‘c’ words like communicating, co-operating or co-ordinating may be more appropriate descriptions of what is actually taking place.

By recognising the nature of the interactions, we can better understand the restrictions of, and relationship between, the associated behaviours. We can then focus more sharply on initiatives which (i) improve controls and efficiency, or (ii) add value through creativity and innovation, or more ambitiously (iii) both! In terms of technology, that aids in the design and implementation of appropriate spaces for people to work in, equipped with the right tools to facilitate the capture, exchange and creation of information and expertise.

In his article “Collaboration vs C-Three (Cooperation, Coordination, and Communication)“, Leo Denise (1999) distinguished between those terms as follows (and to which I have added a few thoughts):

  • ‘Communication’ refers to how people understand each other and how information (including prospects, rumors, feelings and failures) is transferred. Often the problem of communication is thought to be solved with more newsletters, memos and meetings – which often serve only to waste more time by circulating floods of irrelevant generic news and distracting people from the critical activity of listening. Now there’s nothing wrong with noise, provided the means are available to filter the things worth listening to, and then something constructive can be done with the filtered information.
  • ‘Coordination’ is about efficiency and making sure people know when and how to act. Because of natural overlaps in organisations, it is important for people to have visibility of what others are doing to avoid redundancy or inconsistency. Whilst coordination tries to get people pulling together, the effort must nevertheless be directed towards a desired goal.
  • ‘Cooperation’ is a factor in moving in a unified direction, but highest value doesn’t derive from group think and continually following established norms. Consequently, it needs to be balanced with diversity, and the spark of creativity which comes from ideas, dissent and debate.
  • Whilst the above ‘C’s tend towards controlling and centralising efforts, ‘collaboration’ is about creation and is the driver of innovation. It involves bringing people together to achieve a goal which cannot be achieved by applying more effort to the other ‘C’s. ‘Collaboration’ thrives on difference, insight and spontaneity, rather than structural harmony. As such, it requires a shared space, time and environment to allow people to devise the solution to meet the goal.

Conventional enterprise technology that accelerated people’s productive 10 years ago no longer has the same impact, and in fact is counter-productive for many workers in today’s global, information overloaded environment. The classic example here is the systemic overuse of email as the means to facilitate each of the ‘C’s. Whilst email doesn’t necessarily need to be replaced, it does need to be put in its place. And with the range of social tools presently available, companies’ competitiveness will depend on identifying and adopting those tools which best suit their work processes. In fact, when integrated in a platform, social tools can facilitate new models of interaction, co-creation, collective intelligence, networking and user participation, whilst supplementing traditional face-to-face, telephone and email communications.

This is precisely what Gary Curtis of Accenture was reporting in yesterday’s Financial Times (5 November 2008):

“At Proctor & Gamble … an internal social network modeled closely on YouTube is proving effective for communicating complex programme initiatives and for better connecting large, geographically dispersed teams. … Other consumer-oriented [social tools] are proving equally beneficial in enterprises. Members of a team at a multinational had been sending as many as 150 emails a day discussing their project while never being certain of involving the right people. When they moved the discussion to a blog, their email boxes emptied, and the key team members joined in as needed.”

These examples illustrate how efficiencies can arise from facilitating better communications and coordination of efforts. We are also seeing improvements to these ‘c’s through the use of personal dashboards. They are ideal for allowing people to easily add content, and organise their feeds and information widgets. As a result, people have precisely the information they want, in the manner they want to receive it, which helps increase their productivity and connections. And because people’s activities and interaction with content are aggregated, everyone has a clear up-to-date picture of each other’s work, status, interests, favourites and connections with other people in the firm.

Enabling people to interact with information and each other in this way has a dramatic (measurable) effect on people’s productivity, by reducing the amount of time spent looking for information and expertise, or re-doing work completed in another business unit. It also means that people send and receive fewer emails and instead get more precise requests for assistance.

We have also seen how teams are better able to co-ordinate their resources through group spaces (e.g. in wikis) and online discussions (e.g. in group blogs). Those tools give people visibility of a range of information, including recent or important projects, actions, discussions, comments, news and events, and ensure people know who’s working on what. With greater delivery of information, and its filtering using tags and ratings, the immense flow of information which now inundates people can instead be tailored to their needs, put into context (e.g. of a project, client matter, pitch or operation issue), and made more relevant to daily work.

Instead of broadcasting information in mono-directional newsletters, people can engage in discussions. And through those discussion, views can be debated, actions negotiated and common goals established. But that requires the creation of spaces where people feel confident about participating and that it is worthwhile to do so. In other words, to ‘get with the group’ there needs to be a culture which accepts that people don’t necessarily add value by contributing non-contentious thoughts. Consequently, ‘cooperation’ in the enterprise 2.0 sense provides the space and leadership to cope with challenges to existing norms, processes and assumptions.

Improvements to each of the above ‘c’s sets the stage for a culture and organisational structure conducive to creative and collaborative work practices. Practices that thrive on spontaneity and interaction, and result in the types of innovative products and processes which give a company its edge. Practices that are so well supported by new social technologies, such as facilitating social connections between employees split by geographical and organisational distance, increasing people’s peripheral vision and thereby enabling them to stay up-to-date with and share information, ideas and expertise, and ensuring they can easily create communities of practice built up around conversations and common interests revealed through on and off line activity.

Therefore, providing workers with more flexibility in how they communicate with each other, and customers, can result in new forms of cooperative action, more fruitful collaboration, faster decision-making, and greater productivity. And whilst its a question of ‘when’ rather than ‘if’ companies introduce social tools, having a clear view of the driver for their introduction (i.e. tending towards efficiency or value-added/innovation) will ensure the appropriate technologies are implemented and organisational behaviours nutured.

RIP: ROI

There have been numerous discussions about how to evaluate social software implementations, and the shortcomings of ROI and reductionist models for illustrating ‘success’ in terms of bottom-line profitability (e.g. Why Bother with Social Software, Musing About the Value of Social Software, Calculating the ROI of Blogging).

Because traditional financial accounting measures like ROI give misleading signals about continuous improvement and innovation, more integrated approaches to performance measurement are needed.  An obvious candidate here is Kaplan & Norton’s Balanced Scorecard (BSC), which assess performance from the perspectives of (i) staff development/learning (ii) internal processes (iii) customer service and satisfaction and (iv) financial effectiveness, efficiency and cash flow.

The different perspectives of the BSC can be linked by outlining a ‘story’ of the social software implementation.  That story also helps test the thinking/assumptions behind a project’s goals and what exactly should be measured or evaluated.  The underlying logic of the story would be along the following lines:

  • If we increase the capability of our staff to connect with information, expertise and colleagues and/or clients
  • Then they will be able to improve and innovate our products, services and processes
  • Then the customer will be delighted and customer loyalty will improve, and
  • We will keep/get more business, which has a positive impact on our finances.

The beauty of the model is that it provides a more visual flexible approach to project evaluation, and moves away from a restrictive quantitative approach.  It allows the focus to shift from time to time depending on the business strategy, and for the nature of measures to change overtime, depending on people’s information/social networking needs and the (adoption) phase of the implementation.

That shifting relationship is the subject of Mark Gould’s post “Measuring Maturity“.   In his post, Mark cites the following scenario by Jonathan Wolff highlighting the relationship between experience, measures and proxies:

Suppose you have applied for a job, any job. You are at one of those macho interviews where the panel members compete to see who can make you sweat the most. And this is the winning question: how do you plan to monitor and evaluate your own performance in the role? …

Suppose your job is in business of some sort and, ultimately, you are employed to make the company money… In the end, the only thing that matters, then, is the profit you bring in. But it may take some time to build up a client base and to gather the dosh. It would be foolish to say that in the short term you should be judged on how much profit you make for the company. Rather you should monitor your activity: how many meetings you have taken, how many letters and emails you have sent, how many briefings you have been to. But, of course, that is only for openers. If the meetings don’t result in business, then you are wasting your time. So in the second phase of monitoring, you stop counting meetings and start counting things like contracts signed, goods shipped, turnover generated, or any other objective sign of real interaction.

But, once more, this is only an interim goal. You are there not to generate turnover, but profit. And once you have been around long enough that is the only thing that matters. In the third and final phase you count how much you make for the company, and stop worrying about meetings, letters or contracts signed. Who cares about how many of these there are if the bottom line stays juicy enough?

There are several messages here about taking account of the right things, and how those things change over time as people, technology and processes mature.  This resonates with Bessant’s Continuous Improvement (CI) Maturity Model (2001), which was based on extensive research exploring how high involvement in continuous improvement can be built and sustained as an organisational capability.  The model facilitates assessment of progress in the evolution of behavioural changes necessary to establish innovation routines in business.  It emphasises that effective management of the process depends upon seeing CI not as a short-term activity “but as the evolution and aggregation of a set of key behavioural routines within the firm”.  As CI practices in firms mature and become more systematic, strategic and autonomous, there are flow-on effects for performance which drive improvements measurable in terms of bottom-line impact, major innovation and incremental problem solving.  But, these improvements accrue incrementally, with co-ordinated management support, and appropriate on-going assessments of the organisation’s structure, systems and processes.

So what’s the upshot of these models for social software implementation evaluation and measures?

Adopting an holistic approach to evaluation, based on the multiple BSC perspectives, will highlight a range of behaviours and outcomes which need to be targeted, not just the financial ones.  Those measures will change overtime depending on the phase (or maturity) of the implementation, and improvements to routines and learning within the organisation.  Taking a staged approach also helps in working through the different phases associated with the adoption of new technologies, and thinking about types of behaviours and outcomes necessary for progress in the future.

Early measures may include simple activities like number of pages created or edited, number of posts, comments or views, or number of (different) users contributing content, reduction in email volume and associated time savings (e.g. fewer distracting blanket emails).  However those measures only give part of the picture – they do not indicate why people are doing what they are doing or what the effect of the behaviour is on organisational structure, culture and profitability.  So, as the implementation matures, it would be useful to assess changes (if any) to organisational routines, levels and structure of communications, and workflows, as well as asking people about the attitudes and behaviours behind their activities.

But, connecting these qualitative (‘soft’) measures to any improvements on the balance sheet is key.  That’s a reasonably complex question best left for a future post. For now, let me close with a thought from Mark Clare (2002 ) (cited in Anthony Rhem’s blog: Realizing ROI in KM Initiatives) about the way to estimate the value of intangible benefits and related them back to cashflow:

The value created from managing knowledge [or other social/information networking programmes] is a function of the costs, benefits and risks of the … initiative. Thus mathematically stated: Initaitive Value = F (cost, benefit, risk), which equals Total Discounted Cash Flow (DCF) created over the life of the … investment.

This is just one formula which could be used to enhance the BSC – let me know if you have any others!

IT that learns

Yesterday, I mentioned how Cleary Gottlieb had borrowed knowledge engineering techniques from the military, to capture the expertise of senior staff, embed it in a computer system and pass it on to junior lawyers online, in the form intelligent online textbooks and knowledge maps. But I was left wondering about the system’s interactivity, intelligence, and the currency of information therein.

Today, having read about iLink – another military-funded project – I’m now wondering if the Cleary Gottlieb system incorporates any of the social-networking ‘AI’ features mentioned in that article (given the military connection!)?

iLink was developed as a part of the SRI-led CALO (Cognitive Agent that Learns and Organizes) programme and was funded and managed under DARPA’s PAL (Personalized Assistant that Learns) programme.  Mark Rutherford reports that:

iLink is a machine learning-based system that models users and content in a social network and then points the user to relevant content, discussions, and other network members with shared interests and goals across a broad range of scenarios.

To do this, the system uses message-matching technologies for finding related information, and algorithms for gathering data from multiple sources and compiling it together, whilst differentiating private information from that which is safe to share.

Now certain of those technology features/capabilities don’t sound too removed from some social software tools currently on (or almost ready for) the market.  For instance there’s:

  • Newsgator ES – has smart feeds and recommendations.
  • PagesPlus – allows content to be pushed out to the categories and pages corresponding to the tags, and to the users who are subscribing to feeds from those categories.
  • IBM’s Beehive – currently in the research phase – with the capability to ‘recommend’ connections based on activities, tags, bookmarking, etc.
  • Zemanta – blog posts, articles or web pages are directly “read” by Zemanta, which recognizes all contextual content. It then combs the web for the most relevant images, smart links, keywords and text, instantly serving these results to the user to enrich and inform their content.

Nevertheless, it is iLink’s learning capabilities, and SRI’s work in modeling how real-time, dynamic social networks communicate and cooperate to solve problems, that really spark the imagination.  Sarah Perez indicates that the technology:

[has been] used to develop a system for FAQ generation within a network – they call this technology “FAQtory”. With this technology implemented on a social network, FAQs are continuously generated and revised by the community using a Wikipedia-like model, as opposed to being static creations made by the site’s authors. [But it’s no ordinary user-generated FAQ system] – instead, iLink’s FAQtory technology allows for incremental bits of information [to be added] – even those that don’t qualify as answers to the question. As the members contribute these bits of information, the learning system in iLink monitors how users are [attempting] to resolve queries and is then capable of drafting off the social network’s learning.

Potential commercial benefits and applications of such learning technology abound in business. Like expertise identification, comprehensive client information aggregation and delivery, FAQ generation and smart RSS filtering.  As members of, and information in, social networks increase exponentially, there is a growing need to move away from search and retrieval models of information and expertise location.  This is where smarter social technologies will help to streamline the process of recommending, and delivering, information and expertise (as well as filling-in information gaps as they go) to help people get their jobs done more effectively and efficiently.

Innovative Lawyers

The Financial Times collates and commends a variety law firm ‘innovations’ in its latest annual report on “Innovative Lawyers”.  But ‘innovation’ is now being used so loosely and frequently that it seems any old initiative is tagged as ‘innovative’.  So what is ‘innovation’ and how do firms generate it?

Peter Drucker succinctly described ‘innovation’ as “change that creates a new dimension of performance”.  Such change can occur on a spectrum of incremental -> radical innovation.  The former tends to be less costly, risky and dramatic, and the latter shifts us to a whole new paradigm in the way things are done or the products/services that are offered.  In each case, “innovation” drives businesses forward into producing new products and services, new markets, new ways of doing things, and, in particular, new ways of making money.

But the ‘change to something new’ isn’t just about coming up with good ideas, or technology pushing innovation.  John Soat records Ram Charan’s thoughts on innovation, which are right on point here:

“1. [It is a myth that a]nybody who comes up with a good idea — [is innovative]
2. [T]echnology for technology’s sake doesn’t work.  It must intersect with the consumer to fulfill a need or demand.

Charan’s other tips for transforming business (reported by Mitch Wagner) include:

  • Participating in true innovative growth projects for business, which means a change to the cost-cutting mentality to a mindset that goes after revenue growth
  • Enhancing the brand
  • Increasing customer consumption of the company’s product not just market share.

Those points echo the position expressed by DeMarco & Lister (1987) in Peopleware 20 years ago:

“Organisations that build products [or services] with the most value to their customers win.  Those that build products [or services] that make the world yawn lose, even though they build them very, very efficiently.  Even those who stumble while building products [or services] of high value win over the efficient yawners.”

Those views pitch ‘innovation’ as a social activity, which requires the development of appropriate competencies and resources for creativity, to encourage learning, growth and delivery of high value products/services.

The FT report, however, commends numerous out-sourcing, off-shoring and cost-cutting initiatives in the sections about ‘Thought Leadership’ (!), ‘Client Service’ and ‘In-house Lawyer’.  Apart from the obvious drivers in the current economic climate to tighten budget-belts, those initiatives focus only on the efficient performance (or production) of commoditised processes (or products/services).  Whilst demystifying, simplifying, or simply outsourcing, legal processes can help in reducing the cost of delivering legal products/services, those activities don’t assist in building/renewing capabilities overtime via an environment of learning and creativity.

Consequently, the types of knowledge-creating and diffusion activities leading to innovation capabilities I was looking for in the FT report involved experimenting, importing knowledge, problem solving and implementing and integrating (Leonard-Barton Model of Technology Capability (1992)).  Which is why I chose the following examples from the report (of Client Services, Marketing and Technology/Knowhow) to illustrate elements of the foregoing activities, as well as the approaches to innovation advocated by Charan and DeMarco/Lister.

In particular, the examples emphasise the importance of relationships/social networking, autonomy, knowledge sharing and information personalisation. They provide some insight into how firms are trying to get closer to their clients so as to provide them with the highest value products and services, as well as development of robust knowledge-bases.  And whilst the initiatives may be common or obvious to companies in other sectors, they are creating new dimensions of performance within the legal sector.  As such, there seems to be tremendous potential for firms who are capable (and willing) to experiment and import knowledge from a variety of sources and industry sectors.

Client Services (“Pleasing Results”)
Clifford Chance introduced what is essentially a social networking programme connecting its more junior lawyers with their peers in Citigroup.  A structured programme of events has been designed “to give its more junior lawyers a broader understanding of Citi’s core product areas, strategic objectives and, most importantly, the client’s concerns”.  The hope is that the scheme will develop long-lasting connections with Citi by cementing peer-level contacts and “even [form] a basis for succession planning in managing the Citi relationship”.  The approach was welcomed as “a common-sense move and a first-of-its-kind among [Citi’s] law firms”.

Comment:  There are signs here of organisational learning about ‘control’ and power of networks (i.e. client relationship building no longer ring-fenced to partners).  Given that this initiative involves junior lawyers and their peers (i.e. Gen Y), I wonder if it is also, or will be, supported by online social networking, which enables people to ‘friend’ and ‘follow’ others, create communities of interest, post photos, events and status updates, and generally connect in ways they have become accustomed to on the internet?

Marketing (“Sweetening the Deal”)
Malcolm Cannon, chief executive of Hunter Boot, the boot maker, indicated in the report that he is bombarded with information from other firms. “KnowlEDGE is extremely simple to use and lets you tailor it.  …  Maclay Murray & Spens is so different from other law firms in simplifying things and giving a much more human touch. The branding is strong and consistent and the marketing is reassuring, so you feel you are buying into something that is special to them and so is special to you.”

Comment: This is a great example of the enormous strategic value of technology, which coincides well with Charan’s point about technology intersecting with the consumer to fulfill a consumer need or demand”.  It also illustrates innovation in the form of law firm ‘brand enhancement’.

Technology/Knowhow (“Use IT or lose it”)
Cleary Gottlieb features for “knowledge engineering techniques to capture the expertise of senior staff, embed it in a computer system and pass it on to junior lawyers online.”  The report goes on to state that “this collective experience is distributed on the firm’s intranet as knowledge maps – graphic presentations of how to perform key transactional processes, with each stage backed up by extensive documentation … [described] as intelligent online textbooks”.

Latham & Watkins was also highly commended for its creation of “structured” wikis or “twikis”, which enable the firm’s lawyers to create their own applications without involving the firm’s software developers.

Comment: The knowledge capture and codification idea in the Cleary Gottlieb imports technology/knowhow form the military arena.  However, it does leave me wondering about how:

  • information flows through the knowledge maps (and documentation) to keep them current,
  • they are linked to expertise, networks and new projects, and
  • people interact with them – tagging what’s relevant, leaving comments or asking questions about ambiguities?

Unfortunately, there was no further detail on the types of mash-ups at Latham & Watkins.  I’m speculating here, but the innovation could provide the firm’s lawyers with personalised dashboard (Netvibes style), promotes the usability and efficiency of the wiki.  Mash-ups are a key tool in user adoption of the technology, allowing each user to easily select and organise his/her information flows, social networks, activity streams, and tools depending on individual preferences and work needs.  They can also push to the fore important content, specific to the person, based on that person’s activity and preferences.

In light of the examples of innovation (and technology cross-over) outline above, I’d like to finish with a thought from Bruce MacEwen (Adam Smith Esq. – 13 June 2008) about the role of technology in innovation, empowering people and binding a firm together.  After relaying almost-forgotten aspects of the personal computer revolution in the 1980s, and the enormous strategic value of the shift, he suggests that:

“[T]oday the goal is … to embrace the range of Web 2.0 technologies–social networking software in general, which enables people to collaborate at a distance.  Because, after all, what do lawyers do?  They collaborate.  And in today’s economy, they are almost surely collaborating “at a distance”–in space or in time or both.”

The 13th annual technology survey of AM Law 200 firms makes for a disappointing read from a social software/organisational change perspective.  The report suggests that firms are grappling with issues like “what emerging technologies are worth investing in – and which aren’t ready for prime time”.  However, in respect of ‘collaborative’ technologies respondees were asked only whether their firms use web conference software, blogs or wikis.  What!  No mention of RSS, feed readers or aggregators, let alone micro-blogging, friendfeeds, personalised pages, social tagging or content filtering.

The report blandly states that:

“While some firms have dipped their toes in the water — 43 percent run one or more blogs; 24 percent use intranet wikis (Web pages that let users contribute or modify content) — it’s been fairly ho-hum stuff by Internet standards. Blogs with lawyer posts on happenings in a practice area and wikis to collaborate on interoffice documents are the norm. It’s still unclear what sort of future these technologies have in a law office. But seemingly everyone is thinking about it.”

Of course firms are thinking about it!  Else they will find themselves sitting on the wrong end of the technology commoditisation process which turns yesterday’s shiny innovation (*email*) into today’s ubiquitous baseline or even legacy tool.  Not only do such tools offer no competitive advantage, they also trigger negative consequences, like information overload and silos of out-of-date content.

And the examples in the report of how blogs, wikis and social networking tools are being used in firms certainly are ‘ho-hum’.  From adoption and knowledge sharing perspectives, the Allen & Overy use of group blogs (integrated into wiki spaces) for knowledge networking is far more instructive.  As for wikis, they can be used to capture ideas, questions and comments in respect of groups or projects, and then to aggregate all interactions with content, so as to highlight recent activities, popular and/or salient items (from an individual or group perspective).  All these collaboration activities are quite distinctive, yet supplementary to, document management activities supported by other systems, as these articles illustrate:

Those are just a few examples of how firms are endeavouring to adapt and apply new techologies to help people work in smarter more social ways.  And there are even greater opportunities for the ‘re-engineering’ of knowledge intensive processes in business through technology.  As Simon Wardley has emphasised, unlike previous generations of technology, which essentially offered the opportunity of ‘substitution innovation’ (doing what had always been done a little better), new technologies like RSS, micro-blogging, social tagging and networking tools, offer possibilities for radical change in the way in which things are done.

These are some changes we are seeing or expect to see very shortly through the use of integrated platforms incorporating a range of social tools:

  • Reducing information retrieval costs by encouraging users to employ monitoring and delivery modes of information retrieval rather than searching for information or navigating to static destinations (like external sites).  The former modes rely on RSS feeds delivered to feed readers, blackberries or mail accounts.
  • Helping people to get out of their inboxes by offering alternatives to email.
  • Using micro-blogging to spark quick reaction to breaking news, increase awareness of on-going work and to strengthen social ties across the firm
  • Eradicating the static expertise directory and instead pulling information from the user’s activities, including blog posts, comments, tags, feeds and favourites into a dynamic ‘public’ profile which provides a rich picture of the user’s status, work, professional network, expertise and interests.
  • Providing personal dashboards to allow people to design and control his/her interactions and information flows to best suit their changing needs.  That means allowing people to easily add, organise and view activities, discussions, news, feeds, communities, colleagues, etc,
  • Delivering more targeted relevant information by recommending and filtering information based on the individual’s tags, subscriptions, or activity with content, communities, projects or individuals.

All examples of how firms need to continuously adapt just to stand still.

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