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Archive for June, 2009

Consider for a moment where you turn when you’re looking for a document, a reference or information about who’s working on what and with which clients. Commonly people will ask their colleagues or send out an email to their team or people in their wider network. People will use their networks when ever and where ever they can to supplement their face-to-face interactions, and to get information that’s tailored to what they need when they need it. It is precisely these drivers that have led to the exponential rise of online social networks and the evolution of social technologies.

However, instead of supporting the social networks through which information and knowledge circulate, many of the large, centralised, top-down implementations in firms have focused on enforcing information and management processes. It’s no wonder that many of these specialist applications are underused – with their different interfaces and rules for user interactions that require people to spend time figuring out how to use them, compiling information to be approved for inclusion, and then trying to find the information once it has made it into the system. They are not user-friendly, and they don’t reflect the workings of a network where people turn to people to get what they need.

Aside from these technology issues, a shift is needed away from traditional ideas associated with knowledge ‘management’. People use technology because they provide an individual benefit, like getting their work done more efficiently or building their expertise in an area that will help them win clients or get promoted. It’s time to get rid of the notion that people must capture and share information to make the firm more profitable. Instead we should be thinking about the behaviour shift and support that is needed to help make individuals more productive and sharing a by-product of doing not an end in itself.

Social software can play a useful role in streamlining the interaction and communication necessary to support existing ways of working. It can for instance help tackle the burgeoning email and information overload problems suffered by so many legal professionals, and help them quickly and easily find what they need when they need it.

It requires simple changes to the way people work like using a wiki to prepare pitches instead of sending out emails to a limited group of contributors. That change can provide the immediate benefits of reducing email traffic and keeping all the information in one place for assimilation, review and future reference. It also provides the flow on benefits of providing greater transparency (subject to any confidentiality restrictions) to those who would have been otherwise excluded from the pitch preparation process and adding to the collective intelligence of the firm. Likewise feed readers and social bookmarking are excellent personal KM tools. Not only do those tools provide direct benefits to individuals by putting current relevant information at their finger-tips, they also provide a collective benefit. On the one hand, people can find out about others’ interests or expertise in different fields, and on the other, when the information is aggregated, patterns can be determined which help others to spot trends and focus on hot spots in real-time.

This is one of the most important lessons of the Web 2.0 world for the enterprise social computing world, and hints at an important improvement that online social networking can bring to bear on the firm – a significant increase in participation based on the fact that the tools support individual needs. These shifts will shape the possibility of new, flatter and less costly ways of working in the future.

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For lawyers, social networking has always been an important feature of the way they do business, and there are many characteristics of lawyerly behaviour that map very closely to the features of online social networking, such as:

  • Relationship based-business development;
  • Individual brand based on reputation and trust;
  • Expertise location and knowledge proliferation through social networks;
  • Development of legal content and expertise as a social endeavour;
  • Strong guild-like legal community.

Nevertheless, as traditionally conservative adopters of technology, many lawyers simply have not had the time to consider the implications of these social and technological developments, whilst others dismiss them as passing fads or consider them unlikely to have any real impact on the legal world.

by ocean.flynn

by ocean.flynn

The popularity of networking sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube has tended to limit perceptions of social networking to the online out-of-work pass-time of the younger (Net) generation, leaving many lawyers struggling to see beyond these media-created impressions of online networking.

Some question the value of professional networking sites, which have yet to attract a critical mass of participants.  Others do not see as relevant activities like micro-blogging, social tagging and bookmarking, or are concerned with perceived risks associated with online social networking stemming from a breach of ethics or data security, and “inappropriate” behaviour.

These concerns, which need to be acknowledged and addressed if we are to see widespread adoption, have not deterred some innovative legal professionals who have observed the highly visible success and popularity of sites such as Wikipedia, Delicious, Facebook and LinkedIn, and are getting involved in social networking in an effort to secure competitive advantage through:

  • Development and exploitation of social capital within online social networks;
  • Development of collective intelligence, both inside the firm and more broadly within a market context;
  • Informal knowledge sharing using online social tools and networks.

Within the firm, over-structured group collaboration tools are increasingly giving way to lightweight wiki-based team and group spaces. Costly internal newsletters are becoming blogs, one-way intranet publishing is being opened up using wikis, RSS is starting to replace email alerts and internal social networks are taking forward the concept of expertise location and ‘know who’.

Within the marketplace, online social networking is helping legal professionals and firms alike to increase their visibility and be part of the conversation where ever it is happening, build reputation and relationships, recruit and retain the best and brightest new legal minds who have grown up as internet natives, and provided value-added personalised legal services and secure referrals.

Clearly, there are many opportunities to re-think the way firms operate and emerge as more effective businesses. Have you thought about the potential for improvement in your firm?

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With the release of our publication Social Networking for the Legal Profession, I will be introducing in a series of blogs some of the topics and themes outlined in more detail in the report.  I will start the series with posts outlining the context in which online social networking and social computing is asking us to rethink the way legal practices operate and emerge as more effective businesses. In this first post I consider how turbulent conditions forcing change, with later posts discussing the rapid rise of social software, the business role for social networking and shaping new ways of working.*

The impact of the recession looks set to have a profound and long-term effect on the legal profession, especially at the top end of the market. As companies do fewer deals and cut back on their legal spend, business is drying up in certain practice areas and revenues are falling for most firms, as evidenced by regular media reports of law firm lay-offs. Many firms are restructuring and paring-back costs, whilst others are seeking new avenues to exploit. In such times, client retention is of prime importance, and winning new business in the downturn has become an even greater challenge.

Hence, lawyers are constantly seeking ways to get closer to their clients and provide greater value, whilst market forces are pushing them to be leaner, more efficient and innovative in their service delivery.  There is also an ongoing struggle to capitalise on the skills, experience and talent to improve firms’ agility, overall effectiveness and competitiveness, which are more visible now the market is no longer growing as it has in recent years.

Such acute conditions have brought into sharp relief a number of other challenging trends facing the legal profession, namely:

  • Market pull towards commoditisation: Commoditisation has been at the heart of Richard Susskind’s contention that lawyers must adapt to the concept of legal services as commodities and “embrace better, quicker, less costly, more convenient, and publicly valued ways of working”.   This trend towards commoditisation is being driven from a number of quarters including technology advances  (e.g. online and document assembly technologies), standardisation and packaging of lower risk transactional work and client demand for smarter, more cost-effective legal services. The pull towards commoditisation means that price and quality are no longer the only differentiators or drivers of competitive advantage.   Instead, advantage is derived from leveraging intangible assets and capabilities, which most obviously surround the capture, sharing and innovative delivery of knowledge.
  • The rise of the knowledge economy and knowledge markets: In today’s service-based economy, social and professional networks circulate valuable information, ideas, skills and opportunities, quickly and effectively.  As a result, what and who you know determines where and how far you go.  As legal and support staff continue to be laid-off, so too does thousands of years of knowledge and expertise – largely untapped.  That knowledge can sit in various places, including email exchanges, memos, meeting notes, hard and shared drives, not to mention in the heads of the departees and their networks.
  • Technological advances: Information and communication technology continues to evolve and have a pervasive impact on our personal and professional lives.  Since its inception, the web has fundamentally changed the way users interact, connect and communicate.  Technology’s continued and rapid evolution is offering increasing opportunities for re-engineering of business. Unlike previous generations of technology, which essentially offered the opportunity of ‘substitution innovation’ (doing what had always been done a little better), new social technologies offer possibilities for radical change in the way things are done.
  • Generation shifts and expectations: The ‘Net’ generation has grown up on the internet, communicating with instant messaging, text messaging, social networking and (perhaps less commonly) via email.  They are always online and are used to constant real-time contact, multitasking, communicating, sharing and networking.  As a result, the expectation of younger or more Internet-savvy lawyers is that they can have the same freedom, flexibility and power inside and beyond the firm as they can using social tools for their personal affairs.

My next post will discuss the rapid rise of social software on the Web and in businesses.

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