Archive for the ‘Knowledge Management’ Category

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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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!

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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.

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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.”

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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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Over the last few weeks there’s been some interesting exchanges around mandating the use of social tools (in particular blogs) within an organisation as ‘reflective’ tools for sharing and learning (see Abraham, Leberecht, Leyden and Cornelius). Those exchanges dovetail nicely with another weighty debate around tailoring the functionality of tools like ‘Facebook’ and ‘Twitter’ to suit the enterprise context, and more particularly, whether their use should be given a top-down or other informal nudge to ensure contributions are sufficiently work-related. The former is now moving through a spectrum of mandating -> encouraging contributions and the latter is focusing on channeling or containing them.

Moving away from a ‘they just must‘ perspective, we can instead observe how people are communicating and with whom, and why in other instances they are not. We also have the opportunity to consider how to channel ‘twittering’ behaviour to help us work in a more fun, informed and effective way.

The working paper “Communication (and Coordination?) in a Modern, Complex Organisation” by Adam M Kleinbaum, Toby E Stuart and Michael L Tushman (Harvard Business School, First Look, 29 July 2008 ) provides some extraordinary insight into the structure of communications in a modern organization. In other words, who is communicating, how often and with whom? To answer the following question, the study analysed millions of electronic mail messages, calendar meetings and teleconferences for thousands of employees in a geographically dispersed, multiunit enterprise:

What is the role of observable … boundaries (i.e. business unit, office location, gender and tenure in the firm) between individuals in structuring communications inside the firm?

The salient findings include:

  • The extraordinarily high similarity and parallel relationship between email and face-to-face/social networks within the firm.
  • The striking relationship between e-mail activity and hierarchical level; the average executive (members of the top four salary bands) in the sample sent and received more than twice as many e-mails as the average middle manager who, in turn, sent and received more than twice as many as the average rank-and-file employee.
  • That women, mid- to high- level executives, and members of the executive management, sales and marketing functions are most likely to cross the company’s social structure gaps and participate in cross-group communications.

What we don’t know is whether (and if so the extent to which) other communication/collaboration technologies were available within the firm. Of course the authors warn against generalisations based on results from a single organisation, but given well-known issues associated with email overuse, abstinence from traditional ‘above-the-flow‘ KM/collaboration, and the need for buy-in from management, I think the study supports some principles which can guide behaviour in other instances.

If social tools are thrown into the mix, any adoption strategy should look to the participation of the groups identified above, who are key information/social networking nodes and would be invaluable to any social software pilot. But engaging the high-level executives (in particular) could be a very large mountain to climb. Whilst that group has a considerable amount to gain from ‘above-the-flow’ activities and slight changes to behaviour (like micro-blogging instead of emailing), they usually have well established preferences for face-to-face, email or phone communications, and need to cope with a variety of political/power dynamics. And as for a “they just must” approach with this group: forget it!

Simply articulating the value to be obtained from experience will clearly not be enough, even if people are being given the time to take up the opportunity. Instead, barriers to the participation, reflection and learning processes need to be lowered. Amongst other ways, that can be achieved by giving people the means to capture their thoughts on a platform in a more informal conversational way – whilst they are working (i.e. more ‘in-the-flow’ of daily operations). Whether that be through micro-blogging, sticky notes or commenting, status updates or wall-postings, the process should reflect people’s preferences for technology and communication style. As we are seeing, that means enabling ‘twitter-ing’ quick-fire style exchanges during people’s work, which can be rapidly embellished and/or responded to by others.

And rather than defining the scope of the tools (like “please use this for client and not social purposes”), use tags, aggregators and RSS to manage/channel the flow of content. Having started the debate, McAfee on further reflection notes “… norms and policies might not be the only ways to make a tool like Twitter work well for enterprise purposes”. The idea is to “tag” the tweet, perhaps by prefacing it with characters (like @FM) corresponding to a client or contract. In that way, it would be possible to categorize and organise the flow of information.

In fact, that may be one use case for PagesPlus (which Paolo Valdemarin from Evectors very kindly demostrated to everybody at Headshift yesterday morning!). Since the core of PagesPlus is an aggregator, it can digest any form of RSS/Atom and use tags to organize everything it aggregates. Because the aggregator supports tag schemas not only can it distinguish between a topic-tag and a category-tag, but it also allows you to create your own schemas to address specific needs. With the WYSIWYG application allowing users to easily create content at the front end, it would be a small step to continually auto-save the content and for the system to recommend to the user tags based on an analysis of the text being typed (and other tags applied in the past). That content could be pushed out to the categories and pages corresponding to the tags, and to the users who are subscribing to feeds from those categories.

Essentially, designing the tools around people’s preferred styles of communication and collaboration will help to support behaviour rather than control or mandate it – a poor counterpart. People may then filter content and functionality depending on their style and preferences, and then hook other people and content into the process by creating actions and feeds out of their activity. All up, that approach should help to get people on board and keep them there.

In the same way the famously contrasting perceptions of the nature of organizational communities has animated a great debate in organization theory during the past few decades, so too perhaps will the issues discussed here continue to test knowledge workers. Kleinbaum et al cite the study of Hannan and Freeman (1977), which posed the classic question, why are there so many organizational forms, and DiMaggio and Powell’s (1983) rejoinder, why are there are so few. Likewise, I wonder about the levels of diversity of communication and collaboration actually being facilitated in organisations, and why there aren’t more.

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