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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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