Social software in law firms

About ten days ago, I attended a law firm breakfast meeting hosted by Headshift, the social software consultancy. Penny Edwards has blogged about the event and posted the presentation on Slideshare. It was a really interesting meeting and discussion, and well worth the very early start I had to make to get there from Manchester.

The presentation focuses on the value that social software can bring to law firms in the area of current awareness, which is a really interesting use-case. I think there is a lot that lawyers can do with social software, but it will take a while to wean them off Word and Outlook. (That isn’t to say that those tools do not have their place, but we know they are used sub-optimally.) On the other hand, information professionals in law firms are crying out for better ways of managing client and legal updates and research. Once they are up and running with new tools such as the ones demonstrated by Headshift, I think the lawyers will quickly come to understand the ways in which they can work better than Word or Outlook.

Following the presentation, Penny demonstrated some work that Headshift have done for Dewey & LaBoeuf. This integrates a wiki (Confluence, I think, although Headshift also work with Socialtext) with an enterprise RSS service (Newsgator). The main virtue of this work, as far as I could see, was the simplicity with which the elements were fitted together. Obviously we couldn’t see how they integrated with Dewey’s existing intranet, but I could see how they could slot in quite seamlessly.

As with most of these events, though, the really interesting part was the discussion. Fired by the presentation and demonstration, there were many questions round the table. These carried on even after the formal part of the meeting was over. One of the comments that really stuck in my mind was something that Lars Plougmann said. He reckoned (without having been able to test it) that the participation dynamic is different when social software comes inside the firewall.

The now-traditional assertion about wikis is that usage breaks down in three ways: 90% of people read but do not contribute; 9% contribute from time to time; and 1% participate heavily — accounting for most of the material. As far as I can find out, there is nothing to suggest conclusively that Lars’s view is accurate. (His hope is reflected by others, though.) But what are the consquences if the 90-9-1 rule does hold true for enterprise wikis?

If we construe it strictly, this usage profile should mean that no wiki can succeed if it serves less than 100 people (since a fraction of a person would be required otherwise). Some enterprise wikis might cover a much smaller group than this (such as a client-focused knowledge-sharing wiki where the client team is only 50 lawyers or so). However, if a single person were to support more than one wiki, their efforts could sustain 99 people overall. This leads me to the (I think inexorable) conclusion that we should focus our wiki efforts on areas where there are keen contributors rather than those where we could see a significant RoI, but no obvious wiki leaders. This appears a little counter-intuitive, and would need some nifty footwork to convince Ricky Revenue.

In all, then, a thought provoking morning and a welcome distraction. Many thanks to Penny and Lars!