Challenging the orthodoxy

Given the focus of this blog I suppose I should welcome Michael Idinopulos’s almost heretical conclusion that law firms are misguided in using wikis to support know-how activities (at least as an initial use case).

From an adoption standpoint, however, general know-how is usually a bad place to start. Lawyers are incredibly busy, and general know-how lies squarely above-the-flow of their daily work. Because lawyers lack incentives to contribute their knowledge to the rest of the firm, invitations to participate in social software implementations are often greeted with a polite “Thanks but no thanks.”

I am not sure how I feel about this, so bear with me while I try to work it out.

My initial thoughts were that firms might be using wikis to drive know-how into the flow, rather than leaving it above the flow. This could have only a limited impact initially, but I don’t know whether this is because know-how will always be above the flow, as Michael argues.

Michael starts his critique by recognising that the reason for the concentration on know-how is one of jurisdictional engagement.

The first decision-makers in a firm to “get religion” on social software are usually in firm-wide knowledge roles: CKOs, directors of know-how. They pursue general legal know-how because that’s their organizational jurisdiction. It’s the aspect of the firm’s activity for which they are responsible.

Obviously, I can only plead guilty on that point. Which is probably why the critique stings.

On one hand, I wonder whether Michael’s view is informed by his own expectations of how wikis might work. In this connection, I was very taken with Andrew McAfee’s simple approach to evaluating Enterprise 2.0 products:

I usually dodge questions about specific vendors and their offerings, and instead answer how I’d look at any particular deployment of collaboration software to see if it met my definition of Enterprise 2.0.

I find this pretty easy to do. I check to see if the environment meets three criteria: Is it freeform? How frictionless is contribution? And is it emergent?

In this context, the key criterion for me is emergence. As McAfee explains, “My best-effort definition of the phenomenon is the appearance over time within a system of higher-level patterns or structure arising from large numbers of unplanned and undirected low-level interactions.” If we set out to define a wiki as the place where know-how is stored, I am sure that success is by no means guaranteed. However, if it is just one place where know-activities can take place (not just storage, but capture of conversations and creation of know-how), I think we might have a really useful additional tool in our set. Not everyone has to be engaged, but if some are, then that is really valuable.

On the other hand, I do think Michael’s point about client engagement is a good one. I didn’t work in a law firm before e-mail, so I don’t know how the adoption process worked then. My guess, however, is that there was some resistance until it became clear that it made access to and by clients easier. I see no reason why wikis (and other novel technologies) should follow a different pattern. Michael gives excellent examples of wiki use across the firewall that show how successful this approach can be.

Except… For me, one of the things that wikis might do (admittedly to a lesser extent than blogs) is to expose people’s personal know-how processes. These are absolutely within the flow. Everyone has their own way of gathering the things that are important to them. For lawyers this is almost invariably paper-based. They have files and folders full of old agreements, articles, case reports and so on. Each of these can trigger a stored memory when necessary (and vice versa). I have a vision in which people can identify their own know-how by tagging it where it is (which is how I use and exposing their thought processes through a blog or collectively in a wiki. If wikis are in the flow for some, but not others, surely we should lead by example.

Coincidentally, Jack Vinson covered similar ground yesterday in asking “Do Web 2.0 tools help personal effectiveness?” The summary answer is “No.” In more detail, Jack is keen to underscore the distinction between the tool and the way in which it is used.

[T]he tools don’t make me more effective. It is the process in which I am using the tools. I can have a sheet of paper and a pen and be very effective, or very ineffective. The question is my process (and my mental state), not the tools I have at hand.

Those of us in a role where we can champion social software inside the firewall need to be aware of this. Our leadership must concentrate on processes and mental states. For some people this will clearly lead to a client focus such as the ones that Michael describes. For others, personal motivation may be enough to drive personal KM activities or even group know-how development.

The lesson I take from Michael’s ultimately justified corrective is that we should stop pushing when people are clearly resisting our fine words. There will be other opportunities elsewhere in the business. We should focus our efforts on the battles that we can win most easily. Once we are done with those, our successes will breed success elsewhere. (Crucially, this is a lesson for all types of tools, not just the ones that a particularly shiny and new at the moment.)

1 thought on “Challenging the orthodoxy”

  1. Mark, I fully agree with you about the value of exposing personal know-how processes. But I see such behavior as an outcome–a very happy outcome–of social software adoption, rather than an early driver of that adoption.

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