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!

Lowering the sharing threshold

A common meme in knowledge management is that “people don’t share knowledge.” Here are a few examples:

The non-sharing statement is usually coupled with a set of purported justifications, and may also include a solution. However, I am not sure that the basic proposition is correct. In my experience, people are naturally willing to share what they know, except that some other factors might intervene. Some of those factors have their roots in professional habits, others in workplace politics. One of the core tasks of knowledge management is to investigate them and to demonstrate their falsity. If this is correct, non-sharing is a symptom, rather than the disease itself.

In a speech entitled “Gin, Television, and Social Surplus” at the Web 2.0 Expo (video | transcript), Clay Shirky identifies another obstacle to sharing: mother’s ruin. That is, the modern equivalent: television. In case this seems facile, consider Shirky’s argument. Referring to the argument of an unnamed historian, he proposes that just as excessive gin consumption was the way that British society coped with the societal and cultural rupture caused by the Industrial Revolution, with an eventual outpouring of civic energy when we sobered up, so we have dealt with the post-war lifestyle revolution by excessive consumption of television.

If I had to pick the critical technology for the 20th century, the bit of social lubricant without which the wheels would’ve come off the whole enterprise, I’d say it was the sitcom. Starting with the Second World War a whole series of things happened–rising GDP per capita, rising educational attainment, rising life expectancy and, critically, a rising number of people who were working five-day work weeks. For the first time, society forced onto an enormous number of its citizens the requirement to manage something they had never had to manage before–free time.

And what did we do with that free time? Well, mostly we spent it watching TV.

We did that for decades. We watched I Love Lucy. We watched Gilligan’s Island. We watch Malcolm in the Middle. We watch Desperate Housewives. Desperate Housewives essentially functioned as a kind of cognitive heat sink, dissipating thinking that might otherwise have built up and caused society to overheat.

In this analysis, people are beginning to realise that instead of sinking time into television-watching, they could be doing other things — editing Wikipedia, making videos for Youtube, writing and commenting on blogs, and so on. 

So how big is that surplus? So if you take Wikipedia as a kind of unit, all of Wikipedia, the whole project–every page, every edit, every talk page, every line of code, in every language that Wikipedia exists in–that represents something like the cumulation of 100 million hours of human thought. I worked this out with Martin Wattenberg at IBM; it’s a back-of-the-envelope calculation, but it’s the right order of magnitude, about 100 million hours of thought.

And television watching? Two hundred billion hours, in the U.S. alone, every year. Put another way, now that we have a unit, that’s 2,000 Wikipedia projects a year spent watching television. Or put still another way, in the U.S., we spend 100 million hours every weekend, just watching the ads. This is a pretty big surplus. People asking, “Where do they find the time?” when they’re looking at things like Wikipedia don’t understand how tiny that entire project is…

There is another part to the jigsaw. It is not enough to realise that there is another way of spending this time — the activation energy to engage in this alternative has to be sufficiently low. That is the power of these social technologies — they lower the threshold of participation, and they draw people in:

I’m willing to raise that to a general principle. It’s better to do something than to do nothing. Even lolcats, even cute pictures of kittens made even cuter with the addition of cute captions, hold out an invitation to participation. When you see a lolcat, one of the things it says to the viewer is, “If you have some sans-serif fonts on your computer, you can play this game, too.” And that’s [sic] message–I can do that, too–is a big change.

Not surprisingly, not everyone understands this.

This is something that people in the media world don’t understand. Media in the 20th century was run as a single race–consumption. How much can we produce? How much can you consume? Can we produce more and you’ll consume more? And the answer to that question has generally been yes. But media is actually a triathlon, it ‘s three different events. People like to consume, but they also like to produce, and they like to share.

[My emphasis.]

In my mind, this raises a challenge for people involved in knowledge management. Putting aside other excuses for not sharing knowledge (which we can deal with separately), it is inevitable that a range of displacement activities have grown up in businesses to create the illusion of busyness and thereby make it possible for people to argue that they have no time to share their knowledge. Here are three off the top of my head:

  • Meetings
  • E-mails
  • Self-justifying reports

Each of these can serve a useful purpose (just as gin and television have their place). Often, however, the production and consumption of meetings, e-mails and reports generates vanishingly small amounts of value for the enterprise. (Probably on a par with watching repeats of Friends.) At work, in blogs and on mailing lists, more and more people are declaring themselves to be fed up with these value-minimal activities. If we make it easier to share, collaborate, and engage meaningfully with our colleagues, then I think it will only take a small push to tip people into these new forms of interaction.