September 22, 2008

Overcoming Hurdles to Web 2.0

There are some bright shining examples of web 2.0 implementations in law firms and then there are the vast majority of the web 1.0 firms. While it may be natural for law firm knowledge management personnel in web 1.0 firms to envy their counterparts in that relatively small group of web 2.0 firms, it's not a terribly productive exercise. It's more useful to analyze and address the issues that are holding the web 1.0 firms back.

Ruth Ward, head of knowledge systems and development at Allen & Overy LLP mentions a common web 2.0 hurdle in her article Know-how to network:
Drilling down from firm-wide initiatives, practice and team communities and project spaces have been at the heart of A&O’s Web 2.0 work for a number of years. We have used the same site build for over 50 sites – to improve cross-border communication and collaboration among practice groups and business teams divided by geography and time zones, and to manage business projects and initiatives more effectively. Activity on most of these member-specific sites centres on news, discussions and Q&As on the group blog, but the sites also include a wiki to use as a shared knowledge base or to collaborate on documents and reports and external newsfeeds using RSS and shared bookmarks. Our experience is that these sites work much more effectively than the traditional email, document management (DM) and intranet toolset, and my experience from talking with many law firms and legal departments over the past few years is that most people can immediately see how they would benefit their own business teams – if only they could get the IT buy-in either to buy or build them! [emphasis added]
Is the IT department the stumbling block in your firm? Why? Is it because the knowledge management group has failed to articulate clearly the business case for web 2.0? Is it because the IT folks in your firm are inherently uncomfortable with emerging technology and won't take a risk on anything that isn't widely seen as mature technology? Is it because IT sees the technology as being beneficial only to KM rather than the entire firm? Is it because your IT staff are really dinosaurs in drag? Until you've answered these questions, it's hard to identify a strategy to overcome this hurdle.

Another objection, is that law firm decision makers can't seem to think about social media tools without thinking about teens running wild on the internet. Ruth Ward puts it a little differently:
Social tools and networks can bring real business value, especially in a professional-services setting. But many partners and practices seem to struggle to get beyond their press-led perceptions of Facebook and Wikipedia, and their natural scepticism of blogging.
Either way, this is about managers not understanding that most of us behave differently at work than we do in our social lives. We know that we're expected to conform to specific rules in the workplace and usually are happy to comply in exchange for a paycheck. And, when the occasional renegade mixes up their office staff directory with their personal Facebook page, peer pressure (or a gentle nudge from their supervisor) should bring them back into line.

Another common problem is the natural conservatism and skepticism of lawyers, which often makes them reluctant to be the first to adopt new technology. I call this the Early Adoption Aversion Syndrome (EAASy) , but others might more charitably characterize it as an excessive reliance on precedent. In firms afflicted with Early Adoption Aversion Syndrome, partners and managers invariably ask what peer firms are doing with respect to the particular technology you're trying to implement. This means that an important part of your business case needs to be a good survey of those firms. I'd encourage you to read the rest of Ruth Ward's article to learn about the success Allen & Overy has been having with web 2.0. Doug Cornelius at KMSpace is another great resource for information about web 2.0 generally, and about Goodwin Procter, specifically. Ron Friedmann at Strategic Legal Technology regularly reports on innovative uses of technology by law firms.

We're not quite at the tipping point regarding web 2.0 adoption in law firms. That makes each decision to proceed with web 2.0 tools now critical for everyone in the legal industry. Once the tipping point occurs, the only question law firm managers will be asking of law firm knowledge management personnel is, why did you let us fall behind the competition?

4 comments:

James Mullan said...

Mary, thanks for the post, very interesting and I'll definitely make some time to read Ruth's article.

One of the things I think is great about Web 2.0 technologies is that you can just do them. So when we wanted to starting blogging internally and IT weren't able to provide us with a platform we started using the free Blogger platform instead and these blogs have been very succesful because we have been able to demonstrate their value and what they can. Having said that there were the usual barriers of encouraging people to move outside of their inbox and looking at the blogs as tools for collaboration and generating know-how rather then "for chat" which is how one person described them.

I'd also encourage people thinking about using these technologies not to use the terms Blogs and Wikis, as you say there is so much negative press attached to sites like Wikipedia using these terms can detract from the opportunities they provide and discourage people from using them.

Mary Abraham said...

Thanks, James. It's great to hear about successful deployments in law firms -- even if they happen by stealth and outside the firewall!

You're absolutely right about not getting fixated on the names (i.e., blogs and wikis), but rather focusing on the functionality. Once users begin to understand how these tools can simplify and enrich their lives, adoption rates should take off.

- Mary

walteradamson said...

It can also be reluctant because of past half-baked or half-funded efforts to introduce "KM" or some kinds of intranets or social networking, which they have supported, and which have failed.

The failures are most often on the social and user side - the change management and all the things that the real project sponsor should have done properly. But at the end of the day IT conveniently gets the blame for "another failed IT project". IT managers are learning to say no, or learning to give such projects a wide berth.

By the way I'm working with the CEO of a 5,000 person engineering company who having in the past prided himself on keeping his business units lean mean and independent, and now wants all to join in "social networking". This challenge is 10% IT and 90% business culture.

Walter Adamson
www.digitalinvestor.com.au

Mary Abraham said...

Walter -

You're right. Sometimes the biggest impediment to KM progress is KM's track record. It's a lot harder to manage the people and process part of the technology-people-process components of every KM initiative. Accordingly, for every failure to handle change management effectively, for instance, we make the hurdles to new KM projects even higher.

- Mary