Collaboration — All or Nothing?

In my prior post on Culture and Technology, I talked about the need to match carefully the social media tools you are offering in your law firm knowledge management program with the organizational culture of your firm. Now we need to go a little deeper. Many discussions on this topic treat collaboration in a binary fashion — either you’ve got collaboration or you don’t. And, if you don’t, you get a free pass on deploying social media tools. In reality, your choices are not just wide open collaboration or nothing. As Andrew Gent points out in his post, The Alternatives to Collaboration, there are several ways of working that result in productivity. We need to be sure we take account of all of these and provide the appropriate tools.

Here’s how he identifies two different modes of working that are alternatives to open collaboration:

Conspiring is very common among senior contributors within a team. Conspiring is simply a form of collaboration where the”community” is limited, usually to select members who the contributor trusts. Rather than speak out or agree during meetings, this individual will seek out others who they feel will understand and appreciate their contribution and work with those people to flesh out their ideas. They may even strategize privately about how to bring the rest of the team “around” to their way of thinking. (This is the conspiratorial part of the equation.)


Competing, on the other hand, happens out in the open. Competing is founded on two basic assumptions:

  • Ideas reached by consensus are not necessarily the best ideas. Rather, they are ideas that sound most agreeable or that provide the least resistance to current conditions (in other words, ruffle as few feathers as possible).
  • By openly pursuing multiple approaches in parallel, you can test more possibilities and (the key to competing) inspire each group to reach farther and develop a more complete and creative solution.

If you have wide open, top to bottom collaboration, then you’re closest to the internet model of social networks and should be able deploy the standard tools (e.g., blogs, wikis, forums, distribution lists) with minimal adjustment for the realities of corporate life. If you have a significant number of productive “conspirators” then you need tools that allow wide open collaboration within this very small group of trusted colleagues (e.g., IM, limited access wikis and blogs). For competitors, you need to provide a forum where they can battle their way to victory (e.g., open access wikis, microblogging).

By acknowledging that collaboration may not be possible for all, you give yourself permission to identify other productive ways of working within your law firm. Once you understand how these other methods work, you’re better placed to introduce effective social media tools that fit neatly with established modes of working. This requires moving from a monolithic view of organizational culture to a much more nuanced one. Done correctly, this should result in higher adoption rates within the various sub-groups that exist and thrive within your law firm. Do this with enough sub-groups and you’ll have reached enterprise 2.0 nirvana.