The Cost of a Dysfunctional Community

Cynics sneer at what they characterize as the Kumbaya tone of some social media advocates. As far as these cynics (or as they prefer to say, realists)  are concerned, only Pollyanna would make such rosy projections of network effects and community building.  Exhortations to share and share alike, or to just give your personal intellectual property away without charge or expectation of reciprocity are met with disbelief.  This is so far outside the reality of life within many businesses that it’s not surprising that management occasionally finds the social media talk high on new age bromides and low on concrete facts.

One of the problems facing those of us who try to explain the value of Enterprise 2.0 tools is that most companies have not measured the cost to the enterprise of their failure to nurture internal social networks and a spirit of collaboration. Does management know how many deals weren’t closed because expertise was hidden rather than shared? Has management measured the hits to efficiency and effectiveness that result when critical information is buried in a silo rather than easily accessible via the community?  Does management understand the impact that dysfunctional communities have on employee morale and productivity?

Until you’ve counted the cost of a dysfunctional community, how can you properly value the potential benefits of social media tools that could help build and strengthen a healthy community?

[Photo Credit:  Niall Kennedy]


How to Ruin an IT Project

If you ask users, they might well tell you that in their experience of KM and IT implementations, the old saying sadly holds true:  “There’s many a slip twixt the cup and the lip.”  That saying captures what often happens when law firm knowledge management and IT personnel start building systems to “meet user requirements.”  Lots of well-intentioned folks spend far too much time worrying a problem to death and yet, in the process, sometimes lose sight of what the end-user actually needs or wants.  The best cure for this malady is to stick as closely as possible to the user during each of the requirements gathering, design and implementation phases.  And, as you’re doing this, make sure that your work product reflects at each stage the users’ growing understanding of the tool and your growing understanding of the users.  Otherwise, you’ll end up with a system that faithfully follows the initial requirements document while missing the mark on what the users ultimately realize they needed all along.

For those of you who read this blog post by e-mail or via an RSS reader, please do take a look at the image above.  I promise it will be worth your while.

[Photo credit:  Dullhunk]


Tech Conferences Struggle With Technology

When will tech conferences master technology? If recent experience is any guide, it appears that providing adequate WiFi access at tech conferences is as challenging as finding a cure for cancer. Is it just me, or does this strike the rest of you as strange and supremely ironic?

At February’s LegalTech 2009 NY conference, there were persistent problems with the WiFi.  In that case, it wasn’t made available in all sessions initially.  For those of us in the Web 2.0 track, sessions without reliable WiFi were frustrating to say the least.  And then this week we saw another WiFi problem at, of all places, the E2.0 Conference.  The tweet stream on this subject has been funny and at times rather sad.

First, elation:

elsuaRT @VMaryAbraham: @elsua Wifi Works!!! Perhaps you died and went to heaven? 😉 #e2conf < Yes, I did! & tables available, too! Impressed!

VMaryAbraham @elsua So glad the organizers understand the value of Wifi. Wish all tech conferences got this. Enjoy! #e2conf

elsua@VMaryAbraham Yeah, I know what you mean, Mary; last year it wasn’t a pretty experience, but so far, this year, it ROCKS!! (So far 😉 )

Then reality sets in:

VMaryAbraham RT @VMaryAbraham: @elsua @elsuacon I’ve found the solution to the wifi problem: Stay at home and watch the livestream! #e2conf

elsua@VMaryAbraham LOL! I am actually thinking you may have luckier with us struggling to get a connect working, while you guys watch it live! 😀

KMHobbie@VMaryAbraham so you have *more* access to #e20conf info sitting in NY than I do here in the room?? *grump*

carlfrappaolo RT @KMHobbie: @VMaryAbraham so you have *more* access to #e20conf info sitting in NY than I do here in the room?? *grump* FUNNY

e2conf RT @VMaryAbraham: @carlfrappaolo While I’m sorry I’m not able to meet all of you at #e2conf, I’m loving not having to fight for WiFi. (ha)

vanderwalIcon_lock@VMaryAbraham LOL! Yes, I keep looking on the ground for WiFi as it drops so much.

VMaryAbraham @dberlind Best of all, the WiFi in my home is GREAT! Too bad we can’t say the same for the Waterfront Westin. #e2conf

elsuacon #e2conf My energy levels are running on a deep low after several unsuccessful attempts to get decent wi-fi connectivity working :-///

elsuacon Suspecting #e2conf hasn’t been trending in Twitter during this time due to the yo-yo effect of the wifi connection; still working in patches

elsuacon PRT @leebryant: wifi down all session, but fantastic presentation from IDEO about their tools – massive congrats to @thoughtfarmer #e20conf

VMaryAbraham Condolences! RT @benkepes: It is very hard to live blog an event with no WiFi – frustrated at #e2conf

benkepes@VMaryAbraham even worse to be sitting in the hotel lobby trying decide between attending or connectivity….

VMaryAbraham @benkepes Forget connectivity. Attend the conference. Your pen and paper still work. Right? #e2conf

So help me out here.  What makes this technology so difficult for the organizers of tech conferences?  Is WiFi intrinsically difficult, or do all of us in the Web 2.0/tech space need to start practicing what we preach?

[Photo Credit:  Goldberg]


Social Media Snake Oil

There are far too many snake oil salesmen in the social media business. If you believed their marketing claims, you might think that social media tools are the remedy for everything that ails you. Unfortunately, as more companies and individuals are finding out, that’s simply not true. Equally, there are far too many uneducated consumers and enterprises who hope that by throwing a social media tool at a problem they might get lucky.

Social media tools are nothing more than tools.  Just like a hammer is useless if you need a blender, social media tools won’t help if the functionality they provide is not what your situation requires.  In This is about that other thing, right? Jack Vinson recounts an incident in which his client had the epiphany and realized that the issue they needed to tackle wasn’t the project they had planned but rather inadequate communication within the enterprise.  If you have a foundational challenge like inadequate communication or few distinct, active internal social networks, you might find that implementing social media projects are more challenging than they should be.  While social media tools can be transformative in the right situation, Steve Radick notes that they often simply reflect your corporate culture and any of its inadequacies.  A command-and-control organization won’t turn into an open, emergent, dynamic enterprise overnight merely through the introduction of social media tools.

Don’t get me wrong — social media tools are fantastic and do open up new possibilities for education, innovation and growth.  However, they are just tools, not miracle workers.  And, they work best in the hands of educated, experienced craftsmen — not snake oil salesmen.

[Photo Credit:  OutlandArmour]


If Technology is the Answer, What’s the Question?

At the Enterprise 2.0 workshop I attended yesterday, someone asked Livio Hughes of Headshift the following question:  What’s the worst mistake we can make with respect to law firm technology? His answer was interesting:  Don’t fall into the habit of thinking that problems can be solved only by launching a massive multi-year IT infrastructure project.  In other words, don’t assume that big technology is the answer to every question.

Livio told the story of a client that had invited Headshift to help revamp some technology systems.  Once they were engaged and were able to inspect “under the hood of the car,” they discovered that the real question to be answered was not the one the client had identified and that the right answer had very little to do with technology.  Based on this and other experiences, Livio’s advice was to take the time to analyze properly what was really going on in your firm from a process, behavior and cultural perspective.  Next, identify a range of possible solutions and see if there aren’t grassroots, low-key, tiny spend ways of testing some of these solutions in a variety of safe-fail pilots. Then, finally, make your choice.  Obviously, once you’re talking about grassroots, low-key, tiny spend solutions, you’re not heading down the path of the big ticket “total enterprise solution” that the vendor is desperate to sell to you.  Rather, you’re more likely to try Enterprise 2.0 tools, which tend to be much easier, cheaper and faster to deploy than those mega solutions.

Do you have an inadequate document management system?  Don’t assume the answer to that problem is the latest model DMS.  You may be able to side-step the pain of DMS replacement and go straight to a really robust search tool.  Or, have you considered a wiki that allows users to surface useful documents in context.  Or, internal microblogging/ tagging/ social bookmarking applications that use social signals to help high quality content rise to the top.  After all, we rarely need to find and reuse every item in the DMS.  We’re usually just looking for “something good” and would be glad to accept a document recommended by a trusted source in our network.

This is just one example of a key area of law firm knowledge management and technology that could be re-imagined in creative, economical and effective ways.  So, before you leap to the conclusion that a particular big ticket technology “solution” is the answer, make sure you really understand the question.

[Disclosure:  I had the pleasure of working with Livio’s colleagues,  Lee Bryant and Christoph Schmaltz, in February when Lee and I presented an introduction to Web 2.0 at LegalTech New York.]

[Photo Credit:  Leo Reynolds]


What Sets Your Law Firm Apart?

What sets your law firm apart from its competitors?  Your technology?  Doubtful.

In an interesting conversation today with Gil Yehuda and Livio Hughes on Enterprise 2.0, we discussed the rate at which companies are jumping on the Enterprise 2.0 bandwagon.  Gil mentioned that recent figures indicated that anywhere from 25-40% of companies were either in the midst of or about to begin a deployment of social media tools behind the firewall.  As for the rest, they probably had a significant number of employees using these tools outside the firewall and under the radar.

All of this prompted me to ask what the comparable figures for law firms were.  As we heard, anecdotal evidence suggests that many law firms are lagging behind their clients.  When asked why, Gil pointed out that relatively few law firms claim that their use of technology sets them apart from their competitors.  Further, that law firms behaved in a “tribal manner” and tended not to adopt technology until their peers did.

So, if it isn’t technology that sets your firm apart from its competitors, what does?  The people you hire and retain.  If we take that as a given, I just have to ask:  What are you doing to support the people you hire?  Do you have technology and KM systems that simplify and rationalize work flow?  Do you provide tools that permit easy communication and effective collaboration?  Does your approach to knowledge management, technology and the practice of law have a net effect of making everything easier or harder for the user?

If you’re serious about the competitive advantage your people represent, you have to be serious about how you deploy KM systems and technology to support those people.  And, you have to seriously consider how social media tools can provide that support in an efficient and cost-effective manner.

[Photo Credit:  David Cavan]


When Right is Easy

Pearls of wisdom sometimes turn up in the unlikeliest of places. In this case, I was sitting through yet another vendor presentation when the voice behind the PowerPoint slides said: “Make doing the right thing the easy thing.” Brilliant.

When we deploy new technology or knowledge management systems, we have enormous influence over the users.  We set up the expectations of “normal” behavior and provide the tools.  In the course of our planning, we identify the optimal ways of using the tool and hope that our users will agree and use it as planned.  All too often, that doesn’t pan out.  Why?  Even assuming you’ve chosen the correct tool for the job, things can still go off the rails if you aren’t careful in your design.  Here are some of the usual problems that result:

  • The “right thing” is largely theoretical and is the product of over zealous but well-meaning people in IT and KM who haven’t had the front line experience of delivering service directly to a client of the firm.
  • The “right thing” requires so many steps that you’d have to be a plaster saint to comply.
  • The “right thing” addresses a “wrong thing” of which the users were blissfully ignorant.  If they don’t understand (or care about) the problem, they won’t assist with the solution.

On the other hand, since you’re the one setting up the system, you have a ton of flexibility (or at least as much as the vendor will provide) in organizing things for the convenience of your users.  Equally, with a little forethought you can help guide them to better behavior:

  • Change the default options so that the preferred behavior is the one that occurs automatically.  Interesting work has been done in the area of automatic enrollment for 401K programs, for example.  By changing the default from opt in to opt out, the number of participants has increased dramatically.  Unfortunately, since the default in many employer retirement programs assumes minimal contribution, people aren’t taking advantage of their total 401K opportunities.  Perhaps this is a place where further adjustment of the default setting might be helpful.
  • Be sure that your user interface assists rather than impedes doing the right thing.  More often than not, it’s the UI that frustrates the user so much that they just don’t have the energy to overcome it in order to do the right thing.
  • Demonstrate the rewards of doing the right things and keep track of the cost of doing the wrong thing.  These statistics can demonstrate the real impact on the enterprise of your planning and design choices.

Before you deploy any system, take a little extra time to confirm that you’ve identified what the “right thing” is AND that you’ve created a system that makes it easy to do that right thing.  If you haven’t, you might as well save yourself a boatload of pain and just go back to the drawing board now.

[Photo Credit:  Jungle Boy]


Be a KM Bartender

In knowledge management as in life, folks often come in one of two flavors: the mixologists and the bartenders. Not sure about the distinction? According to Jim Meehan (a bartender at PDT, an East Village speakeasy in New York City):

Mixologists serve drinks. Bartenders serve people.

The KM mixologists believe in their systems and theories.  They are more likely to ask the user to bend to the system than adapt the system to the user.  KM mixologists often honestly believe they know what’s best for their client, regardless of what the client says.

A KM bartender is completely unpretentious — just trying to help the customer get along, but always on the customer’s terms.  This means mixing good service with liberal doses of sympathy, listening attentively to what the customer isn’t always able to articulate, and knowing when to stop pouring.

[h/t to to lawyer and culinary/cultural critic, Jeffrey Steingarten, who reported the distinction between a mixologist and a bartender.]

[Photo Credit:  Tomas Fano]


Can You Hear Me Now?

Verizon’s ads about cellphone reception feature the tag line “Can you hear me now?”  They are a great demonstration of the benefits of a good cellphone network.  However, they do not represent the gold standard for knowledge management.  In KM, it isn’t enough merely to hear — we actually have to listen.

It’s our inability to listen properly to our users that gets in the way of providing systems that meet their expressed needs.  And what makes listening so difficult?  In some cases, it’s just our unwillingness to dig beneath the surface of what we’re hearing.  At other times, it’s our preconceived notions that stop us from understanding what we’re being told.   Here are some examples of what I mean:

When they say “I can’t find anything,” we think “You’re not trying hard enough.”

– Perhaps we didn’t try hard enough.

When they say “I don’t understand how this works,”  we think “Why didn’t you attend the training session?”

– Perhaps we didn’t make it easy enough.

This post is not intended to be an exercise in self-flagellation, but rather a reminder that our success hinges on the quality of the conversation we have with our users.  The point of conversation is to communicate and learn, to understand and to be understood.  You can’t do any of that if you aren’t really listening.

[Photo Credit:  hotdogger13]


Fighting the Farmers

Silos are a common means by which farmers store the grain they have harvested until it can be taken to market. While silos make sense in agriculture, why are they so prevalent in non-agricultural organizations? Nearly every business has farmers or systems that gather and hoard data in information silos that are impenetrable for those outside that particular farm. This happens even though it is commonly understood that these silos hamper rather than enhance the efficient running of a business.  So in marches KM on a mission to “break down silos” and facilitate the free flow of information. However, knowledge management alone may not be enough since much depends on the tools chosen and on the execution.

Ladies and Gentlemen of the Jury, may I direct your attention to the following items:

The Tools You Choose Can Exacerbate the Problem: Tom Vander Wal recently reported on the sad plight of several organizations that had deployed Microsoft SharePoint in the hope that it would facilitate knowledge sharing.  Instead, this is what happened as a result of the tool they chose:

Many who deployed SharePoint, thought it was going to be the bridge that delivered Enterprise 2.0 and a solid platform for social tools in the enterprise is summed up statement, “We went from 5 silos in our organization to hundreds in a month after deploying SharePoint”. They continue, “There is great information being shared and flowing into the system, but we don’t know it exists, nor can we easily share it, nor do much of anything with that information.” I heard this from an organization about 2 years ago in a private meeting and have been hearing near similar statements since. This is completely counter to the Enterprise 2.0 hopes and wishes they had for SharePoint. They were of the mindset that open sharing & having the organization and individuals benefit from a social platform.


There is much frustration and anger being shared as people try to resolve how to share information between groups and easily merge and openly share information once it has been vetted. … One of the largest complaints is the information is locked in SharePoint micro-silos and it is nearly impossible to easily reuse that information and share it. Not only is the information difficult to get at by people desiring to collaborate outside the group or across groups, but it is not easily unlocked so that it can benefit from found in search. The Microsoft SharePoint model is one that starts with things locked down (focussed on hierarchies) then opens up, but unlocking is nowhere near as easy a task as it should be.

The Way You Execute Can Create New Problems: In 2004 the US Office of Management and Budget identified several functions or “lines of business” of government that could be rationalized across agencies by using technology to cut costs and improve service.  At one point, the OMB estimated that the lines of business initiative could “save as much as $5 billion over 10 years by consolidating systems and functions just in the financial and human resources lines of business.”  Yet in the estimation of even one of its strongest proponents, the project (styled at first as primarily an IT initiative) did not sufficiently take account of the people and politics involved.  The final nail in the coffin was the reality of underfunding of the project by Congress.  The result was summed up by Vivek Kundra, the new Federal Chief Information Officer, in the following way:

Many of those initiatives, he said, attempted to break down the vertical technology silos that evolved across government but ultimately resulted in horizontal, cross-agency silos, such as the Lines of Business initiatives that began in 2004.

Horizontal silos!  Are those any better than the earlier vertical silos?  And yet this is a mess made by people who were trying in good faith to break down silos.

Bad tools and poor execution can result in even more balkanized data and technology if we aren’t careful.  Clearly, if we’re serious about fighting the information and technology silos, we’re also going to have to be more strategic in the way we fight the farmers that build them.

[Photo Credit:  Bob Jagendorf]