A new article by Dion Hinchcliffe in ZDNet makes the important point that despite all the advances in recent years in the development of tools and technologies to foster collaboration, there remain serious roadblocks within most corporations, which impede adoption and prevent most business organizations from fully realizing the potential benefits of collaborative technology. The fault, Hinchcliffe argues persuasively, is within us and not with the software. The single most important factor in fostering law firm collaboration is personal (or organizational) receptivity as opposed to any particular approach to software design or function.
Hinchcliffe’s observation comes in response to the long running debate in the tech world whether collaborative technology proves most effective when it is addressed to the work group or the entire enterprise. This debate flared up again recently when Charlene Li (a well respected analyst with the Altimeter Group) published a research report in the Harvard Business Review that showed how large scale or enterprise wide social networks tend to receive much less traction within an organization compared to the collaborative tools implemented on a more modest scale.
So now, having been given a nice push by Li’s recent report, the pendulum seems to be swinging in favor of focusing on collaboration at the work group level. This coincides with the introduction of several new products, such as Box and Slack, which are geared to facilitating work group collaboration in very pragmatic ways. We see this in our own working lives, where we have begun using a new web-based tool called Asana, which provides a very handy way for us to assign tasks and monitor progress at the work group level. In several key respects Asana has proved much more effective in our day-to-day work than the more robust enterprise social network we use to “collaborate” with our clients.
But as Hinchcliffe reminds us, this long running debate between enterprise and work group collaboration is really a red herring. “[P]eople are the most important aspect of collaboration, digital or otherwise,“ as he pithily explains. “If they are unwilling – or as is often the case, simply don’t have the skills and resources to enable them – to collaborate together openly as a team, then you won’t see results, tactically or strategically. “
Hinchcliffe’s point seems particularly apt when it comes to the legal market. However much the broader corporate market has moved forward slowly and sporadically in its adoption of collaborative technology, the legal market has proved all but monolithic in its resistance. This is true at the enterprise level (where we have yet to see any top tier U.S. firm embrace an enterprise social network as an essential element of the firm’s culture and practice) and almost equally true on the practice group level (where message boards and deal rooms still seem to represent the cutting edge).
How is it that the legal profession remains so staunch in its resistance to collaborative technology? More and more I am beginning to realize that the real explanation has little to do with technology, no matter what the prevailing trends and fashion in the tech world happen to be at any given time. The fault is not within the software code. It is within us as lawyers, in the way we think and interact with our colleagues and clients. It’s baked into the training we receive, from our earliest days in law school, and then reinforced almost every step along the way once we begin to practice in law firms of all shapes and sizes. Until law firm leaders begin to tackle the human element, collaboration is going to remain little more than a hollow catchphrase for most of the profession.