law firms and tacit knowledgeThe ideas behind the social business movement are not new. In fact, people have been speculating about how the connected economy would impact the future of business for quite some time now. In 1999, way before the birth of social networks, a group of authors and bloggers put together a set of ninety five theses which were organized and published as a manifesto. Known as The Clue Train Manifesto, this book sparked an initial awakening among business people throughout the connected economy.

Then in the Spring of 2006, Andrew McAfee a professor from Harvard Business School authored an article in the MIT Sloan Management Review entitled Enterprise 2.0: The Dawn of Emergent Collaboration. This article, which later went on to become a book, is widely regarded as the beginning of the Enterprise 2.0 movement, which later became known as the social business movement.In his article, McAfee writes about how “Wikis, blogs, group-messaging software and the like can make a corporate intranet into a constantly changing structure built by distributed, autonomous peers — a collaborative platform that reflects the way work really gets done.

That is really the key when it comes to social technologies and processes. Social collaboration at work is more than a new technology. It’s a new way of working. The technology is merely a tool that enables knowledge workers to do their jobs in a way that is more open and transparent. To understand how, it is important first to understand how social technologies are different from the technology that most law firms are using today. All law firms today are using information technologies to get work done. Email, phones, document management systems, matter management systems, time and billing software, intranets, and to some extent knowledge management systems, these systems are all widely used by lawyers in their day to day work. In his article, McAfee discusses how these technologies fall into two distinct categories, Channels and Platforms:

Channels (systems such as email and instant messaging) “where digital information can be created and distributed by anyone, but the degree of commonality of this information is low (even if everyone’s e-mail sits on the same server, it’s only viewable by the few people who are part of the thread).”

Platforms (such as intranets, law firm websites, information portals) “are, in a way, the opposite of channels in that their content is generated, or at least approved, by a small group, but then is widely visible — production is centralized, and commonality is high.”

Knowledge management systems try to be both channels and platforms by gathering explicit knowledge in the form of outlines, legal forms, best practices and experience from legal professionals and then curating it so that the knowledge becomes generally available throughout the law firm. The problem with most knowledge management systems however, is that capturing knowledge is not easy. It requires a significant amount of effort up front by the lawyer or knowledge manager in order to properly capture, tag and organize the day-to-day knowledge that informs legal practice.

To make this further problematic, traditional knowledge management platforms do not even begin to address what is perhaps the most important aspect of professional knowledge — what is usually referred to as tacit knowledge. Tacit knowledge is knowledge that cannot be easily transferred and articulated by verbal or written means. This is the sort of knowledge that the master imparts to the apprentice who watches over the shoulder and learns a trade over the course of many years. It is the contextual wisdom and experience that ultimately informs the soundest professional judgment. It is the secret sauce that justifies the highest sort of premium billing rate.

In 2011, Keith Goffin and Ursula Konners wrote an article Tacit Knowledge, Lessons Learnt, and New Product Development for the Journal of Product Innovation Management. In it they wrote, “with tacit knowledge, people are not often aware of the knowledge they possess or how it can be valuable to others. Effective transfer of tacit knowledge generally requires extensive personal contact, regular interaction and trust. This kind of knowledge can only be revealed through practice in a particular context and transmitted through social networks. To some extent it is “captured” when the knowledge holder joins a network or a community of practice.

Lawyers posses vast amounts of tacit knowledge. It is this tacit knowledge that enables them to do what they do best – how they respond in a given situation, given the dynamics of a particular transaction or litigation. It is what makes them unique and allows them to be trusted advisors to their clients. However, the sharing and transfer of this knowledge is extremely difficult to promote. Especially when you have firms that have offices all over the world and professionals who are widely dispersed. As Goffin and Konners suggest, “the transfer of tacit knowledge requires extensive personal contact, regular interaction and trust.”

The solution as we see it is simple: this is one more powerful argument in favor of law firms deploying an Enterprise Social Network.

Among many other virtues, an Enterprise Social Network (an “ESN”), provides a means for effectively transferring tacit knowledge. The transfer is facilitated in the ordinary course of people working together. In our networked world this happens most readily over an ESN, by virtue of providing a collaborative workspace that fosters extensive personal contact and regular interaction. It is the vehicle by which a team is assembled and carries out its tasks. It establishes a bond and builds trust among lawyers and clients working together on a particular matter. It also provides the opportunity for lawyers to engage in routine exchanges, where tacit knowledge can be imparted regularly in the course of daily legal practice. It enables the members of a firm to collaborate more effectively and thus empowers the firm to tap into its collective knowledge as a matter of routine. Ultimately, much like tacit knowledge itself, it begins to function as the glue that holds a firm together.

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