posted 10 Jul 2009 in Volume 12 Issue 8
By Penny Edwards
“It’s not what you know, it’s who you know’. Having connections across the firm means people are more likely to find what or who they want, when they need to.
The rapid and highly-publicised uptake of online social networking is causing many firms to consider whether to block staff access to those sites due to concerns over security and time-wasting. Others view social networking as an opportunity and are taking steps to encourage similar behaviour to leverage talent, skills and experience to improve their effectiveness, competitiveness and agility.
Research has clearly demonstrated that organisational effectiveness and competitiveness is closely linked to the connectivity and efficiency of people’s networks within the firm1. In other words, who you know has a material impact on what you come to know and how far you go, because relationships are critical for obtaining information, solving problems and learning how to do your work. These interactions help to strengthen personal relationships and engender greater levels of trust – vital elements for any healthy organisation..
Often, teams within a given practice area function as a tightly-knit unit with fairly informal communication flows. Lack of integration with other teams (whether they be in different practice areas or geographical locations) detrimentally affects people’s awareness networks and access networks and has knock-on effects for individual and firm performance. More specifically2:
Awareness networks affect people’s information-seeking behaviour. Knowing and valuing what another person knows dictates whether and why you will seek out that individual for information or help. Even if all aspects of organisational design support collaboration, people won’t connect on new projects if they are unaware of each other’s skill and expertise.
Access networks refer to the seeker’s ability to gain timely access to that person. Knowing that someone has relevant expertise does little good if you cannot get access to his or her thinking in a timely fashion.
During a recent interview, a practice support lawyer with a major international law firm illustrated how problems with awareness and access networks caused over-reliance on people from the same group and bottlenecks which stifled the flow of knowledge/information to others:
“Even though we’re a big firm, the lawyers here work in small teams. It’s like working in a pod environment. Communication is excellent but very informal. People are really busy and entrenched in their behaviour; they don’t see any need to change. New systems have been introduced from time to time to try to capture information and knowledge for future use. But there’s been little uptake of that technology. In fact, this is not a technology issue – it’s a behavioural issue. When preparing pitch documents I have to go around the team asking for information and feedback. I shouldn’t have to do this. Once, the whole senior team was out of the office – along with all the knowledge in their heads. ... People in the
Efforts to overcome network disconnects too often result in the implementation of generic one-size-fits all collaboration or knowledge management systems. Those initiatives rarely succeed because they don’t reflect people’s everyday work processes and interactions.
Certainly, social networking is not merely a technological endeavour, or a matter of more and better communication. Networking is more about understanding people’s face-to-face behaviours and relationships and how they can be supplemented or supported via online interactions. Daily real-life personal communications will always play a critical role in establishing and maintaining relationships. However, social tools help to break down boundaries and enable people to involve others in their conversations irrespective of where they are. Social technology tools overcome the gulf that has traditionally separated offline and online behaviour.
This column is adapted from an excerpt of Ark Group’s Social Networking for the Legal Profession report, by Penny Edwards and Lee Bryant. For more information contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Anklam, P., The Social-Networking Toolkit – Building Organisational Performance through Collaborative Communities, Ark Group, London, 2005; Cross, R., & Parker, A., The Hidden Power of Social Networks, Harvard Business School Press, Cambridge, MA, 2004; and DiMicco, J.M., Millen, D.R., Geyer, W. & Dugan, C., ‘Research on the Use of Social Software in the Workplace’, IBM Corporation, Cambridge MA, 2008.
Cross & Parker, ibid.