posted 28 Aug 2007 in Volume 11 Issue 1
Case study: Allen & Overy
On the social
How Allen & Overy has progressively rolled out social software – including wikis and blogs – to help staff work together better.
By Ruth Ward
I am not sure what I should read into the fact that the editor of Inside Knowledge only seems to ask me to write for him during the summer ‘silly season’ (or, as it has become in the UK this year, the ‘rainy season’). I wrote about the early stages of social-software implementation for the July/August 2006 issue of IK, a detailed case study of Allen & Overy LLP’s initial experience of developing and using social tools, particularly blogs and wikis (see ‘Wiki’s law’, Jul/Aug 2006, pp26-29).
A year on, this article will examine Allen & Overy’s continuing work and experience and our roadmap for the future. It also offers some practical
tips for people starting out or still just thinking about using social software. Because it is clear to me – from the conferences and conversations I have contributed to over the past year – that a lot of businesses and organisations are yet to seize the challenge of social software and, therefore, reap its many knowledge management (KM) benefits.
We have sought to share our ideas and experience with our clients and colleagues at other law firms and businesses – particularly in the professional-services sector. But although many instantly see the opportunity for social software in their organisations, we have seen little immediate adoption. To us, it seems such an obvious fit – people-focused software for a people-centric business. What can possibly be holding them back?
First, I would like to recap on our own project and what’s been happening recently.
Two years on since the start of our initial experiment with just three social-software sites, we now have around 50 sites (all based on our initial experimental site-template) supporting internal and client communities around the Allen & Overy globe. Different legal, support and project teams develop and use the tools on the sites – a group blog and wiki, categorisation and social tagging, and shared newsfeeds and bookmarks – in different ways to meet their own particular needs.
Their success is as visible as their use is varied (see Table One for a snapshot of some of our different types of site and their usage). In just two years, social software has moved from a small-scale experiment to become an accepted part of Allen & Overy’s systems infrastructure, used by one-quarter of staff and with strong management understanding and support for future development.
What’s not happening?
The problems of using social software in a business setting
So, why are many other organisations still struggling to get started with social software? What are the problems with social software and how can they be overcome? Perhaps uniquely for a technology-based initiative, the problem does not appear to be cost-based. Blog and wiki tools are freely available in various forms on the internet – and social software lends itself to the type of small, easily managed and funded ‘organic’ development approach we have taken to date at Allen & Overy.
Problem one – the complicated jargon
But if cost isn’t a problem, it may well be a case of too much jargon. Although the legal profession, in particular, can be full of ‘legalese’ and Latin (as you’d expect), the buzzwords of social software and other Web 2.0 developments have arguably put many people off. The key thing for us initially was simply to get some sites up and running so we could demonstrate and explain the different tools actually working in an Allen & Overy setting – and to see whether people might take to them.
They did. The terminology has, in practice, not really mattered – people internally tend to refer to our sites as wikis although, of course, they are more than just wikis. Indeed, a key participant in one of our most active sites asked me the other day what the difference between a blog and a wiki was!
Things are changing, though, as the terminology moves into the mainstream. For example, when we developed our initial sites two years ago, we used the moniker ‘Groupspace’ instead of ‘Wiki’ on our site template for the tab to access the wiki section of our sites, because we thought it would hamper user acceptance of the sites. Now, people are comfortable with the term wiki, even if they may still not be quite sure how a wiki works.
Problem two – the internet horror stories
Media coverage of all things internet has focused almost entirely on the horror stories – from the dangers of accidentally pressing ‘reply to all’ to an e-mail, to the reputational perils of vanity publishing, to the threat of legal liability. This has given blogs, in particular, a bad name. I spoke at a legal Web 2.0 conference recently and there was a big focus on risks and risk-management techniques, such as employee-blogging policies. If this is how social software is first mentioned in a business context, it may be very hard to get senior-management support to start even a small experiment.
At Allen & Overy we separate the use of social software for internal and other trusted communities from the use of such tools on the wider internet, reflecting the different issues and risks. Our initial internal work has certainly informed our broader internet experience, but they are created and managed as two different initiatives. We have no specific blogging policies for our internal sites – our normal policies around the appropriate use of communication systems apply to these just as they do with e-mail – and individual site-owners guide and monitor use on their own sites.
There may also be reputational issues around who is blogging, not just what they are saying. In the legal sector, for example, the external business ‘blogosphere’ is not yet regarded as sufficiently mainstream and people have perceived it as being quite limited, inhabited only by legal technology commentators and assorted geeks and enthusiasts. At Allen & Overy, we have no internal single-person blogs – only group blogs with multiple contributors with an equal voice and a common purpose. And we expressly do not have any ‘chatrooms’, our sites are all ‘workspaces’ with pre-defined business objectives.
Problem three – the fear of the unknown
Third, it may be hard to decide where a social-software project should start and who should lead it – because the tools are so flexible and potentially of such wide application.
I recently led an external workshop for library and information professionals. A number of the attendees, despite their obvious enthusiasm, said they were reluctant to take the lead in their own organisations because it was not traditionally in ‘their area’ or because it would need to be a firm-wide project and something like that was not for them to start.
There is a definite risk of different business units all sitting on their hands, independently waiting for IT or someone else to take a lead – and IT sitting in the centre thinking that no one is interested, so why bother? At Allen & Overy, the central knowledge team led the project from the outset, and suggested and facilitated sites for other business areas – combining central experience with local ownership.
The role and attitude of a firm’s internal IT team will also always be important. Crucially, the IT department at Allen & Overy has been onside from day one. But in other businesses there may be conflicting interests in IT, or with other business units relating to existing systems, staff or processes that may hinder, rather than help. Social software is a potentially disruptive technology. It supports a move to self-service and self-publishing – which may affect existing knowledge and information management, as well as business administration roles and activity.
It may also have an impact on people’s use and perception of existing systems, such as formal corporate intranets, know-how databases and e-mail. In our experience, it is only by beginning to experiment with social software in one’s own business that you can begin to develop a real understanding of the potential system and business opportunities and challenges.
Problem four – the cultural context
Finally, and not surprisingly, there are cultural considerations, too – at the firm, group and individual level. You cannot simply plug in a group blog and wiki and expect it to create a team of inclusive managers and collaborative workers. Lawyers, in particular, tend to be cautious and prefer formal communication – but at Allen & Overy we have encouraged groups to ask questions and share ideas and opinions, and to move out of their comfort zone of e-mails and long Microsoft Office document drafts. Allen & Overy’s collegiate approach and willingness to trial new technology and ways of working, not to mention the enthusiasm and example set by such people as managing partner David Morley, have also had a positive cultural impact.
Top tips for social-software success
So, how can other businesses and organisations make sure they make sense of social software and realise the same business benefits as Allen & Overy? Here’s a brief review of our social-software roadmap over the past two years and our ‘top ten tips’ for social software success.
Tip one: seek expert advice first, either from other businesses or good consultants;
Tip two: start small and let it grow as staff become more comfortable with it;
Tip three: work with internal trusted communities first, to build experience and confidence in a ‘safe’ environment;
Tip four: choose initial working groups carefully – work with naturally networked groups and also target groups and objectives that are relevant to the firm’s wider business strategy;
Tip five: ensure your initial work is seen as an experiment not a pilot – it should be OK for it to fail;
Tip six: nominate an enthusiastic and networked team or manager to take the lead with IT support. At Allen & Overy, this was our central knowledge team;
Tip seven: spread the word as soon as you have something to show. Our plans for a formal post-experiment roadshow were replaced by informal demos from day two of testing as we were so impressed;
Tip eight: support the growth phase. Our central knowledge team worked closely with groups as we continued to develop our sites from three to 50 to share best practice and to maximise each site’s chances of success. This was important, as many people were not familiar with social software (beyond Wikipedia) beforehand;
Tip nine: create a market to stimulate interest and enthusiasm among staff so that they will feel a sense of shared ownership and commitment towards the new system;
Tip ten: apply ‘hard’ business principles to ‘soft’ software.
Systems usage does not equal business value and we resisted calls for a success criteria based purely on readership and participation. Instead, we clarify each group’s business objectives up front and review them on a regular basis.
Allen & Overy’s social-software roadmap
So what’s next? We are, as I mentioned, still using our initial experimental site template and we are just applying an interim upgrade to the user interface and functionality. We worked with our existing site-owner community (via a wiki, what else?) to share feedback, frustrations and ideas.
These interim upgrade changes are fairly minor, improving the layout of the e-mail alert, for example, and the ‘add discussion form’ on the group blog. We are also just kicking off a major project to integrate social-software tools within our broader intranet and extranet portals based on Microsoft Sharepoint 2007. This will enable us to make much more use of individual social tools for different business purposes and use really-simple syndication (RSS) extensively to help us manage and consolidate information flows.
So there is still lots on the agenda – I wonder if the editor will invite me to write, once again, in summer 2008?
Ruth Ward is head of knowledge systems and development at Allen & Overy LLP. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.