posted 25 Jul 2006 in Volume 9 Issue 10
Case study –Allen & Overy
Allen & Overy found implementing so-called ‘social software’ a relatively straightforward process – but one that has proved popular and highly profitable.
By Ruth Ward
Allen & Overy LLP is an international legal practice with offices in 19 countries on three continents, 4,800 staff and 450 partners. The firm was founded in 1930 and today advises governments, banks, major corporates and institutions operating around the world. But notwithstanding its tremendous growth in recent years, Allen & Overy still retains the feel of a smaller, more intimate partnership, with a strong collegiate culture and reputation for innovation – as recognised in the Financial Times’ ‘Innovative Lawyers’ report.
The allure of social media for Allen & Overy was superficially clear. But initially we were not too sure what we needed or, indeed, whether something so cutting edge would really fit-in among our lawyers. This article therefore documents the journey we took from those tentative first steps when we first floated the idea, to the global roll-out that is going on today.
Social media and professional services
David Jabbari, Allen & Overy’s chief knowledge officer (CKO), set out the strategic context for knowledge management (KM) at Allen & Overy in his recent ‘Know it all’ case study in Inside Knowledge in May 2006. Allen & Overy, like other professional-service firms, realises that it is a knowledge-centric organisation in which its greatest knowledge assets are its people. However, the traditional legal KM model has focused more on documents – acquiring them and storing them – rather than on people, putting them together and leveraging their know-how. It is this shortcoming that Allen & Overy’s KM strategy was devised to address.
However, our lawyers – our primary knowledge assets – are not necessarily the people you would naturally choose for an experiment in informal collaboration and knowledge sharing. Indeed, lawyers everywhere are often regarded as conservative and, sometimes, a little technophobic. We therefore prepared the ground carefully.
To begin with, we sought outside expertise to see how others had approached, implemented and benefited from social software technology. In particular, we profited greatly from the knowledge of Euan Semple, who had enjoyed great success at the BBC, establishing informal online groups and networks (see IK, March 2006).
However, we did not want to simply roll out the same model that Semple had deployed at the BBC. That would have been counter-productive – lawyers and programme makers are very different people with very different attitudes and needs.
We therefore returned to Allen & Overy from our trip to the BBC’s White City headquarters not with a blueprint that we could simply re-use but, instead, a clear view of what might work and what would not within our community of relatively conservative legal experts.
We realised that we needed to focus our initial projects on groups where there would be a high chance of early adoption. This would help us to create home-grown success stories that we could use to build awareness and interest elsewhere within Allen & Overy, driving a bandwagon that could help to support a wider roll-out later. We were certainly not planning a ‘big bang’.
Fortunately, the IT department at Allen & Overy shared our enthusiasm for trialling social software and agreed that it would be valuable to deploy outside consultants in our initial trials to ensure that the implementation was as finely tuned to end-user needs as possible.
So we turned to Lee Bryant of new-media consultancy Headshift (see IK, April 2006), who we had heard speak at a conference back in 2004 and who seemed to us to have the right mix of expertise, enthusiasm and realism to help us take our project forward.
We were not too sure whether we should implement blogs or wikis – Bryant advised us to implement a combination of the two. He also helped us to run our initial user workshops, making sure that they did not turn into time-wasting talking shops – and was fully involved in the development of the technical platform.
We focused on three streams of potential wiki and blog use in our initial experimental phase:
Internal work communities that had an ongoing need to communicate and collaborate;
Project teams creating and sharing knowledge. For example, on a new area of law;
General office-based internal communications via online newsletters.
We wanted to keep the initial stages focused and fast, so we selected just three groups in the firm, with leaders that we knew would be the most enthusiastic asked to act as leaders and to recruit the other participants. We also ensured that the groups remained rigidly focused on the task in hand so as to minimise time-wasting and to expedite the process.
Our three pilot groups comprised a sub-group of our global Know-How KM community made up of 20 volunteers who trialled the Know-How group site, environmental lawyers who needed to build their knowledge about new European Union directives and our Amsterdam office newsletter team.
We realised from this process that our lawyers were likely to take to the idea more fully than we had initially expected. We also realised that it would not have to be an either/or choice between blogs and wikis. With the right software, implemented correctly, we could do both, Bryant advised. He also helped to draw up the development plan based on the output from the groups.
That was in the early summer of 2005. One of the advantages of social software is that it does not take too long to get something up-and-running. By September of the same year, we had put together a prototype that was sufficiently robust to put before our three groups, including site templates that would enable staff to launch their own blogs and wikis without the intervention of Allen & Overy’s IT department.
A little Know-How
The finished product combined two main applications, Confluence (for the wiki) and Moveable Type (for the blog), combined to present users with a single, unified interface. Two demonstrably different products, or having to log off from one to log-in to another, would have been a turn-off for users.
The system combines the following components: Group blog, e-mail alerter, wiki, categorisation, news aggregator, really simple syndication (RSS) and trackback.
For any IT project, let alone a KM project, it can often be a challenge to persuade staff of the potential benefits from using it – especially if it means a change to the way people work. We have found that the best way to market a new project and to help people understand the opportunities a new initiative provides is to avoid buzzwords and to focus instead on the user experience.
So I would like you to imagine for a moment that you have just joined Allen & Overy’s Know-How staff community, while I take you on a tour of our Know-How group site, which was the first site we launched. Know-How is the internal KM community at Allen & Overy and mostly comprised of professional support lawyers.
We know that almost everyone at Allen & Overy spends much of their day logged-in to their e-mail client, Microsoft Outlook, and so an e-mail alerter was considered of primary importance. People posting information can specify that group members should be alerted immediately, or they can wait for the aggregated daily alert at lunch time, which also contains a précis of the posts and entries.
Links in the e-mail take you straight to the relevant post on the blog or wiki. Each ‘site’ – such as the Know How site – is only open to its members. However, we also have a restricted ‘public’ view of most of our sites, which just includes recent posts. This is really useful to me as the administrator of the Know-How group site because if you post an issue or question that needs to be dealt with by someone outside the community I can simply send them a link to the public blog so they can post a reply.
When you log-in to the site itself, you will see recent posts on the group blog and can navigate to a more focused view by selecting one of the categories that I have set. On top of that, you can view content in terms of one of the ‘themes’ that someone has tagged their post with or by using the date archive or search function.
To participate in a discussion, simply click on the icon on the home page and fill in the form. Images, links and other items of supporting documentation – from our document-management system, for example – can easily be added to the post. This is essential to ensure that we do not duplicate reference and supporting documentation in our document management system.
You can also tag your post with one of the categories I provide as the administrator of the site and you can also set your own themes – basically tags that categorise documents according to their content. As well as using themes to navigate to particular content areas, there is also a themes page that highlights activity on the site by showing which are the most popular themes.
This site is for you – to ask questions and share knowledge and information about recent joiners, events, work projects and best practice.
There is also a wiki area that we call Group Space.
Here, staff can find regularly updated information about training programmes and recommended reading. There is also information about Allen & Overy’s knowledge strategy and staff are invited to share details about their own business plans and priorities, and to see what others are planning. The wiki is also a useful tool for carrying out consultations and compiling reports when we need input from across the community.
The roll-out is ongoing. We started work on the project in early summer 2005, including the workshops, and by early autumn we had our pilot sites up and running. We are conducting the roll-out on a step-by-step basis, one group at a time, and at the moment about ten per cent of Allen & Overy staff are hooked up.
Ruth Ward is head of knowledge systems and development at Allen & Overy LLP. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Power to the people
What people really love about the Know-How group site and our other sites is their ease of use. These tools speak powerfully to anyone who has an interest in publishing or sharing information, but who finds the formal internal communications and publishing platforms too difficult and time consuming. The vast majority of staff lack the time and are insufficiently techie to build something themselves – or to even want to.
Our Know-How group blog has replaced the various e-mail interest groups and ad hoc e-mails sent out with news of new joiners and upcoming events that we used to have, significantly reducing the amount of time the central knowledge team has to spend raising awareness, training and co-ordinating activities. Staff have fewer e-mails to wade through every day, too…
As soon as our first sites went live we realised the potential value of using blogs and wikis across the organisation. So, we immediately embarked on an informal consultation with different departments and support functions across the firm. The response was overwhelmingly enthusiastic and positive: people immediately ‘got it’ and could see how they could valuably make use of these sites for their own teams and projects.
This was a relief, of course, but we were surprised at the level of understanding and buy-in from senior partners and support staff. We think that this, in part, was due to the fact that many of them have children who use Wikipedia, perhaps blog, and our sites give them an opportunity to tell their children, “I blog too”.
It is an old chestnut that senior-level buy-in is always an important factor behind the success of KM and IT projects. Fortunately, Allen & Overy’s global managing partner, David Morley, was exceptionally supportive as we sought buy-in to move from our initial experiments to broader firm-wide deployment, as it supports his strategic aims of improving our internal communications and breaking down the internal organisational silos across Allen & Overy to help us respond quickly and effectively to our clients’ needs.
With the support of David and others we were able to quickly move beyond our three initial test sites to a second phase of pilot sites for groups in our corporate legal department and our marketing, IT, library services teams.
Our sites now have just over 500 members – 10 per cent of our total staff – and we are now planning to make these sites available on an ‘on demand’ basis across Allen & Overy, which means that in less than a year we will have gone from initial test to institutional tool. If only all our KM projects could be so speedily successful…
Group blog – This enables users to post and distribute blogs applicable to the purposes of their group – they are not necessarily publishable to the whole firm;
Daily e-mail alerter – People adding information to the site can chose either an immediate alert to be sent, or members will receive a daily aggregated alert;
Wiki – We use these internally to help work on and plan projects, consultations and events – and to produce collaborative knowledge resources;
Categorisation and social tagging – We provide a number of pre-determined tags to categorise content and to make it easier to search, which we call categories. However, staff can also add their own ‘social tags’, which we call ‘themes’. So that discussions are categorised in a way that makes sense to them;
Social bookmarks – Our sites include group and personal bookmarks and so people can share valuable web-links;
News aggregator – Also known as a news reader. Provides a single place that someone can find all the content they want to view;
Really simple syndication (RSS) – No blog would be complete without RSS capabilities so that people can subscribe to particular blogs or wikis;
Trackback – Just as blogs on the internet include a trackback function, to track whether it has been quoted elsewhere, so do ours.