HP's "Collective Project" — Could A Passive Social Network Work In Law Firms?

Image [cc] yuan2003
Let's face it. Social Networks work fine when you're sharing information with your friends, or even with peers within your industry subset. Social Networks at your place of work, however, usually don't work very well at all. There are probably a thousand reasons why this is, but I think one of the biggest reasons is that people don't really want to expose what they are doing at work to their colleagues. I know that on its face, that sounds ridiculous, but it seems to be true. Most likely, they don't want to feel like they have to update their work status because it might come back to bite them later in an employee review. The whole act of covering your backside creates an environment where communications conduits such as work site social networks are viewed as counter-productive, when, quite frankly, these types of communications tools would actually increase productivity. So how do you build an environment that takes advantage of the daily activities of workers in a social network-like structure? HP Labs has one idea… build an automation process that updates their employees' status automatically and create a social network that simply builds itself.

Mashable reported on HP Labs' "Collective Project" this morning, and it made me wonder how, or if, this type of automated social network could work within a law firm. Here's the basic structure of the Collective Project, all of the processes appear to be automatically created and adapted over time base upon the project's internal algorithm and taxonomy structure:
  • Personal Profiles are created 
  • Preferences and Expertise is automated
  • Documents are profiled
  • Employees are connected to those files
  • Employees with similar interests can be identified
  • Document permissions can be customized to prevent unauthorized access
The idea behind this is to identify connections based upon "inferred expertise" according to HP Labs Israel director, Ruth Bergman. Bergman has used the Collective Project to identify co-workers with similar experiences and interests, and seek them out at conferences they are both attending. 
There are a lot of firms looking and implementing Enterprise Search tools right now. Could the idea of an "inferred expertise" system like the Collective Project be duplicated in these enterprise search systems? Could a defacto social network be created within a firm? How would attorneys and staff view such a system… Helpful or Big Brother? 
There may be a handful of firms out there that have thriving internal social networks, but there aren't very many. Is the idea of having some type of automated social network something that would benefit the law firm environment? Now that I think about it, you'd probably have to call it something more generic like "inferred expertise database" to quell the paranoia that surrounds the "social network" term. There seems to be potential in creating something similar to the Collective Project within an enterprise search resource, but would the culture of the firm accept it? I'd like to say yes, but my gut's saying no.

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