Jane:  I recently read a short book by Nilofer Merchant called 11 Rules for Creating Value in the Social Era. In this lovely little tome she draws some powerful conclusions about the impact of the Social Era on business and the opportunity it provides to promote the Onlyness of individuals.  Onlyness is the concept that each and every person brings a unique set of knowledge, intuition, and experience to the workplace.  When done correctly, social media allows the organization to tap directly into an individual’s Onlyness and to leverage the vast knowledge and experience that typically goes unnoticed by the enterprise. Take for example, Rosanne, a legal secretary with 25 years of experience supporting litigation lawyers. Rosanne is a great resource for the few lawyers that she supports directly, but her Onlyness is almost entirely unavailable to the rest of the firm. Through social media, her Onlyness could be become a firm-wide resource, easily tapped by anyone and everyone who wants a piece of it.

Dan: Put away the love beads and go wash your Birkenstocks, Jane. The halcyon days of free love have been over for more than 40 years and, last I checked, tapping the Onlyness of a secretary is generally frowned upon in our more enlightened era.  I don’t deny that law firms have plenty of underutilized resources within their employee base, but there is no way that social media is the answer.  Most of the interactions on social networks revolve around gossiping with Facebook friends, or Tweeting your cat’s latest hi-jinx. Spreading around that kind of Onlyness does absolutely nothing to help the business, it is just another distraction from the work that employees should be focusing on.

Jane: Dan, by that logic — and I always use that word loosely when talking about you —  we should brick-up all of the windows in the office. I’ve seen plenty of attorneys and managers (the rest of us don’t have windows) while-away the hours gazing absent-mindedly through the glass.

Dan: It’s not surprising that you would confuse deep thought with absent-mindedness, Jane. Knowledge workers, like attorneys and managers, often focus deeply on a problem. Granted, to the ignorant, such focus could easily be misunderstood as “whiling away the time”.

Jane: Leaving aside you’re “ignorant” jab for the moment (pun intended),  you don’t consider secretaries and other staff to be knowledge workers?

Dan: Not in the same way that attorneys are, no.

Jane: You care to dig your own grave on that one?

Dan: There’s no digging my grave about it. The fact is, most employees in a law firm are task-completers, not creative types like attorneys and managers.  Their access to knowledge is simply, by any measure, not as important as…

Jane: You know what, I think we’ve just hit on another Dan and Jane topic.  Let’s table this for now and come back to it later.  Regardless of whether employees are “knowledge workers” there is clearly value in better connecting people within the enterprise.  It’s important to create relationships where there would otherwise not be any; between offices, regions, practice areas, etc.  It is about building community, Dan. Surely, you don’t deny that it’s important for IT personnel, for example, in various offices and at every level throughout the firm to communicate effortlessly.

Dan: Jane, why in the world would I want IT people to talk to each other?  I, as a partner, am not paying them to talk, I’m paying them to fix things.

Jane:  Wow. I’m speechless… Let me give you an example you might understand, Rumpelstiltskin.  Back in your day, people would congregate around the water cooler. This would provide a connecting point for employees and allow them to discuss ideas, some of which related to work and many that didn’t.  More importantly these conversations, work related or not, created connections between people, and those connections allowed them to more easily work together to solve work related problems.  The water cooler conversations allowed the individual to share their Onlyness with their colleagues. Today, we are too dispersed and everybody is moving too fast for a water cooler to provide that kind of informal and serendipitous communication, however, social networking can accomplish the same thing on a global scale, instantaneously. Social Networking is the new water cooler.

Dan:  I remember the water cooler. We got rid of it because people like you would stand there all day talking instead of getting their work done. You’re suggesting we should now make it possible to achieve that same level of inefficiency from the comfort of your own desk chair?  Your social “tools” will only make it harder to tell when someone is wasting the firm’s time.

Jane: Speaking of wasting time… The point here is not which “tool” we use, Dan, it is that we must unleash the potential knowledge and expertise of ALL of our employees. Law firms have a very strong caste system, and it does not serve the enterprise well. There are many problems to be solved and many long time employees have a much better understanding of the inner workings of the firm, and the legal business in general, than young associates, or even many partners do. In the traditional social model of the law firm, there is no mechanism to incorporate the vast experiences of the lower caste employees into the eventual solutions that will propel the firm to new heights. Social networking levels the old system and makes it possible for little old Roseanne to contribute to the ultimate success of the firm.

Dan: Roseanne?

Jane: Roseanne…uh, Dan!….uh… never mind.

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Photo of Ryan McClead Ryan McClead

Ryan is Principal and CEO at Sente Advisors, a legal technology consultancy helping law firms with innovation strategy, project planning and implementation, prototyping, and technology evaluation.  He has been an evangelist, advocate, consultant, and creative thinker in Legal Technology for nearly 2…

Ryan is Principal and CEO at Sente Advisors, a legal technology consultancy helping law firms with innovation strategy, project planning and implementation, prototyping, and technology evaluation.  He has been an evangelist, advocate, consultant, and creative thinker in Legal Technology for nearly 2 decades. In 2015, he was named a FastCase 50 recipient, and in 2018, he was elected a Fellow in the College of Law Practice Management. In past lives, Ryan was a Legal Tech Strategist, a BigLaw Innovation Architect, a Knowledge Manager, a Systems Analyst, a Help Desk answerer, a Presentation Technologist, a High Fashion Merchandiser, and a Theater Composer.