You’ve all read/heard my take on aggregators here at 3 Geeks, and how there was a time when having access to information was in and of itself a competitive advantage. Simply knowing what your competitors or market were doing was currency. We all have more access to information today than any of us dreamed was possible even 15 or 20 years ago. Much of that information is readily available and free. In fact, information or data is so accessible that crowd sourcing and gathering of it online in places like Wikipedia is common place, even cited with growing integrity in university term papers and the like (ethics of which is not my topic, though I am sure many of you have ideas on that….feel free to guest post about it!)

I have suggested in previous posts that how we sort or filter the raw data is how we keep from contributing to information overload. Key to this process is determining what is good to know versus need to know versus interesting but maybe I don’t need to know that right now. Even when we’ve filtered that down, we still need to aggregate the relevant information by having Library or Intelligence teams sort and collate it into newsletters, alerts, RSS feeds or other helpful, readable tools. Finally, I’ve suggested that, depending up your resources, the process can be done manually or with any one of the commercially available tools available for purchase that can help us aggregate. You’ve read previous posts (hopefully), where I’ve asked, How Do We Make Them Read, and reviewed a series of aggregators a list that continues to grow and improve and then several months later, I suggested we are Almost There with a new series of product offering.

A recent exercise in my own firm has lead to me understand that aggregating with the help of technology is not enough! I now understand that friends don’t let friends aggregate alone.
Borne out of necessity and fiscal responsibility, when three departments at my firm all asked for budget for an aggregator in 2013, it was suggested that we work together to find one that suits all of our needs rather than to aggregate content – possibly the same content – three times, in three different ways.
On the surface, it seems like an easy and smart solution. But when you start to get down to the specific needs of each department (in my case, Intelligence/Business Development, Knowledge Management and Library & Information Resources), it seemed an insurmountable ask. How each department engages with internal and external information and brokers that information, turning it into intelligence, practice efficiency, current awareness or a business development opportunity and combine those different points of view with the need for Systems and IT compatibility and you start to think that maybe this seemingly obvious task is actually impossible. The sheer volume of information alone is one problem. The rest of the problem is in acknowledging the mandates of the different departments will cause each one to consume and reuse the information in different ways.
Therefore each department needs its own set of tools and distribution methods. Right? Hence the three requests for three different products? Right? Once up on a time the answer would have been yes, but if the last three months has taught me anything, it is the fact that all law firm administration departments really all want the same thing.
We all want our lawyers to be smarter, better, and more efficient at delivering client service and value and for our own departments to be seen as contributing to the bottom line rather than being dreaded cost centres especially since 2008. How we each achieve this goal will be executionally unique, but asking for three sets of tools would be akin to a carpenter, a cabinet maker and mechanic suggesting that what they each describe as a hammer is specific and unique to their line of work. Not true. How they each use the hammer might differ and which type of hammer they use might differ from time to time but at the end of the day, a hammer is a hammer.
So can we find an aggregator that suits all of our needs? I believe the answer, despite our different methodologies and interactions, is yes. That answer does come with some challenges, however, the biggest of which is being open to learning and understanding of what each department needs, wants and is willing to let go. The discovery process will not be easy, nor will building a set of criteria for the “right” tool, but if you are willing to have the conversation, open yourself and your department up to scrutiny among friends, you will find that friends don’t let friends aggregate alone and you may find (as I did) that you can even learn a very useful thing or two about how the different departments think about and use information, which you can leverage toward successfully meeting your department’s goals. By sharing in the in discussions and finding one solution to work for all information providers, you can actually help move the agenda of smarter, better, more client focused lawyers along.

Kevin O’Keefe, wrote about the dueling Lexis and Thomson Reuters blogger summits on Tuesday in his post, Who’s Influencing Who. He seems to be concerned that the big L and TR are trying to curry favorable blog content by lavishing a few bloggers with fancy perks.  I happened to stumble across his post as I was lounging on my pillow top King Size bed and perusing my Twitter feed on Tuesday afternoon in the St. Paul Hotel, in St. Paul, Minnesota.  I even mentioned it to my dinner companions later that evening at the St. Paul Grill, where I enjoyed a wonderfully buttery cream of mushroom soup, bourbon glazed Pork Chops, and asparagus with hollandaise, washed down with a very drinkable (and free flowing) Cabernet Sauvignon, all of which was kindly paid for by my very good friends at Thomson Reuters.  In return for this spectacular treatment, Thomson asked exactly two things of me: 1) venture to the Twin Cities in January! and 2) listen to five hours or so of the marketing pitches, development road maps, and executive presentations that they will be presenting at Legal Tech New York in a couple of weeks. The one thing no one ever overtly asked me to do was to write about the event or the product announcements.  Now, I’m not stupid, and they’re certainly not either.  If you invite bloggers to a summit, you’re looking to create buzz.  If you ply them with good food and wine, you’re hoping it’s really good buzz.  I’m sure the Lexis event was much the same.

Some of my colleagues who were in Eagan are, in fact, journalists as well as bloggers.  I’ll let them speak for themselves, but speaking only for me, I am not a journalist.  I do not have pretensions to be a journalist.  My lifelong friendship and goodwill can be openly bought for the price of a couple of rounds of drinks and a few hours of good conversation.  And I will gladly say nice things on this blog and elsewhere about anyone who wishes to purchase my friendship in such a manner. (BTW, Toby and Greg: really great guys.) That said, drinks, presents, perks, and “flights to Eagan, Minnesota in January” on their own, don’t buy much from me, it’s much more about the good conversations.  Please feel free to take that into account as you read anything I write.   Including the following.

Back to Thomson…

I came away from the excursion to Eagan having learned a couple of things.

1) Thomson has a lot of really smart, very interesting, and incredibly nice people working for them. 

2) Thomson now sees itself as primarily a software and solutions company, rather than an information and news provider.  Interesting.

3) Thomson is moving a number of their new and existing products to the cloud.  (I’m pretty sure Mike Suchsland, President of the Legal group at Thomson, paused momentarily after he said this as if  expecting a gasp of shocked surprise from the bloggers around the table. And he seemed just a little disappointed at the “yeah, we figured” response he got.)

4) Thomson has a “new class of products, tools, and technologies that [they] think will define the next generation of technology for the evolving legal marketplace”  Um… maybe.  We (the bloggers) didn’t get to play with any software. We saw a couple of demos and some screen shots.  Two new products, Concourse (for corporate, government, and large firms) and Firm Central (for small firms) are matter centric collaboration and communication hubs that nicely incorporate existing and future TR products into a single, simple, intuitive user interface, that can be customized to meet your firm’s needs.  My take is that these are pretty early products.  They could definitely grow into generation defining products, but I don’t think they’re there yet.  And I think Thomson would probably agree.  Concourse looks very much like a consumer, rather than enterprise, product. (Which is good thing.) It has larger fonts and plenty of white space. It’s designed to work on a tablet as well as a desktop.  I can imagine it would require very little user training and moderately savvy users who are familiar with consumer products like Dropbox and GoogleDocs will probably pick it up very quickly.

My big takeaway from the event is that in their new role as a software and solutions provider, Thomson is focused heavily on design, seamless integration between products, and overall ease of use. They are very much trying to bring the consumer experience to the enterprise, so I think they are moving in the right direction.

As I didn’t get a chance to use any of the software, I can’t say for sure whether the new TR products are any good or not, but I can say that the people working on them are pretty good conversationalists and they bought me a few drinks. So they’re OK in my book.  Does that impugn my integrity?
 

P.S.
Some of the more journalistic attendees at the Thomson Reuters event took copious notes and I’m sure some of them will post extensive “reviews” of the products we saw.  Rather than duplicate their efforts, I will take the easy (lazy blogger) way out and link to other posts below as I find them.

Monica Bay: Thomson Reuters to Debut Concourse at LegalTech New York

Jean O’Grady: Thomson Reuters Legal Announces New Strategic Direction: Content no Longer King, Shift to Client Centric Platforms

Bob Ambrogi: Thomson Reuters Unveils New Tools for Litigators, Corporate Counsel and Small Firms

Lisa Solomon: Thomson Reuters’ Firm Central doesn’t measure up to its small law practice management competition


I don’t like meetings. I feel like meetings often fail to accomplish much beyond getting project team members into the same room once a week. We talk about the work we did the previous week, and we talk about the work we hope to do during the next week, but there are better ways to communicate that information.  I was thinking about this recently and became convinced there must be a better way to structure projects.

Just as Robert’s Rules of Order are intended to facilitate debate and deliberation among a large group of participants, Ryan’s Rules for Projects are intended to keep team projects moving quickly and  efficiently, and to give them the greatest chance for success.

Rule #1 – No more than 5 team members on any given project.

Too often we load up team members on projects in the mistaken belief that having more people involved will allow the team easy access to more information and allow more work to get done faster.  It doesn’t work that way.  Think about it in terms of team sports. (Sports Metaphors: The last refuge of lazy writers.) In team sports, the speed of the action is negatively correlated to the size of the team.  American football can move quickly in short bursts, but the 11 players have to huddle, regroup, choose a new plan and start over in a new spot after every play.  The most surprising event in football is when a team actually marches down the field quickly to score.  European football or Soccer, also 11 players per team, is only slightly better.  They don’t stop play every few seconds, but let’s face it, 90 minutes of play and you’re lucky if either team was able to score at all. Baseball, with 9 players (my personal favorite), has been described as “long periods of boredom, punctuated by moments of sheer terror.”  Contrast hockey (6), basketball (5), and tennis (2) and you begin to see a pattern emerge.  Smaller teams can communicate easier, move more quickly, reorganize, and change priorities on the fly, while larger teams lumber on slowly toward a goal.

Rule #2 – Team members devote 20% of working time to this one project.

Ideally you should have 4 team members who are able to devote at least 20 percent of their working time to the project.  The fifth member should be an interested senior manager who keeps an eye on the progress of the team, but only gets involved in the event that the team has a 50/50 split on a decision and needs a tie breaker.  The 20 percent minimum ensures that no person is on more than a few projects at once, leaving the rest of their time available for miscellaneous working activities, like the rest of their job.

A smaller team devoting the same total number of man-hours to a project, will always outperform a larger team.

Rule #3 – Team members must collaborate regularly.

Collaboration time differs from “meeting time”, in so far as it is time spent actually working together on a project.  Two or more team members may schedule time to collaborate, or they may spontaneously meet up, or call each other.  They may have a goal for their collaboration time, or a particular problem they wish to tackle, but they should never have an agenda of multiple items to be covered during a particular period.  Collaboration is directed, focused work, but it should be spontaneous, and never managed. During collaboration time, team members may work closely together on the same problem, or they may choose to tackle different problems in silence, together.  Being in proximity and thinking about the same project at the same time gives rise to serendipitous discoveries, and creative solutions, but it also ensures that team members stay focused on the project rather than being pulled away by other concerns.

Rule #4 – Meetings should be “nasty, brutish, and short.”

Okay, I’ll admit it, meetings are sometimes a necessary evil.  However, meetings should not be opportunities for the project team to communicate with each other, they are opportunities for the team to communicate with their fifth member, or with other senior management.  The team may call a meeting to get direction or a clarification of goals from management, to report progress, or to present new solutions and confirm they are on the right path.  Management may call a meeting to check in on the project, or to establish new goals or directives.   Meetings should be short, typically 15 minutes, and never more than 30.  They should be ad hoc, called only when necessary.  With fewer members devoting more time to the project, and meetings of shorter duration, ad hoc meetings should become fairly easy to schedule.  If you insist on holding regular meetings, they should be held at predetermined intervals along the project timeline, or when particular project milestones are achieved.

Why nasty and brutish? 

I really like the Hobbes quote, but it’s also relevant. While office interactions should always be professional and genial, good people can, and often do, disagree, especially in the midst of collaboration.  Disagreement can be very healthy and creative. In my experience, many people hold back in meetings, afraid to express opinions for fear of looking foolish or damaging another team member’s pride. Whether we enter meetings as C-level officers, plebeian peons, or something in between, we need to leave our egos, our job titles, and our inhibitions at the door.  For 15 minutes the meeting should be a free flow of brutally honest ideas and opinions. At the end of the meeting, managers give directions, team members return to their project, and, like Vegas, what happened in the meeting, stays in the meeting.

Rule #5 – Fail small, fail quickly, and fail often.

Back in February, I wrote an post titled “In Praise of Failure” where this final rule was the punchline.  As I said in that post, “Quick failures… are merely steps on the way to success.”   Part of the reason we continue with  pointless meetings, accomplishing little, is because even though they bring us no closer to success, they also move us no closer to failure.  Meetings, as we currently practice them, are the equivalent of treading water.  We’re not going anywhere, but we’re not drowning either, and that’s considered good enough.

Projects are inherently collaborative.  Collaboration is always messy.  Messy often leads to failure.  Failure with a little self-awareness gives rise to learning.  Learning creates new knowledge.  New knowledge is fed back into the project, and the process begins again.  Occasionally, “messy” takes a sharp left turn and leads to success, but only after several iterations of the process, and therefore, several failures.  Sadly, we are more afraid of failing, than we are driven to succeed, and we should be most afraid of standing still.

I have never had an opportunity to practice Ryan’s Rules for Projects.  I have attempted to implement some of the rules into existing projects and I’ve been overruled or outvoted each time.  Maybe these rules are a recipe for failure, or maybe they’re keys to success, but if you’re tired of treading water, you could do a lot worse than trying it my way.

UPDATE: 
Jeffrey Brandt at PinHawk suggests a few more rules and I wholeheartedly agree.  My list was never intended to be definitive or comprehensive.  If you have further suggestions, please leave them in the comments.

Brandt’s Addenda:  

Rule #6 – All team meetings must have an agenda. (ed. meetings not collaboration time)
Rule #7 – All projects must have a written definition of success.
Rule #8 – All projects must have links to one (or more) strategic business initiatives.

Sometimes private conversations just need to be shared. Ron Friedmann and I thought as much on some of the recent conversations we had regarding the best way to get information to people with all of the different resources now at our disposal. Of course, the first thing we asked was “how do we get everyone out of email and on to these other sources?”

So, as any blogger worth their salt would do, we figured out a way to spin this into a blog post. Ron is actually a blogger worth his weight in gold, because he suggested that we do this as a simultaneous post on his Strategic Technology Blog and my 3 Geeks and a Law Blog. That way we would expose our conversations to the different groups that follow each of us. Ron and Toby Brown did something similar a year ago on “Bet the Farm” versus “Law Factory.” We are hoping to spur some additional conversations, just as Ron and Toby did.

For reference: Greg’s Post; Ron’s Post

RON

I am struck by how many people still rely on e-mail for news, as opposed to Twitter or RSS. When Jeff Brandt features my blog post in his daily PinHawk Legal Technology e-mail, I see a noticeable traffic spike on my blog.

That got me thinking about two ideas. First, why are so many people still so reliant on e-mail? Not sure I am up for tackling that. Second, is there a tool that turns Tweets into an e-mail. Both your Tweet feed and mine focus mainly on news items. I wonder if some folks who are not interested in Twitter would subscribe to a weekly digest of Tweets from one or more Twitters.

I was looking around for a tool and see that Twitter will soon enable sending Tweets by e-mail. What I have in mind, however, would be a bit more curated, maybe using the Twitter favorite feature to tag my own and other Tweets. Then the tool would automatically mail those weekly to subscribers. I assume Twitter API would allow this but I’m not that techie.

Do you think that would appeal to anyone? Do you know if there is such a tool?

GREG

I was just thinking last week about why we are still so reliant upon email when there are so many better options out there, especially social media tools (whether Twitter, Google+, Yammer, or the 1000’s of other options.) I came to a similar conclusion of wonder if social media could somehow be embedded into the email systems and mimic email, while bringing in the best pieces of what makes social media so valuable.

My thoughts trended, however, to Twitters Direct Message option when it came to online discussions. [Tweets are public; a Twitter DM is private, to a single person.] I’d love it if I could embed a Twitter DM to a group of people, and have a structured conversation in Outlook (or gmail) and the familiarity of those interfaces, but using DMs as the conduit. I could keep the conversation short and clean, without the clutter of all the old message threads showing up in each response.

I also like the idea of a curated resource as well. People are always looking for well structured, curated information, and since we seem to be stuck in an email-centric world, this type of newsletter might be something that would appeal to those that want the benefits of a social media world, without having to actually go visit that social media world themselves.

RON

Greg, it was fun to connect with you “synchronously” after the exchange above so that we could test a Google+ Hangout. [A hangout allows real time video conferencing and text messaging among multiple people.] It’s too bad that Hangout requires video and seems inherently focused on real-time, synchronous communication. So it’s not the answer to an easy-to-use, persistent discussion area or forum.

Returning to your comments above, I have two concerns with your proposed approach. First, Twitter DM seems inherently “point to point” or “one to one”. I suspect a lot of engineering would be required to convert it to a forum or bulletin board feature. Moreover, Twitter users might be unhappy with such a change. I find an increasing number of my contacts use Twitter DM in lieu of e-mail. They probably would not want to clutter this clean, private, and uncluttered channel with discussions threads.

Second, do we want to take steps that encourage lawyers and staff to have even more reasons to stay in Outlook? I know it is the application where “lawyers live”. My hope, however, is that eventually there will be a better or different interface for working together as a group. I am not optimistic though. Even in the early 1990s, when I first evaluated discussion forums in a law firm, lawyers liked the concept but were too wed to their inboxes to use it.

We’ve now identified two unmet requirements. One is what I started with – converting Tweets (mine and those I follow) to a periodic e-mail to which non-Twitter-users could subscribe. I will leave this one to entrepreneurs in the Twitter ecosystem. The other requirement is your idea for better tools / interface for group discussion. I’m not sure I see answers. Moreover, I am not sure if the question is “do we need a new collaboration or communication tool” or “are existing tools fine, they have all the features anyone could ever want, and the question is just change management”. Your views?

GREG

Ron, I’ve thought about the limitations that happen when using the Twitter DM function and I was kind of hoping that the way it would show up in Outlook or gmail would be modified by an API or some type of intermediary program that would allow one-to-many communications (as long as you are connected to each of the Twitter accounts) and could go beyond the 140 character limit (although there is some benefit to keeping communications short.) Perhaps the Twitter DM function isn’t really the best method, but there should be some improvements in communications beyond the awful email threads that we live with now. I have heard of firms that use Outlook’s “To-Do” list, but I don’t think that it really is the answer here. Google’s gmail is kind of working around the problem by limiting the repeating thread information, but it is still not really as clean a communications tool as some of the social media tools are.

As for trying to move lawyers out of Outlook… that’s a big shift in culture for them and won’t be easy. I’ve mentioned that email is now the touchstone of the law firm. No longer do lawyers collaborate face-to-face (only when they have to), instead the collaboration is virtual, and unfortunately, via email chains. We all know of the problems associated with working as if Outlook is your common database. Even making the emails ‘better’ by shifting social media type content into email newsfeeds just reinforces the idea of Outlook being the best collaborative resource. The biggest problem is that Outlook is not a true collaborate tool, or at least not a very good one. Efforts should be made to move collaboration efforts off of Outlook, but that’s obviously easier said than done. It would make for an easier transition if we could create tools that allow the lawyers to believe they are still in Outlook, but that rewards them for inefficient and potentially risky work habits. The better approach would be to wean them off of Outlook, but that’s a project that would take years to accomplish.

Since we’re on the topic of Social Networks in a Law Firm…

A good friend recently asked me about my “thoughts on what social means in the context of project management?”  I replied with the following:

Social (small s) collaboration is the lifeblood of any project undertaken by human beings.   We have evolved to collaborate with our peers to achieve goals greater than any one of us could possibly achieve on our own.  We naturally band together in groups to distribute work load, to take advantage of individuals strengths and to limit the burden of individual weaknesses.  This is true whether we’re banding together to take down a mastodon with spears, building a barn, or managing a business project.  Whereas, historically, most human teams have formed for a specific purpose at a specific time and place, the modern business project team is often dispersed geographically and chronologically.  We work in different offices, we have different schedules, and we are usually working on multiple projects simultaneously.

 There are 3 key elements of group work which are easily lost in the modern environment. These are the elements that Social Collaboration tools attempt to address. 

·         Member Bonding
·         Multi-Party Communication
·         Real-time analysis and reaction                         

It’s cheesy, but if we look at these three elements in terms of a prehistoric tribe hunting big game, you can see where our modern environment breaks down.  The group of hunters leave the village together early in the morning with a single goal of bringing home protein for the entire village. They walk for miles together looking for signs of large game.  Along the way, they talk about the task at hand, but they also talk about their families, their concerns, their ideas.  When they find their prey, they kneel in the dirt and draw up their plan of attack, team members ask questions and others share stories of earlier experiences to find solutions.  When they’re ready to enact their plan, they spread out, staying within line of sight and communicating via hand signals and gestures.  If the animal responds unexpectedly, they react immediately and call out to the others to enact an alternate plan, or to improvise based on the new situation.  At the end of the day they return with their kill or they don’t, but either way they have shared experience and knowledge. When they leave the village the next morning, they will be a stronger team than they were the day before.  

Managing a legal project team should not be any more difficult than hunting a mammoth.  Unfortunately, we aren’t in the same location at the same time and we have varying degrees of interest and commitment to the task at hand.  We have very little opportunity to get to know the other team members on an extra-project basis.  We spend an inordinate amount of time trying to determine what’s being done by whom, and whether our contribution is comparable to other team members.  If the original circumstances change, we may not even be aware of the change, let alone in a position to react in a timely manner. And when the project is complete, successfully or not, we disperse to our individual careers and go about our business, until the next time we’re pulled into a new team with no experience, comprised of people we hardly know.

Social (big s) collaboration tools are a regressive technology, in that they allow us to use our instinctive social toolbox to tackle modern projects in a modern environment, and they allow an exploded project team to work as if they are in the same room at the same time, regardless of their individual locations or schedules.  Social tools will not ensure successful projects, but if used well, they should at the very least ensure efficient failures which build stronger teams to tackle future projects.

After several hours with no response, I followed up with my friend.

Me: Did I miss the point of your question?

Friend: Yes, but that would be a great blog post.

 Moral of the story:  Be careful asking me open ended questions.

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.

I caught the article Why There Are No Bosses at Valve from BusinessWeek today. In my geeky household, developer Valve and their award-winning games (Portal, Half-Life) are very popular, but I never knew that their work environment is as innovative as their games. Of course now I can’t stop thinking about working in a collaborative environment like this within a law firm.

The company’s employee handbook expressly addresses hierarchy and organizational structure. Valve eschews departments, divisions and delineation in favor of self-selected project teams, self-defined “jobs” and delivering value to customers. The message is: “We hire good people to do good work. If you are here, then you know what to do, so jump in and create value for our customers. Don’t worry about the rest.”

Valve Employee Handbook (PDF)
“Valve is not averse to all organizational structure — it crops up in many forms all the time, temporarily. But problems show up when hierarchy or codified divisions of labor either haven’t been created by the group’s members or when those structures persist for long periods of time. We believe those structures inevitably begin to serve their own needs rather than those of Valve’s customers. The hierarchy will begin to reinforce its own structure by hiring people who fit its shape, adding people to fill subordinate support roles. Its members are also incented to engage in rent-seeking behaviors that take advantage of the power structure rather than focusing on simply delivering value to customers.”

The handbook also addresses what Valve is not very good at – namely, tracking performance and training n00bs. But a training and monitoring program is not the environment the company wants to develop – they want to make amazing games with top-flight talent – so they’re mostly fine with the trade-off. How different is that approach from the ages-old guild apprentice system still in use at most law firms? This model moves away from government-type job descriptions (Records Clerk II) and into a solutions-focused and empowered employee population.

With 300 employees, Valve has found a balance that works without a bureaucratic infrastructure. I wouldn’t argue that every industry or company could pull this off but we can take some of the best parts. Many law firms could follow this example with independent projects teams among staff departments, or an exchange program where team members switch off departments to spend time learning how other groups are working to serve clients – and how they can help. Anything to create more communication and collaboration – and less red tape.

If you’d like to talk more about collaboration, please consider joining our panel Tuesday 5/1 at 11a CDT for Practice Innovations Webinar: How to Collaborate to Drive Revenue and let us know what you think about lemons.

I was getting my morning fill of Twitter updates this morning, when I saw a tweet from Emily Clasper go by that made a simple, yet intriguing statement:

I know most librarians have no clue about the ideas at #sesnyc but how are we supposed 2 b info experts if we don’t know how the info works.

Emily is Manager of Systems Operations and Training at Suffolk Cooperative Library System (SCLS) up in New York. The #sesnyc that she mentions is a Search Engine conference that discusses many topics including Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and Search Engine Marketing (SEM) techniques, along with a number of other topics. “The Clue” she is talking about is understanding how things that we use everyday in our research strategies actually work. These are topics that Emily is passionate about, and that we’ve discussed here on 3 Geeks before. It is also this passion that makes Emily a “Mover & Shaker” in the library world, especially in the Tech area of libraries.

I love Emily’s passion. I think that she is a valuable asset in the library community, and that she has a lot to offer any of us that will listen to her. But we can’t all be Emily Claspers. Luckily, we can all learn from Emily and others out there that have similar passions. Whether it is through Social Media resources like Twitter, LinkedIn, etc., or through conferences, or even through old fashion emails, we can communicate, learn, teach, and gain experiences from experts that know a lot about specialized areas of knowledge information, and are happy to share their expertise.

There’s a saying in the library field that we may not always know the answers, but we know where to find those answers. Traditionally, the “finding” has been through books. In the past 30 years, it has shifted to online resources. In the past couple of years, I see a trend that some of those answers lie within people, not print or electronic resources. The access to “people” has exploded with all the instant communications (email, Twitter), and the archives of past experiences that these experts have shared with us (Google, LinkedIn, Blogs.) That is a very powerful expansion of knowledge. In addition, that expansion doesn’t just apply to your specific field. If you notice, Emily is not a law librarian like I am. Perhaps in the past, we would have never known about each other because our “analog-selves” run in different circles. However, our “digital-selves” cross paths quite often.

Although I consider myself a tech geek, I don’t think I’m close to the expert in the field as the Emily Claspers of the world. Fortunately, I don’t have to be. There are those that know a lot about a niche part of the profession… and there are those that know a little about a lot of areas. Both have their uses. Generalists can learn pieces of knowledge from the experts, and in return, experts can learn practical applications from the generalists. That can be a powerful combination as long as we are all willing to share and to listen.

When I was in law school, some of my favorite classes where titled “Law and _____.” The blank was filled with things like “Economics” or “Religion” or “Psychology” or “Order.” The idea of taking two different concepts and seeing how they affected each other was absolutely fascinating to me. While each idea stood on its own, putting “Law” in front of the other concept made you take a different look at it, and in the end helped you better understand them both. In a time when it seems that we are all pushed into “specializing” in our professional lives, sometimes we need to step back and challenge ourselves to bring in something unusual to our routines to break our tunnel vision, and in the end, make ourselves better.

Over the past weekend, I saw something that reminded me of this idea. My youngest daughter (pictured above, top row, second from the left) competed in an Odyssey of the Mind competition and reminded me of how taking two or more unrelated ideas and making them work together, and create something that is better than its individual parts.

The Odyssey of the Mind competition was special because it asked students to do two very different things:

  1. Perform a task involving something you’ve engineered (my daughter’s task was to create a vehicle that someone could ride back and forth across a gym floor.)
  2. Tell a story and make the vehicle change emotions as you are telling the story (the vehicle had to go from happy to sad and then from envious to in love.)
Here’s the part of the description I love:

The emphases will be on the technical risk-taking and creativity of the vehicle’s engineering for travel and change of emotional appearance.

The kids had to come up with all the ideas on their own (I made the mistake of attempting to explain how a broken piece of the vehicle could be fixed, and before I could say anything the kids all started “shushing” me and telling me not to say anything because they could be disqualified… I took my cue and left the room at that point.) The process they took was pretty ingenious… they used a clear plastic dung beetle head and rigged up a mouth on a stick that they could manipulate to make it smile or frown. Same with the eyes to go from happy to sad. My favorite was when they threw in a green glow stick to represent being envious. All of this while telling a story of how a dung beetle fell in love with a can of RAID spray that was wearing an Elvis wig (I’m still confused about the Elvis reference… but, I’m perfectly fine with the love story.) Long story short… they won their division and get to travel to the State Competition, which is only about 5 miles away this year.

The thing that struck me most, however, wasn’t the actual eight minutes of competition that the students performed. What struck me was the excitement in the hallway as all of the different groups were preparing for the competition. The Principal of the school made a great comment to us as she looked up and down the hallway. “This is how school should be conducted everyday.” Meaning that instead of the traditional method of drilling for state sanctioned standardized testing, the kids should be challenged to think for themselves and apply what they are learning in ways beyond traditional test taking skills.

Here’s the reaction from the students when they heard they won their division (suggestion: turn your speakers down, cause it gets loud!!)

Now, you may think that only the winners screamed this loud. Not true. The schools that placed sixth in the competition screamed just as loud… actually I think the school that sat right behind me actually screamed a bit louder.

The whole thing just reminds me of how I get inspired when I bring in non-traditional concepts into my daily routine in a law firm. Applying IT concepts in a library project, or suggesting to others how a project they are working on would be better by adding something completely outside their normal ideas. Too often we get bogged down in hashing out the same old ideas and talking to others that think exactly as we do. From time to time get out of the “group think” and take a chance to see if you can find someone that can suggest throwing in a proverbial green glow stick into your project. You may not find yourself screaming down the aisle to accept your award, but you may find yourself feeling something that you haven’t felt in your profession in a while… a sense of excitement.

Looking through the Microsoft survey on “The Future of Government Work,” [download PDF] it would seem that there is a bipolar view of what communication tools workers “prefer” to use versus what they would “like to use.” Take a look at the answers provided on questions 9 and 10 when it comes to “new” media such as Social Media, Online Collaboration tools, and even video conferencing:

Q9: How do you prefer to communicate with colleagues?

  • Videoconferencing = 3%
  • Social Media = 3%
  • Intranet page (w/shared documents) = 2%
Q10: Which collaboration tools would you like to use?
  • Videoconferencing = 29%
  • Social Media = N/A
  • Collaborative Doc Editing = 32%
  • Intranet = 12%
Granted, there is the difference in verbiage of “communicate/collaborate” but I think we are looking at two sides of the same coin here. How is it that the answers to these two question be so far apart? My guess (and that’s all it is), is that what we are looking at in question 9 is “how do you communicate/collaborate now” versus question 10’s “how would you like to communicate/collaborate if you could.” It would seem that there is a desire to use more videoconferencing, non-email electronic communications (aka chat), and collaborative document editing resources. The survey also points out that these resources are needed components of any telecommuting policies and procedures that an office may implement.
Now I should mention that the survey was conducted by Microsoft, and their MS Office 365, Cloud-Based platform solution, so the questions may be worded in such a way as to feed the answers into the “solution” they are providing. One of the glaring facts of this is that Q9 includes a social media answer, where it is completely missing from the Q10 responses. It could be that workers don’t like social media resources… but, it’s more likely from the fact that there isn’t a social media product included in the Office 365 platform (yeah, call me a cynic.) 

There are many ways you can read these survey results, but there is a theme here that we’ve all been seeing anecdotally for the past few years. Given the right tools, the location of your people shouldn’t matter in order for them to be successful. Not only that, but many workers have the desire to use these resources in order to make their work lives better… probably making their home lives better at the same time. It is no longer a requirement for companies to require their workforce be physically in a company office, sitting in a company seat, using a company PC, and working with company software. The time has come to start looking at the way we work through a different lens.