Collaboration & Social Media – Just a Load of Hype?

January 29, 2007

This year we will see more and more organisations embracing what is called ‘collaboration’ or social media, on the back of the use of social software and other IT technologies such as wikis, blogs, RSS, social bookmarking and instant messaging.  

Before proceeding any further, it may be useful to have an accurate description of what we are talking about when we discuss collaboration and social media as there is a danger of misunderstanding the issues.

For example, with respect to collaboration, the Chief Executive of Google, Eric Schmidt, has observed that when you talk to the average 45-year-old about collaboration he or she thinks what you are talking about is teams sitting down, having a nice conversation with nice objectives and a nice attitude. In fact, to put collaboration and social media into context, consider what Richard Susskind recently wrote in his Times law column ‘The idea is simple. As internet users, we are becoming much more than passive recipients of the content published on websites. We are now able to contribute and participate directly. We can share our video clips with the online world (; supply our own entries and changes to widely used online encyclopaedias (; write software that is absorbed into systems that are used around the world (; and socialise and network electronically with kindred spirits ( and Users are becoming providers. Recipients are now participants. We are finding radically new ways to communicate, to produce information and to interact with one another.’

The question is whether you wish to embrace this way of communicating or not.

Unsurprisingly I think that you should.

Five Reasons


In my experience there are five particular reasons why collaboration and social software are beginning to play a role within organisations.

1. The impact on productivity of organisations of so-called web 2.0 technologies and others can play an integral part here. By way of example, Allen & Overy, Motorola and technology firm, Ziff Davis have all extolled the benefits of adoption of social media such as wikis, blogs and social bookmarking which serve real economic needs.

2. .Due to the increased consumerisation of IT,  many individuals now have access to social media tools such as blogs, wikis and other tools such as Skype (VoIP) which are far more flexible and indeed much cheaper than those which are run by IT departments within organisations. This is something quite different – in the past  it would be business  which would have first access to new IT tools. What is happening is that many staff are using KM such as wikis and other IT tools which are more effective than those run by their bosses. Some staff are more IT-literate than the head of their IT Department.
3. Linked with this, demographics play a role as well. Younger people expect not only the use of these tools but they also have different workplace values. As Dan Tapscott and Antony Williams have observed in their book Wikinomics  ‘A new generation of youngsters have grown up online, and they are bringing a new ethic of openness, participation, and interaction and interactivity to workplaces, communities and markets…While their parents were passive consumers of media, youth today are much more active consumers of media and hungry for interaction.’ Fundamentally they have very different ideas from the over 30s, let alone other older workers. They have grown up texting and instant messaging their friends; they buy and sell on eBay, use WiFi, download music and communicate through blogging; MySpace, chatrooms and Organisations including law firms are going to have a real problem with employee engagement if they do not start providing these tools to individuals and seeking to relate to them.         

4. There is increasing evidence of a split in organisational beviour with an emergence of ‘two cultures’ of organisational behaviour. On the one hand, you have the traditional firm trying to keep the centralised, top-down, hierarchical managerial structure, with limits and restrictions on how employees can interact with the marketplace (and vice versa). On the other hand, increasingly what is emerging is the open, interactive, collaborative organisation that supports and encourages blogs, wikis, and two-way interactive relationships with customers and the marketplace. Generally, given lawyers’ conservatism, they will no doubt prefer to keep the traditional model. The danger of taking this approach is that you are out of step with where business is growing. A study of the Inc. 500 and their use of social media  showed that the Inc. 500 are thoroughly involved in social media at an adoption rate more than twice that of the United States Fortune 500. Inc 500 companies are those on Inc magazine’s annual list of the 500 fastest growing privately owned companies. Does your law firm wish to miss out on the growth?

5. There are problems with e-mail. Whilst e-mail within organisations is suitable for one-to-one communication and one-to-many communication, it is not suitable for  many-to-many communication. As Lee Bryant of Media Consultancy, Headshift has observed ‘Email began as a cool way for academics to share ideas, but it does not scale to the level of usage we see today. People are expected to receive, process and dispose of a sequential bombardment of hundreds of emails and assigned tasks, but the majority of internal emails are little more than corporate spam…This approach forces people to focus attention on their inbox in a psycho sclerotic fashion at the expense of using their peripheral vision, sense making skills and intuition. It is not only a gross waste of time and money, it is actually damaging to an individual’s decision making ability, as well as being a factor in workplace stress.’  Some social software tools can address the problems of email and accordingly increase productivity and reduce stress. According to JP Rangaswami, formerly of Dresdner Kleinwort, when a wiki is set up to serve a certain project, email volume relating to that project drops by 75%.

Practical Steps


1. Recognise that this is an issue and start to embrace the mindset of the revolution.  While the prospect of giving employees unvetted ability to publish content seems too risky to many HR practitioners, attempting to limit such activity is futile. In fact you must look at ways to engage with such people and use their inclinations to your advantage.

2. Start to develop knowledge of social media tools such as blogs, wikis, RSS and tagging and research the issues. This will give you a greater understanding of some of the issues covered in this article and enable you to start exploring the potential benefits.

3. Start a social media pilot within your organisation. On the basis that there is positive movement you can look to expand your knowledge of software including free software. One of the remarkable aspects of this revolution is that there is a great deal of free software out there for blogs and wikis.

4. If you are to blog externally or encourage your staff to do so, resist the tendency to create a 10-page policy full of legalease which will stifle anyone from blogging in the first place. It is perfectly possible to protect your legal rights whilst having a straightforward policy. However, even if your firm is not going to blog, do create a policy as your staff have complete freedom to blog in their private time and their actions can be linked to your organisation.
5. Look to inspire yourself by looking at best practice within other firms. A lot of the material is available online and can give you some pointers on where to go. By way of example, one of the main advocates of social software tools is Ruth Ward, Head of Knowledge Systems & Development at Allen & Overy, and she has written extensively on these issues.


Justin Patten is a technology lawyer and mediator at Human Law – he offers seminars, workshops and consultancy on how firms can use technology to enhance business efficiency: