Saturday, January 31, 2009

Law Department 2.0

I just heard an excellent presentation by John Barker, Wolters Kluwer’s guru of all things Web 2.0. In it, John refers frequently to Marc Prensky, a futurist who posits a fundamental difference between “digital natives” and “digital immigrants”. According to Mr. Prensky, a “digital native” is anyone born in or after 1981. In essence, digital natives have evolved past email to Web 2.0. They have grown up instant messaging, texting, and tweeting. They rely on social networks, blogs, and wikis to communicate. They require video game excellence in user interfaces and Google-like performance. Importantly, they rely heavily on the “meta” in the digital world, in which the ratings from their community on a particular product or piece of content are as important, or more important, than anything else. According to Mr. Prensky, the digital native not just demands all things Web 2.0, their neurons require it. Studies have shown that digital immigrant’s nervous system is hard-wired differently than digital immigrants.

The rest of us are “digital immigrants” (he says having been born a couple of decades before the cut off). We might be adept at the use of technology, even excited about it, but the vast majority of us will never have the wiring to fully understand the digital native.

What does this mean for the legal community?

By my calculations, the first digital natives are about half way to becoming partners in law firms and senior members of law departments. In other words, those individuals who expect video game excellence in graphics and all the bells and whistles of Web 2.0 are only a couple of years from making “buy” decisions on the technology that the profession will use to communicate among itself. Suffice it to say that application platforms that rely on the design metaphors satisfactory only to the digital immigrant (like Microsoft’s current UI metaphor) will likely face a tough audience in the natives.

More than just a usability issue, I believe that the ascendancy of Web 2.0 -- and its adoption by digital natives -- will help the legal community finally claim that Holy Grail called knowledge management. Why? Web 2.0, and its use by digital natives, solves the two main impediments to successful KM.

From my perspective, the first impediment to successful KM was difficulty of adding and extracting – in a timely meaningful way – the data that puts the “K” in KM. Correct input required slavish adherence to a onerous workflow, as well as strict discipline regarding the addition of structured metadata. These two tasks added so much overhead to the input process that it very quickly fell into the category of “more trouble than its worth.” Once in, the data was then lost in an imperfectly structured blob, forever lost to potential consumers of the info. Web 2.0, in its various flavors, creates so many channels to share the data that the “overhead” issue is resolved. Moreover, the combination of concept search and tools designed to lever the abundance of metadata available in today’s data stores enables users to easily retrieve contextually relevant content. This process if refined even further when used inside of “profile driven” networking sites like Legal OnRamp and LinkedIn.

The second primary obstacle to success in KM? Digital immigrants. There are mindsets and behaviors among most digital immigrants that do not easily adapt to the openness required for KM to attain its highest state. Personally, I don’t feel comfortable “publishing” my work until I have had a couple of chances to review it. Even then, I have some apprehension before I push the publish button. I do not see that type of self censorship with digital natives. A peek onto any Millenials’ Facebook page is an object lesson in my point. Therefore, as digital natives become the majority, the primary behavioral impediment to successful KM will disappear.

Finally, you may be asking yourself, why in the heck is a guy who sells the
industry leading matter management and e-billing platform waxing on about Web 2.0, digital natives, and KM? Well, I certainly find it interesting. Also, I’m sufficiently paranoid that I work hard to anticipate what’s next. At the end of the day, however, the reason that I’m really interested in the topic is because I see it as the next stage in the evolution of law department technology. Currently, and at the risk of immodesty, our T360 platform is the best in the market and the core operating system for law departments that use it. Candidly, for as good as it is, I think that most digital natives would find it somewhat restrictive. In order to serve both our current clients – most of whom are digital immigrants -- and the next generation, we are going to have to incorporate the wisdom of digital natives into our thought process.

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