The legal profession operates in a Microsoft, Microsoft, Microsoft world. It was natural, then, to look at some Microsoft tools when thinking about communication and trust in our organization. The underlying goal is not technological: how do you create the weak network links between people within an organization that provides a foundation for establishing trust? But to get there, we need tools that enable for network building.

Our organization has over 600 people in it, so not very large in the scheme of things. Unlike most law firms and law schools, those 600 people are doing a wide variety of unrelated activities. The law library function is one of very few external-facing services and, unsurprisingly, has little to do with the policy, regulatory, and discipline areas of the organization.

Since we’re in a grey area, size-wise, meetings that attempt to bridge the organization can be unwieldy and not always conducive to good communication. We’re large enough that people don’t always have opportunities to interact inside or outside of meetings, unless they have shared work. In short, we lack organizational weak networks that bridge operational units.

The Weak Network is Normal

I mention this not as a criticism. I don’t think this is uncommon. You are hired to do work. If you don’t work with someone regularly, there may be few opportunities to interact with that person.

Social networks like LinkedIn (which I’m not on) and Twitter (which I am) are examples of weak networks. You may not know people you follow nor people who follow you. The interconnectedness, though, can allow you to make a deeper contact if the need arises.

For example, I follow someone on Twitter. That person follows another person who had an experience I was hoping to learn more about. I didn’t really know either person but the Twitter follow was enough for me to cold call the contact and seek out a referral.

You can do that without being part of a weak network but it’s harder because then you’re a complete unknown, disconnected. It’s like a cold call from a marketer. I find that about half of my emails to law librarians who I don’t know, and zero of my emails to lawyers, get a response when I have a question about their library operations and I’m a complete unknown.

Many law libraries are, internally, strong networks. I tend to think about this in terms of Dunbar’s number, so a strong network starts to weaken after about 5 people. Once you clear 150, you’re pretty much strangers.

Our challenge, then, was to find a way to bring together 40 or so people who work in very different areas and who lack a shared knowledge domain other than management. The organization has been trying to facilitate this with meetings but they have not been a success.

Components for Trust

It seemed to me that the network wasn’t occurring for a couple of reasons. Relationship building requires a certain amount of vulnerability. It can be hard for managers to show vulnerability unless the organizational culture allows for it.

There needs to be some mutual interest. Hierarchical trust relationships can be helped by the fact that both parties want to be part of the hierarchy. I want my job, so I have an incentive to engage in trust building with my boss and with my staff. When you are discussing a peer environment, you need a different incentive, a different driver to get people to be willing to engage.

It also needs to be authentic for the people involved. One area that I struggle with at work is when there’s a sense of forced togetherness. It’s like a strained family reunion, and it makes the assumption that proximity will enable trust. I’m not sure that’s true.

Technology Support

All of this helped to flesh out what we might do. We wanted something that allowed people to interact but to do it asynchronously. No meetings, no need to be available at a regular time.

We wanted it to be a place where people could ask questions without fear. This meant contemplating a limit on who was in the community. It needed to be authentic – people should ask and answer things they cared about, not because their bosses were watching. They needed to want to participate and people could choose not to participate.

Participation didn’t mean asking or answering either. It meant showing up and being curious. Lurking is common in weak networks, and those who aren’t visibly active can still DM others behind the scenes.

None of this is rocket science. Many law library professionals I know lurk on discussion groups and email lists. We wanted to get a bit of that feel but without email.

Skype (Lync) for Business

We looked at chat, initially. In the end, we decided to move on because it too closely recreated the productivity challenges that were already caused by email. The need to be notified, the need to participate in real time. It was a little too much additional work.

Which is not to say it doesn’t have possibilities. The chat room feature is pretty nice. I think if you had faculty all working in an area or a law firm practice group, having a dedicated room for them would work great. In our case, we were more likely to be crossing topical boundaries than organizational ones. A chat room for budget and another for personnel might work but felt kludgy.

Skype for Business chat room during testing. The left side navigation includes feed topics, that allow you to keyword monitor content in the chats.

The chat room topic feeds were particularly interesting. You can set up chat room alerts based on keywords. By default, Skype for Business starts with an ego feed (that’s what Microsoft calls it) and you can add more. In theory, when someone uses your keywords in a chat room, your topic feed will update.

Example of a Topic Feed configuration panel for a Skype for Business chat room

I don’t have any sense for how much chat rooms are used in law firms. But if they are, the topic feed would seem to be a useful tool for watching practice group and other discussions without having to participate closely.

Unfortunately, our Skype for Business implementation was not, well, implemented well. Topic feeds wouldn’t update. When we attempted functionality like pasting in images, we received error messages.

Skype for Business has to be configured so you can paste in images or add file attachments to chat.

We might have pursued fixing the implementation but had already come to the decision that maybe chat wasn’t where it was at. The next idea was to go to SharePoint to see what functionality it offered. I think the Discussion Group app is a winner.

We don’t have access to Microsoft Teams or Slack so I won’t refer to those or to other possible collaboration tools. We wanted to try to use technology that our organization already licensed. The idea was that it meant no new costs and we would already have in-house expertise on the app.

SharePoint Discussion Group App

The Discussion Group app seems to be a default out-of-the-box SharePoint app. You activate it within a personal or team site (gear menu > Add an App). It has a lot of obvious benefits:

  • people understand how discussion boards work
  • boards can be visited whenever the person has time, and can be searched and indexed by SharePoint for broader amplification
  • the ability to customize with extra columns (discussion categories) and a couple of out-of-the-box layouts

I set one up and a small group of us are trying it out. Five managers who already work regularly together but who share only management interests, not operations. It’s not fancy but it is a way to capture questions and answers in an easy way.

You can also follow an RSS feed if that’s your preference. More importantly, you can link a Discussion Group directly to your Outlook client. Since so many people use Outlook as their work day dashboard, this was perhaps the best outcome. New posts to the discussion board are visible – but not obtrusive – in Outlook. It eliminates the need to run a second application (Skype) or even to visit a web site (SharePoint) to lurk or participate.

We’re going to test this out for a bit longer and then broaden the community. The technology doesn’t solve anything other than to give us a place to try to do the asynchronous communication we seem to need. Hopefully, we will start to be able to build the weak network that will help to foster additional trust across the organization.