Andrew Woolfson and Shimrit Janes of RPC explain how their firm is using an innovative social business intranet tool.
In October 2010, Reynolds Porter Chamberlain (RPC) successfully deployed a bespoke social business-driven knowledge management (KM) solution, Edge, in place of its previous traditional intranet.
The challenge we issued to ourselves was to deliver a KM solution that not only reflected the firm's open and innovative culture, but also sought to harness its existing knowledge while providing opportunities for creating new insights and new knowledge. If we were to sum it up, Edge was seeking to make transparent the unique experience and insight hidden in the firm's biggest asset: its people.
Edge uses open-source software (rather than using off-the-shelf solutions) behind a flexible user interface developed specifically for RPC with social business consultants Dachis Group (formerly Headshift). The product makes use of some of the simple social media and content aggregation tools that have seen such success in the public domain (for example, wikis, blogs, discussion forums, RSS feeds and activity streams).
Activity from underlying systems, communities of interest and personal networks can be accessed from the user interface. Beneath the interface sits Attensa (a newsreader that allows people and groups to manage, track and share external news pertinent to their expertise, clients and interests) and Confluence (an enterprise wiki enabling people to collaborate on content and create group-based blogs and discussion forums).
Confluence can also be linked to other web-based applications, while iframes and widgets allow people to embed external websites and content (such as Financial Times stock charts and Twitter feeds) directly into Edge.
The intranet is structured around online communities of interest and practice. Lawyers can choose to be members of these, but all are open for lawyers to view and contribute to the content. There is also an area dedicated to more "traditional" intranet content such as HR policies and booking systems.
Each person's home page is dominated by activity streams of the groups that he is a member of, his personal network, activity going on across the whole of Edge, a feed of external RSS feeds, a link to his own profile, a microblogging tool, as well as corporate news.
A series of "knowledge applications" have been layered onto the social platform. A knowledge application is an area on Edge designed for a specific task that makes use of all the social technology already available to us, and therefore makes the most of our investment in our capability. It requires little or no input from our IT department or Dachis Group. It typically involves the use of wiki pages, tagging, discussions, activity streams and links to other other core systems such as our document management system or client relationship management application.
Knowledge applications are developed by the KM team through consultation with the legal team that has requested it, and then handed over to the lawyers to start using. Training is offered to help the lawyers make small tweaks to the solution, or they can come back to the KM team if a larger change is needed. Access to the knowledge applications is provided via a personalised navigation tool.
Having rolled out a social intranet and provided a way of working that shows that technology can work for lawyers rather than against them, we have helped the lawyers develop a new language around what they do and how they work. As a result, we have been able to hand over the reins to our lawyers when it comes to generating ideas for knowledge applications. The KM team does not always know the details of how the lawyers work, the problems they need to solve, and the opportunities for them to work in new ways, but by delivering the technological capability via the social intranet, we have increased the firm's capability to make the most out of its unique knowledge and insight.
In an area that is still so new, RPC is also working with the University of Westminster as part of a knowledge transfer partnership (KTP) to: formalise the RPC methodologies and frameworks; make sure that the firm is making the most of research taking place in the UK's academic institutions; and contribute RPC's case study back to the university. The project is therefore also helping to bridge the gap between the world of academia and the private sector.
Since November 2011, new "business knowledge" applications have been built and engagement continues. The technical relationship between the KM team, Dachis Group and RPC's IT team has been framed by working protocols. During this process, it was essential to sustain the development and KM thrust via Edge. To achieve this, a KM project leader was recruited by the University of Westminster for the RPC Edge programme. The recruitment enabled access to the University's skills in this area and encouraged further momentum to develop the concepts driving Edge. We can therefore bring Edge and its related concepts to more people and use that external energy to feed back into RPC, delivering an all-round win. Overall, the process has been as innovative as the product.
By challenging the way in which things are normally done, we have created a model for the legal sector that shows that we do not need to be at the mercy of technology, that we can truly put people at the centre of what we do and enable a new understanding of what "learning" is. People are being constantly bombarded with information and content, both in and out of work. This can have a detrimental effect, where people are more likely to switch off than switch on. Using social media tools created outside the IT department, directly with the lawyers and then handed over to the lawyers to tweak if they wish, truly takes the principles of open source and iterative application development and brings them into the firm.
What is more, we have not had to offer training in using wikimarkup, in what a wiki is, or detailed user stories about how the technology can be used to bring our lawyers up to speed. Each application is developed in a very natural way. The lawyers have not suffered any formal training plans or pilots. It has grown organically, once the lawyers started coming to us with their ideas and pushing us for new ways of using the basic tools.
The knowledge application layer has moved Edge on from just being a social intranet where people blog about their work and edit wiki pages. It has turned it into an area where people go to carry out very specific tasks, encouraging adoption and understanding of what it means to use social media tools in a business.
Andrew Woolfson is Director of Knowledge Management and Capability and Shimrit Janes is Knowledge Management Project Leader at RPC.