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December 13, 2006

The hidden power of social networks

The Law Firm Chief Marketing Officer Forum in New York started off last week with a presentation called “Maximizing business development success through social networks.” Keynote speaker Rob Cross, discussed some of the central concepts in his book The Hidden Power of Social Networks (with Andrew Parker) and their implications for legal marketing.

Social network researchers analyze the way groups of people interact with each other, including who talks to whom, how often, and the implications. The term was introduced more than 50 years ago, and has proven so useful in the social sciences that it now has its own academic society. As wikipedia summed it up, research has shown that social networks “play a critical role in determining the way problems are solved, organizations are run, and the degree to which individuals succeed in achieving their goals.”

Cross specializes in applying the concepts to the business world, and his book is subtitled “Understanding how work really gets done in organizations.” This understanding is not an academic exercise. It can help organizations improve collaboration and teamwork by building on the strengths of relationships that already exist, and improving on the ones that are causing problems.

In large law firms, these concepts may be especially helpful for client service teams. At the same conference, Iris Jones and Jeff Sherwood described how Akin Gump uses client teams to build stronger relationships. Cross’ presentation focused on the underlying research, including studies comparing two ways account teams in other industries communicate. In the first, there are many lines of communication between the client and the firm. In the second, communications between the client and the firm are limited by structured roles and communication protocols. With this second style, most team members go to each other for information, rather than directly to the client. Which style do you think will be more effective?

Some people are strong proponents of controlling the flow of information, to avoid the confusion that inevitably occurs when a variety of messages flow through a number of channels. I think this second model is especially valued by law firms in China and North Korea. Or maybe I made that up. In any case, research has proven that the first more open approach produces better results. When clients communicate freely with their suppliers, satisfaction goes up. And when client satisfaction goes up, revenue is sure to follow.

As Rob summed it up “Diverse, high-quality client connections across several team members allows for better customer service, cross-selling opportunities, and greater awareness of relevant expertise.” This is consistent with BTI surveys that have shown that clients are hungry for more and better communication with their lawyers.

Relationships within the client team may also contribute to success, and Cross described several different styles which can help or hinder the free flow of information. For example, “The bottleneck creates a heavy reliance on him- or herself. Bottlenecks use their own time – and that of others – inefficiently; they invisibly hold up work and innovation in the network.” Have you ever heard of a lawyer like that?

The results are not pretty. “Bottlenecks may experience personal burnout; the organization’s dependence on them means it fails to use expertise on the network’s periphery; the network is slower to respond to opportunities and threats, and innovation stalls.”

Social network analysis not only calls attention to this problem, it also outlines the solution: “Identify categories of information, decision rights and tasks that can be reallocated to alleviate overloaded points and draw others into the network.” Easier said than done, but the first step is always the hardest.

Social network studies of law firms are just beginning. I for one will be watching closely to see what they learn as the legal profession continues to deal with enormous forces of change.


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