Opinion | 29 November 2013
By Nicola Jones, Director, Athena Professional
Lawyers who embrace technology are the most likely to figure out profitable ways of working in future. Early exposure to all things digital puts the millennial generation at a natural advantage. Lifting the barriers between learning, knowledge management and networking, they have the right attitude and the skills to succeed.
Many lawyers have assimilated technology into their daily practice without fundamentally changing their behaviours. They tend to be late adopters who use apps, Google, Skype and other digital media as useful tools, add-ons and shortcuts.
Digitally-savvy millennials do not simply use technology; they live by it. For all early adopters, social media is not a selection of useful tools; it is a way of communicating which is as natural to them as speaking.
However, many law firms block the usage of social media at work as a distraction or violation of firm policy. In closing down this kind of activity, they are also closing down the creative thinking that goes with it. The danger is that the thinkers will stop thinking, or go elsewhere.
Learning in harmony
Learning and development is ideal territory in which peace and harmony can break out over the use of technology. For those used to being in charge, this requires a shift in mindset, a dose of humility and a willingness to take risks, but digital learning will be a defining characteristic of successful legal practices in future.
At present, digital learning formats include:
- digital resources: e-books, videos and online materials;
- interactive resources: courses, computer games and apps;
- digital communications: social media and videoconferencing tools; and
- collaborative resources: digital tools to capture, evaluate and analyse knowledge and experience (such as Your Big Picture, SenseMaker and Cynefin Framework).
Some of these are cheap and easy to set up; others require significant investment. Whatever type of technology is used, the real issue is ‘what is learning?’ The emphasis of learning theory has shifted away from what must to be learned. The question now posed is ‘how can we integrate and expand the individual’s knowledge and skills in order to transform the practice?’ The infinite array of information and experience available via web-based technology takes a different perspective when seen in that light.
Jon Harman, who pioneered the use of digital media in learning at the University of Law, believes that, in future, effective digital learning will involve “truly personalised and adaptive learning technology”, which recognises that learning happens each and every day at work. “You start with the learning design,” he says, “and then pick the technology to facilitate accordingly”.
Putting learners in control is the way forward. It will allow your firm to tap into the knowledge-sharing and problem-solving functions of digital media. The learning and cultural exchange can be transformative and produce well-developed business cases for new ways of working.
One example of how digital platforms can be used to facilitate the exchange of ideas between generations and grow ideas is Eversheds’ collaboration with the global learning community programme LawWithoutWalls, in which students and mentors come up with new solutions to legal practice issues. Some of the programme is face-to-face, but much of it relies on using Skype, Facebook and Twitter to engage with people and problems. Notably, mentors report learning as much as students. A pilot of a purely online version of the programme, LWOWx, launches in 2014.
The way ahead
Younger generations and early adopters of technology are perceived to ‘own’ the digital arena, but they would be baffled by the idea that anyone could feel excluded. So, how do you get everyone on board with the concept of digital learning?
In the short term, assess how technology is currently being used in L&D in your firm. Ninety-one per cent of organisations say they are looking to technology to deliver improvements in talent and performance, but only 19 per cent are actually using technologies to reinforce the way they recruit, induct or develop their people.1
In the longer term, you will need to:
- get comfortable with the idea that learners will be in the driving seat in future;
- ensure L&D staff are trained in the use of digital learning; and
- recognise and reward learning via digital media (such as by using Mozilla Open Badges).
Digital learning is a virtual playground of creativity, collaboration and innovation. The firms which can attract and keep the leaders and thinkers of the 21st century will be the ones which demonstrate a deep, strategic commitment to learning as a driver for change in practice.
Nicola Jones is an L&D specialist and was formerly director of Warwick legal training at University of Warwick (www.athenaprofessional.co.uk)
1. See New Learning Agenda, Towards Maturity, November 2013
First published 29th November 2013. Reproduced by kind permission of Managing Partner Magazine