Social Networks – Why You Should Care

I have been fortunate in the last two years to have been asked to speak about social networks in law (and other professional) firms at conferences and workshops. I thought I would take this opportunity to summarize some of the key points I make about social networks.

First, social networks and social media (or knowledge media) are not the same thing. People often called tools such as LinkedIn and FaceBook social networks. These are tools for making our social networks explicit. And indeed, we can use these tools / platforms to keep in touch with parts of our social network – and I say parts deliberately – since there are many people we know that do not ‘hang with us’ on these services. These are only representations of the networks to which we belong and participate. I hate to nitpick on words, but isn’t that what happens often in the practice of law?

There are three components to the framework that we need to keep in mind: social networks, social / knowledge media and knowledge organization frameworks.

    Social networks are about people. Here is a definition I use often: “A social network is a description of the social structure between actors, mostly individuals or organizations. It indicates the ways in which they are connected through various social familiarities ranging from casual acquaintance to close familiar bonds” ((

    Social / knowledge media comes in many forms and includes things such as Wikis, Blogs, Forums, discussion threads, personal web sites / web pages, team rooms, e-rooms, deal rooms, listservs, Instant Messaging and eMail. These media support, enable and enhance social networks – but they are not social networks any more than telescopes are astronomers.

    In addition, there are emerging knowledge organization frameworks such as social tagging and folksonomies that have come into their own in this digital world.

As well, the term ‘social networking’ has come to mean the act of maintaining one’s social network using social media tools (like LinkedIn and Facebook).

In the past application systems didn’t have the Internet as a base to provide vectors of growth. We grew systems in corporate and academic environments. Today, many of the opportunities we have to implement technologies and media are first experimented with on the Internet. Think about portals (Yahoo and Netscape pioneered this), search, email and many of the things we take for granted inside and outside organizations. If you assume, as I do, that most technologies associated with portals and intranets move from the outside in; then we need look to the general Internet to see what is happening with social media and take cues from these developments and frameworks. The use of social media and the rise of social sites such as YouTube, LinkedIn and Facebook offer possibilities for inside the enterprise as well.

In addition to understanding social media, we need to go back to first principles and develop a better understanding of the social networks that exist in our own organizations and between our firms and clients. To do this, we need to map these various social networks.

What can you do? How can you leverage emerging knowledge about social networking? Here are some suggestions …

  1. Use social sites for screening applicants
  2. Use social sites for alumni (Hill and Knowlton and Siemens did this instead of creating their own internal alumni databases)
  3. Use social sites for recruitment (Ernst & Young does this to stay in touch with thousands of young recruits)
  4. Keep an eye on your brand on social media – deep web search (several Firms have been hit by this – there is also an opportunity for law firms here … to help protect clients)
  5. Look for internal opportunities to use social media (… start small) – inside (intranets) and with clients (extranets)
  6. Consider (seriously) social tagging of internal resources
  7. Map your social networks / understand them (Hill and Knowlton, various accounting and consulting firms have done this with surprising results)
  8. Consider networking as a framework for: Expertise location; Knowledge location; Learning; Mentoring; Etc.
  9. Use social network analysis as a tool for accelerating integration post merger / acquisition
  10. Use social network analysis to look for opportunities outside of the organization – some firms are mining patent filings and research publications to map opportunities for partnerships and acquisitions.


  1. Very interesting synopsis of the Social Networks Joel. I agree that there are great potential in using the Internet or the cyberspace to leverage one’s social network; however, in looking at the other side of the coin, what are the potential downfalls in establishing such a social network?

  2. Yes, social network analysis[SNA] has many applications within and between organizations. I have been consulting with SNA for 20 years. You can even apply SNA to all sorts of public data on the WWW — like book purchases on Amazon:

  3. For me, that’s one of the best top-10 lists I’ve come across in a while. Well done Joel!