THE BLOG
03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Lawyers, Anthropologists, and Revolutionaries

In the mid-'90's, when I was General Counsel of a Silicon Valley software company called Synopsys, my friend Roberta Katz had a similar role at Netscape. Roberta (Dr. Katz) has a PhD. in Anthropology, and she used to say Anthropology was the best training for working in a complex technology company.

At Synopsys, we understood that the adoption of any new software tool was gated by culture - that tools and culture are symbiotic, and that any new tool could disrupt groups and hierarchies by re-ordering power (think how well Robert Oppenheimer or Steve Jobs might have fared on the Savannah in 10,000 BC, or how well the Uber-hunter would do today at Jet Propulsion Laboratories). To get someone to buy and use your new stuff, you have to understand how it might create winners and losers in an organization. (The quintessential example of this in military conflict was the initial resistance of the US Navy in the 1920's to the Aircraft Carrier.)

Silicon Valley does a good job at thinking about these issues at a product, company or even industry level, because we constantly confront the challenge that "better" tools are not adopted because of their disruptive impact, and have to figure out how to align with those who will benefit from the change.

But now as the changes wrought by technology become ever more pervasive, and as they coincide with the most significant challenge to US global leadership in a Century - the rise of China - we need to think about the anthropology of technology at a societal level, and look at how well core institutions are adapting.

My own background is as a lawyer, and my current role is running a Legal Web 2.0 collaboration company called Legal OnRamp. Working with Cisco and others, we're bringing Web 2.0 to law, and demonstrating how collaboration (not just social networking) is transforming knowledge-based industries. Lawyers (and most professionals) do five things: read, create documents, find stuff, communicate and think. The first four are at an inflection point that will be streamlined by inexpensive Web technologies build around the network that enable Collaboration, allowing lawyers to spend more effective time thinking and solving complex problems.

Many lawyers, like most other highly educated US professions - doctors, university faculty, much of the finance industry, until recently, journalists - have, for the last generation, been insulated from global competition and technological disruption; a lot of folks who should be helping us lead change have lost their "change mojo," and lack confidence they can successfully shape and lead the future. I am optimistic they can, and that's what I have bet on professionally and personally.

The quickest way to see this is talk to two different groups of folks running law firms - folks who have started their own firms, and those who have inherited the leadership mantle at established firms. It is almost as if they are from different planets. The entrepreneurs will talk entirely about what they can do and what they are changing; the successors will talk about what they can't do and how hard change is and how many obstacles there are.

Lawyers are a particularly interesting group to look at because they exemplify the difference between what might be called the formal and informal models of change.

The formal model of change is the one lawyers generally like to think about, and one which, to a large degree, we control. Our favorite example is the American Revolution - the principal authors, and half the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, were lawyers or judges. But this "legislative" model of change, where key stakeholders gather together to discuss issues, document their position, and select for themselves their future, is not the norm; most change unfolds indirectly, through action rather than consensus.

The informal model is often referred to as the Tipping Point, or better the Technology Adoption Life Cycle, which was developed by a group of University of Iowa Professors in the 1950's to describe how different farmers adopted (or not) new seed varietals and agricultural practices.

The Technology Adoption Life Cycle model suggests five phases of adopters

• Innovators
• Early Adopters
• Early Majority
• Late Majority
• Laggards

The key insight of the Technology Adoption Life Cycle (which applies to all forms of social change, not just adoption of technology) is that individuals - especially innovators - choose to adopt something new for their own reasons, and each point of change makes the next one more likely, but no matter how powerful the change, lots of folks won't participate. No formal consensus for change is required, and while laggards lag, they don't influence the actions of early adopters.

To see how this has unfolded in the last few years in the very parallel world of newspapers, please read Clay Shirky's superb piece:

"The problem newspapers face isn't that they didn't see the Internet coming. They not only saw it miles off, they figured out early on that they needed a plan to deal with it.... but the core assumption behind all imagined outcomes was that the organizational form of the newspaper, as a general-purpose vehicle for publishing a variety of news and opinion, was basically sound, and only needed a digital facelift."

"When reality is labeled unthinkable, it creates a kind of sickness in an industry. Leadership becomes faith-based, while employees who have the temerity to disagree are herded into Innovation Departments, where they can be ignored en masse."

"Round and round this goes, with the people committed to saving newspapers demanding to know 'If the old model is broken, what will work in its place?'"

Sound familiar?

No one decided that newspapers needed to change; some newspaper consumers changed some of their behaviors, and newspapers have been forced to change. And the people changing their behaviors weren't required to supply an answer to the question of "what will work in its place?"

The changes that have roiled the newspaper industry (and that the Huffington Post exemplifies) are starting to work their way through other professions. I have a front row seat in how that is playing out in law, and look forward to sharing my thoughts and experiences with you, and getting your feedback.