I run a law firm in Somaliland, or what National Geographic’s map section probably calls Somalia (northern section).  I have been a technophile for a long time; indeed, as long as I can remember I’ve had a computer and used it extensively.  To me at least, many of my “mentors” for creating an organization are companies which are currently operating in the technology sector rather than in the legal sector.  These tech companies seem to have organizational philosophies that excite me.  Although one can never know for sure without having a deeper glimpse inside the company than what they allow one to glimpse from the outside, many of these companies give customers and potential customers an opportunity to view them deeper than we have likely ever seen before for corporate behavior.

There is a huge part of me which appreciates this from a consumer point of view.  It makes it easier to do your task management when you “feel” as if you “like” the program you are using and even better when you feel as if you “know” something about those who made it, where they are trying to go with it, etc.  It enables a feeling of community and communal interest even though I’m here in Somaliland and they may be thousands of miles away.  This interactivity is powerful when applied to corporate behavior as it allows companies to leverage the increased loyalty and interactivity found in small community-based businesses with the scales of economy found in large MNC’s.

Many times being open is more efficient than being closed.  It is also quite efficient to tag and publish your links in a way that allows your team and your community to see them.  I mean everyone will keep current with news, analysis, etc. within their sector.  Pushing those links into the semi-public team spaces and public community spaces with the click of one button.  Why not?  At the end of the day it saves you more time than having to break these tasks of media consumption, team discussion, and marketing into individual blocks.  Crowdsourcing is another great example of openness’s links to efficiency.  See this great entry from the weijiblog as an example of what I’m talking about.

All this is well and good.  But there are a few tensions which any organization must be aware of.  These areas should pull you back from a 100% open business if they apply to your situation.

Confidentiality – Duh

The most obvious tension with openness that we, and other professional services companies, face is that of client confidentiality.  As lawyers we have to put in an extremely rigid firewall between the reception area and the back area of our online presence.  Discussing what we are working on today is a no-go if it is anything whatsoever to do with client activity.  Sure I use foursquare and many times it check-in when I’m making sales calls.  But I never do it when I’m having a client meeting.  Sure I blog, tweet, etc.  But never about client matters.  Ancillary to client matters is even a personal no-go area.

Each individual professional organization and each professional within that organization will be subjected to their own specific confidentiality requirements.  Many lawyers get around these by blogging anonymously but still revealing many confidential facts of a case simply by hiding in plain sight and not mentioning names.  While this may work for them, I have personally chosen a different path.  I prefer to blog publicly using my real given name and simply not put into the public space those things which I’m required (and would anyway even if I wasn’t required) to maintain as confidential.  I see the value in the humor of some blogs I read by public defenders or other practitioners.  But I would never write one.

Areas of Strategic Advantage

The less obvious tension with openness is that of commodification of those areas where your organization has a distinct strategic advantage.  This is something which I struggle with more.  Operating where we operate and having the research base which we have built and having the connections which we have has taken a lot of time and a lot of work.  It isn’t the easiest place to live and it certainly isn’t the easiest place to operate.  But nevertheless, we are making it work.

This is a strategic advantage for our firm.  We are well connected abroad and locally.  We have a deeper understanding that probably any organization in the world as to the current state of the Somaliland legal system.  So there is a huge tension for me when it comes to this area.  On the one hand, I truly believe that laws should be published by the governments which pass them.  This information needs to be public and freely available to all those who may be subjected to its provisions.  But the reality is that the Somaliland government has not done this.  We do have all of the applicable laws, but we have had to find many of them.  Some we even had to pay some money to acquire.  So when a lawyer from abroad emails to ask about this law or that law and if we can send it to them I struggle to find the proper answer.  While we are building our firm we need to leverage each of the strategic advantages which we have   Maybe later, when we’re more established and our cash flow is more stable then we can relax and open up a few of the strategic advantages – especially in the area of information vis a vis analysis.

There is a danger here also which is that if you begin with the habits of holding your cards closer than you optimally may that that habit will become a policy rather than the habit of the beginning organization.

But for now, and for us, it is unlikely that I’m going to give you those things which I have worked very hard to achieve.

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