Microblogging Lite: A Brief How-To

29 May

Guest Post by Andrew M. Baker, Director of Legal Technology Innovations Office (and member of the ILTA KM PG Steering Committee) and Mark Soriano, Manager of Application Development, both of Seyfarth Shaw

We probably all have a list of projects we would love to tackle, but we are not sure if we will get the chance or see a fitting opportunity.

Social Networking for the Enterprise, in the style of a Facebook or Twitter, falls into that category for us. Though we are bullish on social networking generally, we both see challenges with a full-blown solution and its fit within today’s large law firm. Most of our hesitation stems from concerns such as those Oz Benamram described in his article, “Why most law firms’ internal collaboration systems are doomed to fail.” Specifically, without the “semi-automated” solution seeding the medium from enterprise content, we see the road as awfully bumpy and fairly steep.

The Opportunity

Nevertheless, last year, we were presented with an opening for a “lite” solution. We took it and it has worked out exceptionally well. The basic business premise was this:

Our SeyfarthLean program was (and is) bustling. We needed a way to get timely news out to a moderate-sized (but growing) population of folk that were neck-deep in Lean waters. Developments were happening so fast that any real editorial process would have discouraged participation or crumbled under its own weight. Further, the people most interested in contributing were the most busy – often in airports or otherwise out of the office for a significant portion of their week.

When we heard “timely,” “raw” and hints of “mobile,” we both thought microblogging. But, we had some constraints. The need was acute and a solution would have to come fairly quickly. The budget and stomach for a full solution wasn’t there – and we wouldn’t have advocated for it, if it were.

In response, we created our own “easy” microblog called “LeanStreams.” We talked the concept through with our SeyfarthLean Steering Committee, and some scoffed (a few rather loudly), worried that it wasn’t the right approach. But, after some healthy discussion, the group acquiesced.

The Solution

LeanStreams merges native SharePoint features with somewhat straight-forward development efforts. Here’s how it works.

A custom webpart on the homepage of our intranet is visible only to certain, selected people. If the user “subscribed,” the webpart would expand and each post, or “LeanStream,” could be seen. The post shows up almost in real time, as it’s updated every two minutes. From the webpart, users can page through all past posts or unsubscribe from the digest, if desired.

Custom webpart living on our intranet homepage

Custom webpart living on our intranet homepage

Custom webpart living on our intranet homepage.

New posts enter the “stream” from a link on the webpart or via an email to the specified address. Only the text in the subject line of the email is used as the post. Anything in the body of the email is ignored. By default, Outlook and Blackberry devices limit the text to 255 characters. An iPhone will let you type more, but we have warned everyone that only 255 characters count toward the post. It’s more than Twitter, but not enough for a novella; probably right for an attorney’s  “raw” post.

1-Microblog 2

Email generated after clicking ‘add entry’ on our webpart.

Each night, LeanStreams creates and sends a stylized digest of posts. Under each post is a “mailto” link to the author of the post’s email address. That way, folk can reply on a topic fairly easily (which happens regularly).

1-Microblog 3

Digest email sent out at the specified interval.

LeanStreams Lessons

LeanStreams has been running for almost a year.  We now have over 500 people subscribing, and new posts are submitted daily – with hundreds having already been sent. The tool has been promoted primarily through our Yellow Belt trainings. As we have trained attorneys from across the Firm, LeanStreams has been positioned as a “keep the dialog going” idea at the end.

Best of all, the posts are great. People almost always read their daily digest, and it has caused a lot of cross-practice dialog from follow-ups. It’s now a mix of Lean happenings, Lean wins, client sentiments and ideas for innovation.

We see the simplicity of the tool as a large part of its success. A significant portion of LeanSteams users are not frequent Twitter or Facebook users. Profiles, hashtags and the like are great when you have a lot of content. It’s a bit different game here – in terms of content shared and user persona.

With that said, when first describing the application, we usually talk in terms of “microblogging” rather than “social.” Though our users may not send large batches of content into the Twitterspehere, they find the “microblogging” term more descriptive than the blanket “social” moniker.

Nevertheless, we readily acknowledge that the solution isn’t perfect. We have heard people want threaded replies, profiles and the like. But, in a pinch and on a shoestring, it definitely met the challenge and has already paid dividends to the Firm.

Will we move on to a bigger solution? Probably. But, not until our activity stream is feeding posts. That’s underway, actually, but a few steps out.

Technical Details

For those a bit more technically inclined, here’s a high-level overview of what we had to do to launch LeanStreams:

1. Enabled incoming email settings in SharePoint Central Administration.

2. Created a SharePoint announcements list and set the incoming email settings to have the specified list email address.

3. Created a contact object in Exchange and set the SMTP address of the contact to be the list email address of the newly created announcements list.

4. Created a custom webpart to display the items from the announcements list that are created by incoming emails.

5. Designed a custom webpart to refresh every two minues using jQuery.

6. Designed a custom webpart that allows users to subscribe to daily or weekly emails by storing the their preferences in SQL.

7. Created a console application that will send an email digest of items created in the announcements list. A scheduled task will run this console application every morning and will send a daily or weekly email based upon the user’s preference stored in SQL.

8. Created a list Event Listener to check for auto-reply emails and delete them.

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