Two mainstream media articles last week illustrate the power of collective intelligence. Both make me wonder whether large law firms take full advantage of their scale. 

Herds on the Street (Jonah Lehrer, Wall Street Journal, 19 March 2011) describes how traders at one hedge fund exchanged information with instant messages (IM). With the “the average trader engaging in 16 IM conversations at a time… this ceaseless messaging wasn’t a distraction. Instead, it allowed traders to pool their information” to make more winning trades.

Users Help a Weather Site Hone Its Forecasts (Daniel E. Slotnik, The New York Times, 20 March 2011) reports that a weather channel taps 20,000 amateur-operated weather stations around the world to ‘crowd source’ real-time weather data. With data readings from more locations, forecasts can improve.

Both examples illustrate collective intelligence, one within an organization and the other in the world at large. With social media, such “crowd sourcing” examples abound.

How many large law firms meaningfully access their collective intelligence? Knowledge management (KM) tries to do so with processes, incentives, and systems to capture, share, and re-use know-how. Even successful KM program rarely tap the full potential and many firms lack active KM programs. BigLaw marketing touts its global reach and full service but I cannot recall seeing claims that high lawyer headcounts yield better advice or results. A missed opportunity?

If we could quantify the amount of sharing by firm, I wonder if it would correlate with client win rates – or with firm realization rates. And might we see a big differences that turn on partner compensation? I wonder whether the legal market lags other professions in tapping the collective intelligence of a large organization.