More on “Wrong Question”

From Lizzie Skurnick:

What iTunes did was to replace the CD as the basic unit of commerce; rather than being forced to buy an entire album to get the song you really wanted, you could buy just the single track. But no one, with the possible exception of students, will want to buy a single chapter of most books.”

That’s two assumptions, both incorrect. (This is why you don’t listen to writers whose publications slap up stories in teeny Times Roman.) 1) That all readers read alike, and 2) that whatever device prevails will accommodate books—not that books will change to accommodate the device.

What does this have to do with the law?  A lot.  General trends are more than likely to affect legal research and writing.  The iTunes model of purchasing specific items is going to reach out to Wexis.  And flexibility is still going to be key.

Wrong question

Quick: are you a cat person or a dog person?  Mac or PC?  Smooth or crunchy?

As far as I am concerned, there is only one answer to any of these questions: that is the wrong question.

These types of questions all share an underlying premise: the world is simple, and can be divided into two camps.  Those camps must then vie for ultimate domination, because one must “win” in this simple, zero-sum world.  And the zero-sum debate of the decade in libraries seems to be Books v. Online.

It’s the wrong question, and yet we get suckered into debating it every time.  Very few institutions, at least in the near term, are going to be like Cushing Academy and suddenly go electronic in a wholesale manner.  And yet, when this happened last year it was hailed or reviled as the inevitable and immediate outcome for all libraries.  I saw people in real and virtual space line up to ride the slippery slope to the bottom of their hopes or fears on this mostly imaginary issue.  A lot of time and emotional energy was expended in passionate defense of paper or eager anticipation of an all-electronic future.  But the choice of format is a complex one based on variables such as availability, licensing, budget, and user preference.

Consider the examples I laid out above.  For me, there is not a single simple answer in the bunch.  I have three cats and a dog and I love them all.  I prefer Macs, but also own a netbook for a slew of reasons.  I can’t stand peanut butter in any form.  Similarly, while I prefer to read paper, I appreciate and understand the ease, immediacy, and potential for conservation of resources that is made possible by online databases and electronic books.  I have read more than one novel on my iPhone’s Kindle application.

While format does matter, it doesn’t necessarily matter the way librarians and other interested parties want it to.  Information conveyed by the pulp of trees does not create a holy relic in and of itself.  Presenting the same information in an electronic form does not make that information any more progressive or relevant.

So, with all apologies to Marshall McLuhan, it is not necessarily media over message.  And every time we automatically take an absolute stand on one side or the other of the so-called “digital divide,” we may be losing the opportunity to have a different conversation about content, situational preference, funding, or any other far more useful topic.  I fear that the ultimate outcome of most zero-sum games is that everyone loses, because we are not looking at messy, gray, glorious reality.

So – what to do when presented with a zero-sum game?  We can allow others to set the grounds for debate for us, or we can help shift and reframe those grounds so they reflect reality.  I believe it is our duty to do the latter.

Context, Part 1

When I worked for the Nasdaq Stock Market, I would often meet with people who asked me a very basic question: “Is [this number] good?”  They didn’t mean, “Is this number correct?” they were asking for a qualitative answer.  They wanted me to evaluate the number they were handing me.

I always wanted to say something flip like, “Yeah – three is a very good number.  But five – look out for five.  Five will cut you.”

I kept my flippancy to myself and instead asked, “Compared to what?”  An earnings per share ratio that is phenomenal in one industry is anemic in another.  Context is key.

Likewise, the iterative and narrow way many people are used to searching for information in their daily lives tends to strip away the idea of context.  Looking for a phone number is not particularly complex.  Finding a restaurant review is fairly mechanical.  But the answer to a client’s question in the real world is not “Section 401(k) of the Internal Revenue Code.”  It is going to be application of that code section to a specific fact pattern.  It is going to be contextual.

I have read a great deal about how students (in general – not just law students) frequently have a much higher opinion of their ability to find things then their ability actually warrants.  Some blame the “Google-ization” of finding tools: plug in a few keywords, get an answer.  This piece of our current landscape probably does shift thinking: much of the “data in/data out” searching we do on a daily basis might as well be context-free.

Considering a fact pattern in law is not a matter of placing code or regulations or case law on top of the facts, but a complex and sometimes lengthy matter of analysis.  How does this law here relate to and intersect with that fact there?  If this fact changes, how does that affect the whole?  If the law changes, how will it shape the facts of behavior moving forward?

How does this type of analysis change and shape searching strategies and behaviors?  How do other forces (availability of resources, cost, time) shape those behaviors?  Just as in legal analysis, there really is no one answer.  It depends on the context.

On the utility of academic writing

I recently completed an independent study, reviewing The MacCrate Report and 24 pieces of academic writing on the subject of teaching legal research afterwards.  I will soon be launching another project using that work as its base, but one thing struck me again and again as I read these articles.  I noted it in my conclusion to the literature journal which was the output for the class and I reproduce it here:

It seems to me that the increased focus on practicality is key – and not just practicality in the realm of how research is taught, but also practicality in terms of the costs and benefits of various tools, and practicality in the way these problems are written about in articles such as the ones I have reviewed.  To identify a problem and discuss it in the abstract only continues the problem – offering real-world ideas, even if they are flawed ones, can help debate and dialogue flourish in the search for actual solutions to bring to the library and the classroom.

Perhaps it is my business background talking, but I found myself getting very frustrated at times reading pieces that either a.) only pointed out problems without offering solutions, or b.) talked about teaching in terms of abstract theory that would be hard to put to use in a classroom or library setting.  Reading these, my brain responded with a dull thud that sounded surprisingly like, “So what?”

In contrast, when I read accounts of clinical programs utilizing the nascent skills of students in research classes or exercises designed to get students to stop thinking about research as a discrete project and put them on the path of thinking about research as part of the overall process of representation, then my brain began to spark off further ideas and refinements.  I could imagine scenarios where something worked and led to something else — or didn’t work and led to something else.  How would I handle that?

Papers that offered practical solutions or outlined actual innovative curricula made me want to teach.  They implicitly handed me tools to try — or at least to consider.  So, I am putting myself on notice: write what you would want to read.

Watch this site

With only three months between me and my MLS, I am beginning to revamp this site to reflect my future career.  Past communications posts will still be found under the category “communications,” but going forward I envision that most of my posts will have to do with law, libraries, and law libraries.

…Which is not to say I intend to try to teach Grandma to suck eggs.  I know there are tons of brilliant bloggers in the law library field.  Whatever I have to say on the subject are… well, baby steps.  I intend to honor the fantastic law library bloggers, but I also intend to make my mark in the field of law information.

Please wish me luck.

Clarity of message and clarity of metaphor

Many years ago, I worked for a company whose leader was a brilliant speaker.  In general, he also could create create thematically compelling presentations, but he tended to reuse his metaphors.  In his original presentation, the products of the company were represented by a triad metaphor.  Then the three principles of the company were represented by the triad.  And then… until he was reined in, any three things were represented by that one metaphor.

This is a problem.

Here is another problem, illustrated by the inimitable Fry and Laurie:

Stephen Fry’s character keeps trying to make his point with an ever-shifting array of metaphors.  Hugh Laurie’s character keeps trying to anchor it by saying, “Hello.  We’re talking about: _____.”  Fry’s lyrically tripping tongue speedily outstrips Laurie’s ability to keep the audience tuned in to the topic at hand – they are unmoored in a restless sea of images.

Neither of these approaches work to create effective business communications.  Metaphors need to be selected carefully, crafted carefully, and presented carefully.  When used correctly, a metaphor can be a great tool to connect with your audience.  When selected, crafted, or presented haphazardly, metaphors can only create confusion.  Or, in the case of Fry and Laurie, humor.

I have only one thing to add to this

Techdirt has a great (yet horrifying) piece from the “how not to connect with customers” trenches.  I agree with it pretty completely, but I would also add to this statement:

At some point or another everyone screws up. Everyone makes a mistake. Customers recognize this. But if a company never makes a mistake, then customers may still wonder how they’ll be treated when that future mistake comes. However, if the mistake has been made, and the response was good, the customer is confident that future mistakes will be handled well also.

Screwups are also memorable interactions – and how you handle them is memorable as well.  Not to skew too far into the territory of silver linings, but a single screwup handled well can be more memorable than 100 mediocre-to-satisfactory experiences and might translate into good word-of-mouth.  I would argue that a customer may not spend much time wondering about how a fairly competent company might handle a screwup, but that company may just not be very top-of-mind.  You wouldn’t recommend them, because you just might not think of them at all.

Extraordinary service is memorable.  A screwup, handled badly or well, is memorable.  Reasonably competent service or an experience that gets you where you need to go without any great highs or lows (barring any extraordinary expectations from the consumer)?  Not very memorable.

How many examples do we need?

Briefly noted: the United Airlines broken guitar public relations fiasco.

I have one quibble with the linked article, which says, “Companies have to be tapped in to social media to quickly right wrongs and head off bad press before it spins out of control.”  While this is true, it is also often too late by the time it gets to the social media stage.  The cat is out of the bag, and the company has lost control of the opportunity it once had to make things right.

Doing the right thing at the management level early on would have been smart.  Training and empowering employees to do the right thing at the customer service level would have been even smarter.

Related posts: Now hiring: Corporate Spokespeople, Your brand is your brand

A small example of why version control is so important

Working at a breakneck pace?  Think that release is ready for the wire?  You might want to open the document and check just one more time.

While you’re at it, you might also want to make sure young aides are briefed in the concept of keeping the meta-commentary out of the document itself.

Just a thought.

Breaking news: a case study in handling it right

Developing crisis situations demand regular updates.  But all too often, communications professionals get too enmeshed in their own story, forgetting that not everyone is fully aware of the history of a given situation.  In that case, updates occur without context, leading to confusion by some readers.

As a reader, keeping track of the update cycle itself can also be fraught: without a photographic memory, it can be hard to tell if a press item has new information or if it is the  same release you read a few hours ago.

Crisis communications also brings with it a huge load of stress, so a communications professional who keeps a cool head and continues to deliver valuable information in a meaningful way is a huge asset to an organization.  That said, I have to applaud the communications people at the Washington Metro Area Transit Authority (WMATA).  Reporting on your own tragedy is surreal and awful — I know, I have done it.  But they have kept a steady stream of information coming via their web site, and as their top story refreshed, they noted how many updates had been given to orient the reader in the news stream.

They also have not overwritten their news as the sad toll has mounted — their archives contain the string of releases they have put out, maintaining a good degree of transparency.