Above and Beyond KM

A discussion of knowledge management that goes above and beyond technology.

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This publication contains my personal views and not necessarily those of my clients. Since I am a lawyer, I do need to tell you that this publication is not intended as legal advice or as an advertisement for legal services.
  • Knowledge management efforts that focus solely on deploying technology to deliver content efficiently are missing a vital element: they don’t provide the means of helping the knowledge worker learn collaboratively from the experiences of colleagues. In other words, they don’t create or exploit natural learning processes within an organization that lead to the adoption of best practices and lasting cultural change.

    A 2007 study sponsored by the Swedish Agency for Development Evaluation, entitled “Knowledge and Learning in Aid Organizations” noted that

    Although the main focus remains on the development of technology for the effective handling of data, the recognition that knowledge transfer involves extended interpretation processes rather than simple information communication has led to a certain rapprochement between the knowledge management and learning organization fields. Knowledge management initiatives are increasingly seen as parts of larger organizational strategies aimed at creating climates and cultures that facilitate sharing and collective learning from experience (Pedler et al. 1991).

    [I found this study courtesy of KM4Dev, a great website offering knowledge management resources for development professionals.]

    What are some ways of exploiting the synergies between KM and learning (or training/professional development)? In the law firm context, ensuring that the firm’s professional development materials are included in the knowledge management collection is a good start. More importantly, no new best practices guide or model document should be distributed solely by e-mail. It is far preferable to tie the launch of the new KM content to a specific training session where participants can talk with the authors and each other about the document. The resulting interaction broadens and deepens the opportunities for learning and cultural change. Then periodically, sponsor a session at which lawyers can review current practices or model documents to see if they still reflect the best of the firm’s experience and judgment. Each session reinforces the learning and cultural change that should be the desired outcome of knowledge management efforts. And, along the way, the firm also creates lawyers who produce higher quality work product more efficiently.

    Purposefully marrying formal training opportunities to knowledge management content is a great way of leveraging both and creating something that is greater than the sum of its parts.

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  • In a recent post I discussed a 2007 study of the impact of knowledge management on the ability of Bolivian farmers to innovate and to support lasting change. The beauty of the cases studied is that the issues involved aren’t merely theoretical. If the farmers don’t get it right, they won’t grow enough to live, let alone thrive. A lot is riding on their successful adoption of knowledge management techniques.

    Compare and contrast that with the average lawyer in a big city law firm. If the lawyer doesn’t have the necessary KM systems or can’t be bothered to use them, who pays? The Client.

    Admittedly, this inefficient lawyer also pays by having to spend more time on their work, which means less time for other things. If this continues, that lawyer will find it difficult to be a profitable contributor to the firm and will also have quality of life issues. That said, as long as the client keeps paying, will lawyers ever really feel as if there’s a compelling reason to get their knowledge management systems right?

    At a recent meeting of large law firm knowledge managers, we heard about in-house counsel who have retained knowledge management consultants to help them understand what KM systems a client should expect to find within a large law firm. We were told that these in-house counsel will soon be asking more pointed KM-related questions in their requests for proposals. Once the quality of a law firm’s KM program becomes a real factor in a client’s decision to hire and retain outside counsel, law firms will have to get real about KM. In the meantime, only those firms that are forward looking (rather than merely reactive) are likely to expand and enhance their knowledge management programs.

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  • Sophisticated search tools are not terribly useful if there isn’t a pot of gold (i.e., excellent content) at the end of the search rainbow. How do you get and maintain that stash of gold? In the law firm context, model documents are often too expensive to draft. Relying on recent precedents can be dangerous since they can contain significant problems — witness the recent URI/Cerberus case. Lawyers are either too busy with billable work or simply lack the appetite to complete non-billable knowledge management projects. Nonetheless, at the end of the day those same lawyers judge the effectiveness of law firm knowledge managers by the ease with which the lawyers find excellent content. How do you meet this challenge?

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  • Blame it on the Oscars, but I’ve got movies on my mind. In particular, The Bucket List. For those of you who haven’t seen it, the “bucket list” refers to a list of things that two terminally ill men want to do before they “kick the bucket.” This got me wondering. If you had a limited amount of time in which to accomplish something useful, what three knowledge management projects would you tackle?

    Here’s my preliminary list (and I reserve the right to revise it at will!):

    1. Create an Electronic Water Cooler: Make a virtual place in your organization where people can exchange the valuable information that rarely makes it into formal memos or company databases. The water cooler might be a wiki or blog. It might be a Lotus Notes database. What it shouldn’t be is e-mail unless you have a great way of archiving and organizing the threads to make them available to all who need them. The other benefit of creating a virtual water cooler is that it can help consolidate and nurture communities of practice within your organization by providing members with a shared forum.

    2. Teach Personal KM: If you can teach the knowledge workers in your organization to behave more like knowledge managers, you can create a great foundation for firm-wide KM efforts. If each knowledge worker intentionally created and organized a personal knowledge base, they would experience first-hand the value of well-organized information. And, once properly organized, this content could be available to be contributed to the firm-wide KM system. But even if you never get these contributions of content, by helping individuals organize their knowledge sensibly you help make them and the entire enterprise more efficient.

    3. Freshen Your User Interfaces: Take a cold-eyed look at the user interface of your most critical KM systems and figure out what in the UI creates a significant barrier to entry. What changes can you make to the UI that would materially improve user experience? Remember, as users have access to better designed online resources for leisure activities, they come to expect more from their work resources and they are able to do more with those work resources. Jakob Nielsen’s most recent study of the benefits of UI redesign found that the average improvement in key performance indicators after redesign was 83%. In fact, he summarizes the phenomenon by saying “spend 10% to gain 83%. That’s a pretty good return on investment. (The study focuses on website design, but there’s much food for thought there regarding the UI of all your internal applications.) For further information regarding usability issues, see Nielsen’s articles on User Skills Improving, but Only Slightly and Evangelizing Usability.

    So that’s my first stab at a KM Bucket List. What would be on your bucket list?

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  • What can a Wall Street law firm learn from Bolivian farmers practicing semi-subsistence farming methods? A lot with respect to using knowledge management to foster innovation and make lasting changes.

    In the case of these farmers, innovation was enhanced greatly when (i) knowledge management was the joint effort of multiple actors, including development agencies that provide knowledge and technology, farmers, financial institutions, and government, and (ii) the farmers were embedded in productive social networks.

    A 2007 study of Bolivian farmers (Hartwich, F., M. Monge PĂ©rez, L. Ampuero Ramos and J.L Soto, 2007, “Knowledge management for agricultural innovation: Lessons from networking efforts in the Bolivian Agricultural Technology System.” Knowledge Management for Development Journal 3(2): 21-37) compared the impact on the innovation behavior of farmers of two different methods of transmitting knowledge: either by a direct one-to-one transfer of technical assistance or via a combination of multiple sources of knowledge supported by a network of technology providers, farmers and a variety of public and private sector agents. Looking at four different agricultural innovation programs in Bolivia that used different methods of knowledge management, they found that the acquisition and adoption of knowledge is not a linear process. Consequently, the programs that relied on the linear, direct knowledge transfer were less successful in fostering change. Therefore, to promote innovation and lasting change, knowledge managers need to follow an approach that combines multiple non-competing sources of knowledge with active social networks.

    The usefulness of the social networks was critical. The networks allowed the farmers to take the knowledge and technology provided and then test it against the experiences of other trusted individuals. In the words of the study’s authors, the farmers in these networks do not merely adopt the new knowledge, but they also “practice, process, improve the knowledge and adapt it to their needs and local conditions.”

    Coming back to my organization (a law firm) and yours, what does this study suggest? That merely making information and tools available via the knowledge management system may be a reasonable first step but is ultimately insufficient. This effort needs to be supported by fostering active social networks within your organization that help the individual knowledge worker take that new knowledge, test it, adapt it and ultimately improve it.

    In the context of a law firm, having great content and a slick content delivery mechanism (e.g., a Portal) is a good start. However, until that content is absorbed by the lawyers, tested in the company of trusted colleagues, and adapted to client needs, it isn’t really useful knowledge. And if we don’t have really useful knowledge to manage, what are we doing?

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  • Large snowflakes are falling steadily outside my window, temporarily veiling the urban landscape. We heard breathless warnings this morning on the radio and TV of impending commuting disasters. We’ve been asked to stay home, but if we must travel, please use public transportation. New York City was winding up for one of those rare (but highly enjoyable) occurrences — a bona fide snow day that doesn’t fall on the weekend.

    In the midst of all of this excitement are two interesting knowledge management lessons:

    1. Garbage Trucks: In most normal towns, garbage trucks collect the garbage. And in New York City, that is usually the case. However, as soon as the snow starts to fall, garbage trucks here morph into snowplows. While they may look strange, they are effective. They are also good reminders of a basic knowledge management lesson: sometimes the easiest way to create excellent content is to repurpose existing materials. For example, organizations that have good communications between their training function and their knowledge management function have discovered that training materials are a rich source of actionable knowledge. Once added to the knowledge management system, they become more widely accessible and more widely used. This is a win-win for the trainers and the knowledge managers. Above all, it is a win for the knowledge workers who need this information. Similarly, materials created for marketing purposes can become valuable content in the KM system and vice versa.

    2. Going to School on a Snow Day: One of the great joys of childhood is waking up to learn school has been canceled because of a snowstorm. The kids are oblivious to the agony of the school administrator, who must make a decision before dawn as to whether or not to cancel school. If there is an enormous snowfall and the administrator made the decision to cancel, the administrator is a hero. If school is canceled and the forecasted blizzard ends up being a light flurry, the administrator is vilified. In New York City, we sidestepped the agony by adopting what seemed to be a reasonable approach: if the city’s board of education decides to cancel school, then all schools (public, private, parochial, etc.) will be canceled. This takes the individual principals out of the decision making and puts the responsibility squarely on the shoulders of a faceless bureaucracy. Who could argue with that???

    Since NYC has relatively few snow days, this scheme rarely gets put to the test. However, it has begun to irk some kids that in recent years the only decent storms seem to occur on weekends or during the February school break. It is particularly annoying for kids whose schools do not follow the public school calendar. In their case, even if you have a legitimate snow day that falls on a public school holiday, the board of education won’t go to the trouble of canceling school since the public schools aren’t in session. So these kids are deprived of the benefits of a snow day.

    I recite these facts not to incite sympathy for this small, disaffected subset of NYC school children, but rather, to point to a little business process challenge. Arguably the NYC approach to snow days works most of the time by default since we almost never have large snowstorms and when they do happen they seem to fall on days when public schools are not in session. So when do you know you have a valid, reliable business process as opposed to a lucky way of doing things? Admittedly, the decision making that leads to declaring a snow day probably doesn’t rise to the level of a proper business process as envisioned by Frederick Taylor and others who studied manufacturing processes. Nonetheless, the question is worth posing with respect to the many practices organizations adopt over time. Followers of the “if ain’t broke don’t fix it” school of management, won’t understand the question. But that’s fine. Let them leave money on the table for the rest of us. In my knowledge management work I’ve discovered time and time again that by simply taking a closer look at how an organization goes through its routines we inevitably find ways of improving and adding value. Granted, not every change is a blockbuster, but that may be all to the good given the human tendency to resist change.

    (Just to add insult to injury, not only do some kids have to go to school today, but they will also be missing the City Parks Department’s celebration of the First Snow Day of the Year. The Department will be providing sleds and hot chocolate in some city parks from noon- 4pm. Too bad about those afternoon classes!)

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  • What if you were told that you must either “Change or Die”? Would you change?

    Now that you’ve had a minute to think about that and have probably answered the question with a resounding “Yes” (or “yeah, duh” depending on your age), think again. According to Alan Deutschman, you’re delusional.

    In his recent book Change or Die, Alan Deutschman (a senior writer at Fast Company) looked for answers to the question in the behavior of three high-risk groups: patients with advanced heart disease who required a coronary-artery bypass or angioplasty, repeat offenders who have come to be viewed as psychopaths, and workers in a manufacturing plant who were so hostile to change and distrustful of management that the company closed the factory and laid off all 5000 of these workers. In each case the people in question were faced with serious threats to their health, their freedom or their livelihoods. And, in each case they chose not to change.

    Deutschman then looked at cases where people faced with similar threats chose change. What made the difference?

    Necessary Preconditions for Lasting Change:

    1. New Hope: The person facing the choice must be given hope that they are capable of choosing correctly and acting on that choice consistently — despite past behavior. According to Deutschman’s observations, people are more likely to make long-lasting change in response to hope than fear. To make this hope actionable (and not a mere wish), the person needs the support of mentors, role models and sources of new knowledge.

    2. New Skills: Having made the choice, the person then needs to see that they are capable of the necessary action — time and time again. We’re told that Ben Franklin said it takes 21 days of consistent effort to create a new habit. Similarly, to make lasting change a reality, the person doing the changing has to make good choices over and over again until they become second nature. And in the process, they acquire the new skills that enforce those good choices and new habits. As they are battling their old habits and establishing new habits, the person needs the support of mentors, role models and sources of new knowledge.

    3. New Perspective: The experience of making and acting on good choices, coupled with early wins begin to create a new perspective. This allows the person facing change to think differently about what’s at stake and what’s to be gained. With this new way of thinking comes the ability to approach the old problem differently. And, once the mindset shifts the behavior shifts. While this new perspective is forming, the person facing change requires the support of mentors, role models and sources of new knowledge. (Are you sensing a pattern yet???)

    There definitely are lessons for knowledge management here. If people facing death, prison or job loss won’t make good choices in response to fear, threats or nagging, why do we think our colleagues who are facing only inconvenience or aggravation will respond better to fear, threats or nagging? KM professionals are going to need new methods to coax their colleagues into change. KM professionals may need to shift from being mere providers of useful tools to being mentors, role models and sources of new knowledge. Alan Deutschman’s insights provide one way of thinking about these new approaches.

    If reading the book seems like too much, take a look at Deutschman’s article in Fast Company. It provides a good overview of his research and findings.

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  • Chocolates and roses are traditional Valentine’s Day gifts. And they are given for what purpose? The cynic might say behavior modification. Unfortunately, while chocolates and roses may facilitate a pleasant evening, they rarely bring about lasting changes in behavior. Something else is required.

    Knowledge management by its very nature leads to behavioral changes. Good knowledge management does this so subtly that the user doesn’t put up much of a fight. Bad knowledge management requires more obvious pressure to counter the user’s natural resistance.

    So what tools are popular in most organizations?

    – Fear — “Do this or else ….”
    – Nagging — “I know you really don’t want to do it, but I’m going to bug you until you do it. “
    – Begging — “Please, please contribute content or we’ll have an empty portal.”
    – Bribes — “We’ll give a Starbucks card to the user that contributes the most content to the portal.”

    And which of these tools work? Not one of them is entirely successful over the long term. If used together, the only predictable result is that the knowledge manager will be disliked within the organization. Over the next few days, I’d like to look at other methods that have a better chance of achieving long-lasting behavioral changes. Stay tuned.

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  • Less is more. This rule may be the key to the successful implementation of new KM applications.

    At LegalTech last week I heard something that initially seemed slightly counterintuitive, but on further reflection made perfect sense. Meredith Williams, Director of Knowledge Management at Baker Donelson, spoke about her preferred way of integrating new functionality into her firm’s systems. Instead of dumping a new KM product on her practitioners in an undigested mass, she breaks the product into its component pieces and then slides them under the hood of her existing applications. So what the user experiences is an enhancement that is well-integrated into a familiar interface. There’s no need to force the user to change to a vendor-specified interface. By eliminating some of the visual and physical barriers to entry, Meredith and her team improve the odds of user adoption and (dare we say it) user satisfaction.

    Since we were at a West-sponsored seminar, we saw examples of her approach using West products. Meredith had taken West KM for Transactions and configured it to play nicely with Word. So if a corporate lawyer needed quick access to a precedent while drafting, all they would need to do is type a search query into the simple search box in the side pane of the screen. That search would run against the West KM index and display the results in that pane. If the results contained the desired language, all the lawyer would have to do is highlight the text and it would automatically be pasted into the lawyer’s draft. How easy is that? And, best of all, from the lawyer’s perspective it just happened while drafting. There was no need to switch windows, figure out what application to use, launch a new program, or copy and paste the needed text.

    By focusing on a limited set of functionality you reduce the number of moving parts that require your attention and increase the odds of achieving a targeted, sensible and seamless implementation. Who wouldn’t want that?

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  • The vendors at LegalTech 2008 had lots of cool tech toys to sell that purported to solve a host of problems, but knowledge management practitioners speaking at the KM Track sessions told tales of incomplete solutions and dissatisfied users. Why the gap?

    There’s probably not just one comprehensive answer to that question, but several partial answers. In part, the gap results from differences between how an application works in the vendor’s sterile development environment versus how it works in the rough and tumble of the purchasing organization. Very few vendors can fully anticipate user needs. (Unfortunately, not all vendors are willing to work with purchasers to make the incremental changes that move a product from adequate to superior.) In part, the gap is caused by misfires during the planning and implementation by the purchaser. We’re only human so we make mistakes. And technology and KM professionals within an organization are almost as susceptible as vendors to the tendency to misunderstand user needs.

    However, there are two larger problems that often contribute to user dissatisfaction. The first is the perennial problem of escalating expectations: you deliver an improvement and become an instant hero. Three minutes later, your users now consider the innovation old hat and are looking for more. In this environment, how on earth do you ever achieve lasting user satisfaction?

    The other significant challenge is our tendency to search for the KM silver bullet: that killer app that will solve a host of problems and justify a growing investment in KM. In the search for this holy grail, vendors, information technology experts and KM professionals over promise and under deliver. We try to solve too many problems with a single tool. And the bigger the tool, the harder it falls.

    The problem of incomplete tech solutions is one that vendors, IT specialists and KM professionals are going to have to tackle together. Without better cooperation among these groups, user needs will not be met adequately. And when the user is dissatisfied, it is unlikely that anyone will be sending bouquets to the knowledge manager who initiated the deficient technology project.

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