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.
  • KM4Dev recently featured Dare to Share’s Knowledge Management Toolkit. Beginning in April 2007 and running until December 2008, Dare to Share will highlight one proven KM and/or learning technique per month. Thus far, they have focused on:

    - After Action Review
    - Collegial Coaching
    - Yellow Pages
    - SWOT
    - Good Practice
    - Knowledge Fair
    - Exit Interview
    - Storytelling
    - Experience Capitalization
    - Mentoring
    - Visualization
    - Peer Assist
    - Briefing

    For each technique there is a definition, followed by a brief description of how to implement the technique. Dare to Share also provides a link to a much longer discussion of the approach for readers who want to delve deeper.

    Not every one of these techniques will work for you or your organization. Even still, this is a great resource if you’re looking for new ways to expand knowledge sharing and learning with your colleagues.

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  • Stan Garfield’s Weekly Knowledge Management blog highlights an interesting publication from the Asian Development Bank (ADB) on the hows and whys of knowledge audits called Auditing the Lessons Architecture. When the ADB embarked on a strategy for building up its knowledge assets and developing a knowledge-sharing culture, it decided to use knowledge audits to

    (i) identify knowledge needs for policy, strategy, and operational efforts; (ii) draw up an inventory of existing knowledge products and services; (iii) recognize gaps in knowledge products and services; (iv) analyze knowledge flows within the organization and knowledge exchanges with outside agencies; (v) identify blockages to knowledge flows; (vi) create knowledge maps; and (vii) suggest agenda for organizational change.

    This booklet documents how they did it and what they discovered in the process. The lessons learned are universal and could be applied to many other organizations.

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  • In their MIT Sloan Management Review article, “Putting Ideas to Work,” Thomas H. Davenport, Laurence Prusak and Bruce Strong discuss the three critical elements of a knowledge management program: creating knowledge, delivering knowledge and using knowledge. They suggest that only by adopting a management strategy that encompasses all three elements will an organization be able to realize the potential benefits of a KM program.

    In the world of law firm knowledge management, we have not always had an integrated approach to these three elements. Practitioners and practice support lawyers are usually given the task of knowledge creation. Knowledge dissemination has become the province of the technology experts. Meanwhile, professional development and KM have too frequently run on completely separate tracks, thereby limiting the opportunities for knowledge application.

    Here are some of the authors’ key observations regarding each of these critical elements:

    1. Knowledge Creation

    The organizations with the best knowledge-creation programs define in advance the type of information they need and why they need it—say to improve customer service or to develop easier-to-use products. They solicit ideas, insights and innovations from rank-and-file workers, customers and business partners, rather than relying solely on the R&D staff to come up with the ideas.

    The authors then point to collaborative technologies such as internal corporate blogs and wikis as helpful new ways of encouraging a larger population with your organization to participate in knowledge or content creation. On the flip side, it’s still not clear these new technologies actually do that. If the experience of Wikipedia is any indicator, only a tiny fraction of the population actually contributes. Nonetheless, these technologies are an improvement in that they reduce the barriers to entry for people inclined to participate.

    2. Knowledge Dissemination

    Disseminating knowledge via technology is the most common activity within knowledge management. Organizations share knowledge through a variety of platforms, including corporate intranets, Web portals and database-software programs.

    Under old approaches, knowledge content often was collected, organized and displayed in its own repository, kept separate from more structured types of information like sales figures or corporate reports so as not to dilute its value. That thinking, however, forced employees to go to different Web sites and databases to get the information they needed to do their jobs.

    In contemporary approaches to knowledge sharing, the focus increasingly is on putting in one place all of the content a specific group of workers needs, regardless of its source. To that end, many organizations are using Web portals or intranet sites as one-stop information shops designed to support the jobs or work processes they deem to be most critical.

    Interestingly, the authors are still focused on a separate repository, but the one they envision is bigger than its predecessors. The new corporate portal gathers vetted information regardless of source, but that still leaves out of the equation all the other information and snippets of knowledge that haven’t yet graduated to the portal. This is where enterprise search can be extremely useful in unearthing these undiscovered nuggets of knowledge.

    3. Knowledge Application

    Obtaining and sharing knowledge is beneficial only if employees use it to get better at what they do—that is, they learn from it.

    In the past, most companies treated knowledge and learning as separate entities. These functions were managed by different departments, and the groups didn’t coordinate their activities or work toward the same business objectives.

    That is starting to change. A survey of 20 high-performing businesses conducted in 2006 provided strong evidence that learning and knowledge initiatives increasingly are being intertwined and targeted at mission-critical work forces.

    In law firms, we’ve often relied on the drafting process within a matter to capture and apply knowledge. However, this approach limits the application of knowledge to the matter at hand and the few lawyers involved. It doesn’t provide a means to reach and teach a wider group of lawyers. This is where more focused collaboration between the professional development and knowledge management groups can make a real difference. By collecting the learning across a wide group, reflecting it in model documents and training materials, and then organizing teaching sessions based on these materials, we can give a huge boost to knowledge application.

    The authors take a very pragmatic view of what knowledge managers can and should do. Ensuring that all three elements are present and accounted for in your knowledge management program is a big step forward in achieving meaningful KM gains.

    [Thanks to Mark Gould at Enlightened Tradition and Ron Friedmann at Strategic Legal Technology for pointing out this article.]

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  • Don’t kid yourselves. If you haven’t realized that knowledge management is about leadership, you’re in the wrong business. It takes leadership to analyze and implement system reforms. It takes leadership to achieve behavioral and cultural change. It takes leadership to get all of this done when your colleagues aren’t entirely sure they know what it is you do for a living.

    Leadership is a huge topic in the business press and gets scrutinized regularly. Much of what we read is not terribly deep, although occasionally someone publishes an insight that can help broaden our view. Often we are distracted by the razzle dazzle of celebrity CEOs whose personal flair (and adoring press) tend to obscure the basic fact that at the end of the day the core components of leadership remain remarkably consistent over time. — regardless of personality.

    In “Driving Lessons,” Knowledge @ Wharton interviews Dr. Dieter Zetsche about lessons learned while with Chrysler. In the article he talks about his experiences running and then selling the company. What emerges is a summary of those core components of leadership:

    1. Competence

    In Zetsche’s experience, “if your people sense you are not prepared or don’t have the right stuff to get the job done, you’re in trouble. Even if they don’t like your personality, they will respect your ability.” He then discussed how basic competence is the building block to creating a sense of common purpose that helps colleagues tackle change. “`As a leader, you have to be consistent in implementing the program and making very clear that sitting out is not an option,’ said Zetsche. Good leaders make change and common goals part of the corporate culture. `The key for any leader is to make sure everyone on the team is on the same page and understands where he or she is going….’” For knowledge managers, getting everyone on the same page is a huge challenge. Having a reputation for competence will help win both the support of management and the cooperation of your colleagues. And, this support and cooperation are necessary for most KM initiatives.

    2. Responsibility

    With respect to taking responsibility, Zetsche referred to the famous sign on President Truman’s desk: The Buck Stops Here. For Zetsche, “[t]hat remains a simple and powerful statement about the responsibilities of leadership. As a leader, you simply can’t pass tough decisions up and down the line and neither can the people in the organization.” Finding a business leader who actually walks the walk is a rare thing. It’s far too common to work with people who are happy to claim the credit when things go well, but then point fingers when a problem arises. Given the nature of KM, knowledge managers often end up as de facto risk managers, quality control officers, professional trainers, chief cooks and bottle washers. With this comes huge opportunities and commensurate responsibilities. Perhaps one of the biggest challenges is for knowledge workers to have a clear understanding for which buck stops here. We rarely have the wherewithal to be responsible for the entire firm. Once you and your firm are clear about the scope of your responsibilities, then you know which buck stops with you.

    3. Authenticity

    On the subject of authenticity, Zetsche notes, “`[y]ou have to be the real deal.’ Don’t pretend to be John Wayne if that description doesn’t fit you. `And if you are John Wayne, don’t pretend to be Woody Allen. If you try to be someone you are not, the analysts and the media will see right through it.’” And, perhaps more frequently, your colleagues will see right through it. In the context of knowledge management, this means having clarity about who you are and what you are supposed to be doing. It is very hard to get colleagues to do things they would not otherwise do if they aren’t sure who you and what you stand for. A lack of authenticity leads to a lack of trust. And trust is critical if you are trying to bring about lasting change.

    Leadership and knowledge management are inextricably entwined. While great leaders may be born not made, none of us is incapable of developing competence, responsibility and authenticity. It all starts with a good faith effort in the right direction.

    [Disclosures: (1) The Knowledge@Wharton article may require a password, but registration is free. (2) My firm has had the privilege of working with Chrysler for many years. (3) I'm posting this using the mail to blogger functionality -- let's see what happens...]

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  • Kudos to Jordan Furlong at Law21 for his summary of the document management presentation by Steve Best and Debbie Foster at the ABA Techshow and his thoughtful observations on the depressing state into which lawyers and their document management systems have sunk:

    The speakers emphasized that the only truly effective DM system is one that makes compliance involuntary. Human nature and office culture are both such that staffers will always look for a way to get around the new system of naming, filing and locating documents in order to use their own. This reminded me of what I’ve been hearing more often in knowledge management circles, that the most reliable way to harness lawyers’ knowledge is to automate the process, extracting the information from lawyers without them knowing it or participating in the process: many law firms have not found ways to sufficiently motivate lawyers to freely share what they consider their stock in trade. It makes me wonder about the bad habits we’ve developed in the legal profession regarding the information we use every day, that we’re at the point of needing to circumvent choice and remove human activity to guarantee success. That’s not good.

    Where did we go wrong? To begin with, earlier generations of document management systems set up enormous barriers to entry in the form of over-reaching profile pages. These pages collected information that lawyers didn’t care about or didn’t care to share. Truly useful information (e.g., client matter numbers) was mixed up with much less helpful information (e.g., randomly-selected document types). At bottom, there was a huge disconnect between the source of the information — the lawyer — and the DMS. Unfortunately, there were few incentives or cogent explanations to bridge the gap.

    And then, there are the lawyers. What is it about lawyers that makes us so uncooperative on these issues? First, the pressure of the billable hour pushes us to move as quickly as possible through our work. When you are playing “beat the clock,” who has time to fill out an extensive profile page? Second, we are tightly focused on client demands. This necessarily makes the non-billable needs of firm administration and systems much less compelling. Third, it is the nature of big law firm practice that very few first-year associates will actually stay in their firm long enough to become partners. So what’s the incentive to contribute to the institution and its systems?

    The other problem with lawyers is that we’re only human. And most human beings don’t like to do what they don’t like to do. In fact, some will go to great lengths to launch workaround wars on systems they haven’t specifically endorsed. (To be honest, when was the last time the managers of your DMS sought user feedback much less endorsement?)

    And what are the “bad habits” lawyers have developed regarding the types of information that allows us to marshal and manage lawyer work product efficiently? Lawyers have grown accustomed to noncompliance with impunity. Law firms have not made compliance a priority. If they had, they would have found more successful ways of convincing us that sharing this information is useful not only to the firm at large, but to the individual lawyer as well. And, they would have enforced compliance more effectively. Firms have also allowed lawyers to focus on very short term goals (e.g., meeting the client requests of the day no matter what the cost) at the expense of long term goals (e.g., building a knowledge infrastructure that allows tomorrow’s client requests to be met with much less effort).

    Jordan Furlong’s observation applied to the full range of KM systems leads to a disquieting conclusion: if we are not able to elicit the voluntary participation of lawyers in the creation and sharing of knowledge, then we will be compelled to build KM systems that “circumvent choice and remove human activity to guarantee success.” But that is success at a high price.

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  • Collaboration is all the rage. Proponents of web 2.0 tell us that it’s just the way we work naturally. However, for far too many years corporate culture has often emphasized the benefits of individual achievement and competition over collaborative efforts. This suggests that some folks are going to have to be retrained before they can rediscover their inner collaborator.

    So how do you create and nurture a culture of collaboration? Once again, KM4Dev has found an interesting resource on collaboration: Seth Kahan’s article entitled “5 Guidelines for Creating a Culture of Collaboration.” He proposes the following guidelines:

    1. Build engagement in the workplace. This means creating an environment in which employees feel that they have a stake in the outcomes of the enterprise — that their contribution matters.

    2. Increase trust through emotional intelligence. It’s hard to collaborate with people you don’t know or trust. So this means creating opportunities for people to get to know each other and learn to rely on each other. This also means providing emotional support in difficult times and times of celebration.

    3. Create space for connection. Provide physical places where people can gather informally. An interesting question is whether virtual spaces are as effective as physical spaces for these purposes.

    4. Condone connection time. Let people know that the organization supports their efforts to get to know each other. This, of course, sets up an interesting tension in organizations like law firms which count every minute since they depend on the billable hour for their livelihood.

    5. Favor flexibility. Acknowledge and support diversity, not only in terms of physical attributes, but also in terms of work styles. Having this variety makes the organization more adaptable and less rigid.

    In his book, The Culture of Collaboration, Evan Rosen notes that collaboration thrives best in organizations that promote informal, non hierarchical relationships within a culture that encourages innovation. He has identified 10 cultural elements of collaboration:

    - Trust
    - Sharing — as opposed to hoarding
    - Goals — everyone pursues the same group goals
    - Innovation — the culture emphasizes the value of innovation
    - Environment — the physical and virtual environment facilitates collaboration
    - Collaborative Chaos — permitting the unstructured exchange of ideas
    - Constructive Confrontation — learning to disagree about and discuss concepts and issues
    - Communication
    - Community
    - Value — the point of collaboration is to create value for the enterprise

    In thinking further about creating a culture of collaboration, Rosen notes that a critical element is ensuring that everyone has access to and ease with collaborative tools. In his post
    Too Old to Collaborate? he debunks the notion that younger generations are naturally more collaborative than older ones. In his work he has found that the thing that often divides the generations is the ease with which they pick up and use collaborative tools such as IM, web conferencing and video conferencing. But merely providing the tools is not enough to create collaboration. You also have to provide the training so that everyone can use the tools comfortably.

    So is collaboration our natural mode of work? Possibly — if we work within organizations that make it a priority to create and maintain a culture of collaboration.

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  • The best search engine in the world cannot convert garbage into useful content.

    So, before you spend megabucks on the latest cool search tool, think about what repository you’re searching. If your office is anything like most offices, you’ve got tons of ephemera — stuff that probably isn’t going to matter 30 minutes from now — and tons of materials that really ought not to see the light of day. However, a decent search engine has the effect of shining a klieg light on the shortcomings of your content.

    In fairness, a great search engine can help filter out much of the suboptimal content, but if there isn’t anything worth finding, what have you really achieved?

    One solution is to stack the deck: make sure you put a goodly amount of useful content into your repository before you turn the search engine on. And what constitutes “useful content”? Not just something that someone might possibly need someday. (That’s the sort of rationale the turns a document repository into a cluttered and confusing packrat hell.) “Useful content” is content that is vetted: someone has reviewed it and given it a seal of approval or it’s been used with good results enough times for you to know it’s a great resource.

    With that kind of content, you’re going to look like a genius every time the search engine does its thing. How often can you say that about a KM project?

    For more information on the benefits of vetted content, see my article “Loading the Deck” in ILTA’s 2007 Knowledge Management White Paper.

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  • In my last post I discussed Hardwiring KM Into Your Client Work as a way of improving your chances of actually capturing knowledge and making it available for reuse. The focus there was on specifically planning to capture knowledge and then organizing your project around that goal.

    But how do you actually capture that knowledge? The good folks at HP have some suggestions in their presentation regarding using project management to advance knowledge management goals:

    - Identify “checkpoints” or “milestones” within each project at which you can stop and take stock.
    - At each of these points, ask “What lessons did we learn?” And, “How have we documented this?” And, above all, “Is this information in a centrally accessible system where it can benefit the firm and our clients?”
    Within a law firm, these checkpoints or milestones arise naturally: when we win a client engagement, when our clients sign a deal, when a deal closes, etc. The key is to remember to pause momentarily at those points and take stock of the knowledge generated or improved up to that point in the project. And then, to make sure that the new or improved knowledge has been documented and contributed to the KM system where it can be of use on other client matters. By baking this step into our deal timetables and responsibility lists, we increase the chances of actually doing it. In addition, we need to hold the partner and senior associate on every matter responsible for this and then ensure they are judged and rewarded based on the contributions of their team to the firm’s learning. It’s their leadership that encourages team members to take the time to identify and contribute content. It’s their leadership that brings about the necessary cultural change — one project at a time.

    The key is to make knowledge capture and reuse an integral part of the work flow of every client engagement. You’ll know you’ve accomplished something when it is no longer viewed as an alien, artificial activity, but rather as a perfectly normal and rational thing to do. That’s a KM success.

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  • If you want good knowledge management results, you have to find a way to bridge the divide in your colleagues’ minds between getting their job done and doing KM. If they have a choice between racing to meet client needs and stopping to select and contribute content for the KM system, they will choose their clients every single time. And they should.

    So where does that leave your empty KM system? The knowledge management team at HP has a very simple answer to this problem: make contributing content to the KM system an integral part of every client engagement. It should be managed along with everything else required for that client engagement. Managed, measured and rewarded.
    - If KM deliverables are part of project Scope, they are managed along with everything else required for the project.
    - Planning for KM increases the probability that Time is allocated for KM and actions will be carried out. (The project team works more efficiently by reusing knowledge generated by others; knowledge generated by the project team is then captured in a timely fashion and made available immediately for use by others.)
    - The benefits from knowledge reuse and the efforts for capture are part of the Cost equation and our customers benefit from the overall savings.
    - Managing the information about capture assets as part of project Communication ensures timely access to assets.
    He also notes the following benefits from this approach:
    - Reusing knowledge can greatly reduce the time and effort required to meet client needs.
    - Reusing knowledge can help reduce risk.
    - The time saved through reuse can be put towards improving quality.
    Doing this hardwiring is not easy. It requires significant leadership and follow through. And this must be applied consistently to every client engagement. However, by organizing around this goal and using tools like project management you can significantly increase the likelihood of success. Knowledge Capture and Reuse is one of the basic building blocks of any KM system and also one of the biggest KM challenges. Hardwiring it into your client service workflow is a great way to meet that challenge.
    (My thanks to Stan Garfield’s Weekly Knowledge Management Blog for pointing out Marcus Funke’s presentation.)
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  • My last post rather morbidly focused on using KM Autopsies as a useful way of figuring out what went wrong with knowledge management projects. Sometimes, however, it’s much more effective to ask “What went right?”

    This apparently contrarian advice is rooted in the field of Appreciative Inquiry, which starts from the perspective that it’s ultimately more productive to identify and build on your strengths than to constantly battle your weaknesses. This approach may not sit well with our Puritan forebears, but it can provide valuable insights as we think through new projects and old challenges. By contrast, the Puritans would more likely have championed a problem-solving approach in which you identify a problem, analyze its causes, and then work to ruthlessly stamp them out.

    The focus of Appreciative Inquiry is to figure out what we’ve done well in the past and then determine how to do more of it in the future — building from strength to strength. Because the plan for proposed action is grounded in what was successful before, the people involved in executing the plan start with the advantage of working from a position of demonstrated success.

    So going back to that knowledge management project we want to evaluate, how would it look through the lens of Appreciative Inquiry? First, we’d need to identify what actually worked — where that project actually succeeded. And then, identify what steps we took or what circumstances were in place to make that success possible. Next, imagine what more could be done and focus on how to repeat those steps or circumstances in order to facilitate another, bigger success. Then, just do it.

    The key is that we are simply doing something we’ve done well before, with every expectation of success. That’s very different than taking a chance on implementing untried methods in order to address a perceived problem. However, Appreciative Inquiry is not about sticking to the status quo or mindlessly repeating prior actions. One of Appreciative Inquiry’s key strengths is that the confidence people experience from their demonstrated success gives them the creative energy to think productively about how to expand on that success. This constant raising of the bar allows incremental improvement without causing paralysis from fear of failure.

    We’ve had years of training to think critically about our work and the work of others. We can spot a problem a mile away. It’s much harder to think as carefully about what went right. It wasn’t all just luck or good timing. Once you’ve identified the key ingredients of your past success, you’re in a much better position to deploy those elements to create a new success. And isn’t that a lot more satisfying than focusing on failure?

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