Pragmatic Knowledge Management

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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