The Challenges of Fragmented Knowledge

In Dave Snowden’s view, “everything is fragmented.” And, he thinks this is a good thing. But it has some challenging implications for knowledge management generally and law firm knowledge management specifically.

Dave sets out his concept of fragmented knowledge in the May 2008 KM World Magazine in which he points to “the shift during the life span of knowledge management from the `chunked’ material of case studies and best-practice documents to the unstructured, fragmented and finely granular material that pervades the blogosphere.” He posits that the effort to structure, summarize, and corporatize information has in fact rooted the knowledge so deeply in specific circumstances that it limits the user’s ability to apply that material to other contexts as things change.
So what are the advantages of the fragmented approach to knowledge? First, Dave suggests that most people would rather seek the advice of several trusted colleagues than hunt through the company KM system for an applicable best practices document. In other words, by embracing fragmented knowledge we are working with rather than against natural tendencies. Second, he reports that his work in homeland security has demonstrated that “raw field intelligence has more utility over longer periods of time than intelligence reports written at a a specific time and place.” In fact, unfiltered narrative accounts tend to pick up more “weak signals (those things that after the event you wished you had paid attention to) than analytical structured thinking.”
If Dave is right that people naturally tend to seek fragmented knowledge, what does that mean for traditional knowledge management? First, we have been focusing on the wrong things. We’ve been trying to heighten control over knowledge and remove ambiguity in world in which the exchange of knowledge is increasingly uncontrolled and ambiguous. Further, we’ve been engaged in a fool’s errand: trying to anticipate all needs and then reflecting the applicable guidance in our KM content (which is a nearly impossible goal), rather than creating in our users “an attitude and capability of anticipatory awareness.”
In the world of fragmented knowledge, the individual must gather at the point of need knowledge fragments from a variety of informal sources (e.g., colleagues, blogs, wikis, etc.) and then blend that information on the fly to reach conclusions and take action. In the context of a law firm, this means that we have to rely on the ability of each lawyer to gather and analyze appropriately information from a wide variety of known and unknown sources, and then make the right decision for the client. They have to reinvent the wheel each time. From a risk management perspective, this is a little terrifying. From an efficiency perspective, it doesn’t make a lot of sense either. The beauty of best practices has been that they are a reflection of the collective wisdom of the firm and they point lawyers to action that is more likely than not to avoid harm for the client and the firm. Delegating this to individuals of varying levels of experience and judgment radically changes the risk exposure for the client and the firm.
If Dave is right that the world is increasingly one of fragmented knowledge, law firm knowledge managers are going to have to rethink the way they achieve their goals of improved client service and risk management.

Collaborating for Fun or Work or Both?

In his post, The Muddle in the Collaboration Middle, Tom Davenport sets out what he views as the two viable uses for collaboration and collaborative technologies in the workplace:

* Fun — collaboration for purely social purposes

* Work — collaboration for narrowly-defined business purposes

He goes on to say that businesses fail when they try to use social media for any purposes that lie somewhere in the “muddled middle” between work and fun. He continues,

Where organizations get in trouble is when they venture into the muddled middle between these two options. They throw out some collaborative tools—either new-style social media like wikis and social networks, or old-style tools like Notes or Sharepoint or ERoom—and say, “go forth and be collaborative.” They don’t insist on a collaborative objective or business benefit, but they still somehow expect business value. They seem to assume that just because a technology is available, it will lead to collaboration, and that the collaboration will yield an ROI. I’ve seen countless instances where this hasn’t worked, and very few where it has.

While I’d be the last person to argue against his warning about relying solely on tools without sufficient thought for the business objectives, there may be a nuance here that we ought to consider: using social media for fun at work may be a critical precondition to using these tools successfully for just work. In my post on Creating a Culture of Collaboration, some of the necessary prerequisites of a truly collaborative culture listed there are: building trust, and creating space and time for informal connections among colleagues. These are exactly the sorts of things that social media can help with. It may be that through the implementation of the right tools, an organization can focus and strengthen its bent towards collaboration by making collaboration easier. Once that culture of collaboration is deeply rooted within an organization, collaboration for strictly business purposes will be a natural outgrowth of the existing social interactions.

So have we been unfair in our expectations of social media? If we put the work cart before the fun/social network horse, should we be surprised when there is disappointing user adoption? Perhaps it’s time that we reordered things: first build the trust and social networks, then recruit those networks to engage in specific business projects. That’s when we’ll see the true power of collaborating for fun AND work together.


Twitter and the Dinosaur

On the days when I feel like a total technology dinosaur, I’ve found myself completely mystified by Twitter. I’ve heard people raving about it, but have always been left with the same three questions:

1. Who has the time to send updates?
2. Who has the time to read them?
3. Who (other than a mother) actually cares about the minutiae of another person’s life?

Today, even this dinosaur began to comprehend the potential power of Twitter when I read the story of James Karl Buck who used Twitter to let his network know that he had been arrested in Egypt. Here’s an excerpt from the summary from CNN:

On his way to the police station, Buck took out his cell phone and sent a message to his friends and contacts using the micro-blogging site Twitter.

The message only had one word. “Arrested.”

Within seconds, colleagues in the United States and his blogger-friends in Egypt — the same ones who had taught him the tool only a week earlier — were alerted that he was being held.

Buck’s network then acted to spread news of his circumstances and help win his release. It’s a great story that depended on one piece of good luck — the police let Buck keep his cellphone.

So, while I mostly still don’t want to know that you’re about to go to a movie or have just had lunch, news of your arrest probably would rouse this dinosaur. Maybe it’s time for me to take another look at Twitter…

PS: Look out for the inevitable blogpile on this story. It will be hard to avoid.


Best Practice vs Next Practice

Mark Gould’s comment on my previous post (Not Quite) Best Practices pointed me to Derek Wenmoth’s blog post on Best Practice vs Next Practice. Derek makes the interesting observation that while best practice is a snapshot of what we know has worked well in the past, next practice is an attempt to take that prior experience and improve upon it rather than merely replicate it. This notion of next practice fits nicely with the Appreciative Inquiry approach to change. Here’s the money quote from Derek:

Best Practice asks “What is working?”, while Next Practice asks “What could work – more powerfully?”

Best practice has often functioned as a type of insurance policy: if you’ve followed best practices, who can criticize? However, the focus on next practice moves us out of the insurance policy nature of best practice into imagination and innovation. Very dangerous. And yet, so necessary.

Mark says that he might blog on this concept of next practice. I’m looking forward to reading his observations. In the meantime, thank you Mark and Derek for giving us a more nuanced way of thinking about best practices.


(Not Quite) Best Practices

When are “Best Practices” Not Best Practices? That’s the question addressed in a recent Harvard Business blog post by Scott Anthony. In this post he makes the valid point that there are very few best practices that work 100% of the time. In his view, the efficacy of best practices is situational:

For just about any business challenge, there really is no such thing as absolute best practices. Best practices are very dependent on the specific challenge, context, and capabilities of the company.

Before blindly copying a competitor’s best practice, or assuming a historic best practice will continue to provide positive results, ask three questions:

• Are market circumstances similar?
• Are corporate contexts similar?
• Is the practice “modular,” with few interactions with other corporate systems?

If the answers to these questions are yes, then mimicking best practice can succeed. If the answer to any of these questions are no, think twice. Following so-called best practice might lead to disappointing results.

In the context of law firm knowledge management, there may be some additional issues we have to face. Best practices within a law firm can cover content (e.g., model documents) and process (e.g., electronic discovery procedures). But arriving at best practices regarding content requires a different kind of effort than that required for a recommended process.

With respect to process-related best practices, gathering and analyzing a large cross-section of firm experience should reveal what behavior is more likely than not to lead to success (or avoid disaster). In this case, the task is primarily to identify and describe those preferred behaviors in writing, and then train colleagues to follow them.

When it comes to content-related best practices, however, success depends largely on the ability of the lawyer to comprehend a business proposal and capture it in the form of a legally-enforceable agreement. A best practices guide can help the lawyer with the analytical and mechanical process of preparing that agreement, but it generally cannot dictate the final words. Those words are almost entirely dependent on the details of the specific business deal. So the challenge of content-focused best practices is to reduce the number of moving parts, to limit the areas in which the lawyer must exercise drafting discretion. In practice this means ensuring you have bullet-proof boilerplate language, augmented by a large annotated clause library on which the lawyer can draw in lieu of drafting from scratch.

But here’s an additional wrinkle: once you know the right way to do electronic discovery or a due diligence review, for example, that guidance holds until there is a major change in technology or the allocation of risks. By contrast, best practices with respect to content are in a constant state of flux. Market conditions change and have an immediate impact on content. Equally pressing are refinements arising from changes in case law and legislation. In this context, creating and maintaining content-related best practices requires constant vigilance and consistent follow through. And now we’re talking real money.

In an earlier discussion among large law firm KM managers, we bemoaned the paucity of written best practices in most firms. Given the costs and complications of creating and maintaining content-related best practices, perhaps this lack is completely understandable.


Building a Collaborative Workplace

Shawn Callahan, Mark Schenk and Nancy White have just published an Anecdote Whitepaper entitled Building a Collaborative Workplace. They summarize their whitepaper as follows:

This paper has three parts. We start by briefly exploring what we mean by collaboration and why organisations and individuals should build their collaboration capability. Then, based on that understanding, we lay out a series of steps for developing a collaboration capability. We finish the paper with a simple test of your current collaboration capability.

The authors are very clear about the role of technology in collaboration. And given my past comments on technology in the context of collaboration and knowledge sharing, I’m delighted to be able to quote these kindred spirits:

Of course technology plays an important role in effective collaboration. We are not anti-technology. Rather we want to help redress the balance and shift the emphasis from merely thinking about collaboration technology to thinking about collaboration skills, practices, technology and supporting culture. Technology makes things possible; people collaborating makes it happen.


When Change Seems Impossible

Marshall Goldsmith, the noted consultant and leadership coach, gets right to the point in his Harvard Business blog post When People Don’t Want to Change:

Your job is to help people achieve positive, lasting change in behavior. How do you deal with people who have no desire to change?

I don’t!

Have you ever tried to change the behavior of an adult who had absolutely no interest in changing? How much luck did you have with your attempts at this ‘religious conversion’?
Have you ever tried to change the behavior of a spouse, partner or parent who had no interest in changing? How did that work out for you?

My guess is that you have tried and have been consistently unsuccessful. You may have even alienated the person you were trying to enlighten.

If they do not care, do not waste your time.

Research on coaching is clear and consistent. Coaching is most successful when applied to people with potential who want to improve — not when applied to people who have no interest in changing. This is true whether you are acting as a professional coach, a manager, a family member, or a friend.

Does the same apply to a law firm?

In terms of making macro changes, absolutely. We’ve seen it vividly in the world of law firm knowledge management. The firm may say that it wants a world class KM system, but if management doesn’t get behind that goal and support it through moral suasion and concrete rewards, that firm will have a hard time achieving its KM goal.

However, that’s not the end of the story because even when the opportunity for macro change is forestalled, there may be an opportunity for useful micro change. And this is where we see the difference between trying to change an individual and trying to change an organization.

Working with an organization offers a few advantages over coaching an individual. The most significant of these advantages is that an organization is a “system” with multiple points of entry and multiple points of control. Therefore, it is possible to find one of these points of control and making small-scale changes. As I’ve noted earlier, these incremental changes can add up over time. So, while it may not be possible to transform your law firm overnight from a knowledge management wasteland to a knowledge management paradise, you can take several key steps to move in the right direction:

* aligning the evaluation and compensation system to reward active knowledge sharing,
* integrating and leveraging existing silos of knowledge,
* identifying and recruiting content creators and thought leaders,
* implementing tech tools that facilitate active and passive knowledge sharing, etc.

This approach requires patience, but does produce results if done systematically.

The author Tobias Wolfe made a similar observation in an interview he gave National Public Radio this morning, when he said that we should not disdain the value of making a one-degree course correction in our lives. He pointed to Ernest Shackleton, saying that if he and his crew had missed their course by even one degree, they would not have made it to Elephant Island and South Georgia Island and would not have survived. In Wolfe’s view, we should seek every opportunity to make a one-degree course correction in our lives, because it can yield life-changing results for comparatively little effort.


Knowledge Sharing Toolkit

The ICT-KM program of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research has created a Knowledge Sharing Toolkit that provides guidance and resources for organizations interested in developing knowledge sharing among their employees and constituents. Nancy White at Full Circle Associates asks that readers take a look at the Toolkit and send in their feedback. They are particularly interested in feedback from nonprofits, nongovernmental organizations and international development organizations. But even if you work outside those areas, it would be well worth your time to consider the materials provided by the Toolkit. You’re sure to find information on tools and methods you haven’t yet tried in your organization.


KM Library: Tools, Techniques and Case Studies

Hat tip to Caroline de Brún at Talking Knowledge Management who found this UK government site sponsored by the Improvement and Development Agency (I&DEA), KM Library: tools, techniques and case studies. It provides overviews on a wide range of KM tools including:

– After Action Review
– Case Study
– Communities of Practice
– Gone Well, Not Gone Well
– Knowledge Cafe
– Knowledge Exchange
– Knowledge Marketplace
– Peer Assist
– Rapid Evidence Review
– Retrospective Review

According to I&DEA, these “knowledge management tools and techniques are designed for use in everyday work to improve the way we find, use, create, manage and share knowledge.” As with some of the other KM resources I’ve mentioned before (e.g., Dare to Share’s Knowledge Management Toolkit), I pass this along with the suggestion that you take a look to see if you find a tool or technique you haven’t tried before that might be appropriate for a KM problem or opportunity you are facing.


Staffing is a KM Issue

We’ve been told for years that half of the battle of management (of any sort) is to ensure that you hire the right people for the right jobs. When you do, there’s no need to supervise them obsessively or breathe down their necks. This is because they generally know what needs to be done and, more importantly, want to do what needs to be done. So your objectives and theirs are perfectly aligned.

Now we have a stunning example of what happens when a particular job is perfectly matched to the skills and temperament of an employee. The case in point has to do with software testing — a task that few creative genius code writers like to do. As a result, we’re told that far too much software gets implemented before the bugs are found and fixed. This results in unnecessary cost and unnecessary end-user abuse.

The Harvard Business School’s Working Knowledge has published a summary of a fascinating case study, entitled “A Surprising Right Fit for Software Testing,” focusing on an innovative Danish company, Specialisterne. This company carries out software testing on behalf of other organizations that have written the code and need to be sure it is ready to implement. The company undertakes testing that its clients cannot do simply or inexpensively using available automated testing methods. Specialisterne’s strength is that unlike most IT organizations, its employees have a special gift that allows them to excel at testing: 75% of its employees have Asperger’s syndrome or autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Software testing involves tasks code writers might describe as repetitive or tedious. Their prejudice aside, these tasks in fact require “high intelligence, precision-oriented skills, deep concentration, and patience” all of which sometimes accompany Asperger’s or ASD.

The study, Specialisterne: Sense & Details, is a wonderful example of how careful hiring and staffing can have an enormously positive impact on the quality of the work done. Specialisterne’s testing is more thorough than that undertaken half-heartedly by code writers or other software specialists who would rather be doing anything other than testing. Moreover, through careful hiring and staffing, Specialisterne is able to deploy people who have a predisposition to enjoy the work they do.

So why is this a KM issue? To be fair, it’s an issue for every discipline. However, knowledge management seems particularly prone to failure in this regard given the wide range of KM job descriptions, and the fact that KM jobs often shapeshift mid course. Further, very few KM jobs involve conveyor-belt type tasks. Often they require deep substantive knowledge, flexibility, a willingness to operate in ambiguity, the ability to absorb, process and connect seemingly unconnected information, the gift of establishing order from chaos, and superior interpersonal skills. And if you hire someone who doesn’t have the right skills and temperament, they either don’t last or they stay and compromise your knowledge management systems by their deficiencies.

Drawing on the experience of Specialisterne, I wonder what type of person makes the best knowledge manager?