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.