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.
  • Yesterday a colleague asked me to help him locate a particular sort of precedent that was not all that common. When I asked him about his time frame, his reply was “the usual.” (Based on prior experience, I knew that the best translation for that was “yesterday.”) After quickly reorganizing my schedule, I turned to his request only to discover that what he needed wasn’t easy to find. Consequently, I had to hunt for some reasonably similar agreements that could provide sufficient drafting guidance to help him create the required document efficiently. After some focused effort, I was able to send him a few options in relatively short order.

    Today I received the following e-mail from him: “This was really incredibly helpful! Thanks again for the quick turn around.”

    With those two brief sentences, he made a huge positive impact on my day.

    So much of what we do in law firm knowledge management seems buried in the infrastructure. As long as the knowledge management system works, people often forget to thank us. Add to that the fact that the lawyer population is great at issue-spotting and quite confident in its ability to do your job better than you do, and you have a situation in which it can at times be a little disheartening to be a knowledge manager. Given this context, my colleague’s expression of thanks was doubly appreciated.

    This is a small slice of my life, but others have had similar experiences. Seth Godin writes in his blog about the potential power of “honest recognition” for work well done as opposed to “mumbled thanks.” Even mighty Microsoft has a guide to gratitude entitled The Power of Saying Thank You. Add to that the following snippets from a Fortune article, “Why saying `Thank you’ is more than just good manners, reporting on a study of 200,000 managers and employees over a 10-year period that found that:

    People will work harder and more enthusiastically for an appreciative boss, and companies that praise topnotch performance are more profitable than those that don’t.

    And

    It seems saying “thank you” is even more important in retaining people than paying them more money – and a pat on the back is free.

    At the end of the day, remembering to say thank you helps make your organization a much more rewarding place in which to work. And, given the number of hours we spend at the office, who wouldn’t support that?

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  • Collaboration is the business buzzword* du jour. As with any other fad, it’s tempting for business leaders to say that everything they do is collaboration. Resist this temptation.

    As aptly pointed out in a recent Economist Intelligence Unit report and discussed in this Wikinomics post, if we define collaboration so broadly as to cover virtually everything we do, it loses meaning. With that loss of meaning comes the inability to actually identify and measure the effects of collaboration within your organization. Above all, if you define collaboration to mean anything and everything, it becomes such an unwieldy tool that you can no longer use it with laser-like precision to actually improve processes and outcomes within your organization.
    True collaboration is more than just doing something with someone else, more than just cooperating. Several have tried their hand at explaining the difference between collaboration and cooperation. Here are some samples of their conclusions:
    - From CSCL: collaboration is a mutual engagement in coordinated effort, while cooperation is a division of labor where each person has responsibility for a different portion of the work.
    - From the AASL Collaboration Brochure (1996): see a great chart showing the differences among cooperation, coordination and collaboration.
    - From Dave Pollard’s blog How to Save the World: another great chart explaining cooperation, coordination and collaboration.
    Business processes and outcomes are affected differently by the level of cooperation, coordination or collaboration applied to them. Savvy business leaders will use each of these tools separately, understanding what each can deliver and then applying them strategically. That’s how you avoid becoming a business “fashion victim” and become known as a effective leader. It’s your choice.
    *For an amusing set of definitions of current business buzzwords, see Slacker Manager.
    [Thanks to John Tropea (at Library Clips) for pointing out this Wikinomics post via his always interesting tags.]
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  • Change is Good … You Go First.

    That’s a great line — worthy of a great philosopher* (e.g., Dilbert or Garfield or Calvin & Hobbes). And it speaks to a fundamental of human nature. While we objectively may understand that a proposed change will be beneficial, we intuitively resist change. Whether it’s because it takes a lot of effort to overcome inertia or because we are inherently conservative, we resist change.

    In my last post, Generation Y versus Big Law, I talked about some of the changes that we are told new Gen Y employees will force on their employers. There was even an example of an employer that seemed to be eagerly accommodating the changes required by Gen Y. However, on further reflection, I wondered whether this employer was a harbinger of things to come or simply atypical.

    In the context of law firm knowledge management, I discussed the knowledge managers’ hope that Gen Y lawyers would prevail in their demands for state of the art technology at work since that was what they were used to in the rest of their lives. As a cautionary note, I pointed to the success (or lack thereof) in implementing meaningful work-life balance policies in law firms. While I acknowledge that this was a little like comparing apples and oranges, since the issues that motivate technology adoption are not entirely identical with those that motivate the adoption of health and welfare policies within a firm, I do believe it is a cautionary tale. Both work-life balance and web 2.0 technologies represent radical departures from the current way of doing things. They require change — and humans resist change. Law firms tend to be even more conservative than individuals. The question they usually ask when confronted with change is, “what are our peer firms doing?” How quickly do you think those firms will embrace Gen Y change? Ask the human beings that work there.

    * If you do happen to know the source of the line “Change is Good…You Go First,” please do let me know. It’s too good a line to be consigned to oblivion.

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  • I can’t wait until Generation Y lawyers start flooding through the doors of big law firms. We’re told that just about everything about Gen Y runs counter to the work ethic and environment of these firms. So a showdown is inevitable. It will be very interesting to see which force prevails.

    Gen Y is often defined as that group between the ages of 11 and 25. These “millennials” have a very particular view of life, according to a recent article in The Observer, “They don’t live for work…they work to live“:

    Here is a group that has never known, or even witnessed, hardship, recession or mass unemployment and does not fear redundancy or repossession, according to researchers. The result is a generation that believes it can have it all and is not embarrassed to ask for it; a generation that will constitute the majority of the workforce within a decade.

    This article goes on to report that prospective employers have decided to bite the bullet and start catering to these employees. For example,

    Procter and Gamble has already adapted its recruitment efforts and what it offers to meet the needs of Generation Y. Instead of just stressing higher salaries, this international company is highlighting the opportunity for flexible hours, the chance to work from home, the offer of up to a year of ‘family leave’ to look after children or elderly parents, and the promise of regular three-month sabbaticals. Similar packages are being offered by companies across Britain.

    Does this sound like many law firms you know?

    A few of us are lucky enough to work for rather progressive law firms. However, the majority of law firms can’t even begin to think about offering packages like that offered by Procter and Gamble. In fact, noted law firm commentator Bruce MacEwen at Adam Smith, Esq. has come to the conclusion that work-life balance in law firms may be nothing more than “a dream for another decade.” In his discussion of the report commissioned by Eversheds, “The Law Firm of the 21st Century,” we learn that big law firms may be quite resistant to the type of change invited by Gen Y. (This report reflects the views of partners at top firms, as well as general counsel and senior executives at major companies and investment banks.)

    Here’s Bruce MacEwen’s summary of what the report said about work-life balance:

    56% of clients and 45% of partners believe more flexible hours are not a realistic solution. More specifically, while 51% of clients believe firms ought to be able to offer a “credible” balance alongside excellent client service (and did not see their demands as part of the problem), 48% of partners thought that work-life balance and top-notch client service are “a contradiction in terms.”

    And here is Bruce MacEwen’s stark conclusion: “Permit me, however, to editorialize for a moment on `work/life balance.’ I don’t believe you can have it at a top-notch firm.”

    On the law firm knowledge management front, we’ve been telling ourselves for months now that once those Gen Y lawyers walk through the door, law firms will have to fulfill our KM technology requests because, after all, these young lawyers will demand it. These kids eat and sleep technology and they simply won’t stand to be thwarted at work.

    So the battle lines are drawn with respect to work-life balance in law firms. What about the early adoption of new technology? Will we have another generational battle there. And, if so, who will prevail? For law firm knowledge managers banking on the new Gen Y lawyers, you might want to stop and think about the work-life balance at your firm.

    [Thanks to Headshift for pointing out The Observer Article.]

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  • Lately I’ve been thinking about whether law firms value knowledge management and how to measure knowledge management ROI. The underlying concern is that law firms don’t know how to measure and value knowledge management activities. (If you ask most law firm knowledge managers if their firms are doing a good job valuing KM, I suspect you’d receive only negative answers.) And, allied with this is the concern that knowledge managers don’t know how to assist this effort in a meaningful way. We often just throw up our hands and say that it is impossible to measure the ROI on knowledge management. Or, we bury law firm management in an avalanche of useless statistics regarding our activity rather than demonstrating true productivity. And then, we slink back to our corners and feel sorry for our undervalued selves.

    Stepping back from that a little, I wondered whether there was a way to separate some basic human tendencies from the economics of law firm life. For example, is it a basic human tendency for all but the most arrogant of us to feel as if we are not properly valued for all the wonderful contributions we make to our organizations (and the world, the universe, etc.)? After all, how many of us actually ever have our egos stroked sufficiently??? If so, how does this color our assessment of our KM contributions? From the perspective of the organization, does the firm even know what it is spending on knowledge management? Does it know what it ought to expect for that investment? And, does the firm know how the lawyers value the results of that investment?

    All of this came into sharp focus when I read a report of a recent airline initiative to charge $15 for the first checked suitcase and $25 for the second. Suddenly, the cost/value of having extra clothing and gear options on a trip became very stark. What if we were to charge $150 (or some other amount appropriate for the purposes of this exercise) for the first use by a lawyer of the KM system and $250 (or some other amount) for each subsequent use? Assuming we priced this correctly, and made these personal charges rather than client billable charges, would we then see what value lawyers placed on the KM system?

    As long as KM systems are free to users, will those systems always be taken for granted, undervalued, and criticized? Conversely, if these systems are expensive to the user, will we have a better way of judging their true value in the firm’s internal market? Now let’s slink off into our corners and ponder those questions rather than feel sorry for our currently undervalued selves.

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  • Is the key to an effective knowledge management system a “non-optional mindset”? This is an attitude that says that a certain activity (e.g., contributing content or collaborating) is a necessity and must be done. It cannot be avoided, evaded, delayed or ignored.  Therefore, it takes precedence over all optional activities.

    In his provocative post, How to Create a Non-Optional Mindset, Craig Harper discusses why most people would never think about skipping their daily shower, but will think about skipping a daily workout. For him, it is simply because these folks have decided for themselves that showering is an absolute necessity, but that a workout is optional. And they come to this decision despite all the research and advice that clearly demonstrate that regular exercise is critical for good health!

    Turning back to knowledge management, there is lots of evidence about the usefulness of knowledge management activities such as creating, contributing or capturing content; organizing and distributing content; facilitating collaboration, etc. In fact, some have argued that success in these activities is critical to the ongoing health of most organizations. Yet, KM often is treated like daily exercise — an optional activity.

    One way to change this approach is to work on an individual basis to convert each lawyer in a law firm to the personal belief that their participation in law firm knowledge management is non-optional. But this is an undertaking that requires years of effort and, given the rate of attrition from most big law firms, may ultimately be doomed to failure. Another approach is to have management mandate that participation in KM is non-optional. But, as long as there is non-optional client billable work to do, will management ever make KM non-optional? An intermediate approach is to find cohesive, disciplined practice groups within your firm and have them make a commitment to mandatory knowledge management.

    Is there a better way to achieve an non-optional mindset with respect to knowledge management? While you’re thinking about that, I’m going to the gym.

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  • Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. This is the “Golden Rule” and it may be a key to collaboration.

    If the basic sense of fairness underlying the Golden Rule set the terms of collaboration within an organization, it might in fact be possible for otherwise competitive co-workers to begin to collaborate. Adherence to the Golden Rule allows participants to work together and to share their insights knowing that they will have access to the best work of colleagues and will receive fair credit for their own contributions. This is a first step for people who are not yet convinced of the benefits of collaboration and are fearful of the potential loss of competitive advantage as a result of collaboration.  

    For those who have moved beyond the simplistic belief that merely providing web 2.0 tools will create a collaborative culture, there has been a further challenge to identify the necessary preconditions for a collaborative culture. In my earlier post on Creating a Culture of Collaboration, one critical precondition mentioned was trust. More recently, in his interesting post, Reflections on the Nature of Collaboration, Shiv Singh talks about how essential trust is to collaboration.  That trust is built on a foundation created from evidence within an organization that a participant will be treated fairly.

    However, achieving an adequate level of trust is easier said than done. Developing trust is incredibly difficult in an organization that fosters constant competition amongst its employees. Trust also is hard to sustain in an organization that isn’t scrupulous about insisting that true teamwork be honored and that the contributions of individual members of a team be recognized. And trust may well be impossible in organizations where the guy tooting his own horn loudly drowns out less pushy colleagues. At the end of the day, most people need to know that to the extent they make useful contributions, those efforts will be noticed and rewarded.

    Yet, in the absence of complete trust, it may still be possible to begin an effective collaboration provided there is a basic agreement on the part of the organization and its employees that fairness matters. This is where the Golden Rule or the Ethic of Reciprocity comes into play. Even if you aren’t entirely comfortable with the notion of collaboration, and you don’t completely trust your colleagues to do the right thing when left to their own devices, management support for the Golden Rule should go a long way towards creating an environment within which collaboration is less risky and, therefore, possible.  

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  • We’ve achieved unprecedented levels of unverifiable productivity! That’s the punch line from a fabulous Dilbert cartoon I saw last year. And, it sums up so much of what passes for measuring the Return on Investment (ROI) of knowledge management. All too often knowledge managers report on their level of activity because that is concrete, but have a much harder time determining the true impact on their organizations of their KM activities.

    In the context of law firms, the ROI of KM conundrum becomes even more vexing. When value to the organization often is summed up by the amount of billables realized, it isn’t always clear how a particular how-to guide or model document made a financial difference to the firm. Sure, having that KM content probably allowed a lawyer to work more efficiently (reducing billables, which may not be seen as a good thing), thereby permitting that lawyer to provide service to more clients (expanding the client base) or get home earlier (improved work-life balance) and maintain better morale (increased retention levels and decreased recruitment costs). But exactly how do you reduce this to dollars and cents?
    Given this perennial problem, it’s worth taking a look at the commonsense advice contained in the European Guide to Good Practice in Knowledge Management — Part 4: Guidelines for Measuring KM. This guide proposes the following starting points:
    1. define your goals — the clearer the goal of a KM initiative, the more obvious the measures
    2. identify the stakeholders for your measures — each stakeholder defines KM success differently
    3. define the measures — they need to be valid and reliable, and must yield actionable information
    4. decide what data will be collected and how it will be collected
    5. analyze and communicate the measures — communicate your findings in a way that helps the reader understand the value of the KM initiative — don’t just present raw data
    6. review your combination of measures — finding the right measures comes through a process of trial and error, so you need to monitor and evaluate your measures regularly — adjusting them as your goals develop.
    7. “measuring for the sake of measuring is a waste of time” — measure for a specific purpose
    8. be sure that useful action will result from the measures
    9. don’t measure everything — focus on what’s important
    10. to the extent possible and productive, use measurement systems that are already in use within your organization — presumably, these measures exist because they relate to something important for the organization, and this piggybacking allows you to integrate your results within organizational reports.
    [Thanks to the UK National Library for Health for pointing me to this guide.]
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  • The Bureau for Crisis Prevention and Recovery (BCPR) of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has published an interesting Knowledge Management Toolkit for the Crisis Prevention and Recovery Practice Area. BCPR “is responsible for consolidating UNDP’s CPR-related knowledge and experience; providing a bridge between humanitarian response and the development work of UNDP; and acting as an advocate for crisis sensitivity in the context of development policy.”

    This Toolkit was created out of the BCPR’s commitment to make UNDP a global leader in crisis prevention and recovery by ensuring that knowledge gained throughout its network is shared efficiently to make UNDP’s response to crises more effective. The Toolkit features specific knowledge management techniques that BCPR recommends for use in preventing or responding to crises.

    The Toolkit includes a discussion of the Golden Rules of Knowledge Management, which involve asking whether content about to enter the KM system complies with the following criteria in that it is:

    - meeting demand
    - strategic
    - relevant
    - practical
    - replicable
    - accessible
    - personal
    - critical
    - followed up

    Given the urgency of the work of UNDP and its focus on crisis and recovery, the benefits of mastering knowledge management techniques are great. For those of us who work in less urgent circumstances there also are benefits to be gained from effective KM and this Toolkit helps by providing learning that has been tested in extreme conditions.

    [Thanks to the UK National Library for Health website for providing information on this Toolkit.]

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  • Are you a 19th century knowledge manager? The answer to that question most likely is yes if you work in a 21st century US law firm. Now, before you start rebutting my assertion by reciting the long list of cool 21st century tech tools you’ve deployed at your firm, let me state that I’m focused more on mindset and approach than on tools. In fact, I’d posit that our mindset and approach has not evolved all that much from the knowledge management approach (such as it was) in the time of Charles Dickens’ novel Bleak House.

    In my last post, Does Your Firm Really Value Knowledge?, I discussed Larry Prusak’s views of the 19th century business as opposed to the 21st century business. In the 19th century business, knowledge was a relatively rare resource that “reside[d] in the heads of owners and managers.” Meanwhile, the workers who powered these businesses received knowledge on a need to know basis. That knowledge was transmitted through a “command and control structure” supported by a hierarchical bureaucracy.

    What’s the contrasting 21st century approach? Knowledge is abundant and resides in many and diverse places. Therefore, instead of relying on a command and control structure to enforce a top-down flow of information, the 21st century firm creates systems and implements tools that allow the firm to gather knowledge no matter where it resides and then distribute knowledge everywhere it might be needed. This means that the partner’s negotiating insight is considered valuable knowledge in the KM system, as is the junior associate’s innovation in due diligence or closing mechanics, and both are freely available within that KM system.
    But what about ensuring that the knowledge gathered and distributed is accurate and authoritative? In the 19th century model, we have knowledge guardians who vet content before it is allowed to enter (and possibly contaminate) the KM system. These guardians — whether they be senior lawyers or knowledge managers — often end up being censors rather than knowledge sharing facilitators. Because they are focused on risk management, and their vetting responsibilities frequently are added to an already full billable workload, these guardians can also become bottlenecks in the KM system.
    How would a 21st century KM system handle the challenge of ensuring that content is accurate and authoritative? The system would track contributors and usage, letting end-users know which contributors had applicable expertise and which content was used repeatedly. In addition, allowing users to tag and comment on useful content would enrich the system and distribute the burden of validating contributions.

    This 21st century approach is in line with the trend towards the democratization of knowledge that Prusak identified, which will undoubtedly have a radical impact on the role of knowledge managers within law firms. So are you a 19th century knowledge manager? And what would it take for you to become a 21st century knowledge manager? Are you ready?

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