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.
  • A 2001 article by John W. Amberg on the Los Angeles County Bar Association website begins with the words

    The adage that “a lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client” is the product of years of experience by seasoned litigators, the Supreme Court has remarked. See, Kay v. Ehrler, 499 U.S. 432, 438 (1991). But do all lawyers know why?

    It then goes on to explain all the terrible things that can happen when a lawyer disregards this adage and fails to obtain appropriate professional assistance outside the firm.

    More recently, Ross Kodner reprised his earlier advice on the downfalls that result when lawyers attempt to handle their own technology and practice management projects. In a piece entitled REDUX: The True Cost of DIY Legal Technology – Why Pro Se Tech is Such an Economic Disaster, he makes the following pithy observation:

    Lawyers should avoid representing themselves pro se on their tech and practice management issues.

    Does the same hold true for knowledge management? Should practicing lawyers be running the knowledge management effort in their firms? Or, should they outsource this to “KM professionals”? If they outsource, should those professionals having experience as legal practitioners or is it sufficient that they have demonstrable knowledge management expertise?

    To be honest, I’m not sure I have complete answers to these questions. Further, I suspect that the right answer depends on the firm in question. However, there are some things I’ve learned from experience that I think are universal. For example, while practicing lawyers within a firm undoubtedly are closest to their clients and understand best what is required for good client service, they rarely have the time or inclination to translate that knowledge into the wide range of content necessary for a robust law firm knowledge management system. Further, even if they are interested in creating a knowledge base for their practice area, they usually can’t devote the time and attention necessary to create a coherent firm-wide KM system. This suggests that you are going to have to do some outsourcing if you want dedicated attention for your KM effort.

    If you are going to outsource the work of law firm knowledge management, your choices of professionals depend on what you want to achieve and the extent to which you wish those knowledge managers to work independently of busy practitioners. If you can hire only one person, be sure that person has experience as a practitioner. Otherwise, they will not have the requisite experience to find and evaluate content for the KM system and most likely will not be qualified to create content for the KM system. If you can’t face the cost of hiring a lawyer, then hire a paralegal who has worked on the kinds of matters your lawyers usually undertake. Alternatively, hire a legal reference librarian. But understand that the paralegal or librarian is more likely to act as an organizer or manager of content provided by practitioners rather than a creator of content. And, if your lawyers are busy or insufficiently engaged in the KM effort, there won’t be as much content to organize.

    The other option is to recruit professional knowledge managers who are new to law firms, but have considerable KM experience in other industries or professions. These folks can help rationalize business processes and facilitate the creation of useful KM systems. And they will bring to your firm a broad perspective that can be invaluable in developing your firm’s approach to knowledge management. But, at the end of the day, they will need the consistent cooperation of practitioners to customize the KM system to meet your client service needs. If your lawyers are as busy as most lawyers have been recently, they simply won’t have the time to provide the guidance and input needed by these KM professionals.

    So, there are no easy answers. However, if this tempts you to decide that the path of least resistance is to have your practitioners just handle knowledge management on top of their client service responsibilities, remember the old adage about lawyers who represent themselves. Then go and reread Ross Kodner’s article.

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  • Robert Scoble summed up his current approach to life in the following words:

    The real thing I’ve been doing for more than eight years now is to try to arrange my life so that I have an interesting conversation every day with someone interesting.

    Reading this led to an “Aha” moment for me. I shifted from the active practice of law to law firm knowledge management years ago because I was looking for new interesting conversations with interesting people. And, in the main, I’ve found them. Knowledge management thrives where there are interesting conversations.

    Knowledge management done correctly forces us to confront a wide range of human behavior, organizational behavior, technology wonders and technology disasters. Knowledge management done correctly allows you to make meaningful improvements in the work lives of your colleagues and in the quality of service provided to your clients. Knowledge management done correctly is a limitless source of interesting issues spawning interesting conversations.

    On the other hand, knowledge management done poorly is a daily grind — like pushing a wet noodle across a dirty floor with your nose. There’s no time for interesting conversation because there are too many pointless tedious tasks to complete. Worst of all, there’s no appetite for interesting conversation because you haven’t had an interesting thought about your work in ages.

    Fostering interesting conversations at work keeps your knowledge management effort fresh. That’s what is required for innovation and growth. If you can’t find an interesting conversation at work, rethink your knowledge management effort. It’s gone off the rails and will wither if you aren’t careful.

    Robert Scoble had the right idea. Do you?

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  • When hiring we sometimes focus too much on the individual, and not enough on how they will fit in with the existing staff. An extreme version of this is to hunt and low for a “star.” Each us of may define “star” slightly differently depending on the context. For example, in the law firm context, a star may be a lawyer with a great book of portable business and a track record for attracting and keeping clients. What we don’t often consider is what goes into making and supporting that star, and how many people that star depends on to achieve stardom.

    Harvard Business School’s Working Knowledge reports on a new study that demonstrates that while past performance may be a reasonable indicator of future performance, “the quality of colleagues in his or her organization also has a significant impact on the [star's] ability to maintain the highest quality output.” In other words, hiring a star without the supporting team will greatly diminish your chances of replicating or exceeding past performance.

    The study’s authors, Boris Groysberg and Linda-Eling Lee, have some interesting things to say about knowledge workers:

    Some have pointed out that the main difference between knowledge workers and, say, manual workers, is that knowledge workers own the means of production. That means they carry the knowledge, information, and skills in their heads and can take it with them. As the basis of competition shifts to superior knowledge and information, organizations have naturally become increasingly concerned that they attract, leverage, and retain the best knowledge workers.

    In addition, our culture is very enamored of stars and with the idea that extraordinary talent accounts for individuals’ extraordinary performance. The business media likes to treat star knowledge workers, such as top analysts, bankers, lawyers, and CEOs, as if they are star athletes. There is an assumption that these star knowledge workers, like star athletes, actually “own” everything they need to perform at the top level and can take that knowledge and skill anywhere. They are treated as free agents who can take their top performance to work for the highest bidder.

    Our study [of financial analysts] debunks that myth. Star analysts rely a lot on the quality of the colleagues that their organization provides to sustain top performance. They cannot simply replicate their top performance in any organizational context.

    Since knowledge managers are in many ways the ultimate knowledge workers, it’s worth thinking about the implications of this study for hiring and keeping knowledge managers. It would appear that a focus on the credentials or track record of an individual is insufficient to ensure high quality performance. Having a law firm knowledge management team comprised only of graduates from Ivy League law schools, for example, is both unnecessary and possibly useless. What counts is building a well-integrated, properly supported team in which everyone works to their full capability and has the opportunity to perform like a star.

    It’s a relatively easy thing to eyeball a resume and check off the great educational institutions mentioned there or the world-class organizations that have employed the candidate you are considering for a new job. It’s a much harder thing to assess the extent to which this candidate is a team player (which is a good thing) and needs the support of the right team to perform at a high level (which is much more challenging). And, it is an even harder thing to be able to assess honestly the extent to which your existing staff is (or can become) a strong team, able to work effectively with this candidate.

    More than anything, this study underscores the vital role managers play in hiring and deploying the members of their staff.

    For managers, it is imperative to understand that stars are not self-contained silos. Producing top-quality knowledge work requires collaboration and flows of information among a network of top performers. That means any one decision on hiring and retention can have a real impact on the performance of top employees in an entirely different part of the firm. It also means that it is not enough to have a few star performers here and there within the organization. If these stars lack high-quality support and information-sharing with other star colleagues, they will have a harder time maintaining their star performance.

    Firms that already have a large stable of high-performing individuals might have built a competitive advantage. Their stars make it more likely for each other to sustain top performance. Firms that lack this advantage fight an uphill battle. They can hire or cultivate stars. But if there are only a few stars, these individuals will tend to have a tougher time sustaining top performance.

    What does your knowledge management staff look like? A group of under-engaged disaffected individuals? A collection of motivated but unsupported stars? A team of diverse people that consistently produces high quality work product? The secret of success in this is in how you manage and support the team, not how many stars you hire.

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  • J.K. Rowling, creator of Harry Potter, is a great proponent of failure. In fact, she entitled her recent commencement address at Harvard “The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination.” Her experience has taught her that it is through failure that we strip away the inessential, discover what we truly value in life, learn how resilient we are and, in the process, gain a necessary measure of humility and humanity. Above all, when we survive failure we begin to cure ourselves of the fear of failure, thereby freeing ourselves to try new things, to dare more.

    As far as J.K. Rowling is concerned, the one thing worse than trying and failing is failing to try. She calls this “failing by default:”

    You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.

    In reading her remarks, I found myself wondering how many knowledge managers are failing by default. To fail by default in knowledge management is to be content with simply keeping the home fires burning rather than venturing out into new territory. It means tinkering around the edges of KM systems rather than working on the next paradigm shift. Mere maintenance rather than innovation.

    Given the myriad challenges involved in actually conceiving and implementing new KM systems, it isn’t irrational to be tempted to avoid innovation all together. However, therein lies the path to irrelevance, which is the equivalent of professional suicide. A KM system that isn’t relevant isn’t worth the time and effort expended on it.

    If you need more incentive to brave the risk of failure, read The Competitive Advantage of Failing. Then, go out there and try something new.

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  • A newly-published article on knowledge management began with the following example to illustrate why organizations should even bother with a KM program:

    Siemens, the global telecommunications giant, recently won a $460,000 contract in Switzerland to build a telecommunications network for two hospitals in spite of the fact that its bid was 30% higher than the competition. The secret to Siemens success was its knowledge-management system. This system allowed Siemens people in the Netherlands to draw on their experience and provide the Swiss sales reps with technical data that proved that the Siemens’ network would be substantially more reliable than the competition’s.

    I can’t remember seeing a public report of an instance where a law firm was able to document a success like this attributable to KM.** Can you? Is this because law firms are hyper vigilant about confidentiality and, therefore, don’t tend to talk about how they work? Or is it because law firms don’t have comparable success stories? Or worse still, what if law firms do have similar successes, but they don’t know it or don’t know how to document it?

    While envy is rarely a good thing, I suspect most law firm knowledge managers would be envious of their counterparts at Siemens. I can’t say I blame them.

    ** To be fair, several law firms have impressive KM technology. What I haven’t seen is published evidence of the ROI resulting from those tools.

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  • My last post talked about the dangers of letting baby boomers slip out the door without first ensuring that they had left in their firm’s KM system “knowledge nuggets” containing their accumulated experience and learning.  That post was intended to be a warning to knowledge managers.  But perhaps we should launch a parallel appeal to baby boomers along the following lines:

    The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) provides a handy online tool to help you calculate whether you have contributed enough to your retirement savings accounts to retire comfortably.  There is another non-cash account that you also need to contribute to before retirement.  Before you head out of your office door for the last time, please answer these questions:
    Have you contributed enough to the firm’s knowledge management system?
    And, how do you know what is enough?
      -  Do your contributions to the KM system represent the best of your work product and learning over the time you’ve been affiliated with this firm?  
        -  Are they a suitable legacy of your work?
    If individual lawyers paid as much attention to their contributions to the knowledge management system as they did to their contributions to their retirement accounts, we would have much more content in our KM systems.  And, if those contributions were made with a view to ensuring a suitable professional legacy for the contributor, we would have high quality content in those KM systems.  
    It’s time to set up KM retirement accounts for every lawyer in your firm.  In fact, it’s time to set up KM retirement accounts for every knowledge worker within your firm.  No firm can afford to let valuable knowledge slip out the door with its retirees — regardless of whether those retirees are lawyers or non-legal professionals.  
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  • While we’ve been whipping ourselves into a frenzy over the possible (but as of yet undefined) impact of Generation Y on our comfortable ways of doing things, we’ve been disregarding the real crisis occurring right under our noses.  Valuable knowledge is walking out the door with every retiring baby boomer.  

    Dr. Jay Liebowitz has been examining what he calls this “human capital crisis” and his findings are sobering.  He defines human capital as the knowledge, experience and judgment accumulated over a lifetime of work.  In his 2003 book, Addressing the Human Capital Crisis in the Federal Government, he noted that by 2008 over 50% of all federal civil servants would be eligible for retirement and of that group, 71% are senior executives.  Their retirement represents a huge loss of human capital.
    Liebowitz points to several strategies for stemming (or at least slowing) the rate of loss.  Key among these are knowledge management programs that intentionally seek to ensure the effective capture of the knowledge these retirees have accumulated during their work lives.  It’s the only sure means of transferring mission critical knowledge between generations.
    If you’re still not convinced, think about the combined impact on your business of disappearing boomers and under-engaged (or otherwise engaged) Gen Y new employees and you’ll begin to see the scope of the problem.  We’re facing rapid knowledge loss combined with a slower rate of knowledge creation.  All of this adds up to a manager’s nightmare.  
    For the knowledge manager, the answers to the human capital crisis are fairly straightforward:
    1.  Capture the expertise of retirees and distill it into “knowledge nuggets” that can be stored and then quickly retrieved for on demand training.  
    2.  Ensure that the format of these nuggets is both video and text so that you cater to the preferences of the Gen X and Gen Y users who will have to put that knowledge into action.  
    3.  Move as quickly as you can to accomplish 1 and 2.  This is a race against the clock, as exhausted Boomers gleefully count the days until they can waltz out the door clutching their gold watches.  
    While it might be fun to think about the havoc that could be wrought on your workplace  by incoming counter-cultural Gen Y employees, don’t lose sight of the fact that a far bigger disruption will occur if we let baby boomers slip out of our organizations without first ensuring that their intellectual capital is available for the next generation of managers.  Here (finally) is an urgent, mission critical business case for knowledge management.  Make good use of it!
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  • Where do the smartest lawyers in the world work?  If Seth Godin is to be believed, each law firm knowledge manager could say “the smartest lawyers in the world work at my firm.”  In his post, All customers are smarter than average, he reports that people regularly rate themselves as “less racist than average, smarter than average, more generous than average.”  He goes further and posits that if asked, each company’s customers would consider themselves “righter than average.”

    Even if you believe that the reports he cites are just another instance of “lies, damned lies and statistics,” how do you respond to the information that the folks you work with consider themselves smarter than the average bear?  What if they compound their enviable omniscience with a claim to being more infallible than everyone else — including you?  If this is how humans behave time and time again, then you’d be crazy to take at face value internal surveys in which the users of your knowledge management system self-report on their abilities and expectations.  After all, it appears that either we don’t know ourselves very well or we’re not willing to let anyone else know that there may be some foundation to our insecurities.  In light of these human tendencies, a knowledge manager would be wise to seek more objective confirmation of the self-reporting.  For example, reviewing search queries can tell you a lot about what people are looking for and how good they are at searching.  Reviewing help desk requests lets you know when and where users find themselves in trouble.  Similarly, usage metrics can tell you whether lawyers actually are trying to use your KM system and which content items seem to be used the most.  
    These human tendencies of self-delusion can also have an impact on how we plan new knowledge management tools.  For example, if we take at face value what we’re told about the lawyers in our firm being smarter than the average lawyer, then we might make the mistake of creating a system that requires a user with greater technical facility (or tolerance) than the average user.  And, given that those lawyers (like most customers) think they are “righter than average,” any advice you get from them regarding how a KM system should operate would need to be cross-checked before using that guidance in your planning and implementation.  Finally, given what we are learning about the unreliability of self-reporting, we’d be wise not to fall into the trap of getting so caught up in planning the perfect knowledge management system in terms of user functionality that we forget to bake into that proposed system objective means of monitoring the actual (as opposed to reported) use and usefulness of the system.  
    But as I write this, I can hear each of you saying to yourselves, “Of course, all of her comments apply to her firm and not mine — since the smartest lawyers in the world really do work at my firm!”
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  • Doug Cornelius is one of the lucky ones who is attending the Enterprise 2.0 Conference in Boston.  Luckily for the rest of us, Doug has been liveblogging from the conference.  Yesterday Doug reported on a panel focused on how and why the grand vision of Enterprise 2.0 hasn’t taken hold in corporate America.  In his post Enterprise 2.0 Reality Check, Doug records some of the responses to the following question:  Why has Enterprise 2.0 not taken over your organization? Panelists from a wide-range of organizations (e.g., the CIA, Pfizer, SONY, Wachovia) all pointed to the same challenge:  It’s the people in an organization that have been slowing down adoption of Enterprise 2.0.   Some of the issues are generational, some of the issues are about fear and control.  One panelist conceded that while there may be web 2.0 success (and hype) in the leisure/consumer space, that hasn’t translated easily into the work space.  Apparently, we’re prepared to live more transparently and collaboratively outside the office than inside the office.

    In many ways, the challenges faced by Enterprise 2.0 are frighteningly similar to the challenges we’ve been facing for years in knowledge management.  And, if one of the panelists is to be believed, those challenges pale in comparison to the challenges faced by those of us brave enough to tackle law firm knowledge management.  According to this panelist, working with lawyers is “not a collaborative experience.”
    So, as I said in my very first post, it isn’t enough to merely implement technology.  In some ways, that’s the easy part and won’t ensure success in your knowledge management or Enterprise 2.0 effort.  Much harder is the part that goes “above and beyond” technology.  It’s when you have the whole-hearted support of your colleagues at work that knowledge management takes off.  Until they vote with their feet (and their mice), it doesn’t really matter.  That’s the reality facing knowledge management and Enterprise 2.0.
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  • When I say that innovators must be omnivores, what I really mean is that they must be both omnivorous readers (not eaters) and people who seek out a wide-range of experience. This is one of the several things I learned at a fascinating lecture by Columbia University Business School professor, William Duggan. Duggan has written Strategic Intuition: The Creative Spark in Human Achievement, in which he explores how the brain achieves insight by combining knowledge and experience in new ways. The central question of Duggan’s work is how do people get really good actionable ideas?

    These actionable ideas begin in a flash of insight. Duggan is interested in how the brain achieves that flash of insight. As he pointed out in his lecture, insight most often happens when you least expect it. And, insight rarely occurs on command. Above all, it cannot happen in the absence of certain prerequisites:

    1. Knowledge and Experience: If you want to be an innovator, you need to arm yourself with a wide range of knowledge and experience. Furthermore, you need to master at least one discipline. It’s when you apply knowledge or experience from a far-flung field to your own area of expertise that you are more likely to achieve breakthroughs. Duggan was adamant that these required inputs are just as effective when obtained through study as through experience, and gave the example of the 24-year old Napoleon who had an impressive insight into successful military strategic when he was newly-graduated from the military college and lacking in combat experience.

    2. A Calm Mind: Insight rarely occurs when you are focused on trying to achieve it. You are more likely to have a flash of insight when you’ve cleared your mind of distractions or are perfectly relaxed. This explains why insights more often than not happen in the shower or during recreational activity rather than in an official brainstorming meeting at work. However, for those truly interested in innovation, Duggan believes that you can increase the opportunities for insight by training in the martial arts, yoga or meditation, because they teach the practitioner the discipline necessary to empty the mind of distractions.

    Once you have the flash of insight, the next critical step in the process of innovation is what Duggan called Resolution, in which you have a complete picture of what needs to be done to put your insight into action and then you do it. This, of course, is where many a good idea dies a premature death. Either you haven’t fully grasped all that is necessary to put your insight into action or you lack the requisite discipline to act.

    As with many things in life, persistence pays here. Giving the example of the founders of Google, Duggan pointed out that while they had an important early insight that formed the foundation of what we know today as Google, it wasn’t until later (after many iterations and some dead ends) that Sergey Brinn and Larry Page made the breakthrough that transformed Google from another cool search engine into a truly innovative license to print money.

    Duggan’s approach is consistent with that of earlier thinkers (and innovators) such as Louis Pasteur who once famously said “Chance favors the prepared mind.” But Duggan goes one step further: he explicitly says that innovators are thieves. They steal from others, combining what they take in new and different ways to achieve a breakthrough. Citing T.S. Eliot* and using examples as varied as Pablo Picasso, Steve Jobs, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Napoleon Bonaparte and Brinn & Page, Duggan explains how they “stole” ideas from others and created something new through their unusual combination of existing elements.

    In other words, think of insight as the mashup your brain does that leads to innovation. Best of all, this requires no expensive technology whatsoever.

    *For the literary-minded among my readers, here’s the background on the reference to T.S. Eliot, taken from The Sacred Wood:

    Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.

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