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.
  • In my earlier post, Knowledge Management Made Easier, I reported on Tim Leberecht’s proposal that we use widespread blogging within organizations to make tacit knowledge explicit. I was very taken with the idea of providing everyone with an easy way to capture and share their learning, and even imagined, for a moment, what it would be like to have a vibrant organizational culture in which people felt comfortable with this level of transparency.

    Since then, others have weighed in on this issue. Take, for example, Dave Snowden whose post, Oh When Will They Ever Learn, trenchantly argues that making blogging mandatory violates the very nature of social computing. For him, social computing is intended to make collaboration and sharing possible for those who wish to participate. Or, as he puts it:

    Aside from the perpetuation of the myth of tacit-explicit knowledge conversion …, the idea of compulsion flies in the face of all theory and practice in social computing. Its a classic; find something which is working, then ruin it by compulsion.

    In a similar vein, Patrick Lambe’s comment on my prior post directed me to the wisdom of Dr. David Vaine on the subject of Forced Corporate Blogging (a.k.a. “Flogging”). Dr. Vaine clearly does not believe that compulsory blogging is either useful or wise.

    While I understand and sympathize with their objections, I’m mindful of another approach. For years, authors such as Julia Cameron have recommended that people who wish to increase their personal creativity engage in the practice of keeping a daily journal. While this isn’t mandatory (in that there isn’t any external enforcer), making a good faith attempt to meet the challenge actually does improve one’s writing and expands creativity. I might say the same for those of us who try to blog regularly. The more we exercise the blogging muscle, the better we get and the more rewarding it is.

    Although mandatory blogging may seem like a contradiction in terms or an exercise in futility for proponents of a purely voluntary system, it could also provide an opportunity to participate for people who wouldn’t otherwise think of trying this. Given that businesses need access to the learning of all their employees (and not just those who choose to share), there might be merit in finding a middle path between the mandatory approach and the completely voluntary approach.

    Is there a better way that achieves higher levels of participation reasonably quickly without doing violence to the nature of social computing? The answer to this question could transform your KM program and your organization.

    3 Comments
  • Today is a national holiday in the United States. And, since it seemed downright unpatriotic to go to the office on Independence Day, I’ve just spent the afternoon with two remarkable men named Benjamin: Benjamin Franklin and Benjamin Disreali.

    While it’s never entirely wise to quote out of context, I do think these two have something interesting to say that bears on the practice of knowledge management. First, Ben Franklin:

    “An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.”

    This is just what every knowledge manager in the USA wants to hear — a founding father who seems to be acting as booster for your line of work. If it’s good enough for old Ben Franklin, it’s got to be good enough for your firm, right? Well, not quite. He wasn’t talking about building repositories of documents or creating firm-wide taxonomies. He was most likely talking about enriching the mind. In fact, he suggests “emptying half a purse” into your mind, as if to say that spending half your fortune on cultivating your mind is the best possible use of that money.

    So what about Benjamin Disraeli? Here’s what he had to say:

    “Knowledge must be gained by ourselves. Mankind may supply us with the facts; but the results, even if they agree with previous ones, must be the work of our mind.”

    So here, we have an eminent thinker telling us that knowledge really can’t be separated from the person. It is an integral part of that person and their experience. Further, knowledge can’t be handed to someone like a package. It can only be created by and for that person after applying their experience to the available facts. What can be separated and stored and codified and searched and retrieved and re-used are “facts” or information.

    So, can someone explain to me why we call ourselves “knowledge” managers? Who are we kidding? At a minimum we are information managers: we provide easy access to the information our colleagues need to create knowledge. In some cases, we are collaboration facilitators: we provide tools and opportunities that allow colleagues to share information and develop that into something more. In other cases, we are subject matter experts who contribute our own learning to the existing store of information. If we are really fortunate, we’re occasionally present at the creation of knowledge. But we almost never can actually “capture” and store that knowledge. We deal in information.

    If my two Benjamins are a bit too retro for your taste, spend a little time with Patrick Lambe, Larry Prusak and Dave Snowden. In Patrick Lambe’s post, Dead KM Walking, you’ll find a podcast he created of a fascinating conversation among these three men regarding the state of “knowledge” management. You’ll find that they tend to view knowledge in the same way as my two Benjamins. And, they have some rather disquieting things to say about the current state of our line of work.

    It’s good to face these questions squarely from time to time. If we aren’t honest about what we’re trying to do, how on earth can we communicate the nature and value of our work to others?

    1 Comment
  • Tim Leberecht‘s post, The Writing Organization: Knowledge Management Made Easy, literally took my breath away this morning. I loved the idea. And then wondered if I or any of my KM colleagues in other law firms would have the audacity to propose it to our respective firms.

    Here’s his suggestion:

    Make it mandatory for every employee to keep an internal blog and post at least once per week. Depending on their role, employees can blog about customer experiences, sales tactics, strategy, product improvements, organizational design, competitors, market trends, and even gossip. Potential productivity losses are outweighed by the value of knowledge that is being generated and shared.

    For a brief moment I had this vision of lawyers, legal assistants, administrators and support staff blogging away at their desks, capturing the minutiae of their daily lives — those things that usually reside in the back of your brain and are never needed by the firm until you are on vacation or out sick. And then, I wondered how easy or difficult it would be to obtain firm management support for this proposal.

    Those of you who have already had your morning shot of caffeine will note astutely that law firms currently capture a great deal of daily detail in the form of time tickets or fee earner logs. And some firms even search and expose those details as part of their enterprise search capability. However, these daily entries often verge on the cryptic and they only track the work of fee earners, not those who spend their days ensuring the firm is well run. Yet, in terms of the institutional health of the firm, both pools of knowledge are important.

    Tim Labrecht is correct when he says that by fostering a writing culture the firm increases the chances of making tacit knowledge explicit. And that once this knowledge is explicit, it can be found and used by people who didn’t know it existed or didn’t know they didn’t to know it. The potential power of this proposal is huge. But, can it work in a law firm?

    5 Comments
  • In honor of Canada Day, here’s a Canadian perspective on developing a knowledge strategy. Courtesy of Knowledge Flow, we have an article published by the Queen’s University School of Business entitled Creating a Knowledge Strategy for your Organization: A Special KM Forum Report.

    This article provides a useful overview of knowledge management. For example it begins with a helpful explanation of the differences between knowledge management processes, knowledge management enablers and knowledge management drivers. For those of us who do not have a theoretical bent, here’s a thumbnail sketch:

    KM Processes:

    * the methods “an organization uses to create, harvest and refine, store and retrieve, distribute and share, and apply and leverage knowledge”

    KM Enablers:

    * organizational factors (e.g., structure and culture)
    * technology

    KM Drivers:

    * mission and business strategy
    * the firm’s intellectual resources

    Michael Zack, a professor who studies how firms use knowledge and knowledge management, suggests that until now most firms have focused on KM Enablers. In other words, they’ve tried to create the right structure and culture for knowledge sharing and then they’ve tried to implement the right technologies to facilitate this knowledge sharing. However, in Zack’s view, this work has been fundamentally flawed in that it has occurred largely without reference to essential KM Drivers: the overall mission and business strategy of the firm. To explain how fatal this flaw is, Zack gives the example of Polaroid, a company that in his view had great commitment to KM and did a terrific job of fostering a collaborative and sharing culture. However, because that collaboration and sharing was not directed towards the business strategy of mastering digital imaging, the firm lacked the requisite knowledge to compete in this area and, ultimately, went out of business. What a waste.

    Zack is unequivocal in advocating a single-minded focus on KM Strategy. As recounted by the authors of this article,

    In short, stated Zack, a company can do KM extremely well but not focus it on the right things. In order for it to have an impact on firm performance, KM must be linked to business strategy at all levels in the organization. If an organization has a poor business strategy, KM may not be able to make a difference. However, if it has a good business strategy, KM can support it. Knowledge and learning must support and inform an organization’s competitive position. This is what will give a firm a strategic advantage and this in turn, will add value.

    So what is a Knowledge Strategy and how do you formulate it? According to Zack, you begin by determining what a firm needs to know to compete. A firm’s ability to compete is directly related to its knowledge.

    Managing the gap between what a company needs to know to execute its strategy and what it actually knows is the most strategic role of KM. The more knowledge is tied to strategy, the greater the value of KM will be. The link between strategy and knowledge is a knowledge strategy. This is different from knowledge management, which focuses on the processes whereby knowledge is created, harvested, stored, distributed and applied. KM supports the management of knowledge needed by the firm, which in turn supports the firm’s knowledge and business strategy. A knowledge strategy focuses on knowledge content gaps, while knowledge management emphasizes knowledge process gaps. These two must be aligned if a firm is going to use knowledge competitively.

    If you’re serious about developing a Knowledge Strategy, you will have to do the following analysis:

    Assess knowledge gaps:

    * What does the firm need to know?
    * What does the firm actually know?
    * What do the firm’s competitors know?

    Assess your knowledge resources:

    * What knowledge is worth developing?
    * What knowledge is worth acquiring?
    * What knowledge is worth capturing to facilitate transfer?
    * How will the firm derive value from this knowledge?

    Assess your learning cycles:

    * How quickly and how well does your firm learn as compared to its industry at large?
    * Does this provide a competitive advantage or should your firm pursue learning more aggressively?

    The article reminds us that this analysis is not something you do once and then put on the shelf. It is more in the nature of a continuous assessment. Just as the firm is dynamic, the knowledge strategy must be dynamic– reflecting the changing environment and any shifts in business strategy. Above all, this analysis needs to be done in close cooperation with senior management. This is not an exercise to be undertaken by knowledge managers operating in a vacuum without the deliberate input of the people designing the business strategy.

    By focusing on strategy, knowledge managers move from the ranks of knowledge plumbers to the ranks of knowledge architects. Are you ready for this change in status?

    And, while you’re chewing on that thought, Happy Canada Day!

    1 Comment