Dancing and Knowledge Management

In a recent conversation with Patrick Lambe and Dave Snowden, Larry Prusak described the three stages of knowledge management:

– content collecting, organizing and searching
– collaboration
ad hoc development tailored to the needs of a specific organization

But how do you move systematically from one stage to the next?

For people new to Knowledge Management, there are any number of how-to guides and a myriad of opinionated people who offer views (helpful or not) on what constitutes KM and how to carry out an effective KM program. If you survey the offerings — especially in the context of law firm knowledge management — you’ll realize that there are still lots of folks stuck at the initial content stage. A few intrepid souls are thinking about collaboration and social media tools, but relatively few have implemented robust collaboration programs within law firms as of yet. And what about Larry Prusak’s third stage?

In some ways, that’s a false question. It’s not clear to me that a KM program has to move in a linear fashion through the three stages. For example, there may well be organizations that successfully skip over the first stage (content gathering) and rely on the second stage (collaboration) to collect and surface useful information in a timely fashion.

But for those of you who really feel you need an instruction book that you can follow in a systematic fashion, please go ahead and do some reading. There’s lots to read. But before you get too committed to any single approach, take a look at these instructions for learning to dance. Try them out and judge the results for yourself.

There are days when I think that learning how to “do knowledge management” from instruction books is as futile as using written instructions to learn how to dance. Success in both endeavors depends on critical intangibles largely relating to the humans involved. A personal sense of rhythm and physical gracefulness for one, vision and organizational culture for the other. So as you learn to “do KM” or dance, keep in mind that the books don’t know your individual circumstances and can’t dictate a single best course of action. All they can do is suggest approaches that have been helpful for others. The job of the knowledge manager (or neophyte dancer) is to take that information, learn from the experience of others, and then personalize it to fit the realities of your situation.

Perhaps that gets a little closer to Larry Prusak’s 3rd stage.


Use Gender Advantage: Recruit Women

In an earlier post, Building a Great Knowledge Management Team, I discussed key factors in recruiting and retaining a KM team that consistently outperforms the competition. One of the cautions emerging from the study I cited was that it wasn’t enough to simply recruit “stars” since many stars are incapable of reproducing their success in new work situations. One key reason for this is that their success is inextricably tied up with their support network at work. If they change jobs and don’t bring their colleagues with them, these stars will have to recreate a comparable network in their new organization in order to replicate their earlier success. While it isn’t impossible to design a new support network, it does take time. Unfortunately, time is a rare commodity.

The authors of the study I cited now offer a new strategy for managers who are determined to recruit stars in order to boost quickly the performace of their knowledge management team. According to Boris Groysberg, Ashish Nanda and Nitin Nohria, recruiting female stars can provide a distinct advantage:

Star women … maintained their shine even after switching companies. Unlike their male peers, they thrived in new work environments. … Analyzing the data further revealed that there are gender differences in how well stars do after they jump ship. In fact, the decline in performance was pronounced only for star men. Star women who switched firms exhibit no decline in performance.

Their explanation of why women retain their performance levels after changing firms is instructive:

Women tend to do better after a move for two reasons.

One is that they are more invested in external than in in-house relationships. There are four main reasons why star women maintain external focus: uneasy in-house relationships, poor mentorship, neglect by colleagues, and a vulnerable position in the labor market. External focus makes them more “portable” in terms of making a positive move, but can cause problems if they want to progress within their own organization, because you need a solid internal network and good political capital to get things done in organizations. Anyone who focuses mostly on external relationships will not have that.

The other reason is that women do far more due diligence when they receive a job offer than men do, because women need to ensure that the company is good for women and that they won’t be treated as token females. In the process of due diligence, star women learn a lot of valuable information about the company that helps them make good strategic decisions. They scrutinize prospective employers on receptivity to women, managerial support, latitude and flexibility, and performance measurement. There’s no downside to that strategy—it is one that men could benefit from just as well.

This suggests that if a manager is successful in recruiting a female star, that star is more likely to retain a high level of performance and more likely to stay. Viewed in these terms, recruiting male stars seems like a foolhardy exercise.

There’s one other piece of advice for managers wrapped up in the advice the study’s authors give male stars:

Don’t let yourself be blinded by the money! A company that is willing to double your current salary, but will not invest in your long-term success, is not a good choice. Investigate a firm’s management, its culture, its resources, the commitment it is willing to make to you. These are the things that will ultimately make you a star—and keep you one.

This advice makes it clear that a key to success for managers is to create an organizational culture that makes a commitment to invest in its employees and their success. With this commitment in place, it should be possible to create and retain a stellar knowledge management team.


The Problem with Low-Hanging Fruit

When I first started in the knowledge management business, I asked a group of senior New York law firm knowledge management experts what advice they would give me. One extremely pragmatic colleague said: “Collect the Low-Hanging Fruit.”

Nearly a decade later, I still find I keep an eye out for low-hanging fruit. However, now I have a better understanding of the limitations of low-hanging fruit. (For those of you puzzled by the expression “low-hanging fruit,” one suggested definition is : “a thing or person that can be won, obtained, or persuaded with little effort.”)

First, let’s talk about the benefits of low-hanging fruit:

– they are visible and easy to identify
– they are within reach and relatively simple to address (with a little concentrated effort)

Unfortunately, there are problems with low-hanging fruit. Because these pieces of fruit are apparent to most careful observers, you probably won’t be the first one to tackle them. In fruit parlance, they are bruised. In the knowledge management world, they may be projects that have been attempted and abandoned for good reason. Therefore, be very sure you have a winning approach before you publicly go after a piece of low-hanging fruit. If you fail (like all the others before you), there will be lots of folks ready to say “I told you so.”

In addition to being bruised, some of that low-hanging fruit may be over-ripe or not worth the effort. Sure you can collect it, but what good will it do you? These are problems that you might easily solve, however, if the problem or proposed solution are ephemeral, then you’ve wasted your time. Thinking in KM terms, these kinds of low-hanging fruit often are problems that have arisen as firms have failed to keep step with advances in techology. You can provide a home-grown solution, but if there is suitable third-party technology readily available, you really haven’t advanced the ball very much. These over-ripe fruit may also be problems that are aggravating, but not central to the business of the firm. Solving them may provide temporary relief, but if the problem you’ve solved is only tangential to the business of your firm, why bother?

Another problem with low-hanging fruit is that they tend to be scattered randomly on various trees. Even if you go after this fruit in a systematic fashion, you’ll end up with a knowledge management effort that is as diffuse and scattered as that fruit. Unfortunately, this means your KM effort will appear unfocused and that rarely reflects well on you.

Collecting low-hanging fruit is a knowledge management tactic NOT a legitimate strategy. Strategy sets your goals and gives you a reason for the projects you undertake and the methods you employ. Tactics are fine, if they are deployed to advance an agreed strategy. Otherwise, they are little better than busy work. And, busy work rarely results in meaningful gains in productivity. Or, as Sun Tzu is reputed to have said: “Strategy without tactics is the long road to victory; tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”

Low-hanging fruit is tempting. It can provide a few easy wins to kick start your KM effort. However, if you are ever tempted to make low-hanging fruit your sole or main knowledge management goal, remember Adam and Eve. Sometimes that fruit is more trouble than it’s worth.

(For a terrific discussion of strategy and tactics, see Bruce MacEwen’s Adam Smith, Esq. blogpost, The Balanced Scorecard, version 5.0.)


KM 2.0: Working Smarter

Dave Pollard has published a thought-provoking post on what’s next in knowledge management entitled Working Smarter. In it he describes the core competencies (requiring Skills, Tools and Processes) that knowledge workers are going to need in the 21st century:

1. Personal Content Management (in lieu of large, centralized repositories)
2. Simple Virtual Presence and Enabling Conversations (to facilitate interaction in CoPs)
3. Environmental Scanning and Sensemaking (adding meaning, sense and value to information)
4. Professional Research Capacity and Risk/Opportunity Assessment (going beyond search)
5. Just-In-Time Canvassing (getting approximately right answers in real time)
6. Story Crafting, Story Telling, Story Collecting and Story Recording (conveying information in context)

Pollard goes on to say:

I see the role of Knowledge Management and of Information Professionals in the 21st century as facilitating the development of these skills and introduction of these processes and tools in their organizations. I’m not sure what we call it. Probably not KM. I’ve referred to it as Personal Knowledge Management (PKM), Work Effectiveness Improvement, Personal Productivity Improvement (PPI) but none of these accurately encompasses the six enabling roles above. Maybe we should call it Working Smarter, and staff it with a cross-functional project team with a five year mandate to measurably improve these six capacities in organizations.

Based on what I’ve heard from colleagues in other law firms, most firms have not yet invested in all these areas in a systematic way. Most law firms don’t have cross-functional project teams addressing these issues and we aren’t collecting the metrics required to assess improvement in these core competencies. Are law firms so different from other organizations that we don’t have to bother with these core competencies or are we just slow starters? Given the lure of working smarter, it’s surprising that law firm knowledge management hasn’t been at the vanguard of KM 2.0.


Walk on the Wild Side

How do you get a conservative Baby Boomer manager or a conservative law firm to take a walk on the wild side? That’s the challenge for law firm knowledge managers looking for ways to introduce social media tools into their array of knowledge management offerings.

The first question most conservatives will ask is: what are our peer firms doing? You’d better know the answer to that. The International Legal Technology Association (ILTA) and blogs like KM Space and Strategic Legal Technology can help answer that question for law firms.

But even if you can benchmark your firm against others, it’s hard to sell technology that you haven’t used. In fact, Luis Suarez suggests that the best way to sell social media tools is to use them, master them, and then demonstrate (with passion) how well they work. In his post, Twelve Ways to Sell Social Media to Your Boss – Don’t Forget About Yourself, he cites the Twelve Ways suggested by Chris Brogan, but then goes on to say:

In short, in order to sell Social Media to our boss, we need to ensure we are passionate enough to demonstrate actively, and time and time again, the kind of impact that social software is having not only within our daily job(s), but also within our own personal lives. Because there is a great chance that passion you are willing to share with your boss is what will make it all contagious and get your management line sold out as soon as they see that excitement, that commitment, that involvement, that willingness to make a difference within your company and show everyone else it is possible. And you know why?

Well, more than anything else because you are the first one who is clearly benefiting from it all. You are the one, who, as a result, are much more productive, much more knowledgeable about your daily job, have an extensive social network of various dozens, perhaps, of subject matter experts as part of your social networks and, above all, are willing to spend some time showing everyone else why they would need to start paying attention to it, if they haven’t done so already, and engage actively from there onwards. *That*, to me, is how I would sell Social Computing to my boss!

This doesn’t mean you have to race out there and start blogging today, but it would be wise for you to take the time to try these tools out and educate yourself as to what types of material improvements might be gained within your firm by employing these new tools. Given your knowledge of your firm’s history, organizational culture and technology, you are well-placed to identify these potential benefits. Don’t abdicate your role to a consultant.

One key advantage of social media tools is that they present very low barriers to entry. So we really have no excuse for refusing to take them out for a test drive. After all, if the knowledge managers won’t do it, how can we expect the lawyers within our firms to adopt these tools?


Managing Social Media

One of my favorite 40-somethings told me yesterday that he had created a Facebook page for himself. Upon further questioning, I learned that the page actually had been created by the teenage summer intern working in his office. (Nonetheless, I gave the 40-something full credit for finding a low tech way of dealing with what for other Baby Boomers/Generation Xers can seem like an impossible barrier to entry to new technology.) When I asked why he decided to take the plunge, he told me that he felt he had to since the organization he led had an affinity group on Facebook and he, as CEO, needed to be there as well.

And then came the interesting part: he told me that he was going to keep it “strictly professional.”

“What happens when a high school or college buddy finds you on Facebook and wants to friend you?” I asked. “I’ll accept, of course, but they’ll have to `friend’ me in a `strictly professional’ way,” he responded. I was silent, but made a mental note to myself to check back in a few months to see if it actually worked the way he anticipated.

He then told me that the helpful teenage intern no longer had a Facebook page himself. When I asked why, I was told that the intern felt he had no choice when his mother “friended” him and the intern then realized that his mother would be able to see what he was up to with his other friends on Facebook.

Strangely, this gave me heart. Even Generation Y has a hard time managing the consequences of human action and connection with social media tools.


E-Mail Addiction

New York City’s Daily Post reported recently that residents of the Big Apple, Washington D.C. and Atlanta tend to check e-mail more than residents of any other place. And, apparently, more women admit to e-mail addiction than men. (Although, based on what I’ve observed, I can’t help wondering if this is more a reflection of (i) honesty in survey responses or (ii) actual practice.)

Given what we’re learning about the inefficiencies of e-mail, that’s a colossal waste of time. Here are some sad excerpts from the Daily Post’s Report, based on the Third Annual AOL survey:

Of those surveyed, 59% percent of people who own a portable device, like a Blackberry or Treo, check email in bed while in their pajamas; 37% check it while they drive; and 12% admit to checking email in church.

According to the survey, the average email user checks mail nearly five times a day. Fifty-nine percent of those with portable devices check their email every time a new message arrives. Forty-three percent of respondents with portable devices say they keep it nearby while sleeping in case they get a message.

Fifteen percent of those surveyed consider themselves “email addicts” (16% of women and 13% of men), and many plan their vacations with email access in mind. About 40% of email users say access to email is “very” or “somewhat” important to them when planning their vacation; 83% of email users admit to checking their mail once a day while vacationing.

Thankfully, people increasingly are beginning to understand that e-mail is not always the right way to communicate. However, as with any addiction, the first step is admitting that you’ve got a problem. If you have any doubts about it, think about the last time you tried to sneak a peek at your e-mail. (According to the survey, 53% admitted to checking e-mail in the bathroom.) If you felt guilty — you’ve got a problem. And, if you don’t feel guilty, you may have an even bigger problem!

The next step is actually taking steps to reduce your exposure to e-mail (e.g., checking your e-mail at regularly-scheduled times rather than every time you receive a message). In addition, you need to find alternate ways to communicate that don’t invade your life during and after business hours as much as e-mail. For example, using wikis or blogs to post information that people ask you for repeatedly by e-mail. Once it’s centrally available, they can check that source rather than bothering you every time.

I know there will be some readers who really believe that checking e-mail constantly is an essential job requirement. That may be the case for a minority of us. But for the rest, consider the tough words of Mary McKinney, Ph.D. of Successful Academic Coaching:

In my experience, email is the most insidious, seductive time-waster we face.

In fact, for many of us, email is a pernicious addiction.

Checking and replying to our electronically-delivered messages seems like a necessary, innocuous occupation, but it is also a major form of procrastination. [emphasis added]

There’s lots of advice and commentary on the web about how to manage e-mail better. Here is just a sampling:

Seven Tips for Dealing with E-Mail Addiction
Merlin Mann’s irreverant series on managing your inbox
Luis Suarez’ reports on giving up work e-mail at IBM
John Tropea’s guidance on Re-Purposing E-Mail

Let me close by quoting Mary McKinney again:

The basic premise of these suggestions is that our email addictions preempt conscious time management choices.



The Credible Alternative to Work

Sitting on my desk is a mug with the inscription: “Meetings — The Credible Alternative to Work.”

We’ve all had the experience of being trapped in a never-ending meeting that doesn’t appear to be accomplishing anything useful. Meetings can be hijacked by poor preparation, inadequate leadership, reluctant participants and bad conference room food, among other things. It is possible to have productive meetings, but that requires meeting leaders and participants to change the way they interact in these sessions. On the theory that it’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks, take a look at 5 Alternatives to Time-Wasting Meetings. In this post, Dustin Wax suggests the following ways to use technology to reduce the number of bad meetings:

– Instant Messaging
– Teleconferencing
– Wikis
– E-mail Lists/Groups
– Collaboration Apps

Admittedly, each of these tools has its own hazards. However, when used properly, these tools allow you to reserve face-to-face meetings for those rare occasions when it is important for everyone to be in the same room in order to make a decision. And, while you’re waiting for those rare occasions to arise, perhaps you can put your new-found time to good use by teaching an old dog some new technology tricks.


Are You Creating Problems or Solutions?

The enormous enthusiasm of web 2.0 boosters is enough to make even a Luddite wonder if maybe web 2.0 is the answer to everything that ails you. Before you indulge that line of thinking too much, take a look at Mark Shead‘s interesting description of The Two Types of Technology Users:

I noticed that some people seemed to use the technology very well and it seemed to make a big difference in their productivity. On the other hand, there was another group of people who never seemed to get much of a benefit out of their tools. What was odd, is that the ineffective group usually had newer, faster, shinier, more feature rich gadgets than the effective group.

Over time, I began to see that the difference between the two groups was fundamentally about how they approached technology. One group would spend time thinking about how they, personally, worked and what areas were slowing them down. When they came to talk to me, they usually had a very good definition of the problems that they were looking for technology to solve. We would sit down and find a more effective way of accomplishing their current activities. Sometimes it involved a new PDA or piece of software, but often it involved learning how to use a feature of something that they already had.

The second group generally spent more time at Best Buy looking over the latest PDA’s and cell phones. They also tended to talk with friends to find out what they were using. They would find out about a new feature and imagine ways that they could use it in their work. They would usually approach me looking for a specific device so they could do something that they weren’t currently doing.

For Shead, the essential difference between the two technology users is that the first one has identified a problem and has some thoughts about a reasonable solution, but is now looking for a better way to solve that problem. The second user has identified a nifty solution and is looking for a problem to apply it to.

Now, be honest. When you first heard about the wonderful range of social media tools, wasn’t your initial reaction to wonder how you could deploy them within your own law firm? It certainly was mine. Unfortunately, that puts us squarely in the company of the second technology user who is in search of a problem for which he has already found a solution.

If we were to follow the good example of the first technology user, we’d find a business process that is a work-around to a problem and then see if there is a social media tool that can deal with that problem more efficiently. However, the user needs to understand there is a problem before we try to sell them a web 2.0 solution.

In the context of law firm knowledge management, this suggests that we shouldn’t be flogging web 2.0 features in the hopes of attracting the support of lawyers who like cool toys. Instead, we should listen to the lawyers to understand better where their pain points lie and then identify the tools that can alleviate that pain. Perhaps the solution will lie in social media 2.0 tools, or perhaps not. If we treat web 2.0 tools as a panacea we will raise user expectations unfairly, thereby doing the tools a great disservice and seriously undermining the chances of a successful deployment of these tools. On the other hand, if we match the appropriate tool to a persistent problem, we should materially increase the chances of achieving a high rate of adoption and user satisfaction.

Can you really afford to do it any other way?


Freedom and Social Media within the Enterprise

One of the great strengths of social media tools is that they present very low barriers to entry in terms of ease and scope of use. As a result, users around the world have found them a relatively simple and effective way to connect with each other socially and to exercise their creative expression within a seemingly limitless range of freedom. So what happens when social media tools are brought within the enterprise? Based on experience with e-mail for business purposes and the creation of corporate intranets and websites, we know that organizations care deeply about and are held responsible for what happens using corporate technology. As a result, organizations worry about how and to what purposes their technology is used. This worry almost inevitably leads to policies, rules, and a loss of freedom for the user.

Åndrew McAfee seems comfortable with (and appears to welcome) some of the limitations on expression that will most likely be imposed by senior management. In his post, Freedom is Overrated, he observes:

Intranet versions of social networking software will clearly be different from their Internet ancestors. In some ways, I think, they’ll actually be better, because they’ll be less full of superfluous stuff that annoys many people, but that can’t easily be turned off or filtered out. Enterprise equivalents of today’s Facebook and Twitter will probably be more bland, but they might also be more addictive. Knowledge workers might visit them more often throughout the day if they know that when they do they’ll find content, rather than clutter.

Everyone agrees, I believe, that much of the value of the new social networking tools comes from the fact that they create and sustain large communities. Do they also have to let community members do whatever they want? I don’t think so. Social tools that are overlaid with norms and policies, in other words enterprise social tools, can still be highly freeform and foster emergence. They can still be fun to use and highly useful for individuals, and also generate value for the group or the organization as a whole.

In prior posts, I’ve noted that constraints on freedom are almost unavoidable when technology is adopted by an organization. But will this affect in any essential way the strength of social media tools? Once the corporate policies have been implemented, will they bleach the fun and personality out of social media interactions? And, once that happens, will anyone actually want to use the tools? Clearly, Andrew McAfee is not worried about this, but based on what I’ve seen in various organizations, I’m not so sure. Initial reaction to the technology may be positive, but it can take a long time for users to warm up to any enterprise version of a well-known application. The external and internal (enterprise) versions are like distant relatives. You can see the family resemblance, but you would never mistake one for the other.

In a subsequent post, Andrew McAfee moved away from heavy-handed restrictions imposed from above and instead proposed using technology to enable free expression within limits chosen by the users. For example, allowing users to tag tweets to indicate whether they are business-related or leisure-related. In that way, colleagues receiving the tweets can elect whether or not to limit themselves to business-related content or to view a wider range of content. Here’s how he describes the system:

But I don’t think norms and policies are as bad as all that. I don’t think they necessarily kill self-expression, individuality, serendipity, or trust-building. Norms and policies are not equivalent to a corporate mandate like “no one may use our social software to reveal that they have a life or a personality.”

But after more reflection it seems to me that norms and policies might not be the only ways to make a tool like Twitter work well for enterprise purposes. A relatively simple technical fix can also help here. If we just tweak the tweets, in other words, we can make a powerful and useful EnTwitter that overcomes the clutter problem while still letting people be as voluble as they’d like on all topics of interest to them.

If this is in fact the right approach, we’ll need to build it into our deployment of social media tools within the enterprise. And then, we’ll have to train users how to take advantage of these features to ensure rich content without running afoul of corporate rules.

Moving web 2.0 into the enterprise is a whole new game. Finding a way to adapt the technology without stripping it of its essential character in the process is the challenge. It will be interesting to see how various law firms tackle this task.