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.
  • It doesn’t really matter how great your law firm knowledge management team is at creating and planning effective KM projects if the bureaucracy of your law firm doesn’t let you get things done in a timely fashion. While all of us have experienced project delays from time to time, one of the most frequent complaints I hear about law firm KM is that it seems to move at a rate comparable to molasses in January. (Of course, there are notable and laudable exceptions to every rule.)

    Some may say that the complaints are simply the result of the whining nature of knowledge managers, but that sweeping condemnation really is not fair. Nor is it fair to say that we’re suffering from the “grass is greener on the other side” syndrome, since there are too many of us who can tell sorry tales of delayed or abandoned projects. It might be instructive to hear from Neil Richards, who has worked in law firms and who discovered it was a completely different experience to work in a bank:

    This recent exposure to life outside law firms has provided a stark contrast as to how things get done, which got me thinking. My experience and the experience of friends who work in law firms indicates that projects and plans take a long time to execute. Simply getting a project up and running can take months.

    By way of comparison, my current project has only been on the books for a short time. Internal bureaucracy is squashed, decisions are taken and progress is made on a daily basis. The bank has well over 100,000 employees, easily more than the combined sum of the employees of the top 10 UK law firms.

    While a sample of one is neither scientific nor dispositive, Neil’s experience as recorded in his blog post, Life in the fast lane, is instructive. And, it probably accords with what we’ve been suspecting for some time.

    So what accounts for the difference between KM in a law firm versus KM in other types of businesses? Is it that a partnership inherently operates differently from a company? Do law firms lack the vision and leadership to get KM projects done? Is it that law firms aren’t really geared to operate as effective businesses? Are bureaucratic rivalries more prevalent in law firms? Do IT departments in banks understand the value of knowledge management better than IT departments in law firms?

    As with most things, you can’t always generalize. It’s best to ask these questions in the context of your own firm. How does your law firm stack up against the bank Neil is working for? Can you honestly say that at your firm, “[i]nternal bureaucracy is squashed, decisions are taken and progress is made on a daily basis”? If not, why not?

    Perhaps once we have answers to these questions, we’ll be able to get a little bit closer to what Neil has had the pleasure of enjoying at that bank:

    What I do know is that it’s remarkably more satisfying to work in an environment where one’s own brain is the bottleneck as opposed to the inner machinations of one’s firm, and that means it will continue to be challenging for firms to keep the high-performers within their back-office.

    So pay attention to this issue. Neil’s experience contains both a warning and a goal. If you can’t deliver KM projects in a timely fashion, not only will you have trouble hanging on to the best members of your team, but you and your KM effort will lose credibility within your firm. By contrast, when you’re finally at the point where your “own brain is the bottleneck,” you’ll have hit the sweet spot for law firm knowledge management. And then, the sky’s the limit!

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  • I’ve taken the plunge. Yesterday I decided that I couldn’t publish another post about Twitter without trying it out for myself. So here I am 24-hours later — a Twitter neophyte. Luckily, I’ve found some kind guides in @dougcornelius, @stevematthews and @jackvinson. Thank you, gentlemen.

    A single day does not an expert make. Nonetheless, one of the first things that struck me as I tried tweeting today was that Twitter’s 140 character limit can be a real challenge. This, of course, led me to the following conclusion: every lawyer should be encouraged to tweet. Regular use of Twitter would teach the discipline of being concise. No more run on sentences. No room for legalese. More short, declarative, pithy phrases. For those of us who endorse a Plain English approach, this is nirvana.

    So based on my one day’s worth of experience, I’d suggest that we start promoting Twitter in our law firms. If we’re really lucky, it could change legal writing for the better. (Okay, I admit that I’m getting a little carried away here. Chalk it up to the enthusiasm of a beginner.)

    For others interested in taking the plunge, here’s a great introduction to Twitter by Meg Roberts, with some helpful links to get you started.

    4 Comments
  • As discussed in my post, Overcoming Hurdles to Web 2.0, the rate at which law firms have adopted web 2.0 has not been impressive. There seems to be a great deal of organizational resistance to giving up the “command and control” approach to knowledge management and moving to a more dynamic, grassroots approach. And, because of the slow rate of adoption among law firms, law firm knowledge managers can’t even point to the Web 2.0 successes of many other law firms in order to goad their own firm into implementing social media tools. In this environment, it’s easy to ask “why bother with web 2.0″?

    If your firm is stuck in the KM 1.0 rut, take a look at the impressive results of a shift from KM 1.0 to KM 2.0 at Cap Gemini. In his post, From CoLLection to CoNNection, Jon Husband reports on a presentation by Yves Noble at KMWorld & Intranets 2008 in which he recounts the fantastic success of Cap Gemini’s adoption of web 2.0.

    The post contains Jon’s live-blogging notes, so it is in sound bites rather than paragraphs. Nonetheless, it contains some real gems. Here, for example, are the notes on Cap Gemini’s situation under the KM 1.0/”Collection” model:

    Problems with old KM Solution ?

    Plenty of good content, well-organized, well-structured – but people did not use it

    20% year-over-year decline in use

    Average age [of] document in the system 3.5 years

    7 years to refresh knowledge content (wow, papyrus grows faster than that)

    Complex and confusing for non-experts

    Many disconnects between tools, processes and the organisation

    Costly infrastructure

    And here’s what happened when they switched to using web 2.0 tools and a “Connection” model:

    Speed and scope of adoption (official deployment has not yet started)

    27,00 registered users

    900 communities

    500 forums

    500 wikis

    250 blogs

    .. and have not spent even $1.00 in “communications” thus far

    Remember these are the results before official deployment! It’s enough to make most folks in law firm knowledge management bright green with envy.

    Take a closer look at this presentation. It covers everything from the state of their old system, through the long process of moving minds and implementing new tools, to their stunning results. The Cap Gemini experience is a great answer to the question “why bother with Web 2.0.”

    Yves Noble provides a valuable road map. Follow it!

    1 Comment
  • Who needs caffeine on a Saturday morning if you can have a Knowledge Jolt instead? I was about to put the kettle on this morning and stopped to check my Google Reader. That’s where I found Jack Vinson‘s post, A Study of KM bloggers, in which he reports on a recent “explorative study” by Pumacy Technologies that analyzes metrics on a variety of knowledge management blogs.

    Looking at the month of August, they considered frequency of posting, number of comments, Google page rank and Alexa rankings. (There may be other criteria as well, but we’ll have to wait for Pumacy Technologies to explain further.) In any event, they’ve provided a list of over 50 KM blogs, sorted by blog activity.

    Since I’m always interested in finding new KM blogs to add to my personal reading mix, I decided to click through to take a look at the blogs Pumacy Technologies identified. For regular KM blog consumers, most of the names on the blog list will not be surprising. Some of the best and most active commentators in this discipline are on that list. For example, Jack’s blog shows up as #11. What surprised me was that Above and Beyond KM was on the list as well as #15!

    A closer look revealed that some good KM blogs were not on the list. While we don’t have a complete explanation of the study criteria from Pumacy Technologies, a quick review of the list indicates that they seemed to be tracking blogs that cover knowledge management generally as opposed to highly specialized knowledge management blogs.

    In any event, do take a look at the list. You’ll find some well-known, well-established KM bloggers there. However, you’re also bound to discover a few new KM bloggers who have interesting things to say. So explore the list, read the blogs and join the conversation.

    Above and Beyond KM began on January 21, 2008. Thanks to Pumacy for giving me this great way to celebrate 8 months of blogging.

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  • It’s a sad commentary on life in a web 2.0 world when a successful social networker discovers that there’s an inverse relationship between the size of her network and the quality of her network. Corvida, guest blogging on Chris Brogan’s blog, recently disclosed that she’s decreasing her connections while increasing her network. And it’s not a good thing. Here’s how it works: when she had no more than 400 (!) followers on Twitter, she claims she was able to make real connections with them. As she put it,

    I knew who the majority of my followers were, thereby enabling me to utilize Twitter to its maximum potential. I was able to connect, refer, analyze, and reflect on what I was getting from my followers.

    Unfortunately, Corvida has been a victim of her own cybersuccess. Here’s her description of her current sorry state:

    Now, I couldn’t tell you who half of my followers are. I really don’t know who I’m following and who I’m not following. I don’t even know why certain people are following me. In turn, my conversation on Twitter has deteriorated along with the amount of time I used to spend on Twitter.

    Corvida has hit the Twitter Wall. She can grow her network of followers infinitely, but she can’t sustain a human connection with all of them. When this happens, it leads to some perfectly predictable results: a loss of energy, a loss of interest, a loss of enjoyment.

    There’s a limit to the number of meaningful relationships any human being can nurture on a regular basis. While web 2.0 tools provide an easy way to make contact, that ease can also get in the way of focusing on the relationships that matter. We’ve been swept up in the allure of easy connections and they are cluttering our lives.

    That’s when we hit the Twitter Wall or the Facebook Wall or the LinkedIn Wall. At that point, what exactly do you do with the 500+ or 1000+ people who think they have a claim on you? As Corvida points out, now we’ve got a problem:

    We don’t have a clue on where to begin to make deeper connections as our networks continue to grow. In turn, things may just get out of hand. You start adding people just because they added you with no desire to establish a real relationship with anyone that you haven’t already befriended beforehand.

    Corvida wonders if we just need better electronic tools? I don’t think so. What we need is a bit more focus and discipline. (These are key to any successful personal knowledge management effort.) While size matters with respect to certain issues, quality matters much more than size if you want a meaningful social network. Perhaps someday someone will come up with a great (open source) social media tool that ensures quality relationships within a network, but until then we’ll have to do it the old-fashioned way: identify the folks that matter in our lives and then focus on developing a meaningful relationship with them.

    It’s either that or face an extended period hitting our heads against the Twitter Wall.

    2 Comments
  • In yesterday’s post I discussed the value of thought experiments (in the right hands) and outlined a thought experiment that could help you break out of a rut in your law firm knowledge management program. Today, I’d like to propose another horizon-expanding thought experiment.

    What if you could start your KM program from scratch and had the ability to create the perfect law firm KM program by cherry-picking the best elements from the KM programs of other law firms?

    - Which elements would you choose?
    - Why?
    - What changes would you make to adapt them to your environment?
    - What changes would you make to improve their functionality?
    - Which elements of your own KM program would you keep?
    - How would you enhance them?

    This is not intended as an exercise to feed the green-eyed monster that sits on your shoulder. Nor is it intended to send you into the depths of depression. The point of this exercise is to get you thinking critically about what a great KM program in your law firm could look like, drawing on the successes of your colleagues. This should help you with goal setting and priority setting. There’s a wealth of knowledge management experience in your peer firms. This is a way to gather those riches and analyze them objectively, with a view to improving the offerings of your own law firm knowledge management effort.

    If you don’t get past the wish list phase of this thought experiment, you won’t get much value from the exercise. You really need to push your analysis to be sure you understand what makes a law firm knowledge management program great and what would make that great program successful in your law firm. With that knowledge, you can move a substantial distance on the path to running a KM program that your colleagues in other law firms would love to steal.

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  • Thought experiments are a useful tool for trying things out for size, before you actually commit money and resources. Of course, they aren’t always as highly predictive as a well-designed pilot, but they can be very valuable — in the right hands. If you don’t believe me, ask Walter Isaacson who made the following observation in his biography about Albert Einstein:

    Based purely on thought experiments — performed in his head rather than in a lab — [Einstein] decided to discard Newton’s concepts of absolute space and time. It would become known as the Special Theory of Relativity. [And, resulting from this thought experiment, he proposed an addendum in which] he posited a relationship between energy and mass. Out of it would arise the best-known equation in all of physics: E=mc2.

    Now, don’t get me wrong. You don’t have to be Einstein to perform a successful thought experiment. You just need to set aside a little time and really probe a question (or group of questions) to see where the answers lead you. It’s not necessarily about finding a single solution as much as it is about sensing a new direction and opening new vistas for your planning

    So here’s today’s thought experiment: What if you had a knowledge management R&D budget?

    (And what, you might ask, is a KM R&D budget? It’s an amount of time, money and resources set aside for research and development, which in our case means to try new tools and techniques in a sandbox before you get to a proof of concept or pilot. It’s a way of expanding your horizons and seeing if an approach that’s worked elsewhere will work in your environment. It’s an experiment without a huge price tag. It’s a chance to do an end run around the mandatory six to 18 months of IT business analysis so that you have some relevant evidence on which to build your business case. It’s a chance to explore, a chance to play with purpose.)

    So let’s resume the thought experiment: What if you had a KM R&D budget?

    - how much would you need?
    - how would you justify it?
    - what would you do with it?
    - who would you involve?

    To do this right, you should set aside at least 20 minutes to think this through. At a minimum, it will be diverting. If you’re lucky, this thought experiment could push your knowledge management effort in a whole new and productive direction.

    As was once said, the only difference between a rut and a grave is the depth. Save yourself from the rut (and an early grave) by indulging in this thought experiment often. It might well give you and your law firm knowledge management effort a new lease on life.

    3 Comments
  • Do you know where your records are?

    Simon Chester, blogging at Slaw, reports on a disturbing trend of missing government records:

    Countless federal records are being lost to posterity because federal employees, grappling with a staggering growth in electronic records, do not regularly preserve the documents they create on government computers, send by e-mail and post on the Web.

    Unfortunately, this problem is not confined to government. The flood of electronic information is not being captured effectively by all law firms. Lawyers, legal assistants and secretaries can’t stay on top of their e-mail and are falling behind in their efforts to put their electronic correspondence in their firm’s records management system.

    This is a major law firm knowledge management problem. Not only does this correspondence contain valuable know-how, but in some cases it constitutes an important part of a client’s record file. Yet gaps persist and the problem grows in magnitude.

    Some firms have tried to address this by making it mandatory to file client-related e-mails in their central records system. Others have encouraged lawyers to do the right thing and have even offered relatively easy tools and training sessions to help with the process. However, far too many firms have effectively closed their eyes to the problem, evidently hoping that it will just go away of its own accord.

    Document retention policy? Hardly. But, these chickens will come home to roost some day, most likely in the form of an unpleasant law suit. Is your firm prepared for that eventuality or is it in denial about its records mismanagement? Now’s the time to ask the tough questions and implement some sensible solutions.

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  • Clay Shirky has fired a shot across the bow of every person who ever complained that they couldn’t get things done because of information overload. He suggests that our current approach to the Internet has infantalized users. As he points out, there have always been more books in any given bookstore than you can read in one sitting. So how do you deal with it? You make choices based on quality, price, needs, interests and personal taste. Now contrast that with the multitude of materials to read on the Internet? Do we make intelligent choices? More often than not, we abdicate personal responsibility and resort to complaining about information overload. The main difference between the bookstore and the Internet is the price of the information presented. Now that we have access to a vast array of free information, we can’t use the price filter. However, there is nothing about the virtual information source that relieves the consumer of the necessity of making choices based on the other filters of quality, needs, interests and personal taste.

    For some, law firm knowledge management’s answer has been to spoonfeed the lawyers by using administrative staff and tech tools to scour the resources, make editorial choices, and then pass on the cream of the crop to the lawyers. And, we lawyers have enjoyed the service, while complaining when those editors don’t quite make the right choices. However, the minute the editor (virtual or real) disappears, the lawyers find themselves on the wrong end of the firehose of information with no personal tools for managing the flood. This creates a class of people who know how to consume fish, but haven’t been taught to fish. That’s failure of knowledge management and information technology training. It’s a place where basic instruction in personal knowledge management can yield great dividends.

    Continuing the fish metaphor, Clay Shirky says, “we are to information overload as fish are to water. It’s what we swim in.” So, from his perpective, it’s time we stopped bemoaning the existence of our information environment and started paying closer attention to the filters we use. His advice: whenever it feels like you’re drowning in information, stop and take a look to see if you can identify which of your information filters just broke. And, my advice? None of this works if you don’t have a sensible set of personal information filters. So the onus is on you to find and use tools that tailor the information to your interests, needs and tastes. While law firm knowledge management can provide lawyers with some basic personal KM training and help identify useful tools, each individual lawyer has got to quit the moaning and start taking personal responsibility for the quality and quantity of information they process daily.

    You can’t (and probably don’t want to) stop the information flow. All you can do is manage it effectively so that it doesn’t wrestle you to the floor every day. Good luck!

    For more on this topic, see the video of Clay Shirky’s presentation.

    [Thanks to Gina Trapani for pointing out this Shirky presentation.]

    8 Comments
  • There are some bright shining examples of web 2.0 implementations in law firms and then there are the vast majority of the web 1.0 firms. While it may be natural for law firm knowledge management personnel in web 1.0 firms to envy their counterparts in that relatively small group of web 2.0 firms, it’s not a terribly productive exercise. It’s more useful to analyze and address the issues that are holding the web 1.0 firms back.

    Ruth Ward, head of knowledge systems and development at Allen & Overy LLP mentions a common web 2.0 hurdle in her article Know-how to network:

    Drilling down from firm-wide initiatives, practice and team communities and project spaces have been at the heart of A&O’s Web 2.0 work for a number of years. We have used the same site build for over 50 sites – to improve cross-border communication and collaboration among practice groups and business teams divided by geography and time zones, and to manage business projects and initiatives more effectively. Activity on most of these member-specific sites centres on news, discussions and Q&As on the group blog, but the sites also include a wiki to use as a shared knowledge base or to collaborate on documents and reports and external newsfeeds using RSS and shared bookmarks. Our experience is that these sites work much more effectively than the traditional email, document management (DM) and intranet toolset, and my experience from talking with many law firms and legal departments over the past few years is that most people can immediately see how they would benefit their own business teams – if only they could get the IT buy-in either to buy or build them! [emphasis added]

    Is the IT department the stumbling block in your firm? Why? Is it because the knowledge management group has failed to articulate clearly the business case for web 2.0? Is it because the IT folks in your firm are inherently uncomfortable with emerging technology and won’t take a risk on anything that isn’t widely seen as mature technology? Is it because IT sees the technology as being beneficial only to KM rather than the entire firm? Is it because your IT staff are really dinosaurs in drag? Until you’ve answered these questions, it’s hard to identify a strategy to overcome this hurdle.

    Another objection, is that law firm decision makers can’t seem to think about social media tools without thinking about teens running wild on the internet. Ruth Ward puts it a little differently:

    Social tools and networks can bring real business value, especially in a professional-services setting. But many partners and practices seem to struggle to get beyond their press-led perceptions of Facebook and Wikipedia, and their natural scepticism of blogging.

    Either way, this is about managers not understanding that most of us behave differently at work than we do in our social lives. We know that we’re expected to conform to specific rules in the workplace and usually are happy to comply in exchange for a paycheck. And, when the occasional renegade mixes up their office staff directory with their personal Facebook page, peer pressure (or a gentle nudge from their supervisor) should bring them back into line.

    Another common problem is the natural conservatism and skepticism of lawyers, which often makes them reluctant to be the first to adopt new technology. I call this the Early Adoption Aversion Syndrome (EAASy) , but others might more charitably characterize it as an excessive reliance on precedent. In firms afflicted with Early Adoption Aversion Syndrome, partners and managers invariably ask what peer firms are doing with respect to the particular technology you’re trying to implement. This means that an important part of your business case needs to be a good survey of those firms. I’d encourage you to read the rest of Ruth Ward’s article to learn about the success Allen & Overy has been having with web 2.0. Doug Cornelius at KMSpace is another great resource for information about web 2.0 generally, and about Goodwin Procter, specifically. Ron Friedmann at Strategic Legal Technology regularly reports on innovative uses of technology by law firms.

    We’re not quite at the tipping point regarding web 2.0 adoption in law firms. That makes each decision to proceed with web 2.0 tools now critical for everyone in the legal industry. Once the tipping point occurs, the only question law firm managers will be asking of law firm knowledge management personnel is, why did you let us fall behind the competition?

    4 Comments