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.
  • Do you remember the conversations we had within law firms when we began to consider permitting desktop access to the Internet? Everyone focused on the potential loss of productivity. To be fair, that can be a problem. You don’t have to walk far in any office to find someone surfing the net. Equally, you don’t have to walk far to find someone using e-mail or the telephone for personal business during business hours. Regardless of the type of technology tool (e.g., the web, e-mail or the phone), people can always find non-business ways of using that tool.

    Nonetheless, withholding technology for fear of productivity losses is a little like trying to put blinders on your people to keep them focused on work. The problem is that while this strategy works with horses, it’s considerably less successful with people. Never underestimate the creativity of a person determined not to work.

    As various enterprises now consider bringing the benefits of social media tools within their firewalls, they can be overly-concerned with the negative aspects of social networking and fail to appreciate the potential productivity gains. As reported by Atul Rai in IBM and Social Networking, while IBM had some initial qualms about productivity losses resulting from new social media tools, the powers-that-be decided that the risk was no greater than the normal tendency to have conversations over the water cooler or in the hallway about nonwork-related topics. Now that IBM has deployed social media tools to wide acclaim, they’ve discovered that the tools don’t interfere with an employee’s ability to meet work goals. In fact, the tools have provided significant productivity benefits.

    This seems like a good point to suggest that instead of withholding tools in an attempt to force employees to focus on work, we should take a closer look at what really allows people to work well.

    In a recent series of posts, Daniel Pink reported on an interview he did with Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson, authors of the book Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It. In their book they propose a Results-Only Work Environment (ROWE). According to Pink, key features of a ROWE are: “people show up to the office when they want, meetings are optional, and nobody’s watching the clock.” (This is a far cry from most offices.) The bottom line is that “each person in an office environment is free to do whatever they want, whenever they want, as long as the work gets done. ” [emphasis added]

    One common worry raised by critics is that employees won’t be able to handle a ROWE (i.e., they aren’t grown up enough to be responsible for their own time and performance). Here’s how the authors respond to that criticism:

    … how do you know that some people can’t handle ROWE? Don’t assume what you don’t know. If you and your employees work on the clear expectations that are expected in order for them to keep their job, then set them free to reach their outcomes. Worrying that some people can’t handle ROWE is a waste of time. It’s paternalistic thinking that just doesn’t have a place in the 21st century. We’ve found that there is so much productivity being left on the table in companies because managers are orchestrating everything according to their liking. Unleash the untapped potential around you – it’s waiting to come out!

    In a law firm that charges by the billable hour, there is a natural fixation on time and how that time is spent. Further, many law firms tend to be populated by inherently conservative people who have a hard time thinking about radical changes to their work style or work environment. However, if we could look past the billable hour for a moment, we’d realize that in a ROWE it doesn’t matter if a wonderful tech tool also provides a handy distraction since it’s ultimately up to the individual employee to meet their performance goals in a timely manner. Therefore, as long as the firm provides useful tools, it’s the employee’s responsibility to use those tools wisely — or not. In this way, the employer gives up the nanny role and gets to spend more time setting strategy, hiring good people, and then letting those people loose to meet strategic goals.

    This should be the new mantra for law firm knowledge management and information technology specialists: instead of micromanaging employees to make them work, just articulate clear expectations and performance goals, provide great tools, and then set them free to work as they see fit. Don’t shy away from web 2.0 technology simply because you are concerned about the social aspects of the tools. When you try to put blinders on your people, you fail. Instead of hampering their ability to goof off, you hamper their ability to work. In effect, instead of blinders, you’re putting handcuffs on them. Now how is that conducive to work?

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  • From time to time, this blog discusses various constant elements of human nature. Usually, we focus on the unwillingness of folks to do what they don’t want to do and why this affects the adoption of new technology tools or knowledge management systems. The last few days and weeks have reminded us that there are other aspects of human nature that don’t ever seem to change. If you’re not sure about this, take a look at the following excerpt from a congressional report:

    “During the post­war decade some 50 billions of new securities were floated in the United States. Fully half or $25,000,000,000 worth of securities floated during this period have been proved to be worthless. These cold figures spell tragedy in the lives of thousands of individuals who invested their life savings, accumulated after years of effort, in these worthless securities. The flotation of such a mass of essentially fraudulent securities was made possible because of the complete abandonment by many underwriters and dealers in securities of those standards of fair, honest and prudent dealing that should be basic to the encouragement of investment in any enterprise. Alluring promises of vast wealth were freely made with little or no attempt to bring to the investor’s attention those facts essential to estimating the worth of any security. High­pressure salesmanship rather than careful counsel was the rule in this most dangerous of enterprises.” **

    This report wasn’t written this week — it was written during the Great Depression. Nonetheless, it resonates in a week where we’ve seen large financial institutions fail and unimaginable turmoil in the capital markets.

    One of the functions of KM 1.0 is to capture and make available for reuse helpful information objects. Consider this post my knowledge management contribution to the inevitable post-mortem report that is yet to be written. Congress can entitle the report, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

    [** Source: H.R. Rep. No. 85, 73rd Cong., 1st Sess. (1933).]

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  • A commentator on the economy described our current travails as “constructive destruction.” Clearly this optimist believes that good will come out of our economic troubles. In some ways, this is not dissimilar to the fertilizing benefits of a forest fire. Short term pain for long term gain.

    Since law firms are so dependent on market forces, it is a rare firm that can ignore the economic turmoil around it and continue with business as usual. For law firm knowledge management departments, there will undoubtedly be a period of retrenchment as everyone tries to hold the line on budgets until we have more clarity about the direction of the economy. This gives law firm knowledge managers a couple of choices: you can grit your teeth and trim where you think you’ll feel the least pain OR you can take the opportunity to engage in a little constructive destruction.

    Constructive destruction, in this context, means identifying programs that may be working decently, but not optimally. Consider what would be required to get them to optimal operations. And then consider whether that is an investment worth making, regardless of current economic conditions. If the answer is yes, make the investment. If the answer is no, kill the program. That’s the destruction part of constructive destruction.

    The harder part of constructive destruction comes with being constructive. Here are a few ideas to get you pointed in the right direction:

    1. Before you destroy a program, make sure you’ve milked it for all the learning it can offer. There’s absolutely no need to repeat your mistakes.

    2. Once you’ve destroyed a program, be sure to redeploy the newly-free resources to achieve something better. Don’t let them just lie around.

    Painful though it may be, constructive destruction is an approach used regularly by Mother Nature and, it appears, by market forces. Try applying it to your KM program and see what benefits accrue.

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  • Are you tempted by the idea of Twitter inside the firewall? For true Twitter junkies, it may be nearly irresistible. And, now, we’re hearing about some new Twitter-clones that are designed to operate within enterprises. However, before you start pushing this as the next big thing for law firm knowledge management, consider the following: What existing workflow or tool will Twitter replace or enhance within your law firm?

    In my earlier post, Are You Creating Problems or Solutions, I discussed the negative repercussions of pushing a tool versus identifying a current way of doing things that could be done better with a little technical assistance. In the case of Twitter, it could be an obvious substitute for IM. However, how many law firms have overcome their record retention questions and discovery phobia to the extent that they have actually implemented a robust IM program? If your lawyers are not IMing now, why would they start Twittering?

    Alternatively, if you are in one of those rare firms where the lawyers unfailingly inform their assistants exactly where they may be found at all times, a Twitter-like tool could be a nice enhancement. However, if your lawyers tend to wander off at will, why do you think Twitter will change that behavior?

    For more issues to consider before you promote a Twitter clone within your law firm, see Lee Bryant‘s helpful post on the Headshift blog, It’s like Twitter, but for …. (For those of you who have read this far, but aren’t entirely sure you understand what Twitter or Microblogging is all about or how it might operate within a law firm, take a look at the following post by Björn Negelman (recommended by Lee Bryant): Microblogging as a Corporate Tool.)

    Now, before you start jumping up and down, let me be clear. This is not intended as a screed against technology generally or Twitter (or Yammer or ESME or laconi.ca) specifically. It is just a reminder that no technology is a silver bullet. As knowledge management experts will tell you time and time again, you need the right people and processes in place first or else your new tech toy will fall flat on its face.

    Consider yourself warned.

    Update: See also Jevon MacDonald’s post, Will you Twitter inside the enterprise and Jeremiah Owyang’s List of Enterprise Microblogging Tools: Twitter for the Intranet.

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  • It’s hard not to feel a little hung over after a weekend binge that included Hurricane Ike, the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the sale of Merrill Lynch and the potential restructuring of AIG. As we return to our offices this morning and our safe debates about taxonomy and technology, web 1.0 vs web 2.0, mandatory participation in knowledge management efforts vs incentives for voluntary KM participation, it’s a good time to remember why we do what we do: to ensure that the right information is in the right hands at the right time so that decision makers can make better decisions. After the past weekend’s binge, it’s hard not to wonder about the quality of decision making that preceded the debacle. It may be years before we learn (if we ever do) whether any of these firms or the government agencies involved (i.e., the Federal Reserve and the Treasury Department) had viable knowledge management programs and what impact those programs had.

    Law firms aren’t immune from the hubris that seems to affect the financial sector and we certainly suffer the effects of the decisions made on Wall Street. In light of that reality, we should take a second look at our law firm knowledge management programs. To the extent we even can “manage knowledge,” are we working with the right knowledge? Do the decision makers actually use our resources? If the answers to either of those questions is no, then you need to ask why. In times of turmoil, it’s more important than ever to be relevant. If knowledge management isn’t in the thick of things and making a difference, then why are we doing what we’re doing?
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  • If you’ve got a generous budget and an appropriately-sized, energetic, motivated and productive staff, you can stop reading now. Clearly you’ve got more assets than most knowledge managers and must, as a result, be achieving great things in the world of knowledge management. If, however, you aren’t so fortunate, you might want to read further.

    In this political season (or as one of the presidential candidates called it, this “silly season“), there’s a lot of talk about leadership. Unsurprisingly, much of that discussion is superficial. When you look back at some great leaders in this country, you realize that some of the talents they brought to the table are innate and simply cannot be purchased or developed. For example, George Washington was universally known as a great leader and, undoubtedly, that reputation was due to more than the mere fact that he was often the tallest man in the room. However, while having an imposing physical size was not sufficient, it certainly was helpful. Unfortunately, that’s exactly the sort of asset that is hard to purchase or develop. A different kind of asset is the moral compass Abraham Lincoln had or the personal courage Theodore Roosevelt had. While they may have been flawed men in many ways, they also had enormous strengths that ultimately made a huge difference in how they led and what they accomplished for this country.

    For the purposes of this discussion, however, it’s useful to put Franklin Roosevelt front and center in your mind. The manner in which he led involved methods that can be developed in adult life. Furthermore, we are learning now that some of these methods are critical to good leadership in modern enterprises. Here are a few of these methods for your consideration:

    How you deliver the message matters as much as the message itself

    In day to day leadership, one of the most critical things you do is communicate what’s important and how it is to be accomplished. What isn’t always understood is that the way you communicate matters as much as (if not more, sometimes, than) the message itself. Looking back at FDR, he was very careful in his public appearances to project vitality, strength and optimism. But this was not just for show. Most of us, after all, have fairly good personal radar for detecting insincerity. Rather, he was able to project these things successfully because he believed them himself, truly embodied them, and had great faith in his overriding purpose.

    Bruce MacEwen of Adam Smith Esq. reports on a study that compared the results of communicating a positive performance review accompanied by negative body language (e.g., frowns, narrowed eyes, flat voice, etc.) with communicating a negative performance review accompanied by positive body language (e.g., smiles, nods, good eye contact, open hand gestures, etc.) What the study found is striking: people who received positive reviews delivered with negative body language felt worse about their performance than people who received negative reviews delivered with positive body language. The latter felt encouraged and capable of making improvements. This study puts a premium on intentionality and clarity in leadership. You need to be sure that you are coherent and consistent in what you say AND how you say it.

    Leadership is about more than achieving personal acclaim

    By the time he became president, FDR had already been governor of a great state and had all the benefits of having grown up in one of the country’s leading families. He really didn’t need to burnish his résumé. Unfortunately, too many business “leaders” are in it for the glory and not as many have a cause truly worth fighting for. FDR had several Herculean tasks, including bringing the country out of the Great Depression and curtailing fascism. Are you working for anything more than your ego and your résumé?

    Leadership means developing the best in others

    One of the hallmarks of FDR’s leadership was that he understood that historic times required historic efforts. To that end, he called on the people of the United States to give more than the they thought they could give and be more than they thought they could be. History tells us that they answered that call.

    FDR clearly understood that at the end of the day, leadership is not about you, it’s about the people you serve and lead. We now know that there are also some compelling business reasons for focusing on them rather than on yourself. An exhaustive study at Bell Laboratories followed the career trajectories of engineers in an attempt to identify the traits of star performers and determine how to recruit and retain the best engineers. In his paper, “Are We Selling Results or Résumés?: The Underexplored Linkage between Human Resource Strategies and Firm-Specific Capital,” William D. Henderson reports that what they found was striking:

    - researchers found no relationship between performance and various social, psychological, and cognitive abilities, such as I.Q
    - higher productivity among knowledge workers was attributable to several distinctive work strategies that were teachable
    - controlled experiments showed large and persistent productivity gains for engineers who completed the training program, with women and minority workers posting the largest increases [emphasis added]

    What this suggests is that building a great team depends less on recruiting stars, and more on how you develop the people who work with you. A great leader will take the time and make the effort to ensure their team learns the “distinctive work strategies” for success that the researchers at Bell Labs found were “teachable.”

    In knowledge management, as in politics or any other discipline, good leadership is a rare asset. Those of us who have it will be ahead of the pack. The good news is that even members of that pack can develop some of the attributes of good leadership. And, when they do, we’ll all be much better off.

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  • It’s cloudy today here in New York City. Even though the sky is not the bright, sparkling, optimistic blue it was early in the morning of September 11, 2001, there are plenty of other reminders of the events of that day.

    In the aftermath of 9/11, we learned that the government in fact had much of the information that it needed to be aware of and counteract the 9/11 plot. However, some of that information was located in silos and protected by departmental rivalries. According to the 9/11 Commission’s Report:

    The FBI did not have the capability to link the collective knowledge of agents in the field to national priorities.

    The missed opportunities to thwart the 9/ 11 plot were also symptoms of a broader inability to adapt the way government manages problems to the new challenges of the twenty-first century. Action officers should have been able to draw on all available knowledge about al Qaeda in the government. Management should have ensured that information was shared and duties were clearly assigned across agencies, and across the foreign-domestic divide. … The U. S. government did not find a way of pooling intelligence and using it to guide the planning and assignment of responsibilities for joint operations involving entities as disparate as the CIA, the FBI, the State Department, the military, and the agencies involved in homeland security.

    If there was ever an instance in which knowledge sharing and collaboration could have made a difference, that’s the one.

    If we are fortunate, we’ll never again have to face so grave a test of our government’s knowledge management capabilities. If we are wise, we’ll take the lessons to heart and do something to increase the culture of collaboration and knowledge sharing within the government and within our own enterprises.

    Since 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, some have spent time thinking about how to improve knowledge sharing and thereby improve our ability to respond to disasters and emergencies. David Bray, a doctoral candidate at Emory’s business school, is one such person. On 9/11, he was the information technology chief for Bioterrorism Preparedness Response Program at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In that role, he saw first-hand the KM failures within the government. This experience deeply informs his research. Here is a glimpse at what he is studying, as reported in Knowledge @ Emory:

    “I saw several instances where this workforce of 1.2 million government workers, not counting contractors—which is probably another 800,000—had significant disconnects. In fact that’s what the 9/11 report specifically comes out as saying: the United States did not connect the dots across multiple agencies,” explains Bray, currently a doctoral candidate at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School. “There were times with our program where we knew something at the trench level, tried to pass it up the hierarchy, but unfortunately it never got anywhere. Events like Hurricane Katrina, 9/11, anthrax, occur in part because organizational structures in which we trust, particularly for government—but also for most large businesses—aren’t built to respond quickly to turbulent environments,” contends Bray. “And now, in part because of globalization and also because of technology, things can change so quickly half a world away.”

    In his paper “Exploration and Exploitation: Managing Knowledge in Turbulent Environments,” Bray, along with Goizueta co-author Michael J. Prietula, a professor of information systems and operations management who also researches responses to disasters, develop a theoretical model about knowledge management in organizational hierarchies. Bray extends an existing model of exploration and exploitation to consider the context of multi-tier hierarchical firms faced with environmental turbulence, and then considers whether a knowledge management system that enhances knowledge exchanges across the organization alters the ability of the organization to match the conditions of a turbulent environment. Bray’s model considers different management approaches, such as a bottom-up cultivation strategy or a top-down command-and-control strategy.

    “We wanted to explore whether having a top-down or bottom-up strategy would help or hurt organizational hierarchies when faced with environmental turbulence” says Bray. “We specifically were testing the idea that while top-down hierarchies may be great at command and control and maintaining internal control and reality, they’re bad at addressing a changing outside environment; a change in the marketplace, a change in competition, or an emerging national security threat.”

    Bray’s research finds strong evidence that top-down hierarchies that stress command and control are ineffective in managing knowledge in turbulent environments because they decrease a hierarchical organization’s ability to maintain accuracy with its outside environment. [Emphasis added]

    The work of David Bray and Michael Prietula suggests that bottom-up collaboration and knowledge sharing is the most effective way of keeping knowledge silos and human rivalries from hoarding critical information in times of change. And, because of the culture of collaboration, this sharing allows us to make better decisions and respond more effectively to the unexpected.

    On the anniversary of September 11, 2001, it’s good to know that we’ve actually learned something and are headed, albeit slowly and fitfully, in the right direction.

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  • Most knowledge management treatises and guides will tell you that it is hard to carry out an enterprise wide knowledge management program without the full support of senior management. Unfortunately, within a lot of enterprises the members of senior management are sometimes those least likely to understand or use a KM system. Therefore, their support can be theoretical and that gets communicated to the rank and file as a lukewarm endorsement. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to guess how the rank and file react to a mandate from above that doesn’t seem to have any teeth.

    With respect to law firm knowledge management the problem is widespread. The senior partners or administrative partners will certainly understand on paper the potential benefits of a knowledge management program. They may even remember back to the days when they were junior associates facing a new assignment without models or practice guides. However, they’ve come a long way since then and have platoons of associates under them who deal with those issues firsthand. And, with that distance comes a loss of urgency to pursue knowledge management.
    Another problem that arises in law firm knowledge management occurs when senior lawyers have acted on their natural tendencies to create order out of chaos and have developed personal knowledge management systems that increase their own efficiency. Even when presented with a reasonably-effective firm wide knowledge management system, they are often reluctant to give up their own tried and true approach.
    Finally, there’s the culture of most law firms: an aggregation of people who are fiercely autonomous and largely introverted; people who wish to practice law, but don’t always want the bother of running an efficient business. These folks cherish their independence and only grudgingly submit to community edicts and systems. It’s hard to sell KM systems to these lawyers until you’ve answered adequately their fundamental question: what’s in it for me?
    I’m still working on effective solutions to all of these problems, but found it instructive to look at a case in which the “top brass” truly supports the KM program. The top brass I have in mind are senior managers in the US Army. In his article, Army Retools Knowledge Culture, Brian Robinson reports that the Army has taken a decisive move away from its 2001 position of focusing its knowledge management efforts on information technology. They have now decided they need to broaden their focus to encompass people and culture, process, and technology — in that order. Further, they are taking the radical step of moving away from a culture that fiercely protects the security of information to a culture that emphasizes openness and information sharing:

    The culture has historically protected information closely and released it on a must-know basis. Now, Army managers need to learn to see broad information sharing as a natural military skill.

    “It’s all about increasing collaboration, and that has huge implications for warfighters,” said Bob Neilson, knowledge management adviser to the Army’s chief information officer. “It’s about not only sharing information but having the responsibility to provide knowledge across the enterprise.”

    The 2008 knowledge management principles adopt the move to collaboration that is increasingly prevalent in society:

    The creation of a collaborative culture is embedded throughout the list of 12 principles and was the major rationale for the expanded approach to knowledge management that Army Secretary Pete Geren and Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey offered in a memo they sent in July introducing the principles.

    They firmly embrace an Army enterprise perspective, they wrote, and “will create an Army where good ideas are valued regardless of the source, the existing knowledge base is accessible without technological or structural barriers, and knowledge sharing is recognized and rewarded.”

    All in all, this Army initiative contains a great deal that civilians could learn from and follow. Pay particular attention to the 12 principles articulated in their policy. They would be as apt in a law firm or any other enterprise. The only catch is that in the Army, senior management really appears to understand and endorse effective knowledge management. And, when the top brass speaks in the Army everyone listens. Those are benefits not all of us can claim.
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  • Basic web 2.0 allows us transparency, a window into another’s life. Multiplied over many people, web 2.0 helps them connect with each other and strengthen an existing or emerging social network. Providing these connections is helpful, but it isn’t collaboration. True collaboration is more than just getting along. It’s working together towards a common goal. Unfortunately, in this world of competitive achievers, it’s hard to find someone who really knows how to collaborate.

    Like many other things, collaboration is an orientation as well as a set of skills. Deciding to be more intentional about collaborating is a good first step, but it takes more than that. According to Shawn Callahan at Anecdote, there are seven critical personal skills necessary for effective collaboration:

    1. “How to apologise
    2. How to advocate your point of view without harming your collaborator’s feelings
    3. How to spot when a conversation gets emotional and then make it safe again to continue meaningful dialogue
    4. How to listen and get into the shoes of your collaborator
    5. How to define a mutual intent that will inspire action
    6. How to tell and elicit stories
    7. How to get things done so you have something to show for your collaboration”

    Based on this list, collaboration requires more than mere technical knowledge. It requires drawing on sometimes dormant interpersonal relationship skills — listening, empathy, consideration, etc. These are skills that have been undervalued within businesses for far too long.

    So take a close look at this list of necessary skills and then take a closer look at yourself. Do you have what it takes to collaborate?

    [My thanks to John Tropea's Delicious links for alerting me to Shawn's blogpost.]

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  • For too many years, law firm knowledge management has focused on centralized efforts to capture and disseminate “knowledge.” Under this approach, knowledge is a thing, an object that must be found and corralled. And once you’ve found and organized all those knowledge things, you then tackle the daunting task of wresting tacit knowledge out of the heads of your colleagues and into your databases.

    David Jabbari at Allen & Overy describes this effort in the following way in a recent issue of Law Practice Today:

    “If you see knowledge as an inert ‘thing’ that can be captured, edited and distributed, there is a danger that your KM effort will gravitate to the rather boring, back-office work preoccupied with indexes and IT systems. This will be accompanied by a ritualized nagging of senior lawyers to contribute more knowledge to online systems.”

    That’s the job too many law firms have assigned to their knowledge management team. If you’re a practice support lawyer (PSL) in such a firm, how’s it working for you? David Jabbari describes this approach as “command and control”:

    “The command and control approach to law firm KM focuses on the systems and management structures needed to capture and publish knowledge. In this approach, knowledge is often created in a very centralized way, using techniques such as commissioning, or forming ‘project groups’, and then publishing the output in centralized content stores. The fact that no more than 25 per cent of material stored in databases is ever accessed does not seem to deter people from thinking that placing material in a central store constitutes a success of some type.”

    It sounds like a futile exercise, yet it is standard operating procedure in far too many law firms. In fact, there are regular conversations among many PSLs I know about the difficulties inherent in creating or finding materials for centralized databases, or the struggle involved in getting client-facing lawyers to take the time to create, review or share useful materials for the KM system. For these PSLs and for their law firms, success is measured by the number of documents created and centrally stored. The metrics give a comforting sense of doing something, but don’t establish definitively that they are doing something useful.

    With the emergence of web 2.0 and social computing, many of us have come to understand both the power of collaborative knowledge creation and sharing, as well as the ultimate futility of trying to capture the explicit and tacit knowledge within the firm. David Jabbari suggests that this move from control to collaboration allows us to focus on more productive goals:

    “If, however, you see knowledge as a creative and collaborative activity, your interest will be the way in which distinctive insights can be created and deployed to deepen client relationships. You will tend to be more interested in connecting people than in building perfect knowledge repositories.”

    Allen & Overy is enjoying tremendous success pursuing collaboration rather than control. How does your firm compare?

    [Thanks to Mohamed Amine Chatti for pointing out this article.]

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