Scary Times for IT

In honor of Halloween, I thought we might take this opportunity to scare our information technology colleagues, as well as those knowledge management folks who have been unable to rise above and beyond technology. Let’s start with an interesting piece by Susan Cramm entitled IT Project Funding: Less is More. In it she confronts the reality that IT budgets are likely to be slashed during the downturn, and proposes a new way of working in face of this reality. She suggests that the old “boil the ocean” approach of grand projects based on years of painful analysis is not going to cut it any more — especially in light of her assertion that while “only 1/3 of IT-enabled business initiatives deliver as planned, project success declines dramatically as project size increases.”

Continuing with her theme that bigger is not necessarily better, she recommends the following alternative approach:

Given that only about 20% of applications functionality is typically used (and which 20% is unpredictable), it’s impossible to figure it all out in advance. The key to bringing the future forward is getting tools in the hands of the users as quickly as possible. If they use them, you are on the right track. If they don’t, find out why and give it another go.

This stumbling and bumbling, learn-by-doing approach may seem a little chaotic, but it’s reflective of how organizations, and people, change and grow. Mistakes will be made, but it’s better to make a series of small mistakes and mid-course corrections, than it is to make one huge, multi-million dollar mistake from which there is no way to recover.

Without a doubt, this approach will be infinitely more successful if you have the kind of corporate culture I described yesterday in my post When Failure is Fine. However, even if you don’t yet have that culture, take advantage of the constraints imposed by the economy to manage and change the expectations of your users. Since your law firm is unlikely to set aside unlimited funds for a large technology or knowledge management project, dial down expectations and ask your users to join you in a journey through the land of perpetual beta. They trade the possibility of perfection (which rarely is realized) for the actuality of functional and timely technology. Even the most demanding users will come to realize that having the technology in use is better than having unfulfilled paper plans.

Being a kind and generous person, let me offer a treat to offset the trickiness of the fast-delivery approach advocated by Cramm. She recommends that you have the following in place if you wish to maximize your chances of delivering the right technology quickly:

  • Executive leadership: Don’t confuse sponsorship with leadership. Sponsors show up at steering committee meetings when invited, leaders demonstrate passion and commitment by showing up in cubicles and conference rooms uninvited
  • Clear definition of success: Use process measurements that impact financial performance and baseline them at the start of the project
  • Predefined kill switch: Take the emotion out of the decision making process by defining what defines failure, so that the project can fail fast and be restarted when conditions are more favorable
  • Small, experienced team: Wait to start your project until you have a seasoned project manager supported by a small team (less than 12) of full time, subject matter experts
  • Laser sharp focus on critical requirements: Avoid defining requirements by committee by using the success measurements to manage scope
  • Respect for the future and the past: Factor in the implications of existing business and technology plans while accelerating progress by leveraging legacy systems and existing infrastructure
  • There you have it — a cautionary tale for Halloween. Scary times are ahead, but a willingness to adapt (together with some nimble footwork) should allow you to make useful advances with respect to your firm’s technology despite the economy. In the process, you’ll shed the tendency for bloated IT and knowledge management projects, and adopt a sleeker, streamlined approach that is more in keeping with the times.


    When Failure is Fine

    Every so often, we’re fortunate enough to hear about an organization that has mastered the art of innovation. In the arena of social media, Best Buy is getting a reputation for innovation and success. This week I learned about an extraordinary feature of Best Buy’s corporate culture when I read Cam Gross’ blog post regarding their implementation of Mix, which he described as “a start-up offering a mashup of email, SMS and Twitter-like functionality. ” When I wrote about Mix in an earlier post, I was impressed by their repeated attempts to broaden the conversation among Best Buy’s employees. Given their success with Blue Shirt Nation, I assumed that they ultimately would be successful with Mix. (Blame the lawyer in me for relying excessively on precedent.) What I didn’t fully understand was that, apart from their prior achievements, they had one of the most critical ingredients necessary for success. Here’s how Cam Gross describes it:

    We have had almost zero conversation about Mix outside of the development group. When the article by Laura Fitton (@Pistachio) came out … word traveled inside Best Buy Corporate. A couple of departments have already raised their hands anxious to test/sample Mix. You just can’t beat having an environment where people want to try and are OK with “fail” as long as something is learned. [emphasis added]

    Now, be honest. When was the last time you heard someone say that about your company?

    We talked earlier about the value of mistakes when pursuing growth and innovation, and Dave Snowden has included in his Seven KM Principles the truth that we learn more from failure than from success. But have we ever gone so far as to say in our workplaces that it’s okay to fail as long as something is learned? Rather, don’t we circumscribe our actions and ambitions in order to avoid failure at all cost? Admittedly, if we do find ourselves staring failure in the eye, we’re usually willing to attempt to redeem that failure by looking for a nugget of learning. But I’d suggest that the Best Buy attitude goes further than that. It sounds like they don’t circumscribe actions and ambitions for fear of failure, but rather choose to risk doing something new — knowing that they can learn from it. With that orientation to innovation, they are bound to succeed.


    Trust But Verify

    In one of the articles that accompanied the AmLaw Tech Survey 2008, Alan Cohen reports on a conversation he had with Bob Craig, chief information officer at Baker & Hostetler. According to Craig, the next big challenge is to change the way the IT department relates to the lawyers of his firm. He likened the current relationship between the two groups to the relationship between “a teenage driver ready to hit the road and a nervous parent wary about forking over the keys.” Under the current model, “all new technology gets controlled, vetted, and often limited by the technology department.” In Craig’s view, that approach is untenable with the advent of the new web 2.0 tools. Instead, he wants to change the way IT departments work with lawyers, by implementing a “trust but verify” system that allows users to install the tools they need without permission, provided that IT can check to make sure “no harm is done.”

    Bob Craig’s vision of the IT/Lawyer relationship is laudable:

    We want IT to inspire lawyers to unleash their creativity – not lock them down. … The fundamental concept of Web 2.0 is to empower users to contribute and collaborate. If we’re going to take advantage of Web 2.0, there’s a whole mind-set shift that has to take place in IT. “Trust but verify” is the precursor.

    I couldn’t have said it better myself.


    The Firm of the Future

    Whether you agree with its conclusions or not, you owe it to yourself to read Ronald J. Baker’s article in the November 2008 issue of the Journal of Accountancy. That article, The Firm of the Future, makes an interesting case for moving beyond leveraging people hours to leveraging intellectual capital. According to Baker, the formula for success of the Firm of the Past is:

    Revenue = People Power x Efficiency x Hourly Rate

    Baker argues that we should move away from this tired approach to the formula for success of the Firm of the Future:

    Profitability = Intellectual Capital x Effectiveness x Price

    In highlighting the contrasts between the two systems, Baker notes:

    Micromanagement of knowledge workers is the culture of most firms. Tracking time in six-minute increments, measuring productivity, measuring efficiency, and measuring relative worth all are driven by time sheets. The management attitude that anything that is not billable is not worthwhile has destroyed the intellectual pursuit of knowledge and self-improvement that is critical to the long-term success of every professional knowledge firm.

    The examples cited in this article are drawn from the world of accounting, but the parallels to the law firm world are close enough to allow them to be a reasonable proxy. Both professions have come to value headcount and efficiency as the most reliable means to success. In the process, they attempt to sell clients “time,” despite the fact that clients are looking to buy solutions not time. From that mismatch comes a persistent disagreement as to the true value of the solutions clients want. By contrast, Baker argues that the real source of wealth in the Firm of the Future is intellectual capital. When the firm is in the business of selling its unique intellectual capital coupled with practical applications of that knowledge, then it is finally offering something clients value.

    In his scheme, intellectual capital is not just the knowledge of the firm’s workers. Rather, intellectual capital has three components, all of which need to be nurtured in order for the Firm of the Future to realize its potential and be successful:

    – human capital (i.e., the knowledge of its people)
    – structural capital (i.e., its systems, software, tools and resources that allow it to perform work)
    – social capital (e.g., clients, firm reputation, vendor relationships, referral sources, alumni, alliances, networks, etc.)

    The implications of this new approach are marvelous for both knowledge workers and knowledge management. With respect to knowledge workers, focusing on intellectual capital and effectiveness encourages managers and knowledge workers alike to value learning and the sensible application of that learning to client problems. This in turn sets the stage for personal growth, creativity and innovation.

    The focus on intellectual capital and effectiveness also puts a premium on the tools and methods of knowledge management that facilitate the growth and sharing of knowledge, and assist knowledge workers to improve their personal effectiveness. In one fell swoop, that pesky question of knowledge management ROI becomes a little less elusive.

    Ron Friedmann and others have long argued that it would be healthier for firms and clients alike to move to fixed fee or value billing rather than hourly billing. And, advocates of this approach have looked to clients to insist on it. Thus far, few clients have exercised the necessary muscle to bring about this change. However, given the current economic climate, the stars may be aligning in such a way as to make this new approach more plausible and thus more possible.

    [Thanks to Dennis Kennedy’s dkennedyblog posts on Twitter for pointing out this article.]


    KM and Ad Hoc Communities

    National Public Radio is experimenting with new ways of using social media tools to involve their audience in the creation of live radio shows. One of the most recent examples is their effort to form ad hoc communities, as demonstrated by the new wikis related to the Brian Lehrer Show’s 30 Issues in 30 Days series. This is how these wikis are described:

    Each Friday throughout the series, we’re doing a “30 Issues Wiki.” For these six segments, we’ve created an easily edited page where you can collaborate with others to help produce the segment. On this page you’ll be able to suggest angles; do research; write copy and questions; suggest guests; and suggest audio to be included in the on-air segment. In other words, you’ll do everything a normal Brian Lehrer Show producer does every day.

    Through social media, listeners of this popular talk radio show were invited to collaborate in the creation of specific broadcasts. For example, a group of listeners spontaneously came together in an ad hoc community to consider how best to frame the issues for a broadcast entitled “Drill Baby Drill?: Oil vs Alternative Energy.” In the days leading to the broadcast, they edited a wiki page that reflected their concerns and points of view. Then the collaborative work of this group was transformed into a radio show that was broadcast on October 10 and is available for you to hear now. These folks may never meet and may never collaborate again. But for a brief moment in time, they came together to create something useful.

    An ad hoc community can also be triggered by breaking news, such as catastrophes. This is another instance in which the news media can use its natural strengths to initiate greater participation by its audience, thereby turning that audience into a group of citizen journalists. In the post The Power of Portals: Ad-Hoc Communities we learn,

    Ad hoc communities primarily emerge for the purpose of information dissemination; thus, news portals are the perfect environment to foster such communities.
    Ad hoc networks need to be low involvement and facilitate information exchange. As they are short lived and focus on time sensitive events, ad hoc communities could be a great way to extend the reach and increase the value of content.

    Now let’s take the concept of ad hoc community and translate it into the environment of law firm knowledge management. During the economic upheavals of the last few weeks, how has your law firm’s KM group or IT department responded? The press has reported that lawyers in various firms have formed ad hoc communities to act as economic crisis response teams. Have the KM departments in those firms provided adequate tools to support those response teams? Are there RSS feeds to supply the latest news and commentary? Are there wiki pages to collect each team’s analysis and learning? Are there blogs to record their Q&A and market updates? Or are these teams struggling to get by on e-mail and static HTML pages on their firm intranets?

    The beauty of social media tools is that they are wonderfully flexible and easy to use. Once the platform is in place, the users can dive right in to create and organize the content in a manner that is useful and appropriate to their needs without much (if any) administrative support. For knowledge managers looking for an opportunity to demonstrate the power and utility of social media tools, you may not need to look any further than the current economic crisis.


    The Pantyhose Fallacy and the Reality of Pants

    In my earlier post today, KM and the Pantyhose Fallacy, I begged the indulgence of my male readers with the following words: “Stick with me, gentlemen. I’m sure there’s a male equivalent to this that I haven’t thought of yet.” Well there is an equivalent (or near equivalent) that is instructive: pants.

    Traditionally, better quality men’s trousers have been sold in the following manner: they are ready to wear except for the fact that the hem is unfinished so that each wearer can tailor their pant legs to suit their individual preferences. This is a great example of the new operating principle I proposed in my prior post with respect to how we should deploy knowledge management tools in the 21st century:

    Facing this challenge requires switching from anodyne mega projects to deploying technology that is capable and robust enough at the core to permit users to lightly tinker with its functionality around the fringes without requiring a team of IT experts. Following this path, you should end up with tools that perform their basic functions reliably and well, while allowing individual users to tailor those tools to meet their immediate needs.

    This will require a new kind of discipline from knowledge managers and their IT colleagues. Rather than looking for an application that merely meets the expectations of the lowest common denominator of users, we’ll need to look for intelligently-engineered apps that do the basics well but that can be tweaked by users to meet their (reasonable) needs. The trick here is to find software that permits this kind of tailoring, yet does not require a great deal of money, training, time or IT intervention to accomplish the modifications. In other words, wiki-like simplicity and Facebook-like flexibility.

    Here endeth my disquisition on knowledge management and clothing — at least for now!


    KM and the Pantyhose Fallacy

    The Pantyhose* Fallacy may not yet be a term of art in knowledge management and information technology, but I can guarantee that you already understand its underlying principle. [Stick with me, gentlemen. I’m sure there’s a male equivalent to this that I haven’t thought of yet.] Here’s the Pantyhose Fallacy: for years retailers have sold us a bill of goods — that it is possible for people of varying sizes and shapes to wear an article of clothing sold in a single size. They call it “one size fits all.” The sad truth is that the one size fits badly and doesn’t remotely fit all.

    In the world of knowledge management, vendors have led us to bland, standardized implementations of tools that barely meet the needs of users. Perhaps we were unduly influenced by the big legal publishers who insisted we do it their way or not at all, but far too many KM efforts have forced square pegs into round holes. The imagined benefits of standardization caused us to overlook the real benefits of judicious customization to meet the needs of individual users. And now, those users are rebelling. Forget the rigid top-down taxonomy. They want to tag and organize content on the fly. Forget about limiting them to a small collection of recommended content. They want easy ways of identifying, segregating and then sharing their own “favorites.” Forget about hermetically sealing employees behind the firewall. They want to be able to mix and match the best of internal and external content as the spirit moves or the circumstances dictate.

    The challenge for KM is to give up the imagined security of rigid standardization and adopt more flexible means of meeting user needs. This challenge moves KM personnel out of the role of prison warden and into the role of companion and facilitator. Facing this challenge requires switching from anodyne mega projects to deploying technology that is capable and robust enough at the core to permit users to lightly tinker with its functionality around the fringes without requiring a team of IT experts. Following this path, you should end up with tools that perform their basic functions reliably and well, while allowing individual users to tailor those tools to meet their immediate needs. Although we’ve been told that few users actually take the time to customize or edit, I wonder if this will change as more users begin to use flexible internet apps in their leisure time, and thereby learn the value of customizing tools to meet personal preferences and maximize personal expression.

    But, even if you’re not entirely sure about the 21st century trends for technology, remember that 20th century example of pantyhose: One size almost never fits all.

    [*A note to readers outside North America: pantyhose is also known as tights in many parts of the English-speaking world.]


    The Futility of Bottling Knowledge

    Are you trying to bottle knowledge? If you view knowledge as a “thing” to be captured, packaged and delivered, you’re trying to bottle knowledge. How’s that working for you?

    Knowledge management gurus will tell you that bottling knowledge is a very KM 1.0 approach and ill-advised. Experts from the school of hard knocks will tell you that trying to bottle knowledge is an exercise in futility. You’ll never ever bottle enough to really make a difference; even if you bottle some good stuff, your customers will always want more; and when you’re in the bottling business you run the risk of creating bottlenecks.

    Not convinced? Consider this:

    Fish : Water ~ Humans : Information/Knowledge

    In other words, fish swim in water and we swim in information. Trying to bottle information/knowledge is as difficult as trying to contain our environment.

    So what should you do instead? Switch metaphors.

    Instead of viewing knowledge/information as a “thing,” think of it as water. Rather than trying to bottle all that water, think about channeling it. Think about creating small reservoirs as necessary. Think about distilling it. Think about broadening access to it. If you’re not convinced, consider how very difficult it is to contain water over the long term. It goes where it will. Why fight its natural tendency to flow?

    Viewing knowledge/information as water will lead you to some fresh new ways of handling law firm knowledge management. Less about command and control, more about channeling and collaboration. It will also inexorably lead you to social media tools. They are far better equipped to help broaden access to knowledge than the KM 1.0 tools we’ve been working with.

    And, if you really want to broaden your perspective, switch metaphors again. How about this metaphor: try thinking about knowledge as “love.” If you’re curious about this, read Is Knowledge Stuff or Love?


    Do You Have What It Takes?

    Knowledge management folks have to interact with technology daily. In fact, all knowledge workers have to interact with technology daily. There’s no other way to do your job well in the 21st century. The problem is that those of us who are 40 years old or more learned to be knowledge workers at a time when there was much less technology, and the technology we had didn’t work terribly well. In the nearly 20 years I’ve been in the workforce, we’ve seen enormous changes: from the IBM Selectric to desktop computers to fully mobile computing; from telephones to e-mail to microblogging; from internal memos to enterprise blogs and wikis. And there’s more change coming down the pike.

    Are you ready?

    Are you sure you’re ready?

    Being ready is not just about knowing about the tool or knowing how to use the technology. It’s about changing your attitude and approach to the technology so that you really know how to use it well. For example, if you were trained to find information in a time when information appeared to be scarce, you developed some great sleuthing skills. (Remember having to go to a library, and then to the card catalog, and then to the place on the shelf where the book should have been, only to find it missing? That’s one form of info scarcity — when finding it is hard.) Now contrast that with our current situation, where you can Google “knowledge management blogs” and get 6,760,000 results in 0.15 seconds. That’s not just information abundance, that’s information overload. And that overload calls for different skills; it calls for filtering skills.

    In a helpful post, New Work and New Work Skills, Tony Karrer sets out some benchmarks against which we can measure our readiness for 21st century work in an age of information abundance. Here are some of the ways of working he believes we should learn:

    And here’s his quick test to see how well we’ve adopted the change in attitude and approach necessary to master the new technology:

    • I effectively use the Google filetype operator
    • I know what the Google “~” operator does
    • I’m effective at reaching out to get help from people I don’t already know
    • I’m good at keeping, organizing my documents, web pages that I’ve encountered in ways that allow me to find it again when I need it and remind me that it exists when I’m not sure what I’m looking for
    • I’m good at filtering information
    • I’m good at collaboratively working with virtual work teams and use Google Docs or a Wiki as appropriate in these situations

    So, take the test and tell me. Do you have what it takes to be an effective knowledge worker in the 21st century?

    [Thanks to Bill Brantley for pointing out Tony Karrer’s post.]


    Age is a State of Mind

    It was so common, that it was a joke — celebrating one’s 39th birthday for the 10th time. However, now we’re seeing Baby Boomers who have worked and worked out in order to beat Old Man Time. Their birth certificates may say one thing, but their energy levels, flexibility, physical strength, mental agility and willingness to innovate say another. Finally, the stars are aligned so that your age need not entirely be defined chronologically. Now, it really is plausible to say that age is more a state of mind.

    These changes in society have important implications for knowledge management. While some may say we are doomed by our chronology, the reality is that more and more enterprises are finding that the facile assumptions they had at the beginning of a social media implementation are being disproved by their users. Take, for example, Intellipedia, the online wiki for federal intelligence information sharing. According to KM Experts Dispute Age Gap, Intellipedia’s actual usage patterns “do not always fit standard expectations.”

    Chris Rasmussen, social software knowledge manager at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (and a top contributor to Intellipedia), recently reported on how the users of Intellipedia have defied the generational assumptions lots of experts make:

    For example, people assume Intellipedia users in their 20s would be the most prolific, but that is not necessarily the case, he said. One of the most active editors is in his 60s. Of the two-dozen most active editors, most are in their 30s and 40s….

    (Just for the record, Rasmussen is 33.)

    While GenY/Millenials may come to work with greater ease with social computing and more hard computing skills, they don’t always have the substantive knowledge or inclination necessary to make valuable contributions at the office. By contrast, Gen X and Baby Boomer employees have the edge on substantive knowledge, but may not have the skills or confidence to try social media tools. Thankfully, most of these tools are intuitive and easy to use. If we can just get them into the hands of these information and experience rich older workers, we should see huge gains in knowledge management programs.

    Don’t write off your Gen X and Baby Boomer users. Instead, get to know them. You may discover that they are much better candidates for your social media tools that some of their Gen Y/Millenial counterparts. In either case, ditch the generational stereotypes and focus on the individuals. They are only as old as they act and feel — age is a state of mind.