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.
  • Since social media tools became impossible to ignore on the internet, knowledge management folks have been worried about how to introduce something “social” behind the firewall. Most are beginning to realize that it takes an unusual senior manager to understand the value of creating strong communities within the enterprise. To be fair, many managers do get the value of strong teams within specific units or departments, but try asking them to transplant that success to a more macro level and they get lost.

    So what should a conscientious knowledge manager do when they realize that social media tools are exactly what their enterprise needs?

    Jack Vinson suggested recently that the best approach was simply to stop calling these tools “social” and focus on specific real world uses such as “inferred” expertise, real-time status indicators, easy-to-use file sharing, etc. And then, in a response to comments to his post, he wrote: “Our friend Mary would jump… It’s NOT the tools.”

    Our friend Mary. That would be me.

    And, Jack was right. I’m jumping.

    We should just give up on finding a label for these tools. The decision-makers within our organizations don’t care what these tools are called as long as they work. If you want to avoid a losing argument, removing “social” from “networking” doesn’t help as much as you might hope. From a decision-maker’s perspective, networking (social or not) is something you do to land your next job. Now tell me, why would a manager who is not in lay-off mode want to spend corporate resources assisting you with that? As for building social or business networks within the enterprise, many managers view that as a “nice to have” rather than a “need to have.”

    So what’s the better strategy? Jack pointed to it in his response. Here’s the fuller quotation:

    Our friend Mary would jump… It’s NOT the tools. Maybe this is one of the other problems with calling it social networking – that sounds like a tool looking for an application.

    In my ideas above, I was attempting to suggest problems or issues that business people might actually be interesting in solving, rather than specific tools.

    Jack is right — focus on the problems or issues that decision-makers are interested in solving rather than specific tools. As I wrote in an earlier post, don’t fall into the trap of finding business problems to justify purchasing the tool — look for established business processes that people know should be improved. And then deploy the tool knowing that it will have a much greater impact because of its secret “social” weapon: by building community, these tools facilitate and expedite information sharing.

    Yet, there is a caveat here that needs to be raised: We know there are lots of processes that could be improved by social media tools. However, most business managers don’t care. Unless they are charged with squeezing every last of ounce of productivity out of each process, they tend to focus on the squeaky wheel. Therefore, you should too. Find a good way to fix that squeak and the manager will provide the grease (i.e., cash) — even if it’s for purchasing a web 2.0 tool. And, you won’t even have to beg.

    Again, the key here is to focus on processes that, from a business perspective, must or should be improved. Not could be improved. When your solution lines up neatly with the decision-maker’s problem, you’ve reached the sweet spot. And, in that sweet spot, even social media tools are welcome.

    So listen to your users. They don’t have the time or energy to listen to you tell them all the ways you think you can help them via social networking. All they want is a simple solution to their pressing problem. And, if that solution happens to be fun and easy to use, that’s all the better.

    As Mary would say: It’s NOT the tools!

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  • In these days of Google Maps and Mapquest, it can be hard to remember that you actually do need to use different kinds of maps for different kinds of journeys. Members of my family have on more than one occasion rescued sailor wannabees who made the mistake of renting a boat for the day and then tried to navigate with the assistance of only a road map. (It’s true. You can’t make this stuff up.)

    A similar situation has sprung up around the conversation Venkatesh Rao started regarding what he viewed as the Social Media vs Knowledge Management battle for the soul of users. He used a specific map (generalizations about generational differences) to navigate the discussion. This map led him to his desired destination: KM is doomed to fail because it is championed by the rapidly aging and completely misguided Baby Boomer generation. By contrast, he believes that SM will prevail because it is championed by Millenials, who are as we speak defining the new dominant ways of interacting online.

    Venkat has posted a response to the reactions of this blog and others. I suspect this discussion isn’t over yet, but I would make the following observation: generalizations about generational differences are just that — generalizations. It’s like using the map the car rental company provides when you really need a detailed road atlas. The generalizations can help orient you (maybe), but you’re unlikely to reach your destination without the necessary detailed analysis.

    In the case of law firm knowledge management, it’s probably fine to start your analysis regarding your chances of launching social media tools with the generational map provided by Venkat. However, generalizations set in abstract situations are no better than that car rental company map. You need to know the topography of your particular firm. How exactly do the employees in your firm fit within the generational boundaries — as determined by date of birth AND by preferences? Despite the chronological facts, do you have a firm culture that is adventurous when it comes to technology? Despite the generational distribution, does your firm have a tightwad culture, making any investment in new social media tools difficult? Has your firm taken on so many financial obligations that it doesn’t have the necessary economic cushion to weather the current market turmoil, much less launch a new way of working online?

    As you can see, most of these questions have very little to do with the age of the employees of your law firm, but the answers can have a profound influence on the discussion and ultimate decision regarding social media in your firm. As you head down this path, be sure you are equipped with more than generalizations. Otherwise, I can virtually guarantee that you will get lost.

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  • In times of high anxiety, people seek ways to get information, commiserate with fellow sufferers, test rumors and gain perspective. Traditionally, this happened in the office around the proverbial water cooler. However, in this new age of BYOBW (i.e., bring your own bottled water), there are fewer water coolers in offices. And, with the recent uptick in telecommuting, there are fewer hours in a shared physical space.

    So where do you go during regular business hours for companionship, comfort and anxiety-busting info when there’s no water cooler? E-mail is a possibility, but it’s a poor way to build community. Google is another option. It provides access to lots of information, but no personal interaction and little context.

    While law firm knowledge management programs tend to focus on projects that directly affect client services, you might consider creating an effective virtual water cooler as a more general means of improving the business of your firm. The obvious way to do this is to deploy social media tools behind the firewall to strengthen a sense of community, enhance employee morale and provide an easily accessible forum for the exchange of information. While this information may not always relate directly to any specific client matter, it can go a long way to containing and diminishing anxiety levels. This, in turn, allows employees to focus better on client services.

    Imagine a blog that allows practice group leaders to broadcast information on the new client work they are doing despite the economic slowdown, thereby signaling the economic viability of the firm? Or a wiki that enables community members to post links to resources for coping with a collapsing client or a collapsing 401(k) account? A microblog that distributes one of the best antidotes to anxiety: humor. Or RSS set up to provide a client team with the most recent news about the client and its industry so that the team is well-prepared to identify business opportunities and respond to client overtures?

    Social media tools behind the firewall can help bolster employee morale and strengthen the fabric of your firm. This in turn helps the employees of your firm deliver better client services. Better client services lead to greater revenues…. You get the picture.

    Go ahead and prepare that business case for wiki pages to manage client matters. But while you’re at it, include a proposal to build an employee facing site as well. It may well turn out to be the better investment.

    See also, Coping with Anxiety: Change What You Can, Accept the Rest

    Laughter: Geek & Poke and the perennial favorite for office humor, Dilbert

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  • Dr. David Vaine has done it again! In his video address to the actKM Conference, he gave an illuminating overview of the scope and benefits of Minimal Impact KM. In the process, he recognized the seminal work of “Dennis Snowden” in giving knowledge managers the excuse of complexity to explain inaction and “David Greenteen” for encouraging people with clear ideas to talk themselves into a tangle of confusion and inactivity.

    For those of you who may not be up on the latest trends in knowledge management theory, minimal impact KM touts the benefits of doing a great deal without in any way affecting the work lives of your colleagues or the results of your enterprise. (This reminds me of a brillant Dilbert observation: We have achieved unprecedented levels of unverifiable productivity.)

    Dr. Vaine identifies several proven methods of achieving minimal impact KM:

    - depreciative inquiry
    - social network paralysis
    - corporate flogging
    - six stigma

    As you come up to budget season and are preparing proposals for your law firm knowledge management programs for the upcoming year, give some thought to whether you qualify as a leader in the area of minimal impact KM. If you do, what are you going to do about it?

    [Thanks to Dave Snowden for pointing out this masterpiece by Dr. Vaine. And, thanks especially to Patrick Lambe for keeping us honest.]

    2 Comments
  • At a recent gathering of law firm knowledge managers, I was told that I could make their lives easier by enabling subscription by e-mail to Above and Beyond KM. To be honest, until that point I had mistakenly assumed that nearly everyone in this social media savvy crowd had migrated to RSS readers. Therefore, I hadn’t bothered to set up e-mail subscriptions when I first launched this blog. I should have known better.

    Lawyers live in Outlook. And, despite expert advice discouraging the practice, many treat their Outlook Inbox as their To Do list. If you don’t make it onto that list, you get ignored. While acknowledging the shortcomings of e-mail, some have made impressive strides in finding more inventive and efficient ways to use (and misuse) the tool. Clearly, if I was going to reach readers who either loved their e-mail or couldn’t overcome inertia sufficiently to deal with RSS, this Mohammed was going to have to go to the mountain. So as of last weekend, you’ll find in the right-hand column a quick and easy way of subscribing to this blog by e-mail.

    Ask and you shall receive — because you’re the customer, and the customer is always right.

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  • Penny Edwards at Headshift characterizes the 2008 AmLaw Tech Survey as a “disappointing read from a social software/organizational change perspective.” Alan Cohen, who reported on the survey in Law.com’s Legal Technology section, admits that while there’s lots of talk within law firms about social media tools, relatively few of those firms have deployed many of these tools given the ubiquity of these tools on the internet. And, those that have attempted to take a walk on the wild web 2.0 side have limited themselves to “ho-hum stuff by internet standards.” The survey reports that 43% of the firms have at least one blog and 24% have internal wikis, but I suspect that much of this has happened because these tools were bundled (albeit imperfectly) with the SharePoint platforms these firms have deployed. With a few notable exceptions (see Penny Edwards’ post), we haven’t heard about many truly transformative deployments of social media tools within law firms.

    Why?

    According to Alan Cohen, law firm CIOs and IT directors are definitely thinking about web 2.0, but in the following terms: “What emerging technologies are worth investing in — and which aren’t ready for prime time? ” Prime time? When folks all over the world are diving into social computing with remarkable enthusiasm, can you really treat these technologies as experimental? Perhaps the real issue is that law firms have not yet identified uses for these technologies that feel like incremental rather than revolutionary changes to current business processes. So, to the extent you can use a blog or wiki to do something that is already done by e-mail, it’s a safe option to propose to your firm — provided you can convince folks to leave their Outlook cocoons. For law firm knowledge management programs, the usual approach is to identify and implement these incremental uses of social media tools and then coax your colleagues a little further out of their comfort zone with more ambitious implementations of these tools. Unfortunately, this “substitution innovation” does not take advantage of what Penny Edwards considers the greatest asset of “new technologies like RSS, micro-blogging, social tagging and networking tools, [which] offer possibilities for radical change in the way in which things are done.”

    The other significant challenge that results in what appears to be law firm resistance to web 2.0 is that for quite some time now the big IT issue for these firms has been electronic discovery. And, eDiscovery has led to a whole host of new tech problems that law firm IT departments are forced to tackle. Therefore, while web 2.0 tools may be the latest wave to sweep the technosphere, law firm CIOs and IT directors believe that they have more pressing issues to handle, such as … data storage.

    Add the inevitable slowdown in IT spending that is emerging in the current economic environment, and you have yet another reason to decide that web 2.0 is not yet ready for law firm “prime time.” To be honest, however, is the real issue that law firm knowledge managers and their IT counterparts are not themselves ready for web 2.0?

    [For other helpful analysis of the IT Survey, see Ron Friedmann's Strategic Legal Technology blog, which reports, among other things, that the survey provides "good confirmation for those struggling with these issues daily."]

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  • Dave Snowden‘s 3 Rules of knowledge management have expanded to 7 Principles, now that he is focusing on law firm knowledge management. (Perhaps there is just something about lawyers that invites the creation of more rules). Here are the 7 Principles:

    1. Knowledge can only be volunteered, it cannot be conscripted.
    2. We only know what we know when we need to know it.
    3. In the context of real need few people will withhold their knowledge.
    4. Everything is fragmented.
    5. Tolerated failure imprints learning better than success.
    6. The way we know things is not the way we report we know things.
    7. We always know more than we can say, and we always say more than we can write down.

    This is a list worth chewing over. I expect I’ll come back to it several times. In the meantime, I’d urge everyone involved in law firm knowledge management to take a hard look at their KM programs and measure them against these 7 principles. A large number of firms are engaged in classic KM 1.0 efforts: trying to convert tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge, creating precedent collections and brief banks, writing practice guides to convey best practices, etc. These methods seem to violate one or more of the 7 Principles. It would be worth spending a little time to determine if you are achieving the levels of success you and your firm anticipated from this efforts. If not, how much of that is due to the fact that your projects do not conform to these principles? If you are truly successful in your KM 1.0 approach, we should talk. You may have identified an interesting exception to the 7 principles.

    [Hat tip to Dennis Kennedy's microblogging on Twitter.]

    5 Comments
  • Connie Crosby pointed me to Ralph Poole‘s post, Social Media vs. Knowledge Management. In it he discusses Venkatesh Rao‘s assertion in the Enterprise 2.0 blog that there exists a generational war between the proponents of knowledge management and the proponents of social media. In Ralph’s experience, this rings true:

    I have seen it in the way Microsoft SharePoint, with minimum Web 2.0 capabilities, is embraced by IT departments while open source web 2.0 are shunned.

    For Venkat, the combatants in this battle are the Boomers (born 1946-62) and the Millenials/Gen Y (born 1980 -). Here is how Venkat draws the battle lines:

    Inside organizations and at industry fora today, every other conversation around social media (SM) and Enterprise 2.0 seems to turn into a thinly-veiled skirmish within an industry-wide KM-SM shadow war. …KM and SM look very similar on the surface, but are actually radically different at multiple levels, both cultural and technical, and are locked in an undeclared cultural war for the soul of Enterprise 2.0.

    Venkat sees top-down knowledge management as the product of the Boomer generation, while bottom-up social media is more reflective of Millenial values and aspirations. Caught in between are the Gen X folks (born 1963-79) who are not numerous enough to open a new front of their own, but may prove to be the perfect intermediaries between the opposing factions. According to Venkat, each of these generational groups approaches social media in different ways, which leads to the battles we’re seeing in some workplaces regarding whether and how to adopt social media behind the firewall.

    Venkat goes on to identify the 5 social dimensions of the war, and then the following 5 technological dimensions of the war:

    1. Expertise locators are not social networks. For Venkat, expert idolatry is the fixation of Boomers who just love authority. By contrast, he finds that Gen Xers and Millenials believe in “situational” experts, a more transitional phenomenon.

    2. Online communities are not USENET v3.0. Venkat draws the distinction between, for example, the Millenials’ fondness for wide-open Facebook groups that nearly anyone can join vs GEn X LinkedIn groups that have gatekeepers.

    3. RSS and Mash-ups are Gen X ideas. According to Venkat, they derive from the Gen X need “to reuse code and content to conquer overwhelming complexity.”

    4. SemWeb isn’t Next Gen, it’s Last Gen. In other words, SemWeb is the Boomers’ revenge. For Venkat, “both KM and SemWeb set a lot of store by controlled vocabularies and ontologies as drivers of IT architecture.” No more unconstrained folksonomies, thank you very much.

    5. SOA and SaaS are Gen X; Clouds are Millenial. Venkat bases this assertion on his interpretation of the words used to explain these related concepts. For him Service-Oriented Architecture and Software as a Service are typically pragmatic (and, in his view, unimaginative and ugly) Gen X approaches to what Millenials describe more metaphorically (and imprecisely) as “clouds.”

    Venkat ends with the following prediction:

    It takes no great genius to predict how the war will end. The Boomers will retire and the Millenials will win by default, in a bloodless end with no great drama. KM will quietly die, and SM will win the soul of Enterprise 2.0, with the Gen X leadership quietly slipping the best of the KM ideas into SM as they guide the bottom-up revolution.

    The problem with this approach is that it under-rates KM and, perhaps, overestimates SM. In the conversations I’ve heard lately regarding social media, the KM folks have been working hard to find points of intersection and common interest with social media. They are treating this as an evolution rather than a revolution. Some have even gone so far as to say that social media is just the new marketing spin for KM. That assertion is likely to send Millenials running for the Maalox, but it appears that KM isn’t ready to be declared dead quite yet. Rather, it’s trying to transform itself from a purely archival discipline to a more dynamic and informal approach that puts people in direct touch with each other, without the obvious intermediation of a knowledge manager.

    [Full disclosure: I'm a Gen Xer as far as Venkat is concerned. The previous paragraph could be read to confirm his contention that Gen Xers tend to pragmatism and compromise.]

    Nonetheless, it’s useful to be reminded from time to time that our preferences are shaped by more than our intellect or experience. Sometimes an accident of birth can dictate how you respond to complexity and innovation. For Venkat the Boomers, Gen Xers and Millenials have distinct and different approaches to technology, information and community. Think hard about how you fit into this generational view before you make your next decision about social media.

    Update (12 Oct 08): Take a look at Mark Gould’s thoughtful related post — Oh good grief. He tackles the “generational” straw man relied on from time to time by advocates of the next new thing.

    3 Comments
  • In ReadWriteWeb‘s report on microblogging at BestBuy, Laura Fitton (of Pistachio Consulting) writes about her conversation with Gary Koelling and Steve Bendt regarding their implementation of Mix. Mix (built on HeadMix) is described as an “enterprise microsharing application,” which is intended to faciliate networking, problem solving and idea sharing among Best Buy‘s 160,000 employees. According to this report, Best Buy’s deployment is the first of its kind at a large company.

    In reading through the report, a couple of things struck me. First, Koelling and Bendt acknowledge the weird dynamic that gets going with microblogging: you’re having quasi-personal conversations in a forum where you can be overheard by the world. While it’s easy to forget that fact when you’re in the middle of some witty Twitter repartee, none of this is private. Interestingly, a quick check on Twitter indicates that there seems to be a wide range of responses to this fact of microblogging life. Some users are extremely circumspect or even cryptic. Others appear to damn the torpedoes and blab full speed ahead, with little regard for the consequences.

    When you transplant this issue to the work environment, you find the problem compounded. Here’s how it’s described in the Best Buy context:

    There are what, 160,000 employees at Best Buy? It’s like a few of you are thrown into a dark room together. You don’t really know who anyone is or who to trust. You’re told it’s okay, they’re all employees, go ahead, talk. But trust is an issue. Who are these people? How do we know them? What can we say?

    This is a challenging context in which to try to foster the open exchange of information. Unfortunately, the report doesn’t explain how the system’s designers plan to increase the levels of trust. As I’ve noted earlier, trust is a critical element without which collaboration is virtually impossible. And, in our KM 2.0 world, collaboration is key. It will be interesting to see what the adoption rate is at Best Buy and whether the quality of the information exchanges meets expectations.

    The other striking thing for me was the basis on which the designers chose HeadMix. Besides liking the developer team and the flexibility of the application, the other positive attribute in their estimation was the application’s ease of use:

    We liked that it’s simple, but had the extra features when you wanted them. It sounds goofy, but we really liked the Outlook plugin — that’s where our employees live. That will make it easier to use.

    Here, they clearly were trying to reduce the barriers to entry — to the point that they allowed easy access from Outlook. These folks are not microblogging purists who insist that if you want to use the tool you too must be a true believer who is willing to leave the Outlook cocoon in order to microblog. Instead, they made the boundary between the two applications permeable. There’s an important lesson here as we consider how best to integrate new knowledge management technology into existing work flow, calibrate it to user comfort levels, and thereby increase user adoption.

    Koelling and Bendt established themselves with their implementation of Blue Shirt Nation, a social networking tool for Best Buy employees. It will be interesting to see how they overcome the trust issues to achieve a productive company-wide conversation via Mix.

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  • Mark Gould has an interesting post on Enlightened Tradition entitled, Social software in law firms. In it he cites the rule of thumb regarding participation inequality in social networks:

    – 90% read, but do not contribute (i.e., “lurkers”)
    – 9% contribute occasionally (i.e., “dabblers”)
    – 1% contribute regularly (i.e., “true believers”)

    Unfortunately, it does get worse:

    - the participation inequality demonstrated in blogs is 95 – 5 – 0.1
    - the participation inequality demonstrated on Wikipedia is 99.8 – 0.2 – 0.003

    This level of participation may be tolerable for Wikipedia, but it won’t make for a convincing argument when you’re trying to persuade your firm managers that a wiki is essential for your law firm knowledge management program. Nonetheless, should you take the 90-9-1 rule as gospel? We’re told it applies to voluntary social networks on the internet, but does it apply equally to social media tools deployed behind the firewall? Some have argued that it need not apply within the enterprise if you take a few strategic measures:

    – make it easier to contribute
    – encourage editing over creating
    - reward contributions
    - promote quality contributions

    Above all, the measure most likely to increase wiki participation is to embed the wiki in your work flow. For example, if the partner in charge of a matter decides that all team updates must be posted in the wiki and may not be circulated via e-mail, you will see a significant increase in the rate of participation. This suggests that when introducing social media tools behind the firewall, you can’t adopt a strictly laissez-faire attitude. While an “if you build it they will come” approach may work on the internet, it’s a different thing within the enterprise where inertia and heavy workloads tend to keep busy lawyers from discovering your new tools. By inserting the tools intelligently in lawyer work flow, you give them a good reason to break out of established routines and try something new. If you’ve deployed the social media tools correctly, this should be all the incentive lawyers need to move from lurker status to dabbler or (better still) true believer status. Then I’d suggest you quit while you’re ahead.

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