Rothko and KM

Those of you who follow the art scene will know that the Tate Modern in London is hosting a celebrated exhibition of Mark Rothko paintings. Thanks to the BBC, those of us outside London can have a taste of the exhibit via a brief video tour by the sculptor, Anish Kapoor, and Sarah Montague.

The conversation and controversy surrounding this exhibit provide interesting lessons that can be applied to knowledge management. First, consider the description by Anish Kapoor of the “restricted vocabulary” with which Rothko worked. That vocabulary contained only color, a field and a foreground. In Kapoor’s view, Rothko worked successfully within the constraints of that limited vocabulary to “draw on deep human emotional realities.” For those of us who tend to spend our time protesting our constraints, there is an important lesson here in using our contraints to move ourselves to richer insights and more creative output. For those of us thinking about KM budgets during an economic downturn, it’s worth thinking harder about how financial and staffing limitations might provide opportunities for new and innovative work. When you consider what Rothko was able to do with some black paint, you realize that we don’t always push ourselves to make the best use of what we have.

The second lesson relates to the dispute as to whether some of these Rothko paintings were hung incorrectly. Critics have charged that two of the paintings in Rothko’s Black on Maroon series should have been hung horizontally rather than vertically. Nonetheless, the curator and gallery are sticking by their decision to display the paintings vertically. The discussion about the “right way” to hang the paintings was a salutary reminder to me that sometimes breaking with tradition or convention can provide fresh perspective and insight. As knowledge managers, we can get caught up in the role of librarian or guardian of the canon. In fact, our primary function is not archival; rather it is to provide the resources necessary to facilitate innovation and growth. Key to that function is offering a new perspective on what our organizations know. If that means turning things on their head from time to time, so be it. The purists may protest, but if you’ve facilitated insight and innovation, it’s worth it.

Coming full circle, if you find yourself working with severely limited resources, consider whether trying a different angle on an old KM program or resource might provide the opening you need to achieve something new or useful. Now is not the time to play it safe. Otherwise, you’ll find your programs and impact shrinking faster than your budget.


Gratitude on Thanksgiving Day

It’s good to have a day to remember the good in life. And, it’s even better when that day is a public holiday. As usual, we’ll be spending the day at the home of some dear friends who happen to be phenomenal cooks and generous hosts. In addition, they have a talent for gathering a congenial group around their table. As a result, we have a great deal to look forward to and be thankful for today.

Before heading downtown to eat, drink and make merry, I wanted to take a moment to thank all of the wonderful folks who read this blog from time to time. For those of you who have left comments or sent me e-mails about my posts — I give you my heartiest thanks. A big reason for this blog was that I wanted to be part of the larger conversation that’s going on about knowledge management, social media, law firms and life. Your comments help move that conversation forward in very interesting and rewarding directions. For those of you who have told me you read my blog, but haven’t yet left a comment, please accept my thanks and my invitation to you to join the conversation. Jump right in — the water is fine.

Have a great Thanksgiving!


Behind Every Successful KM Effort

In the November 24 edition of Newsweek there’s a humorous quote:

There is no one more surprised than I — except my husband. You know what they say: “Behind every successful woman, there is an astonished man.”

These are the words of Gen. Ann Dunwoody, while speaking at a ceremony held recently in Washington, D.C. to recognize the fact that she is the first woman to achieve the rank of four-star general in the US military. Of course, she’s playing with the old adage: “Behind every great man there is a great woman.”

Reading her words made me wonder — what lies behind every successful KM effort? I’d suggest vision, a collaborative firm culture and entrepreneurial knowledge managers. You also need great teamwork with IT. I’m not sure you need a lot of money or a large staff. But, then again, I’ve always been of the opinion that working within financial or staffing constraints often leads to game-changing innovation.

What would you add to this list?


Sending Out an SOS

Help! Woman drowning!

That’s increasingly my reaction as I consider the Herculean task that social networking presents to time-strapped people. It started with this blog. Then LinkedIn and a little Twitter action. Now I’m told I’ve got to invest in both Facebook and FriendFeed, not to mention several social bookmarking sites.

In a recent post, Chris Brogan laid out a personal social media strategy. It’s filled with great tips, however, I need something more: clear guidance on how to engage with social media while still holding down a job, spending face-to-face time with family and friends, and taking care of the mundane chores of life.

If you’ve got some useful advice, I’d love to hear it. Just toss that life preserver in my direction soon, please.


You Get What You Measure

You get what you measure. This isn’t news — first you decide what you want to achieve and then you design your metrics to let you know when you’ve arrived. That’s good practice and it’s the message of my earlier post, The Metrics Mess. Simple stuff, right? Wrong. You’d be amazed how often folks misunderstand where true success lies and, therefore, collect metrics that drive them in the wrong direction.

Let’s take the example of the typical law firm. How does it define success? Profits per partner? Long-term client relationships? Employee attrition? Recruiting rates? The reality is that there are many bases on which to judge success. So, what do firms typically choose to track? Billable hours. When you track hours, you send the unmistakable signal that you are interested in time — lots of time. After all, time spent equals money. However, where in that equation is the notion that time spent well is worth more than money? At the end of the day, you know the cost of the time spent. But, do you know the value to the firm or, more importantly, to the client?

If we defined success as delivering high-value services to clients, what would we track? If we defined success as building value within the firm as an institution, what would we track?

For law firm knowledge management, the issue of metrics is a persistent problem. We’ve chased various ways of trying to prove return on investment, but with little success. What should we track to show how our efforts provide value to clients and to the firm itself? Until we’ve conquered this challenge, we can’t expect to achieve any real measure of permanence within a law firm. And, that’s a problem when the economy is heading south.


Millennials and the Achievement Gap

As we face the onslaught of Gen Y/Millennials in the workplace, it’s wise to remember that these new employees present some special management challenges by virtue of the way they have been educated. Tom Wagner has taken a look at how children are raised and educated in the United States and his conclusions are troubling. In his book, The Global Achievement Gap: Why Even Our Best Schools Don’t Teach The New Survival Skills Our Children Need — and What We Can Do About It, he identifies 7 key survival skills that they appear to lack:

* Critical thinking and problem solving — at every level in the organization, people need to be rigorous thinkers who test assumptions and don’t rely on preconceived notions.
* Collaboration across networks and leading by influence — increasingly people need the skills to lead across departmental lines by influence rather than authority.
* Agility and adaptability — given the rate of change, today’s job may not exist tomorrow. So, we need people who can learn and change, rather than relying on static technical skills.
* Initiative and entrepreneurship — we need self-directed people who can find creative solutions to difficult problems.
* Effective oral and written communication — without good communication skills, it’s hard to collaborate, influence or lead.
* Accessing and analyzing information — we need to be able to select and process information efficiently and effectively.
* Curiosity and Imagination — we no longer want drones who merely carry out orders. Instead we need employees who participate creatively by adding value to both the process and the end product.

Unfortunately for the employer, you can’t just rely on credentials to ensure that prospective employees have these critical skills. A good transcript from a name brand institution may simply indicate that the person in question has learned how to take tests. In Wagner’s view, these new graduates may have an even bigger problem:

A senior associate from a major consulting firm told me that recent hires from Ivy League business schools were constantly asking what the right answer was — in [other] words, how to get an “A” for the job they were doing — and were not always very adept at asking the right questions, which was the single most important skill senior executives whom I interviewed identified.

As we prepare to integrate Millennial new hires, we’re going to have to be very deliberate in the way we assess their mastery of the 7 survival skills and the way we coach them to improve that mastery. Equally, it would be wise to take a fresh look at the Boomer and Gen X members of your team to see if they have developed and are using these 7 survival skills. The success of your organization depends on it.


The Metrics Mess

I recently saw the perfect illustration of how we can get ourselves completely tangled up in unproductive activity by measuring the wrong thing. In this case, it was someone on Twitter who thought they had hit the jackpot because they had hundreds of followers. Further, this person was offering advice on how to increase the number of followers his readers had. This struck me as misguided at best. To be honest, there are folks I follow whom I’m sure don’t realize I exist. Equally, there are folks who follow me, but I’m largely oblivious to them because our paths don’t cross very often. So the numbers alone don’t tell the whole story and may, in fact, tell a misleading story.

The real issue isn’t size of following as much as it is scope of impact. How many of these folks are really paying attention to you? How many do you actually affect? Unless you know this, you don’t have a good understanding of your interaction with Twitter. Admittedly, there are Twitter stars whom everyone likes to follow. And, assuming we follow because of their established reputations, we’re more likely to pay attention to what those Twitter stars say. For the rest of us in the Twitter mob, however, the number of our followers is a poor (and possibly inaccurate) proxy for our impact.

Coming back to law firm knowledge management, take a moment to consider whether your efforts to measure the wrong thing are leading you into unproductive activity. Don’t focus on bulk — focus on impact. For example, counting how many times a particular document is opened via your portal or document management system may be interesting but not helpful. What you really want to know is how many times was it opened and actually used? And, how often was it exactly the thing the user was searching for? In the latter two cases, you learn much more about the quality of your content and the quality of your search engine.

Consider the following: a document was opened 10 times and used each time, but then opened 20 times and discarded because it was not on point. For someone looking at bulk alone, they’d say, the document was opened 30 times, declare victory and go home. However, someone measuring impact would say it was used 10 times not 3o, and then would ask why. When you ask that question you create the possibility of learning and insight. That’s when you know you’re on the path to using metrics intelligently.

[permission to use granted under a creative commons license]


KM vs Social Media: Give Peace a Chance

A few weeks ago the blogosphere was hopping in response to the KM vs SM generational war piece Venkatesh Rao launched on an unsuspecting world. I responded at the time that declaration of war was first published, as did other thoughtful folks. Now Venkat’s piece has been republished in Social Computing Magazine, alongside Jeff Kelly’s rebuttal.

Jeff argues that while some resistance to change is inevitable among human beings, it is unfair to characterize all knowledge managers as resistant to change. In Jeff’s personal experience, there are “many more eager adopters than resistant dinosaurs.” In fact, many knowledge managers I know have been excited and energized by the possibilities for KM offered by social media. To be honest, much of the resistance to social media that I’ve observed lately has been exhibited by managers who were skeptical about KM in the first place. This isn’t so much about age as it is about outlook and experience.

I’m inclined to agree with Jeff that there is much more constructive peace than destructive war between the generations on this issue. His prognosis of the current situation rings true:

Our technology and society will continue to evolve; people will continue to be resistant to (but finally adapt to) change; youth will continue to disdain their elders until they become tempered by wisdom; and the opportunities to learn and prosper will continue to grow for those wise enough to do so.

The more things change, the more they remain the same.


Welcoming the Millennials

At some point, most of us realize that fighting the tide is an exercise in futility. The wise among us look for ways to work with and harness the tide. In that spirit, I offer this post on why law firm knowledge management should welcome the Millennials. However, this is NOT about the technological improvements many KM folks have been hoping Millennials will force on our firms. This is about more fundamental improvements in the way we operate.

If reports about Millennials are correct, they are a group of people focused on and motivated by issues and goals that are quite different from those of Gen X and Boomer employees. The latter two groups could be managed by dangling the brass ring in front of them and then reinforcing performance through a strong command and control structure. The boss made the decisions and the Gen X and Boomer employees executed those decisions. Simple and straightforward. By contrast, Millennials are looking for something other than the brass ring. They want opportunities for learning and growth. They want to engage in projects and activities that are personally meaningful. And, they want to maintain a reasonable perspective on work — as children of workaholics, they want a life with better balance.

What’s so crazy about their aspirations? Perhaps the truth is that we’re just jealous.

The challenge for Gen X and Boomer knowledge managers is to harness this Millennial energy in a constructive way as Millennial aspirations and methods come up against established ways of doing things. Rather than forcing them into existing rigid structures, consider how a focus on growth and learning might change for the good the types of projects we tackle and the way we carry them out. By giving every member of the staff an opportunity to contribute creatively to the work of your knowledge management department you elevate them from mere worker bees to co-creators and, in one fell swoop, you finally achieve intellectual and creative leverage (which is the basis of any successful law firm).

In making these recommendations, I don’t mean to minimize the stress this approach will place on traditional or authoritarian knowledge managers who know what they know and are just looking for employees who will carry out assigned tasks with minimum fuss and maximum efficiency. This is a warning that managers like that will soon be facing a supply problem — they may find it difficult to find Millennials willing to work on these terms. Then those managers have the choice of either fighting the tide or surfing it. It will be interesting to see what they choose.


Just the Way You Are

For those of my readers who were secretly hoping that I’d lose interest over the weekend in my current fascination with popular music and management, I’m sorry to disappoint you. I was getting ready to stop and then I discovered that Billy Joel is not only a philosopher, but a pragmatic one. His song, Just the Way You Are, is viewed by the more romantic among us as an extraordinary statement of the complete acceptance many hope to find in a relationship. For those of us more pragmatically minded, we realize that he is just stating the obvious: it’s really hard to get a person to change — so you might as well get along with what you’ve got.

While optimism and a deep belief in the perfectibility of humankind are an important part of the culture of the United States, it would be foolish to base a knowledge management department or KM program solely on the hope that folks will change. There are some fundamental elements of human nature that simply can’t be undone, although they may be tweaked around the edges. For law firm knowledge managers, understanding the basic personality type of lawyers is an important prerequisite to organizing a law firm knowledge management program that has a prayer of succeeding. For all knowledge managers, understanding the patterns of behavior in your employees and users will allow you to be much more effective.

So, let’s return to the prior discussions about the importance of recruiting the right people to your team, really knowing the people who work with you (their values, strengths and weaknesses), and then deploying them strategically so that they achieve their highest and best. If we take Billy Joel’s song to heart, getting the recruiting right is critical. By hiring people who have the right values for your team and demonstrate the ability to think critically, work creatively, learn and grow, you free yourself to pursue an ambitious knowledge management program without having to waste precious time in the nearly futile task of trying to change their fundamentals.

Understand early who they are and then take them “just the way they are.”