Managing the Fire Hose

People talk about the velocity of current flows of information and inputs and say it’s like drinking from a fire hose.  That’s wishful thinking.  On far too many days, it feels more like living in the Lower Ninth Ward during Hurricane Katrina.  For Clay Shirky, that sense of drowning in information is a sure sign not of overload but, rather, of inadequate filters.  If he’s right (and I think he is), we have to find a better way of coping.

A great deal of daily life now consists of filtering and managing the inputs so that we can be productive.  For me, this is a matter of personal knowledge management:  the art of gathering, organizing, storing, searching and retrieving the information we need to live well.   I’m an avid  student of the subject and have discovered that one never quite masters it.  There is always a new challenge and always something to learn.  So I thought I would collect some resources in this post for myself and any others who are seeking a slightly saner way of managing the fire hose.

Gathering Information:

  • People First – If you’re looking for reliable information, you need not look any further than your friends and trusted colleagues.  Building your social network and ensuring you have accurate contact information will go a long way to helping you find what you need when you need it.  Once you know who is in your trusted network, how do you tap it?  Social media tools such as Twitter, Facebook and FriendFeed help you stay in touch and share information you consider interesting or important.  The beautiful thing is that when you use your social networks to gather information, your friends do the filtering for you.
    • See the quick tutorial in the Common Craft video:  Social Networking in Plain English
    • Twitter does much more than simply provide updates on your friends.  It can also be a great research tool.  However, it all starts with connecting online and here is a Common Craft video to explain how:  Twitter in Plain English
  • Let the Information Come to You – Through the magic of electronic subscriptions and web feeds (e.g., Really Simple Syndication (RSS)), you no longer have to go hunting for current information.  It will come to you.  All you have to do is place your order — and that just takes a couple of clicks of your mouse — and then sit back and wait for the content to be sent to your e-mail inbox or your RSS reader (e.g., Google Reader).
    • See the quick tutorial on how RSS readers work and how to subscribe in the Common Craft video:  RSS in Plain English.

Organizing Information:

  • Create a Personal Archive – When I first started practicing law, each lawyer would create an elaborate set of folders (aka the “form file”) that housed every piece of paper that seemed interesting.  That’s where you stored precedent documents, research results, notes, etc.  The idea was that you created a private archive of useful information designed to help you work more efficiently.  We still need personal archives, but today they consist primarily of electronic content.  And, given how cheap electronic storage has become, there really are not many physical limits on how large your personal archive can be.
  • Organize Your Electronic Materials Electronically – A few years ago hand held label makers were all the rage.  They allowed you to create the illusion of order despite the underlying chaos of your system.  An electronic storage system can be every bit as chaotic and electronic labels every bit as illusory.  However, employed properly (according to a scheme that makes sense to you and that you diligently apply in a consistent fashion), these electronic labels can help you organize enormous amounts of information.  You can apply these labels via a variety of Google applications (e.g., Bookmarks, Mail, Reader, etc.) or through social bookmarking, as discussed in the next section.
  • Let Others Help You Organize Information – through social bookmarking tools (e.g., Delicious), you can enjoy the benefits of the organizational efforts of others.  When they identify interesting content and label that content electronically, that creates an organizational scheme that is available to anyone else who is interested in that content.

Storing Information:

  • People Information – In the olden days, all you needed was a simple address book (hard copy or electronic).  Now, just sign up to that giant rolodex in the sky known as LinkedIn and let others take care of keeping contact information up to date for you.
    • For information on how LinkedIn works, see this Common Craft video:  What is LinkedIn?
  • Electronic Storage Only – Don’t store information in hard copy unless it is something you really need at hand in a physical format.  Otherwise, store it all online.  If you don’t have concerns about information security, store it remotely in an externally-hosted blog or wiki, or via Google or any other comparable service provider.
  • Minimize the Number of Storage Sites – Remember that old paper form file?  The great thing was that it was the only place you had to check for information you had saved.  Now, you have to check your e-mail folders, the favorites on your web browser, your social bookmarks, your hard drive, etc.  Stop the Madness! Try to consolidate as much as you can in just one or two places online so that you don’t have to search over and over again for the information you have saved.
  • Make Your Personal Archive Portable – If you work exclusively at the office,  relying on a hard copy form file is still feasible (barely).  But if you have lots of electronic information you need to keep, then putting it in a paper file is neither convenient nor considerate of the environment.  Further, if you’re ever working at a client’s office, at home or in a hotel, you won’t have access to those paper files and then you’ll understand why so many of us believe in the value of a portable electronic archive that is accessible anywhere you have an internet connection.  And, given today’s economic realities, I should mention that having a portable personal archive means that if you should ever part company with your current employer, you can keep the archive you’ve built up so carefully, provided it is outside your employer’s firewall.  (Obviously, client confidential information should not be stored outside the firewall, but information you obtain publicly via the internet is yours to store and organize outside the firewall.)

There you are — an introduction to some personal knowledge management information and techniques.  Try them out and see what works for you.  And if you have other suggestions for effective personal KM, please leave a comment below and let us all know.

[Photo Credit:  Anxious223, Creative Commons license]


Are You Clinging to the Wrong Business?

Are you ready to walk away from your major line of business?  If not, you may be turning away a new, more profitable line of business.  Or, you may find you’re soon out of business altogether.  Not convinced?  Well then, spend a little while with Xerox.  When you hear the word Xerox, you tend to think of office machinery. And, for a time, you would have been right. But that’s no longer the primary business of Xerox.  In fact, lately Xerox has started to tell its customers not to waste their money on unnecessary machinery purchases and is now selling consulting services to help those customers better manage the equipment they have in order to make their end-to-end printing processes as efficient and cost-effective as possible.  Scott Anthony‘s reaction to this change in strategy was overwhelmingly positive:

That’s a strong sales proposition in today’s tough economy. While Xerox might miss short-term printer and copier sales, it is building long-term, potentially lucrative relationships — and a base to move into additional productivity-related services.

Xerox had the courage to stop clinging to its traditional line of business and, by branching out, has opened up huge new opportunities for itself.  How do law firm knowledge management departments achieve that nifty trick? According to Scott Anthony, you need to do three things:

  1. Start with a deep understanding of how the customer frames the problems they are facing. It’s easy for companies to fall into the trap of thinking that customers care primarily about the products they purchase. Often they don’t. Those products are means to an end. In Xerox’s case, it doesn’t sell copiers. It sells workplace productivity. Understanding how the customer frames the problem helps to highlight different ways to address that problem.
  2. Build a solution that solves the customer’s — not your company’s — problem. Xerox could easily have designed a service offering that really was a veiled way for it to sell and support Xerox equipment. But that’s not what the customer wants. More than half of the 1.5 million devices under Xerox management are made by other companies. Ask how a startup company with no base business to defend would approach the challenge.
  3. Give the new business ample freedom. Corporate antibodies can often squash new offerings that look like competitive threats. Sufficient organizational autonomy can be critical for long-term success.

Now, what would happen if we were to apply these principles to the way we deliver KM services to lawyers within our firms?

  1. Understand how lawyers frame the problems they are facing. KM 1.0 has told us for years that lawyers want comprehensive,  carefully-organized collections of practice resources.  This has led us to track down content, attempt to convert the tacit into the explicit, and then build and maintain large databases.  In reality, lawyers don’t care about those collections and KM can never do enough to make them truly effective.  Lawyers just want easy access to information at the point of need.  It doesn’t really matter how you deliver those practice resources (e.g., through enterprise search,  Enterprise 2.0 technology, etc.) as long as it works when they need it.  As Scott Anthony says:  “Understanding how the customer frames the problem helps to highlight different ways to address that problem.”
  2. Build a solution that solves the lawyer’s — not your KM department’s — problem. Don’t think administratively about your staff and their job descriptions.  Focus instead on the nature of the support the lawyers actually need to do their jobs well.  Rather than deploying another database coder, would it be better to set up a Wiki or discussion board to facilitate lawyer-to-lawyer knowledge sharing?  In other words, how would you configure your services if you had no department (or, in the case of Xerox, no base business of machinery sales) to defend?
  3. Give the new way of working ample freedom. As you turn from KM 1.0 to KM 2.0 ways of doing things, you’ll need to resist the temptation to control the new means and methods of collaboration and knowledge sharing.   It doesn’t matter whether you’re motivated by honest concerns about risk or the short-term welfare of your department.  When you place unnecessary restrictions on collaboration and knowledge sharing, you impede the free flow of information. Then you are part of the problem rather than part of the solution. Giving lawyers the freedom to shape the way they share information is critical for long-term success.

As you think harder about this, you’ll realize that you need to move away from the KM 1.0 way of doing things.  That’s the old way of doing business.  The future lies in returning to first principles (or rather, the key 7 Principles of KM) and embracing KM 2.0.  Are you as brave as Xerox?

[Photo Credit:  treevis, Creative Commons license]


Mardi Gras Floats for Dummies

Apparently almost anything can be downsized, including a traditional New Orleans Mardi Gras parade float. Thanks to “Mardi Gras Floats for Dummies,” you can find directions on how to scale down your ambitions from a typical float (which can exceed 50 feet in length) to a Radio Flyer wagon or even a shoebox.

The instructions for making these miniature floats contain some gems.  For those working with a shoebox:

The first step is picking a shoebox. Usually whatever is hanging around your house that isn’t holding bills or other random junk will work.

The options here are as endless as your imagination!

And, for those with a bit more scope, here’s how to tackle a wagon float:

First, dig your wagon out of the garage, and clean all the cobwebs and other assorted dead insects out of the inside. Scream as zombie spider comes alive as you are picking it up. Gather your senses. Back to cleaning.

Next, put your thinking cap on and create yet another theme for your float. Some more suggestions: “Little Mermaid”, “The Godfather”, “In the Garden of Eden”, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”, or the classic “Throw Me Something, Mister!” The entire look of your float will be born out of your theme, and your requirements for materials will change as well.

There’s a metaphor here for our knowledge management work and for life. Even if circumstances dictate a change in scale, they need not result in the inability to participate or to generate something of beauty. And, as is often the case, when you strip things down to their bare essentials, you begin to see what’s important.  (See Creating A Great KM Department of One.)

The wagon float and shoebox float remind us that despite all the tough economic news, we can still do something of worth no matter what our resources, provided we have some creativity and focus.

Laissez les bon temps rouler!

[Photo Credit:  Paul Mannix, Creative Commons license]


Making Client Dreams Come True

Seth Godin recently wrote about Derek Sivers (founder of CDBaby), who built his company with one thought in mind: “What could I build that would be like a dream come true for independent musicians?”  The post ends with the following provocative statements:

If your business is a dream come true for customers, you win. Game over.

Too often, I hear about businesses that just might be a dream come true for their owners, but hardly for the people they seek to recruit or the customers they hope to snare. What do your prospects dream of? What would get them to wait in line?

Those of us working in law firm knowledge management have the privilege of working with two sets of clients:  our internal clients  and the clients of the firm.  Within those sets of clients are lots of subsets of people with specific needs.  How much time have your spent lately thinking about what service your knowledge management department could deliver that would be “a dream come true” for any of your clients?  How many of your services currently are “a dream come true” for any of your clients?

If we want to move knowledge management out of the category of mere cost center that is a “nice to have” into a critical “must have” for our law firms, we have to be in the business of making client dreams come true.

[Photo Credit:  Pensiero, Creative Commons license]


Maximize the Chances of a Web 2.0 Success

Do you sometimes get the feeling that there’s a little “irrational exuberance” surrounding Web 2.0?  If so, you’re in good company.  The McKinsey Quarterly has released a new report, Six ways to make Web 2.0 work, which takes an honest look at the results of a survey they conducted of early adopters of Web 2.0 technology.  Their survey indicates that the reviews are mixed on Web 2.0 deployments:

To date, as many survey respondents are dissatisfied with their use of Web 2.0 technologies as are satisfied. Many of the dissenters cite impediments such as organizational structure, the inability of managers to understand the new levers of change, and a lack of understanding about how value is created using Web 2.0 tools.

For those of you at the early stages of Web 2.0 or just contemplating jumping into social media, the authors of the report helpfully suggest six strategies that should improve your chances of a successful Web 2.0 deployment inside your organization:

  1. The transformation to a bottom-up culture needs help from the top. Even though this is an emergent process, don’t underestimate the huge benefits from having organizational leaders model use of the tools.
  2. The best uses come from users—but they require help to scale. Management doesn’t always know exactly how best to use the tools.  Therefore, give the users lots of scope to experiment.  And, when they find a productive use for the tools, give them the support necessary to scale up.
  3. What’s in the workflow is what gets used. “Google is an instructive case …. It has modified the way work is typically done and has made Web tools relevant to how employees actually do their jobs. The company’s engineers use blogs and wikis as core tools for reporting on the progress of their work. Managers stay abreast of their progress and provide direction by using tools that make it easy to mine data on workflows. Engineers are better able to coordinate work with one another and can request or provide backup help when needed. The easily accessible project data allows senior managers to allocate resources to the most important and time-sensitive projects.”
  4. Appeal to the participants’ egos and needs—not just their wallets. Lee Bryant recently referred to ego projection as the key to ensuring lawyer participation in Web 2.0 technologies within law firms.  According to McKinsey, addressing the need for recognition and status is a more effective means of ensuring participation than offering financial incentives or performance feedback for participation.
  5. The right solution comes from the right participants. “Targeting users who can create a critical mass for participation as well as add value is another key to success.”
  6. Balance the top-down and self-management of risk. “Prudent managers should work with the legal, HR, and IT security functions to establish reasonable policies, such as prohibiting anonymous posting. Fears are often overblown, however, and the social norms enforced by users in the participating communities can be very effective at policing user exchanges and thus mitigating risks.”

While these survey results and the attendant advice aren’t completely unexpected, they are a good reminder that the technology cannot by itself solve all your problems.  You do need to plan carefully for success.  That said, there is a little magic that happens when you connect people across a network using well-designed tools and then allow those folks room to bend the tools to their needs. Once you’ve experienced the magic, it’s hard to contain your enthusiasm.  So I ask you to please forgive my occasional lapses into irrational exuberance.

[Photo Credit:  TONI.R, Creative Commons license]


Risk and Opportunity: The Web 2.0 Challenge

How do we keep fear of risk from blinding us to opportunity? That was the provocative question that pulled me up short midway through a slide deck Andy Piper prepared a few years ago to describe the use of social media at IBM.  I’ve found myself thinking about this question a great deal lately in the context of law firm knowledge management.  During our recent LegalTech 2009 session, Five Things Every Law Practice Should Know About Web 2.0, one of the audience members asked me how best to guard against the risk of unvetted and inaccurate information proliferating in law firm wikis.  There are two obvious answers:

  1. Draft a foolproof governance policy that places tight controls on users and incorporates an elaborate system of permissions and approvals to ensure the content is properly vetted and safe for use.   OR
  2. Ask your colleagues to use their commonsense and good judgment.

A firm of determined lawyers and knowledge managers can probably come up with an extensive list of rules that attempt to safeguard the purity and accuracy of content shared via Web 2.0 tools, but I can pretty much guarantee that it will be frustrating and won’t be comprehensive.  It’s the wrong approach.  It would be far better to take the time to ensure you are hiring the best and then give them the training necessary to develop the judgment to read with a critical eye the information they find via social media tools.  In the long-term, equipping colleagues to work independently is far more productive than corralling them with a complicated set of operating rules.

For those of you who truly fear the risk of unvetted content, consider for a moment whether your fear of risk is blinding you to the opportunities afforded by social media tools:  the opportunities to build communities and leverage social networks, share knowledge without intermediaries, and facilitate the easier organization and retrieval of information.  And then, think really hard about the nature of the risk you fear.  As I responded to the person who posed the question about the risk of unvetted and inaccurate content in a wiki — what about the unvetted and inaccurate content currently sitting in your document management system?  What are you doing about that?

Sometimes the Web 2.0 bogeyman that you’re fixated on is only a pale shadow of the very real risks you currently have and ignore today.  Don’t allow your fears to blind you to the opportunities that await.

[Photo Credit:  szlea, Creative Commons license]


Tales From LegalTech: Five Things Every Legal Practice Should Know About Web 2.0

Lee Bryant and I led a jam-packed session at LegalTech 2009 on the Five Things Every Legal Practice Should Know About Web 2.0.   Lee has written a terrific post on his blog about our session. In addition, he kindly uploaded our slide deck to SlideShare:

One of the reasons I agreed to participate in this session was that I’ve begun to experience the benefits of social media in my knowledge management work and could see the great potential for its use more generally in a legal practice.  There are so many things lawyers do that require the participation of others — planning and organizing throughout a matter’s life cycle, discussions with clients and other lawyers, negotiations with counter-parties, drafting legal documents, closings, post-closing compliance and clean-up, etc.   What would happen if we could use Web 2.0 tools to shift these activities out of the current paradigm of  expensive face-to-face meetings,  ineffective conference calls held while all participants are multitasking, and asynchronous e-mail exchanges?  What would change?  Here are a few examples:


  • Create a Wiki that could be  edited and viewed in real time by all members of the team as new information emerged.
  • Contrast that with the current approach of keeping the tasks and responsibilities list in a word or excel document that is periodically updated by a single editor and then e-mailed to members of the team.

Team Updates

  • As information and decisions emerged from discussions with local counsel or specialist counsel (e.g., intellectual property, tax, etc.) record those new items in a blog that could later be tagged, sorted and searched.
  • Contrast that with sending bits of information out via e-mail to other members of the team, with no assurance that these updates can be retrieved or organized later.

Post-Closing Compliance

  • At Closing, you could provide to your client an extranet that contained all the key deal documents and a compliance manual.  If the manual were in the form of a Wiki, the client could update it to keep a record of compliance successes and issues.
  • Contrast this with providing a “deal bible” to the client and a Word document that outlines compliance requirements.

If a few social media savvy folks were to sit in a room and really think hard about how to transform the practice of law by using Web 2.0 tools, they would undoubtedly come up with even more examples.  This is just to whet your appetite and get you looking at your daily activities through a different (social media) lens.  In each instance, you replace static asynchronous communication with a two-way real-time information flow.   It doesn’t take much imagination to begin to realize the benefits to be gained not only in efficiency, but in the quality of life for the clients and lawyers using these tools.

What are you waiting for?


Social Media and the Bridge to Nowhere

Sarah Palin’s campaign to be vice-president brought a new expression into our political vocabulary:   ” the bridge to nowhere.”  Now, as we wait with bated breath for the new stimulus package to jump start the economy, there is a legitimate concern that our hard-earned tax dollars will be taken by politicians (of all political persuasions) and used for pork.  If this happens, we could well end up with hundreds of “bridges to nowhere” and no material improvement in our infrastructure.

One strategy for dealing with this potential problem is to use social media to force some daylight into the process.  The Obama administration is creating a website ( to catalog and track the various infrastructure projects funded by the stimulus package.  Once this information is public, citizens all over the country can become watchdogs — reporting on the progress (or lack thereof) of projects in their area, keeping everyone honest.  This is a great use of social media.  It provides transparency, two-way communication and openness in a process that used to be restricted to dark, smoky back rooms.  It will be interesting to see the extent to which citizens who complain about their tax burden will step up and provide this new oversight.  It will also be interesting to see how the politicians react.

We could be on the verge of a new phase in our political life — returning to the openness and transparency of our town hall beginnings.  Let’s see if citizens and politicians alike seize this marvelous opportunity provided by social media tools.

[Photo Credit:  DCSL, Creative Commons license]


Control Freaks Need Not Apply

If you’re a control freak, you might want to think twice about a career in social media.  After all,  some of the most successful social networks have flourished precisely because the control freaks got out of the way and, in their own words, let the lunatics run the asylum.

Ceding control to the participants is so counter-intuitive for many managers, yet time and time again we see the impressive results of this approach.  Take Craigslist, for example.  It’s  a revolutionary online community that has changed the way regular folks think about matching supply and demand.  In a recent report by ReadWriteWeb of the keynote address by Craig Newmark (founder of Craigslist) at the User Generated Content Conference, we find the following statements that are guaranteed to send a control freak through the roof:

  • “Getting out of the way is really important…”
  • “We didn’t care that the site wasn’t being used how we had imagined…”

Now, imagine a member of a law firm knowledge management department uttering either of those statements.


In the words of Jeff Jarvis:

As Google built the most powerful tool imaginable–the entire world of digital knowledge revealed behind a simple search box–so did Craig build a simple tool that changed society (and newspapers and real estate and more) without prescribing how we should use it. They create platforms to enable us to do what we want to do and then, instead of giving us rules about their use, then they stand back and put us in charge. [emphasis added]

The clear message in all of this is that if you try to control or constrain a social network too tightly, you will choke it.  Far better to set in place the minimum precautions necessary to ensure nothing blows up or melts down, and then let the participants work their magic.  If you start obsessing too much about policies governing access to or use of social media tools, chances are you’ve missed the whole point of social media and may well end up being a hurdle on the path to success for your Enterprise 2.0 initiative.

[Photo Credit:  H4cks, Creative Commons license]


Will They Miss You When You’re Gone?

At a recent gathering of senior law firm knowledge management experts, an attendee asked two provocative questions:  If all the knowledge management personnel in your firm were to fall off the face of the earth today, would it result in a decline in firm profits?  And, if what we are doing does not have an impact on firm profits, why does it matter?

As with many provocative questions, it dazzles initially but doesn’t always hold up well under further analysis.  The reality is that KM, like many other support services within a firm, does help with the delivery of client services, but it isn’t always possible to draw a straight line between the KM activity and the benefit to the client or the firm.  In part, it’s because we simply have not been rigorous about the metrics or, in fairness, finding and tracking the right metrics has been difficult.  For example, let’s say you received a request from an associate who was trying to pull together a package of precedents for a new client engagement.  Of course, you would provide that lawyer with a full package, but would you be able to state with any certainty how much time and money you saved that client?  In order to do that, you’d need statistics on the amount of time lawyers usually spend trying to gather precedents or, worse still, how much time they waste working with the wrong precedents.  Do you have those statistics?  Most likely not.  Unless you are very lucky, it has been a long time since  decision makers within your firm analyzed how much and why billable time is spent unwisely.

An added problem is that with the worsening economy, business decisions are likely to be made on the basis of available metrics.  If the only metrics you have concern activity levels (e.g., time spent by KM personnel, number of tasks completed by KM personnel, etc.) rather than productivity levels (e.g., money saved, realization rates, etc.) you aren’t any further ahead than the knowledge manager providing the precedents in my earlier example.  You may be doing great work, but the decision makers need more than your word for it.  This is a case when tooting your own horn results, at best, in a hollow sound.

I’ve been thinking about this problem for some time now, and am working towards some answers.  However, I’d be very interested in your views on this issue.  If we can’t explain why and how knowledge management matters within the specific context of our own firms, how can we make a winning argument for the survival of our teams?

[Photo Credit:  woodleywonderworks, Creative Commons license]