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]