Knowledge Management 101?

Sometimes we just want someone to tell us what needs to be done and how to do it.  For those moments, there are hundreds of “how-to” books that purport to tell us how to “do” knowledge management — beginner’s guides, dummies’ guides, idiot guides, lazy person’s guides, etc. They are in the bookstores and their advice is regurgitated in any number of blog posts.  Unfortunately, too many of them are a waste of time. They will point you in the direction of KM 1.0, which invariably requires lots of people and technology to attempt the nearly impossible task of compelling your colleagues to convert their tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge, and then capturing and organizing the relatively small amount of converted information that results from your efforts.  Too few of these “helpful guides” actually explain how to align your activities with the strategic goals of your organization or the futility of trying to comprehensively capture knowledge.  Further, they encourage us in the delusion that it is possible to “manage knowledge” in a controlled, top-down manner.  In other words, few of these guides have a realistic view of how human nature invariably trumps neat centralized schemes and how critical it is to work directly with the workforce in a grassroots way if you’re serious about creating and perpetuating an effective knowledge sharing culture.

In short, these guides make fundamental errors that folks wiser than me (in this case, John Bordeaux) have already identified:

Believing that knowledge is only transferred once it has been made explicit leads to mechanistic, engineering approaches to knowledge management that have not proven their worth.  Crank it out of people’s heads, churn it into a shared taxonomy or tag it somehow, and then – and only then – is it useful to others.  I would like to know the exact date that the apprentice learning model was made obsolete by advanced information technology.

While a tidy approach to KM (actually more an approach to information management), the call to “make tacit knowledge explicit” ignores much of what we know about how the world actually works.  To be more precise, we are learning the limitations of what we can know as a result of research across the disciplines of sociology, neuroscience, anthropology, and others.

A far better approach is to think hard and then think harder again about human nature — how we learn, how we know and how we share what we know.  And then, put your organization and colleagues under a microscope and study them until you have an accurate understanding of how the knowledge ecosystem within your organization works.  When you’re ready to do this, here are some useful guides to help you along your way:

These are not idiot guides — they are invitations to deeper study and thought.  Better still, they contain truths that will outlive the quick take-aways of the how-to guides.  The best way to use these recommended materials is to read them with a critical eye, and then find some trusted colleagues with real KM experience and discuss* with them what you’ve learned through your reading and work.  Then, rinse and repeat.

* I’d be delighted to have that conversation with you online.  Just let me know by leaving a comment below.

[Photo Credit:  tsmyther]


100 Days

Today we’ll hear over and over again about the “importance of the first 100 days.” And, we’ll hear a range of judgments pronounced on the performance of the Obama administration.  Given the usual hype-to-bust news cycle, most of it can be ignored — and I certainly won’t add to it.  However, it is worth noting that when we set aside a specific period of time within which to measure productivity, it gives us a welcome and necessary opportunity to take stock.

I’m not advocating the mindless generation of meaningless statistics about how busy you are.  That exercise doesn’t do any of us credit.  Rather, I’m advocating periodically setting aside the time to do a private, honest inventory.  During the last 100 days, what new means of collaboration have you enabled?  What projects have you completed?  What new initiatives have you begun?  What seemingly intractable problem have you dented?

There is no magic about the 100-day period.  The secret lies in the honest assessment, which allows you to change your pace or adjust your course, as necessary.  When you don’t do this periodic analysis, you run the risk of drift.

In reality, the last 100 days aren’t your most important.  The next 100 are.  However, understanding what has just happened will better prepare you for what is to come.  And, it may even give you a measure of control over the future you create.

[Photo Credit:  BBC world service]


The State of Law Firm KM

The International Legal Technology Association (ILTA) is assessing the current state of law firm knowledge management and would like your assistance. Their first step is to gather data on what’s happening on the ground. To participate, please complete their brief online survey, which focuses on the number and types of people who work in KM within law firms. The results will be reported by Ron Friedmann on an aggregate, anonymous basis in an ILTA Knowledge Management White Paper to be published in June.

If you need something other than community spirit to encourage you to complete the survey, please note that the names of all participants will be entered into a drawing. The prize? Waived conference fees so that you can attend the ILTA conference this summer without destroying your KM budget.


Running on Empty

Do you know what kind of fuel you need for inspiration and innovation?  I discovered the answer to that question the hard way this past weekend.

Last weekend several members of my family achieved important milestones. As a result, the entire weekend was taken up with large family events. And, with all that celebrating, I didn’t have my usual weekend time for reading and thinking. Not surprisingly, when I woke up Monday morning I didn’t have a blog post ready to publish.  Thankfully it didn’t take too long for me to prime the pump, but it was a good reminder that it’s hard to generate outputs without the requisite inputs and processing time.

The same rule applies to organizations that are trying to innovate.  It’s hard to produce new ideas if you have not ingested and digested a wide variety of stimuli.  Organizations (like brains) need something to chew on.  This suggests that a manager who is responsible for innovation better be sure that every member of the team has time to read, think and discuss.  Better still, they should have the opportunity to read outside their immediate area of responsibility and to discuss their findings with people outside their discipline.  It’s precisely this cross-pollination of ideas that leads to breakthroughs.

So, do you know what kind of fuel you and your team need in order to innovate?  Are you getting it in adequate supply or are you running on empty?

[Photo Credit:  mag3737]


Alternative Billing, Alternative Lawyering

Richard Susskind likes to be provocative.  And, he’s good at it.  After hearing his talk at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, I found my mind churning with ideas of what it might be like if his vision became our reality.  However, I soon felt stymied by the enormity of the challenge of changing our profession’s approach to work and compensation.  And I’m not the only one.  Most law firms have yet to find a comfortable way to determine an alternative billing structure or adopt alternative methods of lawyering. Thankfully, Susskind proposes a solution:  break legal services down into bite-size pieces, analyze them, and then reassemble them in a way that permits alternative lawyering and alternative billing.  Central to this solution is his analysis of legal services, which run the gamut from “bespoke” (i.e., customized, tailor made) to commodity.  Here are the five levels he sees:

  • Bespoke/Customized
  • Standardized
  • Systematized
  • Packaged
  • Commoditized

Most of our firms are awfully good at doing customized work.  Some of our firms have even standardized their work through the creation of checklists and model documents.  A few have attempted systematization through document assembly and automated decision trees.  Even fewer are actually providing packaged online legal services (e.g., Wilson Sonsini’s term sheet generator).  And then, there are the firms that freely admit that their work product is a commodity and act (and bill) accordingly.

Naturally, our billing follows our style of work:  hourly billing is used for bespoke and standardized work, while fixed fee (or alternative) billing is possible with systematized, packaged and commoditized work.  For Susskind, the key is to break down legal services into their component parts and bill each of those parts accordingly.  For example, you may be advising on the world’s most complicated merger, but chances are you won’t be generating a due diligence request list or closing schedule from scratch.  So, what would happen if you billed the parts of the transaction relating to due diligence and closing preparations as if they were systematized, while billing the process of negotiating and drafting the critical sections of the merger agreement as if they were customized?  Suddenly, you’ve expanded the scope of alternative billing and reduced the need (and attendant client relationship risks) of hourly billing.

Now, what if you took each of the components of your transaction, broke them into discrete tasks, and made sure the right people (e.g., legal or lay, working in the office or remotely, employees or subcontractors, etc.) were handling each task using the right tools?  What if, with respect to each component, you searched diligently for ways to provide higher quality work product more efficiently and cheaply by using collaboration and technology?  These steps should result in a cost structure that is substantially reduced and predictable, thereby facilitating alternative billing.

Law firm knowledge managers with practice experience can play an important role in this process.  They can help identify the component tasks, and then find ways to standardize, systematize, package or commoditize as many of those tasks as possible.  They can bring to bear their knowledge of available technology, they can help draft, they can help automate.  Law firm knowledge managers may be the key to solving the alternative billing, alternative lawyering puzzle.  Are you using them?

[Photo Credit:  hto2008]


Can Thinking Like A Lawyer Be Bad for KM?

Michael Melcher believes that thinking like a lawyer is bad for a lawyer’s career.  He lays out his interesting arguments in a recent piece for the ABA Journal.  Here are the lawyerly attributes that he believes handicap lawyers when thinking about their own careers:

• Analyze rather than explore.
• Focus on flaws and potential problems.
• Look for clear precedent.
• Require solutions of general applicability (“what would work for lawyers”) rather than specific applicability (“what would work for me”).
• Defer action in situations of uncertainty.
• Be skeptical about possibilities.
• Avoid taking risks.

In Michael Melcher’s view, “What works for legal analysis doesn’t work for personal growth. That’s because the processes of attaining career fulfillment and growing as a professional are not all that susceptible to logic.”  Personal growth requires action (to provide experience) and then reflection (to make sense of the data gathered).  Trying to think your way through the unknown is rarely successful if you don’t have sufficient experience or data points to ground your analysis (or fear-mongering) in reality.  The same could be said to be true about planning law firm knowledge management projects.  If you apply these patterns of thinking to the planning process, you could well end up with:

  • An overly restricted range of options because you haven’t allowed yourself to explore and dream before analyzing the issues.
  • Mediocre options because you’ve eliminated potentially good choices prematurely due to your focus on flaws and problems rather than opportunities.
  • Unimaginative choices because you’re unwilling to do something your peer firms haven’t already tried.
  • Safe but boring options because you want to avoid risk and uncertainty.

In short, the result is too little too late.

So how do you quiet your excessively critical thinking?  How do you allow yourself the freedom to dream and be creative?

[I’m indebted to Stephanie Kimbro for bringing this article to my attention.]

[Photo Credit:  Claire Dancer]


A Social Media Challenge to Wimps

I’m a wimp.

There.  Now you know.

Since I was kid I’ve happily walked away from blood and gore on the screen.  Horror movies?  You can keep them.  Disaster scenarios?  Don’t want them.  Nasty cops and robbers shows?  They are yours too.  The Sopranos?  Fuhgeddaboudit.

The problem is that with the openness of social media, I keep tripping across things that make me queasy:  rabid commentators from the fringes of  the political spectrum who froth at the mouth as they spew venom on their blogs and on Twitter, strident people who can’t rest easy until you sign up to their view of morality, etc.  In short, any number of people who challenge my cozy way of life  — and my own intellectual blind spots.

What’s a wimp to do? Do I owe it to myself to hear them?  Should I engage?  Or should I just walk away?

One of the great challenges of social media is that it makes it awfully easy to isolate yourself in an echo chamber in which you think you are interacting with hundreds of interesting people and don’t realize that they all are pretty much just like you.  Therefore, all you hear are many voices agreeing with you, giving the illusion that you’ve figured it all out.  But in so doing, you sell yourself short.  It is equally possible to seek out people of goodwill within various social networks who know how to take opposing positions and discuss them with respect and decency.  No matter where they sit on the political spectrum or in your professional niche,  they are the ones you need to know.  By engaging with them, your thinking evolves and you grow.

I don’t mean to underestimate the effort it takes to separate the shrill from those of substance, but it seems to me that a person of integrity needs to make that effort.  Even if that person is a wimp.

[Photo Credit:  Zagrev]


Life After KM

In a prior post I talked about how to sort out priorities for your knowledge management department by imagining what you would choose to focus on if you were trying to do it all by yourself. Now, here’s a tougher thought experiment:

What if your law firm believes that in the short term it cannot afford a KM department at all?

Yet presumably during your tenure the lawyers of your firm have come to rely on a certain level of KM service to meet client requests.  So what would your firm need to do to maintain that minimum level of knowledge management service?  What would the firm choose to focus on?

This isn’t meant to be a depressing exercise, but attempting an answer should help you identify which of your KM services are perceived to have the closest link to or greatest impact on client service.  For some firms, the answer will be to keep one person to provide KM concierge (or Help Desk type) services.  For another firm, they’ll be fine with functioning expertise location.  Others might need just one IT person to flip the switch to provide another wiki, blog or extranet as requested.  How many firms will feel it absolutely necessary to maintain their KM document repositories? How many will pay support staff to generate after-action reviews?

Do you know the answers to these questions for your firm?  Do you know what your lawyers and firm management think about the services you provide?  Which of your services they really can’t live without?  If not, you’d better find out while there’s still time to act on the information.

[Photo Credit:  Pete Reed]


Who is Setting Your KM Priorities?

Do we really have as much control over our KM department priorities as we’d like to think we have?  I asked variants of this question during a follow-up conversation based on my prior post, What’s Your KM Priority? In the course of this second conversation, we took a look at how our various law firms defined knowledge management.  Although we didn’t have a scientific sample, the answers were instructive.  Most firms participating in the conversation had a bifurcated approach to KM:  (i) direct practice support and (ii) infrastructure support.  In fact, for many of these firms, the folks working on content creation and practice development (e.g, traditional practice support lawyers) were not part of the KM group, but were more likely to be embedded within practice groups.  As a result, they reported to practice heads, rather than the administrative head of KM.  By contrast, the folks working on infrastructure (e.g., technology, content distribution mechanisms, etc.) sat in the KM department and reported through the head of KM to the Chief Information Officer or IT director.

Now go back and look at the KM Priorities listed in my earlier post:  you’ll see that six of the nine areas of impact are primarily focused on information management as opposed to firm management.  Given that most of the KM departments participating in these conversations are expected to spend the bulk of their time on content retrieval and distribution, is it any wonder?

Our KM priorities are set in relation to how the firm defines KM and where the KM group sits on the organizational chart.  This has interesting implications for KM personnel who wish to apply KM principles to business processes generally and firm management specifically.  Will you be given the freedom to share your wealth in this way if your firm is intent on keeping you in the information management box?

[Photo Credit:  Steve Keys]


How to Read a Poem: Beginner’s Manual

In celebration of Easter, here’s a present that will delight.  Best of all, it is low-calorie and will not enrage your dentist.  Enjoy!

How to Read a Poem: Beginner’s Manual
by Pamela Spiro Wagner

First, forget everything you have learned,
that poetry is difficult,
that it cannot be appreciated by the likes of you,
with your high school equivalency diploma,
your steel-tipped boots,
or your white-collar misunderstandings.

Do not assume meanings hidden from you:
the best poems mean what they say and say it.

To read poetry requires only courage
enough to leap from the edge
and trust.

Treat a poem like dirt,
humus rich and heavy from the garden.
Later it will become the fat tomatoes
and golden squash piled high upon your kitchen table.

Poetry demands surrender,
language saying what is true,
doing holy things to the ordinary.

Read just one poem a day.
Someday a book of poems may open in your hands
like a daffodil offering its cup
to the sun.

When you can name five poets
without including Bob Dylan,
when you exceed your quota
and don’t even notice,
close this manual.

from We Mad Climb Shaky Ladders, published by Cavankerry Press.

Courtesy of the American Academy of Poets

[Photo Credit:  Nedieth]