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.
  • Be grateful for your insightful friends. Their wisdom can speed your path to learning. Accordingly, I’d like to thank Mark Gould and Jack Vinson, both of whom were kind enough to comment on my earlier post, The Four Chickens Problem.  In that post I discussed the challenges to adoption that organizations distributing bed nets face in their effort to eradicate malaria.  Using the example of the superb work of Nets for Life, I described one path we could take to effect behavioral change and expedite adoption:

    • Educate people as to the actual cause of the problem.
    • Educate people as to the theoretical benefits of the proposed solution.
    • Prove the solution in such an obvious way so that you make the theoretical real.
    • Include monitoring and evaluation to keep proving your case as you implement the solution in their community.

    In his comment to that post, Jack Vinson dove a little deeper and pointed out that rather than just teaching people, it is far more effective to help them discover for themselves the benefits of the proposed solution.  When the solution comes from them, you don’t have to spend time winning their agreement.  Rather, you can spend your time and energy to support them in adopting the change they themselves have identified as beneficial.

    Yesterday, Mark Gould wrote a wonderful review of Made to Stick, the work of Shawn Callahan (of Anecdote) and the power of storytelling.   In that context, he recounted The Four Chickens Problem and  Jack’s helpful advice, and then made the following observation:

    These answers are fine, but they depend on ensuring that the message you are selling actually resonates with the audience. If there is a powerful story to tell, the education piece will follow.

    He is right.  The team at Nets for Life have to powerful story to tell future recipients of bed nets and future underwriters of the bed net distribution program.  And, this story isn’t about statistics.  As told by Rob Radtke (President of Episcopal Relief & Development), it’s about lives and A Bowl of Eggs:

    Last month when I was in northern Ghana, I visited about six different villages to assess our programs and to learn about some of the challenges facing the communities where we are working…. The particular villages that I was visiting on this trip are participating in the NetsforLife® program and so we were learning about the challenge that malaria poses to families with young children and pregnant women.  Virtually every family that we visited had lost a child to malaria and so the NetsforLife® program is making a huge impact here.

    [...]

    In the last village visit I made … the village headman came forward to say that he had a presentation to make to me on behalf of the entire village.  I was a bit taken aback. … As I sat down, the headman said that although they had a gift to give to me they were very embarrassed as it was such a small and poor gift.  He told me that they had wanted to give me an elephant as a gesture of thanks as that was the grandest gift they could imagine presenting to show how important the malaria nets were to their community.  However, they were too poor to give me an elephant.   (I was trying to imagine what I was going to do with an elephant!)

    Instead all of the family heads of the village had met that morning to discuss what would be the most valuable thing that they could give me to show their gratitude for all that had happened in their village as a result of the net distribution.  They had decided to collect all of the eggs laid that day and present them to me in a bowl.

    He explained that the eggs represented the entire village’s wealth for that day and while it wasn’t very much, it was everything they had.  [emphasis added]

    Do we have anything comparable for our law firm knowledge management or Enterprise 2.0 implementations?

    We have to be in the business of story gathering and storytelling.  In the world of knowledge management and Enterprise 2.0, it can be hard to find numbers that paint an accurate picture.  So, we have to find the stories that resonate and we need to develop the skill to tell those stories effectively.  Until that happens, it will be hard to persuade anyone to overcome their inertia to try something new.

    [Photo Credit:  laurenipsum]

    8 Comments
  • Have you ever been to the Burger Joint in New York City? If you do go there you won’t find a large menu. You won’t find expensive decor. You won’t find a fancy staff with attitude.  Rather, it’s what you might call a “well-edited” offering:

    • Hamburger or cheeseburger.
    • Soft drinks or beer (but only one kind of beer).
    • Chocolate brownie or no dessert.
    • Cash only, no credit cards accepted.

    What’s the other thing you’ll find there?  A long line to get inside the door.

    Now contrast that with most offerings to law firms by technology vendors.  In some cases, they offer so many bells and whistles (accompanied by complicated variations in pricing) that it can be extraordinarily difficult to reach what seems like the right decision.  Even if you’ve read The Paradox of Choice and understand that there may not be an optimal choice, law firm high standards of performance can make us feel that we have to be the exception to the Paradox of Choice — we have to be the ones who identify the optimal choice.  As a result, we spend a lot of time looking at options, discussing angles, considering more complicated implementations than may strictly be justified, and then we plan justifications.  The natural consequence of this is that we often end up trying to offer too many choices to the lawyers who want a simple, elegant and easy solution to their law firm knowledge management needs.  Perhaps it’s time we took a leaf out of the Burger Joint’s play book and started offering instead fewer (but excellent) choices.

    [Photo Credit:  The Malones]

    2 Comments
  • When you use a search engine, you’re thinking aloud.  It’s almost as if you’re standing in the middle of Central Park or Hyde Park shouting, “Does anyone know anything about [X]?” In Central Park, at least, people are likely to ignore you and just keep walking.  What would happen, however, if someone stopped, paid attention, and made a note of your request?  And, what if they then noticed that other people were asking about [X] and that these people worked with you?  Could that someone reach the conclusion that you and your colleagues are interested in [X]? Now, what if X=Initial Public Offering, or X=Merger, or (more likely these days) X=Bankruptcy? What would that attentive person know about you and your work?

    I’ve heard reports of investment bankers and lawyers around the world beginning their research assignments on popular internet search engines.  What if someone noticed that lots of people at a particular firm were interested in Company [Y] and the topic “initial public offering.”  That’s normally the kind of information that is considered highly confidential within a company, an investment bank or a law firm.  However, do our searches on public search engines, social media sites or commercial subscription databases reveal information to a careful observer that we don’t intend to disclose?  What could that observer do with that information?

    Do you remember when Amazon reported on which books seemed popular in certain organizations?  (E.g., we’ve been selling lots of books on bankruptcy to people at the ACME Company.)   It is possible for providers of public search engines or commercial databases to gather this data and make sense of it.  Is anyone doing that now with respect to our searches outside the firewall?  Should we be doing something about that?

    [Photo Credit:  pavel1998]

    11 Comments
  • The most effective way to prevent death by malaria is by using long-lasting insecticide-treated bed nets. Yet organizations that distribute these nets have discovered that the folks who receive the nets sometimes choose to trade them for four chickens rather than use the nets. Why?

    • The four chickens solve an immediate, obvious and painful problem — hunger.
    • The net addresses a future, less obvious problem.
    • They know that a chicken and its eggs will give relief.
    • They don’t always realize that mosquitoes cause malaria and, therefore, don’t understand the value of the solution represented by the net.

    In Enterprise 2.0 implementations, if we aren’t very careful about what we’re offering and to whom, we can end up distributing nets to people who don’t understand their need for them.  As a result, they ignore our solution in favor of doing nothing or doing something else that provides immediate relief to the problem they (rather than you) have identified.  To be clear, I’m not suggesting that an E2.0 implementation is as important as saving lives.  However, I do think knowledge management teams can learn from the experience of  organizations fighting malaria because the fundamentals of human behavior and change management they face and we face are the same.  In order to achieve changed behavior (or adoption of a new tool) we must:

    • Educate people as to the actual cause of the problem.
    • Educate people as to the theoretical benefits of the proposed solution.
    • Prove the solution in such an obvious way so that you make the theoretical real.
    • Include monitoring and evaluation to keep proving your case as you implement the solution in their community.

    Don’t just throw your nets (or E2.0 solution) at the nearest group of people.   You can’t solve problems they don’t realize exist.  If they are unaware of the problem, you’ll have to embark on the longer process of educating them so that they truly understand the issue they are facing and are ready to do something productive to alleviate it.  Otherwise, all you’re doing is providing a chicken dinner.

    For more information on the enormous benefits of malaria nets, see the NetsforLife website.  (Disclosure:  This is an organization my family supports.)

    [Photo Credit:  Broterham]

    15 Comments
  • In New York City’s glittering social scene, I’ve never heard of a failure party. Apparently, you have to be on the A-list in Indianapolis to be invited to one.

    In 2004, The Wall Street Journal published an article on Eli Lilly’s failure parties. These parties were started in the early 1990s by W. Leigh Thompson, who used them “to commemorate excellent scientific work, done efficiently, that nevertheless resulted in failure.” According to the WSJ,

    Lilly has long had a culture that looks at failure as an inevitable part of discovery and encourages scientists to take risks. If a new drug doesn’t work out for its intended use, Lilly scientists are taught to look for new uses for a drug.

    As part of this effort, Lilly developed “a formalized and thoughtful process in which it reviewed failures more honestly, more deeply and started the process sooner than anyone else.”  This is a very sensible response to what is reported to be the 90% failure rate for most experimental drugs.

    By taking a creative second look at what was originally considered a failure, companies have salvaged their investments and been able to bring profitable innovations to market:

    • Viagra was originally developed to treat angina (severe chest pain).
    • Evista, now a $1 billion- a-year drug for osteoporosis, was a failed contraceptive.
    • Strattera, a drug for attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, was first conceived as an antidepressant.
    • Post-It Notes were intended to be an improvement on adhesive tape and ended up creating an entirely new product line.
    • Scotchgard was created for airplane fuel lines, but was re-purposed as a stain repellent.

    Have you gone back to see where a well-conceived project went off the rails?  Can it be re-imagined for another useful purpose?  Innovation isn’t just about that initial brilliant idea.  Sometimes, it’s about a brilliant comeback plan.

    [Hat tip to Matthew Cornell for forwarding an article on learning that mentioned Failure Parties.]

    [Photo Credit:  frippy]

    12 Comments
  • You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it … collaborate.

    That was my initial reaction when I read Michael Sampson’s post, Who Owns “Collaboration” in Your Firm? He describes ownership of collaboration in the following ways:

    • has the responsibility for analyzing work processes and recommending ways of improving those through collaboration technology.
    • has the responsibility for analyzing specific collaboration technologies and recommending or deciding on which ones to use.
    • has the responsibility for helping staff use new collaboration technology effectively in their work.

    The reality is that while it might be tempting for the KM, IT or HR departments to start explaining to other departments how to collaborate, offering those explanations is a far cry from actually initiating meaningful collaboration.  Collaboration occurs when people are ready to collaborate — not a minute before.  For collaboration truly to take hold, you need people in each area of the firm who approach their work with a collaborative mindset.  This means people who are willing to give up some turf and even credit for good ideas in order to foster teamwork for the benefit of the enterprise generally.  Without these kinds of people, it’s very hard to achieve any meaningful collaboration — regardless of the brilliance of the collaboration plans offered by your collaboration owners or consultants.

    [Photo Credit:  tibchris]

    12 Comments
  • To be honest, I never used to pay much attention to the quality of a vendor’s representative. As long as they weren’t offensive, I was willing to ignore them and focus on the product. And then, we had a very interesting experience when a vendor’s rep showed up to present a product that colleagues at peer firms had raved about. I listened, I watched, and I was baffled. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why folks in other firms liked the product.  It didn’t seem to work terribly well and the sales rep wasn’t able to explain it. So I scratched the product off my list and mentally moved on to the next one.

    A little while later, I received an e-mail from someone more senior at the vendor asking for an opportunity to show us the product again.  (I later learned that a mutual friend had told him about the disappointing first demo.)  Our experience during the second demo was the polar opposite of the first one.  In fact, it was as if we were looking at a completely different product.  This time, everything worked and the explanations were crystal clear.  As a result, I can now see how this product might be useful in our environment and I’ve started to measure other products against it.  All in all, it was a win for the vendor.

    One product.  Two representatives.  A world of difference.

    So, how good is your sales team?

    [Photo Credit:  The Rocketeer]

    No Comments
  • “Take this Enterprise 2.0 pill, it’s good for you.” These words seem to encapsulate how many organizations are encouraging the adoption of social media tools behind the firewall.  Unfortunately, the list of things that are good for us but we don’t try is longer than any blog post I’ve ever written.  And yet we persist in ignoring the good advice. So what makes these E2.0 advocates so sure that their slightly paternalistic approach will work?

    According to Seth Godin, they are using a low-effort sales technique that rarely leads to good results:  they are doing little more than putting the facts out in front of their target audience and hoping they will be swayed.  The reality is that while stating the facts clearly sometimes does close the sale, all too often you need more than that.  In Godin’s view, the facts are just the first step:

    Great brands and projects are built on real value and a real advantage, but great marketers use this as a supporting column, not the entire foundation. Instead, they build a story on top of their head start. They focus on relationships and worldviews and interactions, and use the boost from their initial head start to build competitive insulation.

    So, if you’re serious about E2.0 adoption, you’re going to have to get serious about change management.  You’re going to have to focus on building relationships.  In addition, Dennis Stevenson suggests that “driving change in people is about motivating them to want to change.”  Think about what motivates your potential users.  Help them answer their first question:  “What’s in it for me?” And then figure out how to support them as they begin to use  the tool.  After all, you’re not just trying to recruit users, you’re trying to create social media advocates who will help E2.0 go viral behind your firewall.

    [Photo Credit:  Rennett Stowe]

    9 Comments
  • “The floggings will continue until morale improves” is a famous pirate saying that could well be the motto of some old school knowledge managers who are trying to join the cool folks at the social media party. At least twice in as many weeks I’ve heard reports of misguided flogging within organizations in New York. In one instance an old school KM type suggested that the best way to help knowledge workers overcome their reluctance to shift to microblogs, blogs and wikis from e-mail was simply to force them out of e-mail. In another instance an old school KM type decided to encourage a knowledge worker to try an Enterprise 2.0 tool by hounding the poor person to death. In both cases, these knowledge managers were trapped in their command-and-control approach to life, not realizing that a successful Enterprise 2.0 deployment is by definition the antithesis of their modus operandi.

    Paula Thornton suggests that the key to avoiding a pirate’s flogging approach is to use good design in your E2.0 deployment:

    If you have to “drive adoption” you’ve failed at 2.0 design and implementation. The fundamentals of 2.0 are based on design that is organic — meets the individual where they are and adapts based on feedback — it emerges. The ‘adoption’ comes from rigorous ‘adaptation’ — it continuously morphs based on involvement from the ‘masses’. If done right, you can’t keep them away…because you’ve brought the scratch for their itch.

    Her comments serve to highlight the fundamental difference between top-down old style KM and bottom-up emergent Enterprise 2.0.  The pirates think they can make you participate, while those wiser about E2.0 understand that the right tool in the hands of the right group will be adopted with enthusiasm because it meets user needs.

    In the world of Enterprise 2.0, flogging people into submission and participation is a sure sign that you’ve missed the whole point of the exercise.  When that happens, it’s time for you to walk the plank.

    [Photo Credit:  Grant MacDonald]

    9 Comments
  • Given the state of the economy, it’s wise to ask yourself from time to time if you are closer to obsolete than mission critical.  As you think about your answer to that question, I’d recommend that you take a look at Rick Mans’ post, Should Knowledge Managers Look for a New Job, and the accompanying comments.  The message that comes through is that in an Enterprise 2.0 world there won’t be much of a need for knowledge managers who act as gatekeepers (i.e., deciding what information is worthy of collecting or sharing) or archivists (i.e., collecting and organizing information in a central repository in accordance with a strict taxonomy).  Rather, knowledge managers who wish to remain employed will need to morph into facilitators who help people work with new collaboration tools, comply with community-derived tagging guidelines, and share information.  While I agree with the general thrust of Rick’s post and the accompanying comments, I fear that the implied time horizon is too short.

    Why too short?  I suspect that in the long-term organizations are going to be increasingly reluctant to fund large groups of knowledge managers to do work that should be done by front line knowledge workers.  Instead, employers are going to expect that every knowledge worker has at least minimum competence in personal knowledge management.  Accordingly, knowledge managers will move into personal knowledge management coaching.  These shifts make economic and practical sense.  For too long, knowledge workers have been outsourcing their KM responsibilities to centralized KM departments.  The distance between the KM department and the front line often results in central data repositories that tend to reflect management’s view of what’s important rather than the shifting concerns and interests of front line knowledge workers who actually have to use the information collected.  Unfortunately, as Dave Pollard aptly points out, management itself is often too far removed from the front line to understand what the front line knowledge worker truly needs.  The problem is compounded if the knowledge managers don’t have subject matter expertise.  Without the experience of walking in the shoes of the front line workers they are supposed to be supporting, their decisions about what’s important to collect and how to organize it or what collaborative tools to provide will largely be based on hearsay.

    Further, the traditional one-size-fits-all approach to information management has disregarded the fact that our centralized collections rarely fit many.  Research reported by the Wharton School of Business found that a focus on knowledge capture didn’t always yield the desired benefits and sometimes incurred some painful costs:

    We find that using codified knowledge in the form of electronic documents saved time during the task, but did not improve work quality or signal competence to clients, whereas in contrast, sharing personal advice improved work quality and signaled competence, but did not save time….  This is interesting because managers often believe that capturing and sharing knowledge via document databases can substitute for getting personal advice, and that sharing advice through personal networks can save time.

    Partly in response to this research, Harold Jarche has suggested that it’s past time that we moved beyond “central digital repositories.”  Instead, we should focus on enabling what he calls a “parallel system” to support knowledge workers in those many instances in which the central repository proves inadequate.  What would that parallel system look like?  Here are his suggestions:

    • Develop measures that can help experienced knowledge workers capture and make sense of their knowledge. [This is personal KM.]
    • Support the sharing of information and expertise between knowledge workers, on their terms, using personalized knowledge management methods & tools.
    • Keep only essential information, and what is necessary for inexperienced workers, in the organizational knowledge base – keep it simple.

    So what might a future knowledge manager spend their time doing?  Primarily, coaching individual knowledge workers to become effective personal knowledge managers and online collaborators. Secondarily, creating systems that facilitate collaboration and allow passive sharing of the results of these individual personal KM efforts.  This mission critical approach puts knowledge management where it belongs — on the front lines and in the hands of the the knowledge workers who can use the information shared to strengthen networks and produce revenue.

    * * * * *

    Here are some additional resources if you’re interested in learning more about Personal Knowledge Management and the possible future direction of KM:

    [Photo Credit:  Kimberly Faye]

    11 Comments