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.
  • Yesterday we visited the matriarch of our family to celebrate a special occasion — her 100th birthday. She showed us the many humorous and touching birthday cards she had received (including one from the President and Mrs. Obama). Since she’s as sharp as a tack, we were able to have a wide-ranging conversation that covered family, politics and sports. (Just for the record, she’s very disappointed in the Red Sox and unwilling to root for the Yankees.) And then, we shared some celebratory cake.

    Just before we left, she showed us a beautiful woolen scarf she was crocheting, as well as the stack of scarves she had recently completed. When we asked her about the scarves, she told us that they were destined for a nearby homeless shelter to keep its inhabitants warm during the approaching winter months. We were impressed.  Given her age, no one would blame her for kicking back and taking it easy. However, she was very clear about her motivation — she makes these scarves because she wants to be, in her words, useful.

    100 years old and still looking for ways to contribute.  What a great example for the rest of us.

    [Photo Credit:  Jessica N. Diamond]

    4 Comments
  • Q:  Why won’t sharks attack lawyers?
    A:  Professional courtesy.

    Even if you haven’t heard that old chestnut before, I’m sure you’ve heard at least one of the thousands of equally lame lawyer jokes that people all over the world love to repeat.  It’s bad enough when a lawyer encounters one of these jokes in a social setting, but it’s beyond reasonable to expect a lawyer to take it sitting down when these jokes are repeated at the office by law firm knowledge management personnel.

    Now, before you start protesting your innocence, think carefully.  Even if you haven’t told one of the common lawyer jokes, have you ever said any of the following:

    Our lawyer are so…
    Our lawyers never…
    Our lawyers love…
    Our lawyers hate…

    Oh really?  Do you have the data to support your statements?  Probably not.  Yet KM folks in firms all over the world make these assertions daily based on their assumptions about lawyers.  These often are worse than mere generalizations.  In fact, they often are caricatures.  The problems arise when you treat these caricatures as helpful personas while planning your KM program or implementing your technology.  Inevitably, you end up with KM systems that are themselves pale shadows of what they should be.  Not a good outcome.

    So stop repeating lawyer jokes in the form of unsupported assumptions about your lawyer colleagues.  Do the due diligence review necessary to understand properly how the lawyers in your firm work and what they need.  Then you can create personas that actually will help you provide useful KM support.

    And that’s no laughing matter.

    ************************

    From Wikipedia:

    Marc Galanter in the introduction to his book Lowering the Bar: Lawyer Jokes and Legal Culture cites a meta-joke in a speech of Chief Justice William Rehnquist:[2]

    I’ve often started off with a lawyer joke, a complete caricature of a lawyer who’s been nasty, greedy and unethical. But I’ve stopped that practice. I gradually realised that the lawyers in the audience didn’t think the jokes were funny and the non-lawyers didn’t know they were jokes.

    [Photo Credit:  guebosch]

    3 Comments
  • Some folks aspire to be as beautiful as a model, while other folks aspire to have a model on their arm. Lawyers, by contrast, aspire to have a collection of models. Model DOCUMENTS, that is.  And, as long as lawyers want model documents, law firm knowledge management personnel are going to try to find ways to provide them.  But, should they?

    As mentioned in my earlier post, KM’s Worst Enemy, model documents represent a massive investment for a firm because it is very hard to throw a model document together overnight. If you’re going to do it correctly, you’ll have to spend time and effort to create a model that meets both your practice quality and risk management needs. Ideally, model document drafting will incorporate the experience of several lawyers in the relevant practice.  This means that law firm KM personnel must recruit and retain lawyers to help with the drafting.

    At a recent meeting of law firm knowledge managers, I asked how many of them had successfully recruited under-utilized lawyers in their firm to update their collection of models.  The responses were consistent and discouraging.  Even when lawyers have a lighter billable workload, they tend to be disinclined to assist with drafting or updating model documents.  The solution for some firms has been to recruit practice support lawyers who work on a nonbillable basis to generate these materials.  However, this approach has its own challenges and, to do it correctly, you may well need a team of support lawyers who have expertise in a wide range of practice areas.  The solution for other firms has been to obtain model documents from traditional legal publishers or subscribe to the resources offered by practice support companies such as the Practical Law Company.**  PLC takes care of the drafting and updating, which is a huge improvement over what many firms can do for themselves.  Each subscribing firm then trains its lawyers to use these materials in a manner that is appropriate for that firm’s practice and clients.  And, of course, that firm has to pay a subscription fee for the service.

    Before thinking about generating models internally or obtaining them externally, it would be worth examining further how many models you really need.  Many firms assume that a model constitutes a statement of best practices and, therefore, the more models you have the better.  A recent interchange on best practices with Tom Young of Knoco sharpened my understanding of best practices.  For the purposes of this discussion, I’d draw your attention to his concepts of standardization and innovation.   In applying this to the law firm context I wonder whether we would be wiser to concentrate on creating (or obtaining) model documents only for those instances where it is imperative that we ensure standardization.  In all other cases, would it be a better use of firm resources to produce a practice guide, checklist or issues list rather than a full-blown model document?  Until you consider these questions in the context of your firm’s practice, you may find yourself frustrated or disappointed as you try to find new and creative ways to coax your colleagues into creating models.

    Dating a beautiful model may be your dream, but in a law firm it comes at a price.

    *********************

    Further Reading on Best Practices:

    **Disclosure:  I’m a member of the Practical Law Company’s Advisory Board.

    [Photo Credit:  UltimateGraphics http://www.flickr.com/photos/29956195@N08/ / CC BY-NC 2.0 ]

    6 Comments
  • What’s one thing that will doom your law firm knowledge management program? Your knowledge manager’s inability to question premises. (To be honest, this can be a problem with most disciplines, but I don’t presume to speak to any other areas of expertise.)

    For example, lawyers (being people who value precedent) have historically placed a high premium on document collections.  Consequently, it was natural for early law firm knowledge managers to assume that their first priority was to create and manage document collections for lawyers.  Is this the way it should be?  Does this fondness for collections make sense any more?  In fact, as the rate of information production grows exponentially, is it even practical to think we can create and maintain a collection that is either comprehensive or current?  Or, should we be thinking more about search and retrieval? Check your premises.

    Here’s another example:  lawyers (being people who write professionally) have historically placed a high premium on model documents.  (For those of you outside the legal profession, these are contracts that do not contain client-specific information, but generally do collect the firm’s knowledge of that type of contract by providing annotations containing drafting advice and negotiation guidance.) Most lawyers would love to have a model document for every kind of contract they typically prepare for their clients.  To be honest, some lawyers dream of a fill-in-the-blanks model that they can just pull off the shelf and use.  In reality, however, model documents can be extremely time-consuming and expensive to produce.  And, they can be a bear to maintain.  In short, they are an expensive undertaking.  Nonetheless, many law firm knowledge managers have assumed that a top priority should be creating a comprehensive set of model documents.  But does your firm have the human commitment and financial resources necessary to provide properly maintained model documents?  And, even if it does, is this a good use of its resources?  Check your premises.

    Knowledge managers should lead by example when it comes to finding creative solutions to practical problems.  The first step along this path is to question our premises.  When we fail to do this, we pursue outdated goals and methods, thereby relegating our KM programs to an increasingly irrelevant position within the firm.

    ***Update, 26 Oct 2009 ***

    If you’re willing to take a radical, critical look at the things you do and the way you work, the following reading might help:

    [Photo Credit:  oberazzi]

    9 Comments
  • An eminent Mary (Mary Meeker that is, not Mary Abraham!) has just presented her views on Internet Trends 2009 at the Web 2.0 Summit. Her key trend for 2009 was “Mobile Internet – Is and Will Be Bigger Than Most Think.” She goes on to list 8 key mobile internet themes, but here’s the one that caught my eye:

    Next Generation Platforms (Social Networking + Mobile) Driving Unprecedented Change in Communications + Commerce.

    I know we lawyers love our BlackBerries, but is this where the action is?  Maybe not so much.  According to one report, iPhone users account for 65% of the mobile data usage even though they constitute only 11% of the market share in the US.  What does this mean for the future of BlackBerries in the enterprise?  Meeker suggests that RIM’s installed base will give it a 1-2 year advantage, but after that all bets are off given the sky-high rate of iPhone purchases.

    So if we don’t have passing grades when it comes to mobile, how are we doing with social networking?  Meeker’s data show that huge numbers of users are flocking to powerful new publishing/distribution platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Demand Media.  Yet every day we hear more and more alarming statistics about the number of companies that are blocking access to social networking platforms.  If this is true, does Mary Meeker’s prediction apply only to folks outside the corporate/legal world?  Or are we about to see a shift in acceptance and participation behind the corporate firewall?

    And what about your law firm?  Is it ready for mobile + social?  Or are you hoping to try to sit this one out?

    [Photo Credit: mattjb]

    4 Comments
  • Yesterday’s post, Just Tell Me What Works, discussed some of the weaknesses arising from a blind obsession with best practices. The chief weakness is the false belief that someone else’s solution will work perfectly for you.  But what if you avoid that weakness and actually do the hard work of thinking for yourself in order to create a definitive statement of a best practice in your context.  Are you done? As Joe Firestone reminded me today, unfortunately not.

    Once you’ve successfully created a best practices (or next practices) document, it’s tempting to breathe a big sigh of relief, celebrate your accomplishment and then rest on your laurels.  With the passage of enough time, however, you end up with a moth-eaten collection of practices that are interesting primarily for historical purposes.  Your much vaunted “best practices” are now woefully out of date and may even be dangerous from a risk management perspective.

    So what’s the solution?  Under the old model, you would ask the chief author of each best practices document to assume responsibility for updating the document as necessary.  Unfortunately, busy schedules (and disinterested authors) can make this difficult.  Yet, we’ve persisted in pursuing this model because it allowed the author to maintain control over a resource that was considered too important to have distributed authorship.  So, you focus on perfect control and get imperfect content.

    A related problem with this approach has been identified by Joe Firestone and Steven Cavaleri as a gap between the claims of a best practices document and its track record.  Have those best practices been tested?  Have they passed the test?  If so, is that reflected in the record?  If not, what improvements are necessary?  To do this effectively, you need different folks interacting with the best practices document over time and reporting their results.  This can be done through the imaginative use of Enterprise 2.0 tools (e.g., collaborative tags and annotations), but it does require a willingness to relinquish a measure of control.

    For best practice documents and all the other “solutions” promoted by the  firm, Firestone and Cavaleri advocate building a living and breathing knowledge base that provides current information and promotes innovation:

    For flexibility and variety, the real knowledge bases we have in mind, ought to be distributed, rather than centralized, and Enterprise 2.0 and 3.0 technology including tagging, annotating, and mashups, and new semantic web applications, should be applied to create both a new and richer layer of meaning and integration across stove pipes. To be effective in creating high quality knowledge bases that will be most useful in enhancing thinking up new ideas, social computing technology must be applied both collaboratively, and in a way that includes all ideas, no matter how new and untested they are. The rule should be to let the knowledge base reflect the track record of performance of ideas comprising solutions, or the absence of such a track record, and leave it up to people to factor that into their own creative thinking.

    At the end of the day, identifying best practices is the first rather than the final step.  You then have to test them regularly for currency.  If you give into the temptation to rest on your laurels, you’ll quickly turn those best practices documents into quaint historical artifacts.  Now, please explain to me how that helps your firm manage risk?

    [Photo Credit:  Elizabeth Thomsen]

    5 Comments
  • Sometimes we just want to be told what to do. To be honest, we all have days when that seems far preferable to thinking for ourselves. Unfortunately, it’s exactly this temptation that has led us to make a fetish of “best practices” in knowledge management.  However, we would do ourselves a great favor if we were more candid about the real value of best practices.

    In his October Newsletter, David Gurteen includes a great piece entitled On Best Practice and Thinking for Yourself! In it he explains why slavishly following so-called “best practice” may not always be the right approach.  In fact, best practice may sometimes be illusory.  Best practices are, in theory, a wonderful thing.  After all, who wouldn’t want to know how the best and the brightest do something?  The problem is that the solution those exceptional folks have found works precisely because it is their solution.  It succeeds because it was created for their context and was carried out by them.  Unless you are operating under exactly the same circumstances (and with the same type of people), there is no guarantee that it will work equally as well when you try to make it your solution.

    The sources David Gurteen cites point to the true value of “best practices.”  That value doesn’t lie in having a foolproof recipe.  Rather, those “best practices” are most useful as examples of what can be done (rather than what must be done) to address a specific situation.  You could then take those examples and adapt them to the particularities of your situation.  Better yet, you should take those examples and use them as a launching point to spur some truly creative thinking on your part and devise a solution that is uniquely suited to your circumstances.  That creative thinking should lead you to Next Practices rather than Best Practices.  And, in so doing, help you to discover practices that will work more powerfully in your context.  Now, be honest — isn’t that the best practice for you?

    [Photo Credit:  Joan Thewlis]

    13 Comments
  • Are you ready for your firm to flip the transparency switch?

    For many law firms, their Achilles’ Heel is e-mail. Almost all correspondence is handled electronically, but lawyers around the world have not always been diligent in sending copies of this correspondence to their firm’s records management system. To be fair, most firms I know ask their lawyers to do the right thing, but until recently there has not been technology available to make doing the right thing easy. Now, with the availability of electronic tools that can prompt a lawyer for filing details before sending the message — or, even better, suggest how the e-mail should be filed — firms are on the verge of having accurate, real-time institutional records of their electronic correspondence.

    Risk managers at firms will breathe a big sigh of relief when these systems are in place. However, have others considered the impact of having the e-mail collections available at their fingertips? Suddenly, the firm’s communications will move from obscurity to transparency. One obvious consequence is that with centralized access to all the correspondence with a client, a lawyer should have a better understanding of the ongoing conversation between the client and the firm, and should be able to provide better service. And, if lawyers come to see this centralized collection as accurate, complete and reliable, they should over time stop hoarding e-mails in private Outlook folders. This will be another win for client service and firm risk management.

    But, have you considered what happens to communications within the firm when all e-mail is retained in a searchable repository? What if there is a complete, centralized record of e-mail correspondence among administrative staff? Will the quality of the support services they provide improve? And, will there be an impact on office politics?  Or will the e-mails that record the daily dramas of the life of any human organization be excluded from the drive to transparency?

    There are interesting times ahead.  Are you ready for your firm to flip the transparency switch?

    [Photo Credit:  hockadilly]

    4 Comments
  • So now that you’ve moved past the early infatuation stage, is LinkedIn working for you? I’ll freely admit that I’m thrilled that LinkedIn provides a way for others to update my rolodex. But past that, I’m not entirely sure where the value lies for a person like me.

    It’s a different situation for folks in sales and marketing. The ones I talk to rave about the enormous, extensible list of contacts they can develop via LinkedIn. To be honest, that’s also why some friends of mine have locked down their contacts — they don’t want their vendor friends harassing their non-vendor friends.

    And what about those 59 million LinkedIn groups? Have you joined any? What percentage of the proposed discussions are more than thinly veiled marketing ploys or pleas for social media contacts?

    As you can see, I’m struggling to find a way to make LinkedIn really work for me. Do you have any advice? What’s working for you?

    17 Comments
  • I’m about to do something foolish — I’m going to allow a soundbite (regarding a discipline in which I have virtually no training) to inspire a blog post.  Nonetheless, I’m persisting in my foolishness because today’s announcement of the awarding of the Nobel Prize in Economics to Elinor Ostrom included references to concepts that rang social media and knowledge management bells for me.

    Ostrom has studied how people use, and govern the use of, shared resources. Here’s how The New York Times describes her work:

    Ms. Ostrom’s work focuses on the commons, such as how pools of users manage natural resources as common property. The traditional view is that common ownership results in excessive exploitation of resources — the so-called tragedy of the commons that occurs when fishermen overfish a common pond, for example. The proposed solution is usually to make users bear the external costs of their utilization by privatizing the resource or imposing government regulations such as taxes or quotas.

    Ms. Ostrom’s empirical research has shown that this explanation is “overly simplistic,” the prize committee says: There are many cases around the world in which common property is “surprisingly well-managed.” In these cases commons users “create and enforce rules that mitigate overexploitation” without having to resort to privatization and government regulation (which can both pose their own practical difficulties).

    In an interview I heard today, Elinor Ostrom talked about various failed attempts by central authorities to dictate the sensible use and sustainability of shared resources.  She then contrasted this with the success of people on the front lines in cooperating to manage these resources by adapting rules to local conditions, something the central authorities often have trouble doing.  These themes are echoed by the Nobel prize committee:

    The lesson is not that user-management is always preferable to all other solutions. … Rather, the main lesson is that common property is often managed on the basis of rules and procedures that have evolved over long periods of time. As a result they are more adequate and subtle than outsiders – both politicians and social scientists – have tended to realize. Beyond showing that self-governance can be feasible and successful, Ostrom also elucidates the key features of successful governance. One instance is that active participation of users in creating and enforcing rules appears to be essential. Rules that are imposed from the outside or unilaterally dictated by powerful insiders have less legitimacy and are more likely to be violated. Likewise, monitoring and enforcement work better when conducted by insiders than by outsiders. These principles are in stark contrast to the common view that monitoring and sanctioning are the responsibility of the state and should be conducted by public employees. [emphasis added]

    Freely admitting that I have never studied Elinor Ostrom’s work, I find myself wondering whether her research regarding the importance of the active participation of users in creating and enforcing rules could be transferred to the modern enterprise and its quest to control the uses of social media. If people can be trusted to manage precious natural and man-made resources, is it a huge leap to allow them to manage a shared resource like a social media platform?  If centralized authorities have trouble adapting to local conditions with respect to certain resources, why should it be different with resources within an enterprise.  Are some things better left in the hands of the people on the front lines?

    I do hope someone with training in economics takes another look at Elinor Ostrom’s work, with a view to determining its applicability to knowledge management and shared online resources.  In the meantime, however, I’m going to think some more about why our drive for safety leads us to command-and-control structures that often are futile and ultimately undermine the safety we seek.

    [Photo Credit:  Indiana University via Getty Images]

    7 Comments