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.
  • I had nearly finished drafting the legal documents for a hot new online start-up when the dot-com bubble burst in 2000.  With the sudden end to the stratospheric stock prices for these new media companies, everyone felt free to criticize.  Do you remember how the bricks-and-mortar supporters derided the notion of doing business virtually?  Do you remember the anxiety about how to regulate and evaluate online business activities?  Ten years later, some of those concerns seem unwarranted.  And, more importantly, online business activity has become a significant part of the way we all live our lives.

    If you look around, you’ll see some of the same issues with respect to Enterprise 2.0 and social media generally.  There’s lots of concern about how to evaluate its efficacy.  And even more concern about how to regulate it.  Some companies have clamped down on their employees, while others have taken a more moderate approach, presumably emboldened by the potential they see in these new communications channels.  Whatever mode your company’s in, take heart from the fact that we’ve seen this pattern of behavior before.  If you doubt it, watch the  5 1/2 minute video below entitled “Card-Carrying Capitalist Supports Nationalization” provided courtesy of The Wall Street Journal Online.  In this video, author Matthew Bishop explains why he thinks bank nationalization can be a good thing.  While I’m not in any way endorsing or criticizing his point of view, I was interested in his suggestion (about 2.5 minutes into the video) that bubbles follow innovation.  And, because it’s hard to understand properly what’s really going on in a period of great innovation, it’s easy for abuse to occur during that bubble.  However, companies that can find some sound operating principles that take advantage of the innovation will be able to ride out the bubble and emerge in a stronger position.  The role of social media evangelists is to help companies find that oasis of calm and sanity amid the hype and frenetic activity surrounding web 2.0 tools so they are well-positioned to thrive after the bubble bursts.

    So when you hear people deriding social media and Enterprise 2.0, remember that they are viewing these new communications channels through their old bricks-and-mortar lens.  They will catch up with the rest of us once their vision has been corrected.

    [Photo Credit:  h. koppdelaney]

    5 Comments
  • Over the last few weeks I’ve had the pleasure of meeting with and talking to some fantastic law firm knowledge management experts. They work in a variety of firms, with a wide array of technology tools and organizational cultures. These most successful of all law firm knowledge managers stand head and shoulders above the rest. While I know they’ve worked hard, it’s indisputable that many of them have been lucky. Now before you criticize me for damning with faint praise, take a look at what Richard Wiseman describes as the attributes of lucky people:

    My research revealed that lucky people generate good fortune via four basic principles. They are skilled at creating and noticing chance opportunities, make lucky decisions by listening to their intuition, create self-fulfilling prophesies via positive expectations, and adopt a resilient attitude that transforms bad luck into good.

    Translated into the world of KM, this suggests that successful knowledge managers are plugged into their organizations and notice changes, looking constantly for opportunities.  Their experience helps them trust their intuition – which is the great gift that experts have in abundance.  Their orientation towards opportunity is, by definition, positive and helps them focus on the good that can be achieved.  Finally, they understand the value in learning from each experience.  Prior failures and successes remind them that they can trust themselves to make some good out of even difficult results.

    Those of us who do not feel so lucky should not despair.  According to Richard Wiseman, we can learn to be lucky by using the following techniques:

    • Listen to your hunches.  Don’t focus solely on the “rational side of the situation.”  Pay attention to how you feel about a decision.  Your “gut feelings act as an alarm bell – a reason to consider a decision carefully.”
    • Break out of your routine. “Unlucky people tend to be creatures of routine. They tend to take the same route to and from work and talk to the same types of people at parties.”  Wiseman contrasts them with lucky people who seek out variety, thereby increasing the likelihood of “chance opportunities.”
    • Accentuate the positive. “Lucky people tend to see the positive side of their ill fortune. They imagine how things could have been worse.” Take the example of one positive thinker who had fallen down a flight of stairs and broken his leg.   When Wiseman “asked him whether he still felt lucky and he cheerfully explained that he felt luckier than before. As he pointed out, he could have broken his neck.”

    What will you do today to change your luck?

    [Photo Credit:  Kelley Mari]

    5 Comments
  • What would happen if we turned our operating model on its head? What if we focused on individuals instead of the organization? What if we took Davenport and Prusak at their word and worked to make a reality of their claim that “knowledge management must be part of everyone’s job”?  No more ossified knowledge management systems. No more bureaucratic KM departments.  No more expensive KM “solutions” offered by eager vendors. No more struggles to achieve minimal user adoption.

    According to Steve Barth, there’s a significant upside to focusing on the individual knowledge worker:

    It seems obvious, but it is not often said that knowledge management works best when knowledge workers take the initiative and responsibility for what they know, don’t know and need to know. Doing so not only makes the individual more valuable to the corporation, it also enhances the value of intellectual capital for the corporation.

    Tempted?

    Here’s the plan:  learn about personal knowledge management (or personal sensemaking, if that is an easier concept for you).   Think about what it takes to aggregate, filter and share content effectively.  Put these principles into practice for yourself and measure their impact on your work life.  And then think about how you could pass on this learning to every one of your colleagues.  Taking this grassroots approach, could you help each of your colleagues become so good at managing their information flows that their work processes and work product improve?  Could you find a way to improve the overall performance of your organization?

    If you’re interested in learning more about personal KM/ personal sensemaking, please participate in the Twitter Chat on Personal Knowledge Management sponsored by KMers.org.  In addition, here are some other good introductions to the subject:

    [Photo Credit: moeyknight]

    12 Comments
  • When we hire, we sometime focus too much on what lies within the boundaries of the job description rather than on what lies within the person we are interviewing. Granted, it’s extraordinarily difficult to assess fully a person you are meeting for the first time, but you nonetheless have to probe beyond their resumes.

    Elan Gil has given this some thought and provided a list of characteristics he thinks are important, as he reports in Hiring the First 5 Engineers – What Sort of People Do You Want on Your Team:

    1. Do what it takes-edness (to coin a term). Willingness to dive in and fix any problems that come up and to take charge since there will not be anyone else to do so. This includes the willingness to do lots of grunt work – there is no one to delegate to.
    2. Persistence/tenacity.
    3. Ability to deal with uncertainty and not freak out. You may end up with multiple pivots depending on company stage. You need people who will stay calm and keep with it.
    4. Generalist technical knowledge. You will not have a “front end team” an “ops team” a “backend team” and a “database team” etc. You need someone who can optimally work on all parts of the stack.
    5. Not religious about technology (or anything really). This is useful at any size company, but at a startup you really don’t want to waste time debating the merits of Python versus Java. You just want to build stuff and get it done. No engineering ego (I find the most confident engineers often don’t need to reinforce their ego – they already know they are very good so dont feel threatened easily) and no drama.
    6. Get a lot done. You need people who can just crank on product. They need to be able to problem solve independently and go figure stuff out.
    7. Do “just enough”. Focus on the 80% of stuff that needs to get done, not the 20% edge case which most users won’t care about (i.e. hire people who buil things that are very solid, but not “perfect” – this applies to an internet company, not e.g. a later stage hardware co)
    8. Get along with the team. This does not mean the person is not quirky or lacks personality. It does mean that you will be 5-10 people in a room every day and you need people you and the rest of the team get along with.
    9. Bonus points: financial stability. This could be a low personal burn rate, or ability to take a low salary either through a past financial success, being straight out of school so living costs low, or other means. This means the person may be more willing to take a low salary in exchange for more equity, which helps the company survive longer on less.
    10. Lots of other stuff, but I think the above is important.

    He goes on to suggest that while there is no perfect way of ensuring that the person you’re interviewing has what it takes, you can gather important information through reference checks, taking them out for a beer or dinner to see how they fit culturally with the team, and hiring them for a day and giving them a problem to solve.  The important thing is to keep digging until you’ve got a good sense as to whether this person meets your criteria.

    This list of key traits applies to a knowledge management dream team as well.  KM is a cost center with few traditional means of proving ROI.  As a result, the KM group will most likely be small and will have to operate with the energy, enthusiasm and tenacity of a classic start-up.  If you’re managing a group like that, you’d do well to hire the sorts of people Elan Gil recommends.  And, don’t forget the beer!

    [Photo Credit:  Roscoe Van Damme]

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  • We’re told that we should not watch anyone make sausages or laws. These are messy (and, in the view of some, stomach-churning) processes that can produce wonderful results. Unfortunately, many have extended this aversion from the making of laws to the providing of legal services. So we go through our days doing whatever the client needs without pulling back the curtain to see the reality of what it takes to provide that level of client service.

    Well, I’ve got bad news for you:  if you want to continue to provide a high level of service at a price your clients are willing to pay, you’re going to have to roll up your sleeves, pull back the curtain, and take a much closer look at how sausages are made in your firm.  Do you have the right ingredients, recipes, workers, machinery and processes?  Do you consistently turn out high quality work at a predictable price? What sorts of changes might improve the way you work and what you produce?  Have you analyzed the effect on work product, efficiency and morale of changing your ingredients, recipes, workers, machinery and processes? Do you know exactly where you might create sustainable improvements? These are the questions every lawyer, law firm and law department should be asking.

    In fact, these questions are being asked in businesses of all types.  As a result, more people are beginning to understand better what it takes to do what they do.  In order to get to this realization, we need many open conversations between the experts who do the work and the experts who understand how work processes may be improved.  Mark MacDonald describes this well with respect to how an IT department can assist in improving business processes.  We could say something similar about knowledge management personnel:

    Process experts create value through working with their business peers in an environment of discovery and problem solving.  This is in contrast to many application development shops that gather requirements then go away to build the system.  Process change makes the sausage best in open collaboration with the business.

    I’m not suggesting that we engineer a law firm to death, turning it into a soulless factory producing bland, unappetizing sausages at rock bottom prices.  However, I do think it’s possible to make our firms efficient producers of artisanal sausages — where we marry state of the art methods and machinery with highly skilled (even artistic) personnel to produce extraordinary, memorable, successful work product. And, I believe there is an important role for knowledge management and IT to play in achieving high quality artisanal work product at a price that makes our clients happy.

    [Photo Credit:  cobalt 123]

    1 Comment
  • When we work in an area like knowledge management that is hard to reduce to useful numbers, it can be challenging to prove ROI for the bean counters. In fact, some would argue that numbers can never tell the whole story regarding a knowledge management initiative. So what works better? Find your success stories and tell them until you are blue in the face.

    When thinking about what makes an effective success story, consider the advice of Dan Heath (author of Made to Stick) as he talks about Subway’s fantastic “Jared” advertising campaign in the following Fast Company video clip.  As you may remember, Jared was the poster boy for losing astonishing amounts of weight while eating fast food. Heath uses this campaign to remind us of the three key attributes of an effective story:

    • Concreteness
    • Unexpectedness
    • Emotional Impact

    So how do you make this work for you?  First, think about what has improved in your firm thanks to KM. Next, find specific success stories relating to that improvement that are concrete, surprising and have emotional impact.  Then get out there and tell your story.  If enough folks listen, you won’t need to worry quite so much about the bean counters.

    [Photo Credit:  Loren Javier]

    4 Comments
  • Today is Groundhog Day. I have no idea whether Phil the groundhog will see his shadow, but I try never to forget what happened to Bill. Who’s Bill? Bill Murray in the movie, Groundhog Day. Because he resisted growing up and moving forward, he was condemned to repeat Groundhog Day until he did something to break the cycle.

    Law firm knowledge management (and perhaps KM generally) seems to be in a Bill Murray repeat mode in many places.  We’ve all found some things that work (or worked at one time), so we repeat them.  We’ve also been asked to do some things that we know don’t work, but cannot overcome the pressure to meet these low expectations, so we repeat them.  Continue like this, and you run the risk of running KM into the ground.

    So how do you break free?  Don’t look to new technology.   Technology won’t work well unless you have a clear vision of its uses and limits.  A tool implemented blindly won’t provide the forward momentum a firm sunk in KM Groundhog gloom needs.  The better approach is to start thinking strategically about your KM program.  Given the upheaval of the last couple of years, what does KM need to do in your firm to help it respond to economic pressures?  Have the practices of your firm changed?  Has your KM program kept pace?  Is there an opportunity to embed KM in a practice group or client team?

    Everyday is KM Groundhog Day and everyday is an opportunity to to break the cycle.  Just think strategically.

    [Photo Credit:  Jimmy Wayne]

    2 Comments