Catalog Content Not People

Today's Librarian Wordle

The spirited response to my last two posts (Librarians vs Knowledge Managers and Content Catalysts) regarding the relationship between librarians and knowledge managers drove home to me the importance of not getting too stuck on labels and stereotypes. To be honest, I did use for the purpose of argument a rather stereotypical (and as Nina Platt pointed out) old-fashioned view of a librarian and an equally stereotypical view of knowledge managers. While this approach might have some limited utility in that it creates straw men that everyone can knock down, I now want to shift gears to think more about functions than labels.

If we look at the range of activities in which information professionals engage, we’d include research (targeting both internal and external resources); analysis; content selection, collection and management; creating and deploying systems for use in sharing information; archiving; risk management; and compliance.  There are librarians that do this work and there are knowledge managers that do this work.  In fact, in many law firms, there are practicing lawyers who do this work.

At the end of the day, it’s critical to know what work needs to be done and then assign the right people to the task based on their talent, experience, temperament and inclination.  That is a far better approach than to match people to tasks on the basis of labels or stereotypes.  In other words, we should catalog content, not people.

Here endeth the sermon!


Additional Resources:

For an interesting view of Librarians as Knowledge Managers, take a look at the following slides from a presentation by the inimitable Dave Pollard to the Special Libraries Association:

Librarians as Knowledge Managers

View more presentations from Dave Pollard.
[Photo Credit:  theunquietlibrarian]

Content Catalysts

Knowledge managers  sometimes divide the world into two camps:  content creators (the folks on the front lines of an organization, as well as a small handful of knowledge managers with subject matter expertise) and content managers (the bulk of the knowledge managers and librarians). In this scheme, most knowledge managers are working well behind the front lines and feel best suited to the task of organizing content rather than creating it. And, the content they seek to organize is explicit knowledge.  In reading Nick Milton’s post, KM and content management – the turf war,  I was struck by the fact that the disputed turf at the heart of this war (i.e., explicit knowledge) is relatively small.  If you look at his Venn diagram, you’ll see he identifies three types of turf:  non-knowledge information, explicit knowledge and tacit knowledge.  The first usually is the domain of librarians, and the last the domain of knowledge managers.  Both areas provide ample challenges and rewards.  Yet the turf battles continue with respect to managing explicit knowledge.   When you consider whether many (or any) of us should be fighting over KM 1.0 efforts to create and organize document collections, the turf battle seems even more pointless.

Therefore, in an effort to shift the conversation, I’d propose to expand the roles available for information professionals.   What if we were to add a new category:  Content Catalysts?  Rick Ladd pointed to this function in his comment on my previous post, Librarians vs Knowledge Managers:

It seems to me we KM professionals have been saying for years that an organization’s most useful knowledge lies between the ears of our people; up to 80% (obviously an approximation) of the total available. What I’m seeing is the use of social media to discover, connect, build relationships . . . in other words, greasing the skids of close to real-time knowledge transfer . . . is transforming how we deal with information and knowledge.

I’m of the opinion most value – at this time – lies in developing those “social” capabilities in an organization. Not to say managing the explicit knowledge assets isn’t important (precedent and all that comes with it isn’t going to go away, whether it’s judicial or the laws of physics); merely that connecting people to people and facilitating their ability to make sense of their collective information/knowledge, etc. is likely to have a bigger payoff than organizing our explicit assets.

This seems like a more productive route for knowledge management.  As information explodes around us, we’re finding that we’re able to corral less and less of it.  Our best hope is to have search engines that find what is necessary in the moment of need while we spend our time as Content Catalysts ensuring that information flows rapidly and is shared easily within our organizations.  (This is the promise of Enterprise 2.0.) It seems to me that knowledge managers should be able to add a great deal of value to their organizations as Content Catalysts, without the distraction of engaging in outdated battles over questionable turf.  What do you think?

[Photo Credit: Thomas Hawk]


Librarians vs Knowledge Managers?

Mitchell Library, Sydney

A startling blog post entitled reflection on KM and libraries in law firms came over the transom today. In it Morgan Wilson, a law librarian, recounted his experiences of working in a library that was part of a law firm knowledge management department.  These experiences led him to the conclusion that it is not a good idea to put KM in charge of a law firm library:

I’m not writing to criticize KM per se, but to express concern at what happens when KM is left in charge of the library – at least from my own experience. I’ve seen that in this situation, KM ends up cannibalizing the library, creating a two tiered system in which the library is definitely subordinate. The library remains responsible for reference, document delivery and training; time intensive activities which KM doesn’t want to be burdened with. Cataloging remains with the library by default, but it is not appreciated or understood by the KM masters and is marginalized.

KM takes on several higher status activities which the librarians used to be responsible for: liaising and outreach with the users in the practice groups, developing the research section of the intranet, working on new ICT projects and managing the library staff. Because KM is taking on additional work, it needs more people. The trouble is that KM professionals are lawyers and are not cheap. To balance the books, the library is shrunk.

While I’m not ready to endorse or argue with his position, reading his blog post did make me reconsider what I thought I knew about what Morgan Wilson calls “the ideal relationship between the library and KM.”  In thinking through the relationship, I found myself wondering about the following issues:

  • How much of his situation was due to difficult personalities or bad management?
  • Is there something in the law firm “caste system” that makes it challenging for lawyers and non-lawyers to work together?
  • Do librarians respond differently than knowledge managers? If so, is this due to personality type or training?

If you are pondering a merger between the information professionals in your law firm you should canvas widely the experiences of your colleagues in other firms.  Do their experiences match those of Morgan Wilson or did he have the misfortune to be in the wrong department at the wrong time? If you find that his experiences are typical, here’s the next question you should consider:  is this inevitable or is there something you and your firm can do to create a more harmonious and productive relationship between a law firm’s library and knowledge management department?

Finally, here’s another way of looking at these issues:  perhaps the battles (real or perceived) between librarians and knowledge managers are really the death throes of an obsolete system.  Consider that 25 years ago, an information professional was a librarian and during the last 15 years, knowledge managers have become the information professionals du jour.  What will be expected of an information professional in the 21st century?


Additional Resources:

[Photo Credit: Christopher Chan]


Bring Games to Work

This is not about that solitaire game you play surreptitiously when you should be filling out expense reports. And, it’s not about office politics or power struggles. Games at work is serious business and they offer interesting possibilities for law firm knowledge management and lawyer professional development.

A press report about the recent acquisition by Reed Hastings (NetFlix CEO) and Charter Fund of DreamBox Learning got me thinking about the potential positive impact of breaking out of the rather contained way many law firms approach knowledge management and professional development. DreamBox Learning allows children to “learn at play” by offering hundred of lessons via online games.  These lessons currently teach math concepts.  Over time, the company intends to extend their offerings to cover a variety of other subjects.  Each child playing the game first selects an avatar and then dives into the game.  According to DreamBox CEO and Co-Founder, Lou Grey:

`The kids can go off on a million different paths, depending on their own pace of learning,’ Gray said. `We give them individual hints and can track their progress.’

Imagine what mandatory continuing legal education would look like if we took it out of the classroom or conference room  and put it online in a game.  Imagine if we were to compensate associates on the basis of knowledge and skills acquired during a training game and then used in an actual client engagement?  The associate’s knowledge and skill acquisition could be measured and tracked objectively via the game rather than just subjectively via the sketchy written review provided long after the fact by the associate’s supervising partner. Imagine if we could use the tracking data to deliver to a lawyer specific knowledge resources that are pitched to their level of expertise.  In other words, a junior associate might receive introductory materials covering the subjects that were new to them, while a partner might receive a bullet-point list highlighting key policy or judgment issues that usually arise in a particular type of transaction.

The idea of dynamically adapting the resource to the user is a powerful one:

DreamBox Learning has been successful in part because it designed its software to be adaptive. That means when kindergarten through third graders play the online math games, the software tracks their progress and adjust the game to match the difficulty of the lessons based on each child’s scores.

Is this something we could try in a law firm?  Or, are law firms too serious for even serious games?

[Photo Credit: libraryman]


My Mistake

I made a mistake yesterday. Although I started with the best of intentions, my error was apparent within minutes. In fact, as soon as my first mouthful hit my digestive track, it was obvious that I had eaten food that was on the verge of spoiling. Unfortunately, by the time my brain processed the bad news, I was a few mouthfuls into my gastric disaster.  I’ve been paying for my error ever since.

Usually, nature provides an excellent early warning system to keep us away from spoiled food.  Bad smells and visual signs of spoilage are clear indicators that we should give up on that food and try something else.  In my case, the food looked fine and didn’t smell bad.  Consequently, I didn’t realize that I was on the road to pain and should turn around immediately.

We’re regularly told that fail fast and often are key to successful Enterprise 2.0 deployments.  Those of us who are trying to do it right look earnestly for signs that our current effort may be in danger of riding off the rails.  We check usage, we seek out anecdotal evidence, we read the tea leaves.  But what if we can’t tell if we need to quit?  What if the signs are ambiguous or, in the case of my bad meal, misleading?

Dion Hinchcliffe, Peter Kretzman and Michael Krigsman have been thinking about the role of failure in IT projects generally and Enterprise 2.0 deployments specifically.  I’ve provided links below to some of their writing, as an amuse-bouche.  However, I’d encourage you to dive into their blogs.  You’ll find lots of learning there.

In the meantime, I’ll leave you with the following observations from Peter Kretzman’s blog post, The IT project failure dilemma:  how to get early warnings:

One of the problems, as I’ve pointed out before, is that it can actually be surprisingly difficult to tell, even from the inside, how well a project is going.  Project management documents can be appearing reliably,  milestones met, etc.  Everything looks smooth. Yet, it may be that the project is at increasingly large risk of failure, because you can’t address problems you haven’t identified.  This is particularly so because the umbrella concept of “failure” includes those situations where the system simply won’t be adopted and used by the target group, due to various cultural or communication factors that have little or nothing to do with technology or with those interim project milestones.

Moreover, every project has dark moments, times when things aren’t going well. People get good at shrugging those off, sometimes too good.  Since people involved in a project generally want to succeed, they unintentionally start ignoring warning signs, writing those signs off as normal, insignificant, or misleading.


Further Reading:

[Photo Credit: stevendepolo]


How to Build Support for KM

One constant challenge for knowledge managers in any organization is how to build support among your front line colleagues so that they adopt knowledge sharing behaviors and use your KM systems and tools. Some knowledge managers try various forms of marketing.  Others simply harass their colleagues with pleas for better behavior.  Still others co-opt senior management to provide incentives for engagement.  And yet, too many report that it remains difficult to create and sustain an organizational culture that supports knowledge management.

Rather than pursuing these head-on methods, perhaps we should take a leaf out of Emily Dickinson’s book and try a slanted approach. For example, a recent post by Jon Katzenbach and Zia Khan in the Harvard Business Review Blog discusses the power of Spreading Critical Behaviors “Virally“.  In this case, the managers in question did not attack the problem head-on.  Instead, they identified other managers who were exhibiting the right behaviors and put them in touch with their counterparts:

If most other supervisors were not doing what these few knew worked, it was high time to do something about it. But their strong recommendation was counter-intuitive. They argued for a kind of “viral” cross-organizational exposure and interaction. No more programmatic confusion. Instead, simply get groups of supervisors together with respected counter-parts to share experiential `tricks of the trade’ in ways that would promote self-discovery. Simply put, set up small `cells of energy and insight’ — that is, credible people telling credible stories of how to get people emotionally committed to the few behaviors that matter most.

In short, they let the converted preach to the nonbelievers.

Can you identify folks in your organization who are exhibiting helpful knowledge management behaviors.  Can you match them up with skeptics and let the enthusiasts tell their story?  If you can, you may well create a grassroots movement towards better knowledge management.

[Hat tip to Euan Semple for pointing out this HBR blog post.]

[Photo Credit:  KiltBear]


Posterity and Me

We have a friend who has great musical talent. So we were delighted but not surprised when we heard that one of his compositions had been selected to be added to a special collection at the Library of Congress. After all, his piece truly was beautiful enough to merit saving it for posterity.

Unfortunately, I’m not sure I can say with honesty (or a straight face) that any of my 8000 tweets deserve the same treatment.  Nevertheless, the Library of Congress in its wisdom has decided that my tweets (as well as all the tweets of every other Twitter user) are to be saved for posterity.  My initial reaction was that this had to be an April Fool’s day joke.  But, apparently not:

Picture 5

According to Nate Anderson, the reasons for preserving these bits of ephemera reflect modern trends in scholarship:

There’s been a turn toward historicism in academic circles over the last few decades, a turn that emphasizes not just official histories and novels but the diaries of women who never wrote for publication, or the oral histories of soldiers from the Civil War, or the letters written by a sawmill owner. The idea is to better understand the context of a time and place, to understand the way that all kinds of people thought and lived, and to get away from an older scholarship that privileged the productions of (usually) elite males.

The LoC’s Twitter archive will provide a similar service, offering a social history of hipsters, geeks, nerds, and whatever Ashton Kutcher is. As Twitter continues its march into the mainstream, the service really will offer a real-time, unvarnished look at what’s on people’s minds.

But will the knowledge that our words are being saved forever lead us to change the way we tweet?  Will our 140-character blurts, verbal gaffes and inanities now be transformed into pearls of wisdom?  Probably not in my lifetime.  However, I will try to remember to be a bit more circumspect.  What about you?

[Photo Credit: Wilson Loo]


Focus on the Present

One of the great challenges of KM 1.0 is that we have to make guesses about the future when populating our document repositories. When considering whether or not to add a particular document to the collection, we have to make a bet as to the likelihood that this particular content item will be useful or even remotely interesting at some point in the future.  But how do you really know?  How often are you right? And do you have the metrics to vindicate your guesses?

To add insult to an injured system, law firm knowledge managers ask their lawyer colleagues to invest in these document repositories by contributing content in the hope that some of this content might be helpful someday.  Not surprisingly, law firms around the country have reported that few lawyers actually make the effort to contribute content.  Before you launch into a diatribe against lawyers, I should remind you that this lack of engagement is more a human failing than a commentary on lawyers.  If you don’t believe me, consider a recent article by Jane Brody in which she discusses the widespread failure of society to motivate people to exercise more.  Some try threats, while others try promises.  However, the results are the same:

… for many people, future health benefits may just be too abstract and speculative to overcome inertia and take up walking, running, swimming, cycling or working out in the gym.

According to Dr. Michelle Segar, a motivational psychologist, we shouldn’t make exercise (or contributing to the KM system) a chore or matter of obligation.  With respect to exercise, she suggests ” borrowing the motivational approach used by commercial marketers, `an emotional hook that creates positive, meaningful expectations of how exercise can enhance people’s lives, a way to feel better.’”

If we can’t get people to exercise now in the exchange for promises of good health and long life later, why do we think that promises of future benefit will increase levels of lawyer engagement in law firm knowledge management?  When it comes to exercise, Jane Brody reports that people tend to be more willing to stick with an exercise regime over the long term if they receive current tangible benefits from exercise buddies or communities that spring up around exercise activities:

For years now, I’ve been struck by the camaraderie among the elderly women, most of them widows, whose water aerobics class follows the morning lap-swim. Few knew one another before they joined this activity. Now they lunch together almost every month, celebrate birthdays together, check on one another if someone fails to attend a session or two, even raise money for a beloved staff member who lost her job in the recession.

Are there ways we can apply this approach to lawyer engagement in law firm knowledge management activities?  And, when we are asked “what’s in it for me,” do we have an answer that explains the current, tangible benefits of lawyers engagement and contribution?

[Photo Credit: Scott Ableman]


Talk Amongst Yourselves

Years ago, Saturday Night Live gave us the secret to effective knowledge sharing within the enterprise. In the famous words of Linda Richman on Coffee Talk: “Talk amongst yourselves!”

I was reminded of this when reading Tweeting your way to closing the skills gap on your plant floor, which cites Benjamin Friedman, the co-author of  Web 2.0: The Inflection Point for Knowledge Management.  Friedman says that while traditional top-down knowledge management methods and systems may still make sense for certain processes and bodies of knowledge that need precise documentation and uniform execution, these KM methods and systems aren’t always nimble enough to deal with many of the day to day issues that arise in manufacturing (and even in law firms).

He argues that when you let employees speak directly with each other (without the mediation or interference of a central knowledge management function) you can achieve faster, cheaper and more effective knowledge sharing. In his words:

…while traditional knowledge management solutions attempted to capture knowledge by corporate edict and with rigid tools, Web 2.0 technologies foster `organic’ knowledge management by giving workers the means to locate, organize and syndicate knowledge themselves.

The key to this is introducing Enterprise 2.0 tools into the mix of KM methods and systems AND implementing those Enterprise 2.0 tools in a manner that respects their emergent nature.  This means allowing employees outside the central KM function to use the tools as they see fit to facilitate the flow of information. Done correctly, this allows for spontaneous communication, in addition to later retrieval and re-use of information at point of need.

This marriage of formal, old-school KM approaches with informal Enterprise 2.0 tools and methods provides a glimpse of a more effective means of improving the flow of information and supporting better decision making.  Assuming we can achieve an appropriate balance between the formal and informal approaches, we may in fact be able to attain some of the goals knowledge management has been seeking to meet.  After years of hearing that KM is dead, the prospect of success is both exciting and a little overwhelming.  Consequently, perhaps we can be excused for feeling “a little verklempt.”

[Photo Credit:  PaDumBumPsh]


Planning Fallacy and Bad Estimates

It turns out that lawyers are human after all – at least with respect to their all too human inability to plan appropriately.  Heidi Grant Halvorson recently published an interesting post on the planning fallacy, which is what psychologists call the inability to estimate accurately how much time an activity can take.  Halvorson’s review of the research in this area suggests several reasons (or biases) that lead to our bad estimates:

  • “First, we routinely fail to consider our own past experiences while planning.”
  • “Second, we ignore the very real possibility that things won’t go as planned – our future plans tend to be `best-case scenarios.'”
  • “Lastly, we don’t think about all the steps or subcomponents that make up the task, and consider how long each part of the task will take.”

When lawyers work in a world that rewards according to time spent, it becomes imperative that we understand better exactly how much time an activity takes.  This means that we have to create systems to counteract the effects of the biases mentioned above.  Chief among these is keeping track of the components of every task, as well as the time actually spent in the past on those components.  If you think this is something you can put off, consider that as we shift to alternative billing arrangements, bad estimates come out of the lawyer’s pocket rather than the client’s pocket.


Related reading:

[Photo Credit:  American Virus]