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.
  • 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]

    Published on April 27, 2010 · Filed under: law firm knowledge management; Tagged as: , ,
    22 Comments
  • Ted Tjaden

    My experience has been somewhat different but also perhaps unique, reflecting the fact that the success of a “merger” of library and KM may be quite firm-dependent.

    I can’t now imagine operating with a separate library and KM department. By formally integrating these two related functions, one can become a single source for all information-related questions, whether from internal sources (reflecting mainly the KM side, tapping into firm precedents, research, best practices, and the like) or external sources (reflecting the mainly the library or research side – tapping into the books and primary sources “out there”).

    When I think of those (relatively few?) law firms where there is some sort of formal integration with library and KM, I suspect one factor for success is having librarians/researchers who are also lawyers and therefore on the same “footing” as lawyers performing a more traditional KM function.

    I will be presenting a paper titled “The Evolution of Law-Related Knowledge Management in North America – Opportunities for Law Librarians” at the annual Canadian Association of Law Libraries conference next month and would expect the paper to be freely online after the conference. In the paper, while I advocate formal integration between library and KM, I do acknowledge that in some firms lawyers may still under-appreciate the role that librarians can play in KM at the same time as law librarians under-leveraging or insufficiently selling their KM-related skills and abilities. I go on in a feeble attempt to identify those aspects of KM activities where law librarians can play a stronger role.

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  • Rick Ladd

    Mary – I'm inclined to believe the issue is primarily the latter one you threw out, i.e. the entire system of capturing and sharing knowledge is changing, Whether that's for the better is, perhaps, still up in the air, but the change has been taking place for quite a while. Public libraries are dealing with it (there are quite a few books now on the concept of “Library 2.0″), but you're talking about a specialty library that works within the confines of an enterprise.

    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.

    As far as your last question goes, I'm currently of the opinion the future will likely see information professionals disappear, as one of the emergent qualities of today's social media explosion. In my opinion, facilitators will remain but there just won't be any need for specialists to organize and provide the connection to our collective knowledge.

    Thanks for forcing me to wake up this morning. I'm hopeful re-reading this after I've had another cup of coffee will still make sense to me and that it makes sense to you . . . regardless of whether or not you agree with me :)

    Rick

  • Wendy Reynolds

    Rick – a comment on your opinion re: future of information professionals and the need for someone to organize collective knowledge. One phrase for you: shared drives. Theoretically, we can use shared drives now to build collective information resources, without the intervention of anyone else. What results is chaos.
    There will always be a need for someone to create an architecture for shared resources – to build a logical flow and ensure that we can find stuff. I agree, that task may not fall to librarians in future, but some specialist is going to need to be involved. Systems work best when their feeding and care are someone's job. If everyone is responsible for maintenance, noone is responsible for maintenance.

  • Rick Ladd

    Thanks for the response, Wendy. I have one phrase and one word myself. Semantic web and tagging. Your point about everyone being responsible means no one is responsible is well taken. I'm not suggesting there's no need for Librarians (just as I don't argue for wholesale replacement of taxonomies with folksonomies), but I think much of the maintenance in the future will be well behind the scenes.

    BTW – To my knowledge there is no one (irrespective of one's religious beliefs) architecting and maintaining life on our planet, yet as a system it seems to have worked fairly well for the last couple billion years.

  • Ted Tjaden

    My experience has been somewhat different but also perhaps unique, reflecting the fact that the success of a “merger” of library and KM may be quite firm-dependent.

    I can't now imagine operating with a separate library and KM department. By formally integrating these two related functions, one can become a single source for all information-related questions, whether from internal sources (reflecting mainly the KM side, tapping into firm precedents, research, best practices, and the like) or external sources (reflecting the mainly the library or research side – tapping into the books and primary sources “out there”).

    When I think of those (relatively few?) law firms where there is some sort of formal integration with library and KM, I suspect one factor for success is having librarians/researchers who are also lawyers and therefore on the same “footing” as lawyers performing a more traditional KM function.

    I will be presenting a paper titled “The Evolution of Law-Related Knowledge Management in North America – Opportunities for Law Librarians” at the annual Canadian Association of Law Libraries conference next month and would expect the paper to be freely online after the conference. In the paper, while I advocate formal integration between library and KM, I do acknowledge that in some firms lawyers may still under-appreciate the role that librarians can play in KM at the same time as law librarians under-leveraging or insufficiently selling their KM-related skills and abilities. I go on in a feeble attempt to identify those aspects of KM activities where law librarians can play a stronger role.

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  • http://www.strategiclibrarian.com/ Nina Platt

    Hi Mary,

    This post really caught my attention since I am a librarian and a knowledge manager. I've been a librarian since 1980 and I've worked with knowledge management in law firms since 1986 where I wrote a two part article on law firm km. I believe that article was the first law firm km article posted on the web in 1996.

    I have a masters degree in library and information science and I've taught KM classes for a graduate level program similar to what I attended. I write, speak and consult on KM and, yet, I am not a lawyer. (Note: the caste system is alive and well and doesn't seem to be going away any time soon.) I know a lot of other librarians who have the same interest, education, skills, and, yes, passion. Morgan being one of them.

    During all these years, I've learned that KM in law firms is a messy endeavor that has survived more by the passion of those who work with it, instead of any firm's commitment to what using KM as a tool can do for them. There have been jumps and starts that have gone no where and there have been some successful projects at some firms. Any consistency in effort has been done outside of the U.S.

    I recent years, KM has started to take hold at firms where the lawyer KM manager or the librarian KM manager have been in place. I don't believe either have moved of the other in the goal to make KM work. I will note, though, that many of the skills needed by one are the same skills needed by the other.

    In library school, I learned more than just cataloging and selecting materials. I learned about defining & building systems, human interaction with systems and more. While working on an MBA, I learned about organizational development, change management, communication and more. I am just one librarian to have all this in my background. There are many more of us.

    Much of what is called knowledge management today is library science rebranded. It isn't new to us. Some librarians may not be able to talk the same talk as a KM manager but that is because the language has changed.

    Finally, librarians in law firms (and else where) have never been valued to the degree they should because of old stereotypes that continue to live on because of jokes we've heard to often and messages that are reinforced over and over again. We are not a shushing, sensible shoe wearing, and angry lot. We are professionals who have skills that most law firms have left untapped because they don't fit that stereotype.

    I don't believe where the library is situated organizationally matters. Morgan's situation has and is being repeated throughout the legal industry where a law firm doesn't understand what the library is capable of supporting/doing or where the individual (no matter what department) doesn't value or understand the potential contribution.

    The library and KM teams are a powerful force when connected and managed properly. Who does what shouldn't depend on what part of the team someone is on. Look at the education, skills, experience, etc. to determine who should be doing what. If that isn't done, and the library is relegated to doing what the stereotype describes and the librarian's traditional role, that part of the team will suffer. Especially when they have already been playing many roles that the KM team may see as their turf only.

    P.S.: For Rick, “connecting people to people and facilitating their ability to make sense of their collective information/knowledge, etc” has been a role the library has thrived on for many many years.

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  • VMaryAbraham

    Nina -

    Thanks for your comment and for the timely reminder not to succumb to stereotyping. With your experience as both a librarian and a knowledge manager, can you speak to whether there are any key personality, cultural or training differences between the two groups that lead one to act differently from the other? Or is this yet another area in which it is unwise to generalize?

    - Mary

  • VMaryAbraham

    Ted -

    I'm heartened to hear about your positive experiences with a merged law firm library and KM department. Can you hazard any guesses as to why other attempts at this kind of merger fall short of the mark? Perhaps once we've identified what does go wrong, we can then plan for success.

    - Mary

  • VMaryAbraham

    Wendy and Nick –

    Thanks for this lively conversation. I wonder if the increasing sophistication of search and tagging technology will allow us to take a much lighter hand when cataloging/organizing content? That would free us from some of the more tedious maintenance tasks and allow us to focus on facilitating knowledge transfer.

    - Mary

  • VMaryAbraham

    Nina -

    Thanks for your comment and for the timely reminder not to succumb to stereotyping. With your experience as both a librarian and a knowledge manager, can you speak to whether there are any key personality, cultural or training differences between the two groups that lead one to act differently from the other? Or is this yet another area in which it is unwise to generalize?

    - Mary

  • VMaryAbraham

    Ted -

    I'm heartened to hear about your positive experiences with a merged law firm library and KM department. Can you hazard any guesses as to why other attempts at this kind of merger fall short of the mark? Perhaps once we've identified what does go wrong, we can then plan for success.

    - Mary

  • VMaryAbraham

    Wendy and Nick –

    Thanks for this lively conversation. I wonder if the increasing sophistication of search and tagging technology will allow us to take a much lighter hand when cataloging/organizing content? That would free us from some of the more tedious maintenance tasks and allow us to focus on facilitating knowledge transfer.

    - Mary

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  • May_ls2

    Scenario: In an oral defense of a dissertation, a member of the panel who happens to be a university president remarked:

    “Librarians including head librarians do not practice any management function; or, even participate in these functions. They are just like ordinary personnel of the university.”

    React by agreeing or disagreeing to the above statement by citing the management functions and documenting your citations.

    Thank you!

  • May_ls2

    Please react.

    Scenario: In an oral defense of a dissertation, a member of the panel who happens to be a university president remarked:

    “Librarians including head librarians do not practice any management function; or, even participate in these functions. They are just like ordinary personnel of the university.”

    React by agreeing or disagreeing to the above statement by citing the management functions and documenting your citations.

    Thank you!

  • VMaryAbraham

    Delete.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/John-Graham/100002368345699 John Graham

    good job