Coalition of the Willing

Lawyers in most firms are given a lot of freedom to decide how to manage their own knowledge. In fact, it’s a rare law firm that can demand that its lawyers handle their knowledge in a particular way. For many, the battle began and ended with the document management system. At this point, most firms with document management systems have persuaded their lawyers to create and store documents primarily within the DMS. This has the signal benefit of ensuring that the firm’s work product is located in one place.  The problem, of course, is that while you can require that documents be created within the DMS, it’s much harder to get lawyers do anything more than the most rudimentary profiling of their documents.  As a result, it has until recently been extremely difficult to capture much metadata regarding a document. What’s changed? In part, it’s that lawyers are beginning to learn the value of metadata to assist in the document searches they do every day.  In addition, new document management systems are more intelligently designed and allow simpler filing of documents, coupled with the ability to let new documents “inherit” metadata from the folder in which they are placed.  Couple this with the metadata extraction capabilities of some work product retrieval systems, and the burden on the individual lawyer to create metadata is lightened considerably.

So the good news is that after nearly 20 years of document management systems, we’re finally getting to a point where the technology allows them to work more seamlessly and intuitively for lawyers.  This should encourage greater use (and more rewarding use) of the DMS by lawyers. The bad news is that relatively little of a firm’s knowledge in contained in its work product. What’s your strategy for dealing with that problem?

Unless your firm is run by Attila the Hun, you won’t be able to compel lawyers to share their knowledge via a central repository or medium.  Further, you will run into the problem observed by Steve Denning (see The Economic Imperative to Manage Knowledge) regarding the behavior of “experts” with respect to their knowledge:

As preliminary efforts to establish what the organization knew were launched, it started becoming apparent – to the surprise of many – that the organization did not know what it knew. Inquiries as to the cause of the hesitancy revealed that even the experts were not sure of what they knew. The experts even contested whether they were responsible for sharing their knowledge. They often contended that their job was to meet with their clients and deal with their needs, not sit in an office in headquarters and assemble best practice manuals.

What’s the solution? If you can’t compel sharing, you’ll need to coax sharing.  The best way to do this is to work individually with your experts to identify their personal knowledge management challenges and then find ways to address those needs in a manner  that results in a solution that is satisfactory for that expert AND yields rich material in a selectively shared content repository. Notice, that I used the words “selectively shared.”  Unless you can promise some measure of control over the knowledge, you’ll have a hard time winning the cooperation of your experts.  They will undoubtedly want the freedom to gather and organize the content as they see fit — not as necessarily as the IT department dictates. The key here for technologists and knowledge managers alike is to provide very lightweight systems that provide the individual flexibility cherished by experts. One obvious choice is the range of Enterprise 2.0 tools now available, but I could imagine implementing some firm-wide systems in a way that encourage personalization, sensible organization and sharing rather than the unmanageable wilderness currently found in everyone’s favorite content repository — Outlook.

One challenge is that your work with these individual experts will result in information silos.  However, you can go some distance in managing these new silos by ensuring that the content can be shared easily. Then, see the good that happens when your intelligently-designed system interacts with what Dave Snowden observed as our basic tendency to help in times of true need.

The bottom line is that you have to build a coalition of the willing — willing experts, that is.  Once you’ve helped them organize and find what they know, they’ll be better equipped to share that with others.

[h/t to John Tropea for pointing out the Steve Denning piece]

[Photo Credit: lumaxart]

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