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.
  • “Trust No One.”

    Those were the ominous words I saw recently on a poster promoting the new Harry Potter movie.  In the context of the life and death struggle between the forces of good and evil portrayed in the movie, the warning may well be justified.  However, when that approach migrates from Hollywood fantasy to the workplace, we have a problem.  This is particularly so when your workplace is engaged in an Enterprise 2.0 initiative.  If there is no trust, it’s hard to have community.  Without community, social media tools will struggle to realize their potential behind the firewall.

    In a recent post on the importance of trust in community formation, Charles H. Green points to Francis Fukuyama’s book, Trust, which discusses the importance of “social trust.” In that book, Fukuyama defines trust as:

    The expectation that arises within a community of regular, honest, and cooperative behavior, based on commonly shared norms, on the part of other members of that community.

    He then goes on to explain the great value of trust and community:

    The greatest economic efficiency was not necessarily achieved by rational self-interested individuals but rather by groups of individuals who, because of a pre-existing moral community, are able to work together effectively.

    It all begins with trust.

    In the movie, people were asked to prove their bona fides time and time again before another was willing to trust them. How to do you establish  trustworthiness in a physical or virtual community? Fukuyama tells us that it’s through “regular, honest and cooperative behavior,” resting on a bedrock of shared norms. According to Jeffrey Phillips, trust is earned within the context of realistic expectations and a willingness to work together to achieve a common goal:

    Trust has to be earned.  I want to know if we are in error, and I want to fix any mistake we made, any expectation we failed to meet, as quickly and effectively as possible.  Trust should not be predicated on the expectation that your partner will never fail, only that they will do their absolute best to avoid failure, and will admit any mistake and fix the problem as quickly as possible.  Over time, a partner that consistently demonstrates their willingness to work in this manner will gain anyone’s trust.  It is hard to gain trust when there are unrealistic expectations or when there is a blame first mentality.

    Overcoming paranoia to create a sense of trust and shared purpose may be one of the biggest challenges for a community manager.  The good news is that most of us long for community, trust and shared purpose.  We just need a little encouragement to achieve it.

    [Photo Credit: The Angry Robot]

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  • Some advice to the lovelorn I read many years ago suggested that the best way for a young woman to reel in a young man was to ask him lots of questions about his favorite topic — himself.  From the vantage point of the 21st century, there are any number of objections one might raise regarding the assumptions underlying that advice, but even so there is something there that I’d like to explore further in the context of law firm knowledge management. Namely, the connection between conversation and relationship.

    The best law firm knowledge managers build relationships with their lawyer and non-lawyer colleagues that develop over time into something rich and productive, yielding mutual benefits and, often, benefits for their firm.  This means relationships that involve good communication, cooperation and collaboration.  And, it all begins with good conversation.  However, a law firm isn’t always the easiest place in which to hold a conversation. In an environment conditioned by hourly billing, we all tend to be extraordinarily time sensitive.  As a result, our electronic and in person exchanges are often rather transactional – designed to achieve a limited (usually urgent) business purpose.  This can make it difficult to initiate and sustain conversations that don’t necessarily have a direct bearing on immediate client needs.  Yet, it is precisely the conversations with a perspective that reaches beyond the urgent and immediate that can have the greatest beneficial impact on client and firm.  Equally, sometimes a quick conversation held as you pass each other in the hall can surface key facts that shed new light on an old problem or help move a project forward.  Not every conversation needs to be heavy, but knowledge managers should work hard to ensure that every conversation is meaningful.  In other words, they should focus on conversations that count.

    So what are the hallmarks of conversations that count?  Here are some suggestions:

    • They are smarter conversations: They  focus on something that matters. As Hugh MacLeod has noted, taking a leadership position on something that matters is critical to success.  So why waste your time and talk on the ephemeral or the immaterial?  Make a commitment to yourself to hold smarter conversations.
    • They enable a two-way exchange: They don’t follow a social script — “Hi, how are you?” “Fine.” <end of conversation>.  They are not data dumps.  Rather, they provide and elicit useful information.
    • They move understanding forward: They are powerful tools for learning.  (And this means learning more in a conversation than the sad fact that your interlocutor is a self-referent bore.)
    • They are strategic: Jo Haraf has written on how to use conversations strategically to discover unmet needs.  She provides a guide to structuring these conversations so that they yield tangible results.  Best of all, if your conversations are strategic (and well-executed), they often leave the door open to another conversation.  In other words, doing this right allows you to do it again.
    • They are not self-referent. They are not focused exclusively on … YOU.  Enough said.

    To be clear, this post is ABSOLUTELY NOT advocating more meetings.  In fact, meetings are sometimes inhospitable environments for meaningful conversation.  This post is advocating a focus on smarter conversations — conversations about things that matter, conversations that help build productive relationships. In fact, these are the relationships that make your work as a knowledge manager possible AND enjoyable.  So make your conversations count.

    [Hat tip to Greg Lambert for reminding me to revisit Hugh MacLeod's blog.]

    [Photo Credit: Hugh MacLeod]

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  • Hello everybody!
    Look at yourself.  Now back to me.
    Now back at yourself.  Now back to me.
    Sadly… you are not a Monster.

    [A MONSTER????!!!]

    Those are the words of Sesame Street’s engaging blue monster, Grover, spoken in a clever twist on the now-famous Old Spice Man television commercial. (See below) These videos show examples of an eye-catching monster (or man, as the case may be) and then ask you to contrast your humdrum existence (or man) with what might be if you were a bit more blue or he were a bit more studly.

    In each case, you are invited to indulge in that all too human tendency to compare your situation to that of another. In the face of such monster (or masculine) superiority, is it any wonder that we find ourselves believing that the grass is in fact greener on the other side?

    Lately, law firm knowledge managers have been comparing themselves to project managers, alternative fee wizards and marketing mavens.  This exercise has left many feeling just a little inadequate and a touch insecure.  Nonetheless, the answer to that uncomfortable feeling is not to jump on the nearest bandwagon.  Rather, it is to think more strategically about the value you bring to your organization. Focus on your core competencies.  What do you do better than anyone else? Then think about which of your abilities and activities provide high impact with relatively little effort. If you need some help sorting your high-value activities from the low-value ones, follow the advice of Oz Benamram and try placing all your activities on an Effort-Impact Grid. Done correctly, this will help you improve your ability to deliver value to and have an impact on your organization.

    You may not be a blue monster, but with this information in hand you should understand better how to be exactly what your firm needs.

    3 Comments
  • Back in the 1960s, the world was introduced to Stanley Lambchop.  As you may remember, an unfortunate meeting between Stanley and a bulletin board rendered poor Stanley flat as a pancake.  As a result, he became known worldwide as Flat Stanley.  The books Jeff Brown wrote about Flat Stanley provide detail on what it might be like to live in one dimension. Nearly fifty years later, it appears that Stanley Lambchop’s approach is alive and well in some law firm knowledge management quarters, as evidenced by a preference for Flat KM.

    What’s Flat KM?  It’s KM constrained to a single dimension and a limited purpose.  It’s KM that focuses on traditional activities, perhaps with a slight technological boost.  It’s KM that provides incremental improvements in quality and efficiency, but rarely makes fundamental changes to the way we do business.

    To be honest, Flat KM is not uncommon.  There are law firms and KM personnel for whom Flat KM is the form of KM with which they are most comfortable.  In fact, when I read Greg Lambert’s report of a recent knowledge management conference we attended, I wondered if his concept of “traditional KM” might be a bit uni-dimensional:

    I was a little disappointed with the direction that many of the law firms are taking with the idea of Knowledge Management (KM). Some of the presenters were showing products that were very `flashy’ and useful, but weren’t really what I would consider `KM’ resources.

    Many of them were `Client Services’ products… or were fancy dashboards attached to accounting or time and billing resources, but not really what I would think of when it came to capturing `knowledge’ at a firm. Don’t get me wrong, these projects were very cool, they were very useful for getting information in the hands of clients or attorneys, but to call them knowledge management resources would be stretching the truth a little bit because they didn’t really capture and reuse existing firm knowledge in the traditional meaning of knowledge management.

    Although Greg does not define traditional KM in his post, I suspect he had in mind some of the following tasks:  creating model documents and precedent banks; providing current awareness; and implementing search technology. In other words, KM activities closely related to the core of the craft of law that focus on “managing” legal knowledge. These activities are more concerned with documents than processes.

    While Flat KM may bring with it certainty of mission, I don’t believe it is adequate for the way lawyers practice law today.  Perhaps once a upon a time it was possible to be a successful lawyer simply by being a good legal craftsman who produced excellent documents and provided wise counsel.  However, the practice of law has moved on.  Today, lawyers know that being good at the craft of law is necessary but not sufficient.  Now they also need to be good at the business of law — the developing of client relationships, the winning of business, the hiring and nurturing of excellent talent, the running of an efficient, humane firm, etc.  Any one of these tasks would be a challenge.  Facing all of them together at once can seem insurmountable.  Thankfully, there are lawyers and firms that are finding ways to meet these challenges every day.

    Given the scope and depth of these challenges, can law firm KM afford to slide by as Flat KM much longer?  I don’t think so. Knowledge managers need to provide support to their firms for both the practice of law and the business of law.  In most cases this will mean, at a minimum, finding more realistic ways to provide the annotated models, practice guides, market precedents and current awareness lawyers need in a timely fashion.  However, there is much more KM can do.  (For a fuller discussion of the purpose of KM, I commend to you Mark Gould’s commentary on the “breadth of possible (and justifiable) KM activities.”) Just as we help uncover and deliver information useful for the practice of law, we can help uncover and deliver information useful for the business of law. This may involve information in our time and billing system, our client relationship management system  or our competitive intelligence system.  It may mean bringing KM principles to bear to make business processes within the firm more sensible. It may even require the occasional cool user interface.

    Some firms don’t have the resources necessary to achieve even Flat KM.  Others lack the will to go beyond it.  In either case, knowledge managers need to suit their activities to the abilities and aspirations of their firm.  That said, if you are at a firm that understands that knowledge management principles can make a material difference to both the practice of law and the business of law, then you can move past Flat KM to the richness of working in multiple dimensions.  This opportunity may well involve significant challenges — but it certainly beats living a flat life.

    [Photo Credit: Dena Williams]

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