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.
  • It's A Small World If you thought it was safe to ignore social media since all your colleagues were ignoring it, think again. If all you wanted to do is retreat from the world and tune out, think again. It turns out that the six degrees of separation that you assumed would protect you from the unwashed masses has shrunk to 4.74 (or 4.37, if you live in the United States). A recent experiment conducted with respect to the 721 Facebook users reveals that it’s getting easier to be in touch with people you would otherwise never have met. Put another way, it’s easier than ever for them to be in touch with you!

    You may have until now aspired to be Greta Garbo as far as social media is concerned. However, that may be a shortsighted goal if you wish to have any influence on your world. Jon Kleinberg, a computer science professor at Cornell University, told The New York Times about the potential he sees in the weak ties that shrink the degrees of separation:

    “We are close, in a sense, to people who don’t necessarily like us, sympathize with us or have anything in common with us,” Dr. Kleinberg said. “It’s the weak ties that make the world small.”

    Still, he noted that such ties were hardly meaningless. “We should ask what things spread well on weak ties,” he said. “News spreads well on weak ties. Those people I met on vacation, if they send me some cool news, I might send that to my friends. If they send me something about a protest movement, I might not.”

    To understand the import of Dr. Kleinberg’s views, you need to understand the concept of interpersonal ties.  While you rightly may value the strong ties you share with your closest family and friends, chances are they hear the same news you do:

    Weak social ties, it is argued, are responsible for the majority of the embeddedness and structure of social networks in society as well as the transmission of information through these networks. Specifically, more novel information flows to individuals through weak rather than strong ties. Because our close friends tend to move in the same circles that we do, the information they receive overlaps considerably with what we already know. Acquaintances, by contrast, know people that we do not, and thus receive more novel information.

    As a person who earns her daily bread in a law firm, I read the report of the study in The New York Times and found myself wondering how many of the AmLaw 100 firms have a coherent strategy for taking advantage of these weak ties to bring themselves to the attention of potential clients. Do these firms have a plan for expanding their weak ties? Are these firms a reliable source for legal news? Do they communicate online in a way that is engaging and invites action by weak ties?  Stepping outside the law firm world, does your organization have a coherent strategy for building and using a network of weak ties?  What about you personally?  If not, why not?

    While this study was limited to Facebook, you shouldn’t think you’re immune if you’re inactive on Facebook.  There are plenty of other social media platforms that provide similar benefits once your social network on that platform reaches a critical mass. To take a slightly more negative approach, do you really want to be left behind?

    If you’ve ever been to a Disney theme park, you’ll undoubtedly have see (or even tried) the ride dedicated to global harmonyIt’s a Small World After All.  If you’ve had the experience, you’ll know that once its theme song gets in your head, you’ll have a struggle to get it out. (It’s alternatively described as a gift to the children of the world and “one of the most annoying songs EVER.”) I’m not going to apologize for reminding you of the song.  I hope that its persistence acts as a goad until you find a sane way to navigate the rapidly shrinking degrees of separation online.  Failure to do so isn’t a sensible option — it’s a small world after all.

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  • Innovation The Financial Times recently published an interesting report entitled, US Innovative Lawyers 2011.  I encourage you to read that report in its entirety soon.  In the meantime, here are some highlights and observations.

    According to the report, FT’s researchers received 272 submissions (including from 53 AmLaw 200 firms) and interviewed more than 300 lawyers and clients to identify the most outstanding innovations.  Each submission was scored in terms of (1) originality , (2) the rationale behind the work, and (3) the impact of the work on the client, the industry or on business more broadly.

    At the end of the day, which firms made the cut?  FT identified 26 firms in the US as truly innovative:

    • Davis Polk & Wardwell
    • Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom
    • Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton
    • Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe
    • Latham & Watkins
    • Cravath, Swaine & Moore
    • Paul Hastings
    • Sullivan & Cromwell
    • Seyfarth Shaw
    • Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison
    • Kirkland & Ellis
    • Dewey & LeBoeuf // Mayer Brown
    • Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher // White & Case
    • Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft
    • Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld
    • Dechert
    • Morrison & Foerster // Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz
    • Simpson Thacher & Bartlett
    • Jones Day // Weil, Gotshal & Manges
    • Fulbright & Jaworski
    • Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer // Proskauer Rose

    What made these firms stand-out?  These firms say they rely on their culture and human capital to innovate.  In particular, they hire smart people who like to find new and better ways of solving problems for clients. One firm pointed to its lockstep compensation model, but since plenty of non-lockstep firms made the grade, that most likely is not the decisive factor. According to the FT report, the factors that distinguished the firms on the list from the others were “their commitment, their ability to adapt and to work together in the best interests of business to unusual and important effect.”

    How can law firm knowledge management help?

    While I don’t know the extent to which each of these firms relied on their knowledge management resources to foster innovation, the innovations reported suggest that KM can help make a firm and its lawyers more innovative in the following ways:

    • Much innovation arises from making small changes to what came before. In legal practice, this means we need to give our lawyers easy access to precedents and practice guides so that they have a solid foundation from which to innovate.
    • Innovation can go beyond specific matters to providing online information and advice on a subscription basis.  KM and library services can play an important role here in gathering the data for the client-facing resource.
    • Innovation with respect to the business of law can have a huge impact as well.  Seyfarth Shaw’s Lean Six Sigma efforts put the firm on FT’s list.
    • KM personnel and practices can help support alternative fee arrangements and project management efforts.
    • Jeffrey Carr, Senior Vice President and General Counsel, FMC Technologies, is a well-known advocate of changes in the legal industry.  Among other things, his in-house legal department has created a wiki to share legal advice internally and is developing M&A process maps.  Are you doing anything similar?

    As I said at the beginning of this post, it’s worth your time to read the report in its entirety. While the specifics of each legal matter may not resonate for you, focus on how what you do (or should be doing) could help your firm get on that list and stay on that list.  The KM principles we espouse and the information we handle daily  can help bring about the innovation to which our firms should be aspiring.

     

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  • multiply Is KM a real force multiplier in your firm? That’s the challenging question I recently put to 40 senior law firm knowledge management professionals.  This led to an interesting hour of honest conversation that was so worthwhile that I’m recounting its highlights here in the hope that my readers might try this exercise in their own organizations.

    Background:

    As you may remember, I wrote a few months ago about the concept of force multiplication. In Are You a Force Multiplier? I focused on whether the projects we pursue individually have the effect of helping our organizations perform significantly better. A force multiplier is a factor that enables a fighting force to improve its performance many times over.  For the military, force multipliers range from technology and training to terrain and morale.  Each of these can equip a small force to fight with the strength and effectiveness of a much larger group.

    The key to force multiplication is not to settle for incremental improvements, but to aim for dramatically improved results.  While it may not always be possible to calculate down to the last dollar and cent the actual value of your force multiplication efforts, it is wise to try to identify the indicia of impact that help you distinguish merely helpful projects from the projects that result in true force multiplication. For purposes of illustration, I showed the group how one might calculate the impact of a typical law firm knowledge management project: enterprise search.  According to a Google White Paper, the average knowledge worker spends one-quarter of their time looking for information. If you implemented a good enterprise search engine and were able to cut the time spent searching by one hour, what would be the impact on your firm?  One way to calculate the aggregate value of restoring one productive hour to each fee-earner is by the following formula:

    [the number of fee-earners] X [their blended hourly rate] X [the number of working days in a year] = the value to the firm that year

    The Exercise:

    The participants sat at round tables to facilitate discussion. We asked each participant to write on separate index cards the three activities currently undertaken by their KM department that consume the most resources.  (Those resources could be time, money or psychic/emotional energy, for example.)  To ensure forthrightness and promote confidentiality, we asked the participants to refrain from putting anything on their cards that would indicate the identity of the firm or knowledge manager involved. Once everyone at the table put their completed cards in the middle of the table, each table sorted through the cards to see the range of activities.  Finally, we asked each group to rank the activities in terms of which ones represented true force multipliers and which ones were least effective as force multipliers. As part of this process, we asked the people at the table to consider the indicia of impact of each activity in order to find an objective means of measuring the extent to which an activity was (or was not) a force multiplier.

    The Activities:

    If you work in law firm knowledge management, you won’t be surprised by the activities listed by the participants.  These are the activities that currently consume the greatest resources for their departments. What about yours? Take a look at them and then, before reading further, see how you might rank these activities in terms of force multiplication.

    • Arguing with IT over priorities and resources
    • Building smart systems, processes and workflows
    • Categorizing or manually profiling documents
    • Creating and maintaining content — legal models, practice guides, templates, etc.
    • Data transfer
    • Design — to ensure the KM systems fit with how people work and do not cause unnecessary barriers to adoption
    • Enterprise search
    • Firm politics
    • Getting buy-in from lawyers and management
    • Intranet management
    • Matter profiling/tracking
    • Promoting KM adoption practices
    • Providing a portal
    • Research/Search requests (KM concierge)
    • Responding to individual requests for assistance
    • Training
    • Vendor demos

    The Indicia of Impact:

    As the participants were weighing the relative benefits of the activity list above, they identified the following factors that helped them separate the merely helpful activities from the force multipliers.  This is not an exhaustive list, but certainly is a good starting point.

    • allows efficient, on-demand self-service
    • generates use/traffic
    • increases convenience across the firm
    • provides consistency and coherence across the firm
    • provides leverage at all levels (firm, departments, practice groups, individuals)
    • reduces time spent
    • replaces multiple fragmented activities with a single, more coherent system
    • the number of users affected

    The Consensus:

    The True Force Multipliers:

    • Building smart systems, processes and workflows
    • Enterprise Search
    • Investing in design — to ensure the KM systems fit with how people work and do not cause unnecessary barriers to adoption
    • Matter Profiling/Tracking
    • Promoting KM adoption practices
    • Providing a portal
    • Training

    The Low-Impact Activities:

    • Arguing with IT over priorities and resources
    • Categorizing or manually profiling documents
    • Creating and maintaining content — legal models, practice guides, templates, etc.
    • Data transfer
    • Firm politics
    • Getting buy-in from lawyers and management
    • Intranet Management
    • Research/Search Requests (KM Concierge)
    • Responding to individual requests for assistance
    • Vendor demos

    Conclusion:

    This is a tough exercise.  Many of us realized that the things we were doing really did not provide much more than an incremental benefit to our firms.  It was cold comfort to understand that we did these things because our firms asked them of us. Unfortunately, it is precisely those low-yield activities that many of our firms think knowledge management should focus on.  Why?  Perhaps because it fits with a narrow view of how to help practicing lawyers — by creating and expanding the lawyers’ form files,  with a little technology thrown in.  Or, it provides the benefits of a really good research assistant to help get an individual lawyer’s work done quickly. At the end of the day, this narrow view focuses on the individual rather than on the impact on the overall firm and does not result in true force multiplication.

    This exercise confirmed for me the importance of focusing knowledge management efforts on practices and systems that have a beneficial impact across the firm.  In all honesty, this can be tough to do when you work for a partnership and every partner has a point of view, sense of ownership and specific client needs.  This exercise forces you to take an institutional view, but you may not be popular initially for doing so. This is where having enlightened leadership in firm management makes all the difference.

    While it can be dispiriting to learn that much of what you spend your time doing has no material positive impact on your firm, the purpose of this exercise is not to depress. Rather it is to help us focus our limited resources on the activities that will provide the greatest good for the firm.  As stewards of firm resources, isn’t that really our job?

    [Photo Credit: Leo Reynolds]

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