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  • Is KM a Real Force Multiplier?

    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]

    Published on November 20, 2011 · Filed under: KM, knowledge management, law firm knowledge management;
    8 Comments