Displacing the Delphic Oracle

Grecia Delphi For fourteen centuries she had information that everyone wanted. So they traveled from all over the ancient world to seek her guidance. And they paid lots of money for the privilege. Who was she? Pythia, the priestess of Apollo and the oracle of Delphi. Thomas Sakoulas describes how she worked:

Plutarch served as a priest at Delphi, and in his histories he has left many details about the inner workings of the sanctuary. Pythia entered the inner chamber of the temple (Adyton), sat on a tripod and inhaled the light hydrocarbon gasses that escaped from a chasm on the porous earth. After falling into a trance, she muttered words incomprehensible to mere mortals. The priests of the sanctuary then interpreted her oracles in a common language and delivered them to those who had requested them. Even so, the oracles were always open to interpretation and often signified dual and opposing meanings.

`You will go you will return not in the battle you will perish’ was an example of this duality of meaning. The above sentence can be interpreted two different ways depending where the comma can be placed. If a comma is placed after the word `not’ the message is discouraging for him who is about to depart for war. If on the other hand the comma is placed before the word `not’, then the warrior is to return alive.

In an age of uncertainty, access to information was valued, and the ability to interpret critical information was valued even more.  In fact, it led to the creation of a very nice business model:

A booming industry grew up around the Oracle. Temples were built and rebuilt, priests were trained, rituals evolved and sacrifices were performed. Priests interpreted the incoherent utterances of the Pythia. Presents were brought to both placate the deity and in the hope of influencing a positive prophesy. The Delphic temple itself became one of the largest “banks” in the world. Delphi became a center for banking and commerce.

The oracle and priests of Delphi are the spiritual ancestors of modern professionals who guard valuable information closely and share it selectively in exchange for considerable compensation. Lawyers and doctors have for years been the guardians of specialist bodies of knowledge to which lay people have needed access. But what happens when information is free? When your clients and patients have easy access via the Internet to the information for which you previously charged, what does that do to your role and your revenue?

As doctors having discovered, the result is patients who read Internet information and then show up in their doctor’s office with an extensive list of questions. Yes, this does make for more engaged healthcare consumers.  But contrary to physician worries, it need not render doctors obsolete. Why? Because the chief question of most of these patients is how to discern the reliable information from the downright wrong and misleading information. Dr. Kevin Pho reports that Drs Pamela Hartzband and Jerome Groopman wrote recently in the New England Journal of Medicine about the opportunity free information presents:

Information and knowledge do not equal wisdom. … Physicians are in the best position to weigh information and advise patients, drawing on their understanding of available evidence as well as their training and experience. If anything, the wealth of information on the Internet will make such expertise and experience more essential.

In Dr. Pho’s view, doctors can provide real value to their patients by acting as their guides through the freely available Internet information:

Doctors have to get used to the fact they are no longer the sole source of a patient’s health information. Instead, they need to serve more as interpreters of data, and be willing to separate the tangible information from the increasing amount of noise patients find online.

But what about lawyers?  At the end of the day the best business model for doctors and lawyers rests on their ability to provide more than the rudimentary materials available freely on the Internet. It rests on their ability to provide the benefits of their valuable experience and judgment to lay people.  This suggests the need for a more strategic approach to sharing information.  Given how quickly information spreads online, how long can you guard your firm’s information as if you were guarding gold bricks? Granted, if you have the secret recipe for Coca-Cola, guarding it rigorously makes sense.  But as far as much legal and medical information is concerned, its half-life is rather short.  This leads to an interesting question for law firms: do you want to invest energy restricting access to a resource of diminishing value, or do you want to be known as the go to firm that has confidence to provide useful information free of charge online, secure in the knowledge that the firm is always developing specialized experience and judgment for which clients will gladly pay good money? For a profession that is used to charging a premium for all information, this is challenging economic and cultural terrain to navigate. For the firm that finds the right balance between clinging to information until it turns to dust and giving away the shop, this is a marvelous opportunity to attract clients who want to know they are working with lawyers who really are at the top of their game and who have the cutting-edge knowledge, experience and judgment to back it up.

The oracle of Delphi was displaced by radical changes in political and religious power. The oracles in law firms and doctors’ offices are in danger of being displaced by technology.  How will they respond?


[Photo Credit: Bricke Dotnet]





Guiding Partners to Better Law Firm KM

lawyer-28838_1280It is the stuff of fantasy — for law firm knowledge management professionals, that is. Imagine law firm partners beating down your door asking to be involved in as many law firm KM projects as possible. Before you laugh derisively, consider the following report from The American Lawyer‘s ninth annual survey of managing partners, chairs, and other leaders of Am Law 200 firms:

Firms are also pushing for greater efficiency in their internal operations. Nearly half of respondents (49 percent) say they have aligned partner compensation with a willingness to cooperate in new initiatives, such as project management, knowledge management, and rethinking staffing requirements. Mentoring programs have also gained traction. [emphasis added]

Is this happening at your firm?

If it is, set aside some time to think about how best to take advantage of this windfall. Partners will come to you with views about what KM should do for their practice area. I’m willing to bet good money that many will focus on precedent collection projects or model document drafting projects.  These are obvious ways of building a knowledge base for a practice area, but are they always the best ways? Before you commit precious time and resources to these projects, take another look at the list of high-impact and low-impact law firm KM activities. You’ll see that both of these projects are on the low-impact list under the category of creating and maintaining content. This is not because they lack value. Rather, they have limited value unless undertaken in response to clear-eyed analysis as to the pros and cons of the project. Further, unless you  are diligent about finding ways to reduce cost through automation, these projects can require considerable amounts of time, money and manual work. For example, firm-sanctioned models can be a huge timesaver and training aid for lawyers drafting documents. However, these models tend to be costly:  they require a great deal of time, attention, willpower and political capital to move from the concept stage to the point where the model has been blessed and adopted by a practice group. While it might make sense to invest this heavily in a critical document that will be used so many times that its cost per use becomes negligible, it makes no sense whatsoever to invest that way in a document that will be used infrequently. Can you find other, less expensive ways to address the training or drafting gap?

One of the challenges of working in law firm KM is being a good steward of firm resources. This means investing in the KM projects that will provide the greatest return on investment for the firm.  Not every project will meet this standard. So, before you open the door to that long line of partners looking to get involved with KM, be sure you have a straightforward analytical framework for helping them understand how to assess potential ROI. (See some proposed indicia of impact.) And, be sure you have some suggestions of alternative, more productive uses of their KM-focused time and energy that balance their interests with KM needs. Partner time and attention is one of the most valuable resources within a firm. Don’t waste it on low-impact KM activities.

[Photo Credit: Nemo]


Make KM Count in 2012

Changed priorities ahead Your New Year’s Eve celebration is a now a dim memory and, hopefully, you’ve fully recovered from the revelry. Now comes the hard part — putting plans in place to make 2012 a year in which knowledge management really counts in your organization. This is not just about creating a list of interesting projects and then tracking your progress on those projects. This is about ensuring you and your team are working on KM projects that really matter. Your challenge for 2012 is to make KM a real force multiplier in your law firm.

To recap, a force multiplier is something that helps the troops perform significantly better than they would without it. The key is that the improvement in performance should be substantial. And therein lies the rub. While lots of law firm knowledge management projects are worthy, too many result in incremental improvements in performance at best. In fact, a recent survey of senior large law firm KM personnel revealed that they were devoting far too much of their time and resources to projects that did not constitute true force multipliers. Based on their considerable experience, here is a list of the high-impact projects that in their estimation had a good chance of resulting in force multiplication:

  • Creating smarter systems, processes and workflows throughout the firm
  • Enterprise Search — ensuring that personnel can find what they need efficiently
  • Matter Profiling/Tracking
  • Providing a portal
  • Investing in design — to ensure your KM systems fit with how people work and do not cause unnecessary barriers to adoption
  • Promoting KM adoption practices / Training

And, here’s the list of the activities to which they currently devote considerable time and resources, but which they admitted were low-impact activities that had little chance of achieving force multiplication within their firms:

  • Arguing with IT over priorities and resources
  • Creating and maintaining content — legal models, practice guides, templates, etc.
  • Data transfer
  • Firm politics
  • Getting buy-in from lawyers and management
  • Intranet Management — this involves the daily tasks of editing pages (or chasing editors), ensuring content is maintained, etc.
  • Manually categorizing or profiling documents
  • Research/Search Requests (KM Concierge) — limited impact since you are helping only one person at a time
  • Responding to individual requests for assistance — limited impact since you are helping only one person at a time
  • Vendor demos

This suggests that if you want to make a real difference in 2012, you need to shift the bulk of your resources to projects that will deliver force multiplication.  But how do you actually move from aspiration to reality? Peter Bregman has a suggestion that can help you find your focus and then keep it throughout the year:

  1. Identify your primary areas of focus for this year.  Bregman suggests identifying five areas of focus, but allows that anything in the 3-7 range would be reasonable. But no more.
    • What’s an area of focus? It is not a specific project or strategy.  Rather, it is an area in which you wish to make a difference this year.  For example, improving the speed and efficacy of information searches within your organization. For our purposes, it should be an area in connection with which you want to achieve force multiplication.
  2. Then, using Bregman’s six box to do list (adapted as necessary to reflect your number of foci), label each box with the name of one of your areas of focus.  Label the remaining box “the other 5%.”  Next make multiple copies of this labeled to do list.
    • To create your annual focus tracker,  start with your list of current and projected projects for 2012. Transfer those projects to a copy of your labeled to do list, placing within each box the projects that will help you achieve force multiplication in that area of focus.  And what about “the other 5%” box?  Put here everything that has not been assigned to one of your areas of focus. The key to this system is that 95% of your time and effort should be spent on the areas of focus listed on this sheet, leaving “the other 5%” for the incidental projects that inevitable arise midstream.
    • To create your daily tracker, each work day take a look at the list of things you intended to undertake that day and then list within each box the tasks that relate to that area of focus.  Any task that does not relate to one of your areas of focus should be put in “the other 5%” box. Finally, schedule an appropriate amount of time that day to complete your priority items.
  3. At the end of each week and each month, use these sheets as a check on your progress:
    • How are you distributing your resources across the areas of focus?  Is any area under-served? Are you spending more than the allotted 5% of your time on projects that fall outside your areas of focus?
    • Are the actions you’ve taken clearly moving you towards your goal of achieving force multiplication?  If not, what needs to change?
    • Are you accomplishing the tasks you set out to do? If not, should you minimize your distractions or minimize your areas of focus?

Now, let’s apply this to the world of law firm knowledge management:

  1. Once you’ve identified your primary areas of focus, compare them to the lists provided above of high-impact and low-impact activities.  If you have not included these high-impact activities, why not? If you have included a low-impact activity as an area of focus (rather than as part of “the other 5%”), why did you do that? To be clear, the lists above are not prescriptive.  However, they do reflect a lot of experience.  To the extent your areas of focus differ, you need to ask yourself what about your firm puts it outside the norm of the firms reflected in those lists?
  2. Fill out the daily tracker for yourself and for your department.  Do your daily time expenditures reflect a commitment to the areas of focus or are you and your team easily distracted by the crisis of the day?
    • In the interest of fairness, we need to admit that when you are in the client-service business, urgent client needs take precedence over nearly everything else.  Ideally, the urgent needs can be accommodated in “the other 5%,” leaving you ample time to work towards force multiplication. If that’s not the case, give some thought as to why these emergencies arise.  If it is a result of poor planning within the firm, can this be addressed by better training?  Do you have the right systems in place to address most client requests in a reliable and predictable fashion? If not, how can you improve your systems. The bottom line is that if you are in a constant state of crisis without good planning and systems in place, it’s extremely difficult to pay attention to the daily tasks that will move you towards achieving force multiplication.
  3. On a weekly and monthly basis, take a look at your daily trackers.  What patterns are emerging?  Are you seeing signs of achieving force multiplication in your areas of focus?  If not, what needs to change?

There is no magic here.  It’s about finding your focus early, planning to achieve your goals, monitoring your progress, correcting your course as necessary, and then holding yourself and your team accountable for the results.

So there you have it — a plan for turning KM into a real force multiplier in your law firm, a plan for making KM count in 2012.  May the Force be with you!

This blog post was written originally for the knowledge management peer group of the International Legal Technology Association and can also be found on the ILTA KM Blog.  Thanks to Mary Panetta and David Hobbie for giving me the opportunity to write for that KM community.  Thanks also to Jeffrey Brandt, editor of Pinhawk Law Technology Daily Digest, who was the first to say “May the Force be with you” when he read my earlier posts on force multiplication.

[Photo Credit: Pete Reed]





Find Your Focus

Focus New Year, new beginnings.

At this point in the calendar, the blogosphere is full of lots of advice for those of us who welcome the opportunity of a new beginning.  Since I’d like to avoid here one of the besetting sins of bloggers (i.e., hypocrisy), I’m going to restrict myself to sharing advice that I’m willing to take myself in 2012:

  1. Find Your Focus. When your attention and energies are scattered in too many directions, it’s impossible to get much if anything done.  When you have multiple projects, it can be hard to determine priorities and allocate resources.  In 2012, be kind to yourself and decide what project (or small number of projects) will be your primary focus for the year.  What’s really worth doing? What completed project would you be glad to showcase at year-end as an example of work well done? Once you’ve identified the project, throw all your concentrated energy into it and see how quickly the results mount.
  2. Plan to be Flexible. The beauty of a well-considered plan is that it helps you answer the daily question of how to spend your time and resources.  That sense of direction is freeing and allows you to just get on with achieving the success for which you’ve planned.  However, very few of us have the luxury of seeing everything go according to plan.  In fact, life often has a way of moving us off course. Sometimes there are bumps in the road, sometimes we find ourselves in a complete snafu.  And sometimes these interruptions are really rich opportunities in deep disguise. All of this is not an argument against planning.  In fact, the value of planning may well be more in the analytical clarity it brings, the contingencies is uncovers and the level of preparedness it inspires.  Eisenhower is famous for saying that “Plans are nothing; planning everything.” So go ahead and plan, but don’t let your plan blind you to life’s realities and opportunities.
  3. Celebrate Progress. Teresa Amabile and Steve Kramer Kramer recommend that you Start the New Year with Progress.  By this they mean that “fostering progress in meaningful work is the most important way to keep people highly engaged at work — even if that progress is a `small win.'” Amabile and Kramer have several suggestions for keeping progress front and center:  keep a sharp eye out for progress, communicate it broadly and celebrate it widely.  Don’t let the press of business push people to the next task without recognizing work well done.  It you don’t pause and recognize accomplishment, you run the risk of having members of your team feel as if they are constantly slogging without achieving any meaningful results.  That feeling can destroy engagement and motivation all too quickly. As you focus on progress, be sure to explain why the work is important.  This is not about handing out meaningless gold stars.  It’s about keeping people engaged in work that matters.
  4. Be Kinder. Aldous Huxley is quoted as saying, “It is a bit embarrassing to have been concerned with the human problem all one’s life and find at the end that one has no more to offer by way of advice than ‘Try to be a little kinder.” I have neither his experience nor his wisdom, but this strikes me as good advice — especially in a time of uncertainty when too many are struggling with anxiety. Kindness can help us over the rough patches and sets the tone for how we want to work with our colleagues.

There you have it in a nutshell:  wise advice that, if followed, should result in a highly productive and more fulfilling year.  Now we just need to stay focused.

Happy New Year!

[Photo Credit: ihtatho]