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.
  • Making Good Ideas Infectious is the subject of a brief video that reflects the learning about knowledge sharing gleaned from the Sustainable Learning Project and the Involved Project. While I encourage you to take a look at the video below, here are the seven principles presented in the video for better designing processes to have a more positive impact on society:

    1. Design knowledge exchange into your work.
    2. Make sure you systematically represent the needs and priorities of everyone who’s likely to use your work.
    3. Make sure knowledge exchange is a two-way process.
    4. Create a safe space in which people can share opinions and existing knowledge, and generate new knowledge together.
    5. Deliver tangible outcomes that people involved in your work want as soon as possible.
    6. Create a culture of trust where everyone’s knowledge is valued and people stay engaged.
    7. Reflect and evaluate so you can refine your practice.

    Now think about the impact these principles might have on your organization.  Think about the difference it would make if you could make knowledge exchange a reality at work.

    [Thanks to the Sustainable Learning Project for bringing this video to my attention.]

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  • It’s wise to creep out of our law firm silos from time to time to see how people in other walks of life approach knowledge management. Each time I venture out I inevitably discover that some of the challenges facing law firm knowledge management personnel are shared by our colleagues in other industries. Better still, when I make the effort to find out about KM in other spheres, I almost always learn something worthwhile.

    Here’s a case in point. A recent report entitled “Revolution @State: The Spread of eDiplomacy” by Fergus Hanson provides a panoramic view of the US State Department’s eDiplomacy program:

    The US State Department has become the world’s leading user of ediplomacy. Ediplomacy now employs over 150 full-time personnel working in 25 different ediplomacy nodes at Headquarters. More than 900 people use it at US missions abroad.

    Ediplomacy is now used across eight different program areas at State: Knowledge Management, Public Diplomacy and Internet Freedom dominate in terms of staffing and resources. However, it is also being used for Information Management, Consular, Disaster Response, harnessing External Resources and Policy Planning.

    In some areas ediplomacy is changing the way State does business. In Public Diplomacy, State now operates what is effectively a global media empire, reaching a larger direct audience than the paid circulation of the ten largest US dailies and employing an army of diplomat-journalists to feed its 600-plus platforms.

    The external social media aspects of this are fascinating, but I’ll leave that for another day. Today I’d like to focus on knowledge management at the State Department. In reading the description of the KM challenges faced by the State Department, I realized that with a few small wording changes, the report could be discussing any major law firm.  For example, here are some of the challenges noted:

    • the Department’s principal asset is the knowledge held by individual employees
    • paper records are relatively easy to store, but hard to retrieve, share or pool
    • email is prevalent, but presents challenges regarding storage, retention, sharing and pooling beyond silos

    The solution to these problems was a concerted effort to improve knowledge sharing.  In 2003, the Department approved a Knowledge Leadership Strategy that set the following goals:

    • use of online communities to share knowledge across organizational and geographic boundaries
    • better ways to find and contribute knowledge
    • better ways to find and share experience and expertise with colleagues
    • use of technology that made knowledge-sharing simple to do, so that it became part of the everyday workflow

    To accomplish these goals, they developed four specific tools that are supported by the Knowledge Leadership Unit of the Office of eDiplomacy:

    • Corridor — an internal professional networking site designed to have the look and feel of FaceBook.  Built in 2011 using free software (BuddyPress), it now has nearly 7000 members and over 440 groups. Information contributed to member pages allows rapid searches for members with specific skills (e.g, language skills). Over time, those pages may well have more current biographical information, thereby allowing HR to augment its databases. Groups may be formed within Corridor for business/professional reasons or for reasons of personal interest. Corridor allows rapid messaging among members (often resulting in faster response times). Members can also share knowledge by sharing links to internal documents and materials on the Internet.
    • Communities@State — this program provides issue-specific blogs to over 70 active communities within the State Department. Since the start of the program in 2005, these communities have contributed “46,500 entries and over 5,600 comments that cover a broad range of areas from policy and management, to language and social interests” (e.g., leadership best practices, visa issues, and resources for people who bike to work). The discussions permit communication and collaboration across agencies and departments. Unlike Corridor Groups, the discussions within Communities tend to be detailed and are viewed as a more permanent resource (they are archived and searchable).
    • Diplopedia — the State Department’s internal wiki is designed to look like Wikipedia and is built using the same software (MediaWiki).  Created in 2006, Diplopedia has become “the central repository of State Department information.” It is a key “knowledge exchange and dissemination tool.” Its usage statistics as of October 2011 are impressive: “it had 14,519 articles, 4,698 registered users, 42,217 weekly page views and over 196,356 cumulative page edits.”
    • Search — the State Department implemented enterprise search in 2004. The search engine has since handled 65,792 search queries (as of the beginning of October 2011).

    Moving from the world of diplomacy to the world of legal practice, what are some takeaways to consider?

    • Find Comes First.  If you look at the chronology, the Knowledge Leadership Unit started with Search (2004) and then create communities of practice (2005), a wiki (2006) and then, finally, a networking site (2011). This makes a lot of sense.  First make sure that people can find the information that exists. Then give them user-friendly platforms that make it easier to share information.
    • E2.0 Tools are Key. Enterprise search, blogs, wikis and social networking are all part of the Enterprise 2.0 suite of tools. The rapid adoption of these tools behind the State Department firewall is a testament to their usefulness. What’s interesting to me is that no mention was made of email strategy or document management systems. Email and documents are the mainstay of legal information management.  I’d like to know more about the role they play in the State Department and how the E2.0 tools they adopted augment or replace email and traditional document management.
    • Better KM Through E2.0. Based on this report, knowledge management activities at the State Department are primarily focused on using social media tools behind the firewall. While law firms have been using portals and intranets for some time, I wonder how robust their internal wiki, blogging and networking functions are?  Besides Freshfields’ impressive use of wiki technology, are there other firms that have adopted a knowledge sharing strategy heavily based on the use of social media tools?
    • Colleagues are People Too. In establishing the communities of practice and the networking site, the Knowledge Leadership Unit has enabled knowledge sharing for both business/professional purposes as well as personal purposes.  I’m not sure how many law firms have permitted this type of blending of the personal and professional outside of email.  Allowing people within the organization to know their colleagues as people with many interests and dimensions (as opposed to merely functional cogs on an org chart) helps build a sense of community within the organization. Why don’t more US law firms do this?

    This August, the International Legal Technology Association’s annual conference will include a session on what we can learn from the US military and intelligence services about social media and knowledge management. After the foregoing glimpse of what’s happening in KM at the State Department, I’m eager to attend that ILTA2012 session to see what else I can learn from government about effective KM.

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  • Sydney Harbour bridge and ferries Today the Sydney Harbour Bridge celebrates its 80th birthday. Affectionately know as the “Coathanger,” it is the world’s widest long-span bridge. It also is a popular destination for tourists. If you walk across it (or climb to the top of its arch) you can enjoy panoramic views of Sydney’s beautiful waterfront.

    More than a tourist destination, the bridge was purpose built to provide a vital transportation link between central and north Sydney. When it opened in 1932, the bridge handled 11,000 vehicles a day. Now it carries 160,000 vehicles each day.  According to John Nicholson, author of Building the Sydney Harbour Bridge, “They didn’t skimp on material in those days, so it was designed to take 10-20 times more traffic than necessary.” In fact, in the March 2012 issue of Virgin Australia’s magazine, Nicholson goes so far as to suggest that the bridge still hasn’t reached its limit: “…you could put a new deck on the bridge and double the traffic load, and it’ll take it.”

    Built to last, built to accommodate increased demands. That’s what we’d like to be able to say about everything we buy and everything we create. But can you honestly say that about your KM systems? When your KM system depends on a cutting-edge technology, you’re building in planned obsolesce that will become painfully apparent as that technology becomes outmoded. When your KM system depends on constant care and feeding by staff members to remain current, the ongoing cost and inefficiency will weigh the system down to the breaking point over time.

    These tendencies put particular pressure on some knowledge management projects that are favorites of law firms: special document collections (e.g., precedent banks), intranet pages that depend on members of a practice group to add current content, and databases that manually track matter information. While senior lawyers love these projects in concept, few firms have the wherewithal to maintain them in peak condition over the long term. Consequently, they end up with outdated documents, stale intranet pages and incomplete matter information.

    So where does this leave us? Theoretically, a good search engine should be able to uncover “know what,” “know why” and “know who” within a law firm. (After all, we simply use Google when we need to find this information outside the firm. Why not use that search impulse within the firm as well?) The trickiest type of knowledge to gain access to may well be “know how.” Except in highly regulated circumstances, we rarely document and faithfully follow every step of a procedure. This suggests that once you have a search engine in place that really can deliver the goods, you should focus your KM efforts on improving knowledge sharing regarding “know how.”

    But if you are going to build a “know how” system that lasts and can accommodate increased demands, where do you start? I suggest that you concentrate on the following:

    • Create more opportunities for those with the “know how” to share what they know with others while working “in the flow.”
    • Remove any impediments in the system that cause unnecessary friction or otherwise make it difficult to share “know how” in the moment.
    • Build an organizational culture that reinforces and rewards this type of knowledge transfer.

    Notice I said nothing about compelling people to disgorge their tacit knowledge so that it can be “captured” and saved in a knowledge repository. Notice I said nothing about creating special document collections or hiring dedicated staff. This KM system is about making it easier for the people on the front lines of your organization to work together to share their knowledge without having to route it first through a central KM organization.

    This type of distributed, in-the-moment sharing of “know how” can be tremendously powerful. And, it’s always current and never obsolete. It’s a KM system that is built to last.

    While I won’t be around in 80 years’ time to enjoy the celebration, I’m willing to bet that a well-designed and well-executed “know-how” sharing system could be the one KM system that rivals the Sydney Harbour Bridge for longevity and usefulness within your firm.

    [Photo Credit: KLW NFC]

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  • QuestionsThey say that getting the right answer depends upon asking the right question. Perhaps that works in the courtroom, but lately I’ve begun to wonder how well it works in our networked world.

    Here’s a case in point: I was puzzling through a technical problem and realized I needed the input of an expert. So I contacted an expert to set up a meeting. Mindful of the many demands on his time, I carefully thought through my problem and sent him before the meeting a list of the questions whose I answers I thought would solve my problem.

    As soon as we sat down to discuss my questions I realized that I had made a critical mistake. By setting out the questions beforehand, I had limited the range of answers and set up false boundaries for our conversation. Now we could ultimately have reached the right answers, but he would be forced to first answer and dispose of my questions before we could progress past the limits of my knowledge to get to the heart of the problem. And he would have to clear this path through the undergrowth because I had insufficient expertise to frame the problem with sufficient precision.

    Thankfully, I saved us both this slog through the undergrowth by changing course on the spot. Just as he pulled out my list of questions and prepared to answer the first one, I apologized to him and asked him to put the list away. I explained that while I had the best of intentions when I sent him the questions, it was the wrong approach. Instead, since I didn’t know enough to articulate the problem properly, I would explain what I wanted to accomplish (and why) and describe the roadblocks in my way.  Then I would leave it to my expert to draw on his knowledge appropriately to help me achieve my goal.

    The fruitful conversation that followed proved my intuition correct. The right answer was within the expert’s range of knowledge, not mine. In fact, my careful questions would have led us down the garden path to a dead end. By throwing away the questions and focusing on my goal, I immediately tapped into the full range of my expert’s experience rather than restricting us to that part of his experience that seemed most directly applicable to my questions. I also got him invested in the ultimate goal rather than merely focused on answering a discrete set of questions.

    Now, why does this matter in a networked world? Because limiting the conversation at the start limits the opportunities and insights available through your network. As much as I might dress it up in good intentions,the reality is that the questions I sent the expert were an attempt to control the conversation and the outcome. Granted, it was done in the name of efficiency, but ultimately would have resulted in inefficiency. The more efficient and effective method was to give up the command-and-control approach in favor of a more open and collaborative attitude that acknowledged the strengths of my colleague and the limits of my ability to control. For those of us raised in a command-and-control organization this open approach can seem risky, but it is the best way to tap the tacit knowledge of your network.

    True collaboration results in something better than just my answer or yours. But to get to that better answer, you might need to throw away your questions and focus instead on a goal worth sharing.

    [Photo Credit: Oberazzi]

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  • Warning: Do not exceed maximum capacity! It’s great to feel needed.  It’s nice to be known as the go-to person with the answer. In a client-service industry like the law firm world, you can get a small buzz on knowing that you helped improve the delivery of client services — especially at crunch time.  But it’s a double-edged sword. Inevitably, because you step into the breach time and time again, your firm comes to rely on you for your ability to make problems seem to go away.

    Law firms are not unique in having folks like this.  According to Mark McDonald, every organization has “human middleware”:

    Human middleware are the people in your organization whose responsibilities revolve around greasing the skids to keep things moving.  Just like their technology counterparts, human middleware sits in the gaps between processes, they coordinate corporate messages, and they are both the grease that keeps things moving and the glue that keeps things from falling apart.

    Does that sound like your law firm knowledge management department?  If you’ve got KM folks who demonstrate a desire to “get things done” and a greater desire to be needed, then you most likely have a law firm knowledge management department that finds itself pulled in different directions to meet the many demands it faces. But let’s be honest — that’s not all. With the recent economic bad times, some KM departments have been looking for more ways to remind their law firms how vital they are to the smooth operations of their organization.  So, we find KM seeking out new opportunities, filling gaps all over the organization, meeting growing needs.

    While this trend is perfectly understandable, Mark McDonald probably wouldn’t endorse it.  Unchecked mission creep leads to overworked staff and then demands for new hiring. In his view, throwing people at problems is a “sign of distortion” within the organization. The issue is that when you “use people to paper over” challenges to the organization, you run the risking of ignoring some key indicators of disease within the organization:

    • Inconsistent business processes
    • Inaccurate systems
    • Incomplete interfaces
    • The proliferation of too many “me too” products
    • Inadequate management capacity and capability
    • General inefficiencies across the organization
    • Weak general management
    • Baseline budgeting
    • Accretive change

    To be clear, this is not an argument to return law firm knowledge management to its bare-bones function of content repository.  However, it is a warning that not every gap in the firm should be filled by KM.  Unless KM uses its resources judiciously, KM personnel end up simply “papering over” structural problems in the firm.  According to Mark McDonald, this leads to even more pernicious results:

    Human middleware is a silent killer of performance, responsibility and effectiveness. It starts with good intentions, it sounds good – after all who is against greater coordination, improved service, or greater time to market?  All are business justifications for creating human middleware.

    For McDonald, the answer is relatively straightforward:  eliminate the distortions to improve operations and restore the organization to health.  If KM is part of the distortion, then it will have to be trimmed back or removed. To avoid this fate, be careful whenever you find yourself tempted to throw people at a problem — even your very talented KM personnel. Consider first if the real issue is some distortion in your system that ought to be addressed by business process improvement, better technology or greater clarity as to strategy, for example.

    As I said at the beginning of this post, it’s great to feel needed. But don’t let your drive to be needed lead you to make KM part of the problem rather than the solution.

    [Photo Credit: Jay Goldman]

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