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.