Above and Beyond KM

A discussion of knowledge management that goes above and beyond technology.

Awards & Recognition

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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.
  • Dandelion Have you ever made the mistake of leaving talent on the table when hiring or staffing? If so, you should consider what Robert Austin has to say in the video below about the Danish software testing company, Specialisterne. This company recruits and retains a workforce that is uniquely suited to the rigors of software testing. What’s so special about their staff?  Most have been diagnosed with some form of autism. It’s important to note is that this company’s business model is not based primarily on grudging accommodation of people outside the norm. Rather it’s built on “using the characteristics of people with autism as a competitive advantage.” Here’s the company’s extraordinary story in its own words:

    At Specialisterne, people with autism work in an environment where they are presented with the best possible opportunities to reach their potential. They don’t have to learn to adapt to the usual working-environment norms, such as being a good team player, being empathetic, handling stress well and showing flexibility. These are not the usual characteristics for people with autism; a fact that usual[ly] results in their being excluded long-term from the labour market. Instead, Specialisterne welcomes the very differences and character traits that are so often seen as a stigma.

    Putting it simply; at Specialisterne, not fitting in is a good thing. The traits that usually exclude people with autism from the labour market are the very traits that make them valuable employees at Specialisterne, such as attention to detail, zero tolerance for errors and a persistence to get the job done. We don’t see them as people with an autism diagnosis; rather, we see them as true specialists, which is why we refer to them as “specialist people”. Imagine a world where someone who was once defined by their diagnosis, would instead be defined as a “specialist person” ?

    As Austin notes in the video, companies that pass over idiosyncratic talent in favor of more well-rounded or complete talent end up “leaving talent on the table.” They may settle for uncomplicated and reasonably good over slightly more challenging but brilliant.  According to Austin, one way to ensure that you don’t leave talent on the table is to check yourself every time you find yourself sacrificing talent for ease within your context when hiring and staffing.  To explain the importance of context he paraphrases Thorkil Sonne, founder of Specialisterne, who uses the metaphor of a dandelion:

    The dandelion is generally considered to be a weed. However, dandelions can be valuable: they have medicinal properties and can be used to make a salad, a coffee substitute and wine, among other things. Therefore, the dandelion’s essential characteristics are not what makes us view the plant as a weed, but rather the context in which we find it. A dandelion in a lawn is unwelcome, while a dandelion in an herb garden is likely to be nurtured. Similarly, companies may consider people with autism to be unemployable because those companies have been forcing these people into inappropriate and unsupportive contexts. Change the context and then you realize the benefits.

    In these days of shrinking budgets, do you want a minimally competent but unremarkable team, or should you be thinking about the competitive advantage you gain by hiring idiosyncratic talent? While idiosyncratic talent may require gifted managers, Specialisterne demonstrates the benefits of this unconventional approach.

    They don’t leave talent on the table.

    [Photo Credit: Code Poet]

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  • Every December the good folks at Stem Legal encourage bloggers to promote the many fabulous Canadian law blogs that are now available. And this year is no exception: a quick look at the #Clawbies2012 Twitter hashtag reveals some worthy additions for your RSS feedreader. As a Canadian living in the United States, it’s my great pleasure to do my part for this commendable effort. So I’m offering my nominations for the 2012 CLawBies awards based on blog posts regarding one of my favorite topics — social media and the law:

    I’d encourage you to check out these blogs, as well as other blogs listed on the Clawbies.ca website. In addition, check out the Canadian, Please video I’ve posted above (make sure you turn on the captions!). Once you’ve finished both exercises, you might understand better why Andrew Gunadie and Julia Bentley claim in the video, “I know that you wanna be Canadian.”

     

     

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  • Best Actress Academy Awards Dennis Kennedy has just published the 2012 Blawggie Awards, which he describes as his “personal and highly-opinionated perspective” on the best law-related blogs of the year.  These awards are a public service that he has cheerfully rendered since December 2004.  In reading his awards posts over the years, you will inevitably discover a writer (or several writers) that you want to follow.

    This post is my thank you to Dennis for including Above and Beyond KM in his 2012 list of noteworthy blogs.  When Dennis paid me a similar compliment in my first year of blogging, it was a wonderful form of encouragement for a novice discovering the wild (and slightly daunting) world of legal blogging.  Now that I have several years of blogging under my belt, the inclusion of my blog in Dennis’ 2012 list is even more welcome. The reality is that it takes a fair amount of effort to mount a solo blog year after year. While I doubt most of us write to win awards or commendations, I must admit they are awfully nice!

    Dennis is a blogging veteran who has experienced and written about “The `Unbearable’ Everydayness of Blogging“. For those of us treading the same road, it is a real gift to have him reach out and shine a light on our efforts. On behalf of myself and all the other legal bloggers you’ve supported over the years, I thank you, Dennis.

    [Photo Credit: Cliff]

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  • mayan-calendar.jpg I’m writing this in the wee hours of the morning of December 21 and am happy to report that despite worries to the contrary, the world has not ended in New York City — yet.  It appears that the Mayan Calendar anxiety was misplaced. So back to business as usual?

    Not so fast.

    No matter whether you found the whole Mayan Calendar furor laughable or sobering, the focus on the end of time is a good reminder to think about how we spend our time. The reality is that most of us devote the bulk of our waking hours to work, but how many of us find our work truly engaging? You have to wonder when the most commented upon blog post on the HBR Blog Network in the last 24 hours was Finding Meaning at Work, Even When Your Job Is Dull. The authors of that post begin with the following attention grabber:

    Do you experience meaning at work — or just emptiness?

    In the United States people spend on average 35 – 40 hours working every week. That’s some 80,000 hours during a career — more time than you will spend with your kids probably. Beyond the paycheck, what does work give you? Few questions could be more important. It is sad to walk through life and experience work as empty, dreadful, a chore — sapping energy out of your body and soul. Yet many employees do, as evidenced by one large-scale study showing that only 31% of employees were engaged.

    Another post this week addresses the lack of engagement in the workplace with words of advice for managers:  To Give Your Employees Meaning, Start With Mission. The post begins by quoting Jim Collins:

    It is impossible to have a great life unless it is a meaningful life. And it is very difficult to have a meaningful life without meaningful work.

    I’ve written before about the importance of being purpose-driven, and these authors also focus on purpose, as articulated in a mission statement and as embodied by an organization’s leadership. The point of the exercise is that when you feel you are making a difference in the world, you will take ownership of your work. That’s a recipe for engagement.

    Better still, engagement is not only for the young. In Don’t Leave a Legacy; Live One, we learn that age need not be a barrier to accomplishing something meaningful. The author is the founder and CEO of an organization, Encore.org, that  awards Purpose Prizes annually to honor

    …individuals who are making monuments out of what many consider the leftover years, not only finding personal meaning but doing creative and entrepreneurial work that means more — work aimed at solving fundamental problems facing the nation and the world today.

    Yet the quest for meaning in work shouldn’t be overly romanticized. The author of Finding the Job of Your Life reminds us that

    A meaningful job has boring moments, scary moments, angry moments. It is not a flat line of unvarying personal fulfillment. Nothing is great if it is monotone. There is no job of your life out there, waiting to be found. There are only jobs that may make you feel more or less alive. If you allow them to, that is.

    While we may not be face to face with the end of time at this very minute, it’s never too soon to consider the importance of spending time wisely. After all, you don’t know how much time you have left.

    [Photo Credit: Carolann Quart]

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  • Purple Cow One persistent issue that arises in the world of knowledge management is how best to market your systems and services. Unfortunately, discussions of this issue often devolve into descriptions of tactics: launch email blitzkriegs, offer food to encourage attendance at training sessions, bribe potential users with the latest i-device or (in lower rent populations) Starbucks gift cards. Similarly, you see law firm marketing departments carpet bombing clients with generic legal alerts or seasonal cards that are rarely read or retained. In most cases, these tactics have nearly the same effect:  they don’t work.

    So what are we to do? Focus on Milkshakes, Purple Cows and Otaku, of course!

    Milkshakes

    My friend Jeffrey Rovner pointed me to an interesting talk by Clayton Christensen on marketing. Christensen posits that in order to motivate a customer to buy your product, you first need to understand the job for which that customer is likely to “hire” your product. The brief video clip below ends with the words: “…if you understand the job, how to improve the product becomes just obvious.”

    Just obvious? As we say in New York, “From your lips to God’s ears,” Dr. Christensen.

    In the case of the milkshake, Christensen and his colleagues discovered that the drink was being purchased for two different jobs: (1) to allay hunger and provide entertainment during a boring morning commute and (2) to help parents placate children with a seemingly nutritious treat. So if you were marketing to the commuter, you’d play up the interesting taste and thickness of the drink that led to a longer and more satisfying period of entertainment. If you were marketing to the parent, you’d emphasize the nutritional benefits and the appeal to children, while perhaps thinning the milkshake to allow little mouths to drink the shake more quickly.

    Digging further into this research, I learned that understanding a job means more than just understanding the bare function involved.  In fact, there are three critical dimensions of each job: the functional, the social and the emotional.  When developing and marketing a product, you have to address all three elements from the customer’s perspective in order to optimize the chances of your product being “hired to do the job.”

    Purple Cows

    Marketing maven, Seth Godin, is famous for pointing out that few of us stop the car when driving past a cow in the countryside.  In rural America, a cow is not an unusual sight. However, if the cow in question was purple, not only would you stop the car, but you’d grab your smartphone, take a photo and post it on every social media platform you use. Why? A purple cow is remarkable — it is worthy of being remarked upon. Godin’s thesis is that your product needs to be a purple cow. What does this mean? It needs to stand out from the crowd, it needs to be special — it needs to be remarkable. It follows, then, that developing products aimed at the lowest common denominator, designed to provoke the least amount of controversy, will pretty much guarantee that those products barely register in the consciousness of the consumer. (Christensen notes that every year 30,000 new products are launched, and 95% of them fail.)

    Otaku

    Godin also refers to Otaku, which Wikipedia describes as “a Japanese term used to refer to people with obsessive interests.” According to Godin, a product has a much better chance of succeeding if it appeals to otaku. Why? Because the care enough to seek it out and tell others about it. This kind of word of mouth marketing is priceless.  The first step, however, is to know your otaku and match your product to their needs and interests.

    So what do milkshakes, purple cows and otaku have to teach us? Understand the job your product is being hired to do, make sure your product is absolutely remarkable and then market it first to the people who care enough to tell others about your good work.

    Here are the videos:

    Clayton Christensen:

    Seth Godin’s snippet on Purple Cows and Otaku:

    Seth Godin’s full TED Talk:

     

    [Photo Credit: Jon Milet Baker]

     

     

     

     

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  • We sometimes joke in our family that the moment  you think you have everything organized and on an even keel — watch out! Something is bound to occur suddenly to upset that equilibrium:

    • a key member of your team decides to relocate to be closer to family
    • a strategic vendor goes out of business
    • the bottom falls out of the economy

    In the face of these often uncontrollable events, it can be hard to maintain your equilibrium. To be honest, the key may be to strengthen your resilience so that you can cope with these stresses and prosper.

    Whitney Johnson takes all of this one step further. She suggests that it’s important not to let your equilibrium lead to complacency. Her prescription for the complacent is straightforward and slightly unnerving: Disrupt yourself.

    What does she mean by this? She borrows from the work of Clayton Christensen when she suggests that a better path to success is to seek out territory in a new market (or the low end of an established market) and use that as a base to disrupt your industry. She also borrows the notion of the S-Curve to explain how we should propel ourselves from one area of mastery to another:

    The S-curve mental model makes a compelling case for personal disruption. We may be quite adept at doing the math around our future when things are linear, but neither business nor life is linear, and ultimately what our brain needs, even requires, is the dopamine of the unpredictable. More importantly, as we inhabit an increasingly zig-zag world, the best curve you can throw the competition is your ability to leap from one learning curve to the next.

    If you’re prepared to accept the challenge and are willing to disrupt yourself, Whitney Johnson has five suggestions for you:

    1. Assess. Assess where you are vis-a-vis where you want to be. If your current path will get you there with gradual improvement, you should stay on that “sustaining innovation path.” If your path won’t get you to your goal, try going where no one else wants to play (or hasn’t yet thought to play) and look for opportunities there.
    2. Iterate. “Disruption is a discovery-driven process.” We need to iterate, iterate and iterate again until we get the model right. Often the strategy that leads to success is different from the strategy you began with.
    3. Embrace Your Constraints. “Constraints are problems to be solved.” They drive us to rethink how we do things.
    4. Be Impatient. Look for quick wins, small wins that confirm that you are on the right path. However, be aware that you’ll need to be patient as your strategy of disruption unfolds.
    5. Start Today. “Dare to disrupt yourself, your status quo. Be disruptive. Now.”

     

    This post has focused on the personal benefits of disruption, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you to consider in the context of your law firm or organization the following observation from Clayton Christensen:

    Whenever the tension is greatest and the resources are scarcest, we actually are much more open to rethinking the fundamental way we do business.

    Legal industry commentators have said that when law firms finally find their backs against the wall, they will be forced to rethink their business model. Some would argue that the time is long overdue for law firms to disrupt themselves. It will be interesting to see which ones accept Whitney Johnson’s challenge.

     

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