We know that a cat always lands on its feet. We also know that a slice of toast always lands buttered side down. So what happens when you attach a slice of toast (buttered side up, of course) to the back of a cat and then toss both out the window? Does the cat land on its feet or is it completely overcome by the force of the buttered bread? This puzzle is known as the buttered cat paradox and has spawned a host of interesting and sometimes comical responses. For my money, the folks at Flying Horse came up with the best answer: the tension between landing on feet versus landing buttered side down causes the cat to spin. This results in the infinite energy generator. Brilliant!
What does this have to do with law firm knowledge management?
In 2006, Chris Boyd and Ron Friedmann wrote an article advocating that law firm knowledge management professionals spend their time and energy in a more effective way. Their article, Powering a KM Windmill, recommended that we move away from KM activities that are heavily dependent on human effort (i.e., treadmill activities) and focus instead on KM activities that derive their energy from existing firm processes (i.e., windmill activities):
A practical and achievable way to maximize KM results is to capitalize on existing law firm information flows and business processes. By doing so, a firm can get the greatest possible “K” returns for a reasonable “M” effort. Think of a windmill rather than a treadmill. Whereas a treadmill keeps turning only via human effort (analogous to PSLs) or dedicated power from a generator (analogous to KM-specific software), a windmill relies on dependable winds (analogous to work flows and processes that exist independent of KM requirements).
Boyd and Friedmann were building on an earlier article by Dan Felean in which he laid out a slightly different treadmill / windmill dichotomy:
Knowledge management will not thrive as a separate process. Most KM experts now predict that KM will soon lose its separate identity, as it becomes embedded or “baked” within existing work systems. Mario D’Amico, chief technology strategist at PensEra Knowledge Technologies, describes this “knowledge funneling” approach as resembling a windmill rather than a treadmill. “Instead of constantly prodding the user to contribute tremendous effort (the treadmill), we must attach or embed the means for contribution and usage within existing lawyer work processes, so knowledge is funneled naturally from work,” he says. “By blending KM contribution and consumption with the daily attorney workflow, the process can gain more participation and become self-sustaining, propelled by natural processes–like a windmill.”
In either case, the focus was on spending your time and energy wisely in pursuit of your knowledge management goals.
Of course, all of this got me thinking. Clearly, being tied to a treadmill is a modern equivalent to being a galley slave. But is the windmill the right answer? While a windmill may be easier than a treadmill for the humans involved, how do you produce results on days that are not windy? Wouldn’t it in fact be better to create a system that was more like a watermill? The beauty of the water-powered wheel is that it will turn as long as the water is flowing. In most cases, this flow will be constant and steady — unlike the wind in many locales. Yet, even in this case, constant energy is not guaranteed. Someone could construct a dam upstream. Or a drought could cause the water to dry up.
Enter the buttered cat paradox. If you watch the Flying Horse video below, you’ll see how they created an infinite energy generator by putting the buttered cat paradox to work. Without a doubt, an infinite energy generator is far superior to a treadmill, windmill or watermill.
The question KM professionals should ask themselves with respect to every project is this: are we setting up a process that relies on brute force (treadmill); periodic external energy (windmill); or near constant external energy, barring intervention upstream or climate change (watermill)? Or have we set up a system that will of its own accord create the energy necessary to make it self-perpetuating? If we can design projects that are self-perpetuating, then we will have found our KM equivalent of the infinite energy generator.
In a pinch, however, you could always use a buttered cat.
[Photo credit: Katzenspeilzeug]