Another Reason to Resist Change

In a recent post in the Forrester blog, Tim Walters discusses some of the reasons why IT (and knowledge management) folks cling to their top-down one-size-fits-all approach and resist the drive to enable personalization of their offerings. He clearly finds this frustrating since, in his view, personalization is now a matter of “Thurvival”.** Unfortunately, the folks resistant to change have a new compelling excuse to hide behind. Here’s how he paraphrases it:

It’s the economy, stupid. The trouble with a trial and error approach to personalization is that it harbors the possibility (and probably guarantees the occurrence) of error – and error is an expense that, at this juncture, we’d best avoid. For now, let’s stick with what we know works, and we’ll indulge in experimentation when our corporate head is back above the surface of the water.

So now it’s the state of economy that gives them license to cling to the Pantyhose Fallacy. Yet, in Walters’ view, taking the one-size-fits-all approach ensures that your site “will be really relevant and engaging for almost no one. ” That’s quite an accomplishment.

In light of this, it appears that we have two options. We can either sit tight and hope to weather the economic storm without daring to risk anything in the short-term or we can take a radically different approach in which we permit a few short-term risks in order to gain some significant long-term benefits. Tim Walters definitely favors the latter approach:

…now is the time to make selective, small scale investments in personalization tools and skills. Yes, your experiments will produce errors, and the effect will probably not be as favorable as your “sure bets.” But in addition to whatever financial benefits you achieve, you’re building up a knowledge base, intellectual capital, and competitive advantages that will be extremely valuable later.

So what are you going to do? Make a smart short-term investment (at the price of a few managed errors) or hide behind the economy as a reason to resist change?

** According to Tim Walters, “Survival during the downturn + Ability to thrive afterwards = Thurvival.”


Finding Effective Incentives for Collaboration and Contribution of Content

What can law firm knowledge management learn from the war on terror?

Fred Burton, former deputy chief of the counterterrorism division of the U.S. State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service and author of Ghost: Confessions of a Counterterrorism Agent, told Leonard Lopate in a recent public radio interview that counterterrorism experts have a proven set of tools for convincing an informant to collaborate with the US authorities. They use mice.


M: Money
I: Ideology
C: Compromise
E: Ego

Their experience has shown that one or more of money, ideology, compromise and ego will be sufficient incentive to cause an enemy informant to become a double agent in service to the US.

So how might we use MICE to assist law firm knowledge management? Perhaps as incentives for collaboration and contribution of content. Let’s start with Money. Some firms have offered outright monetary awards or something similar (e.g., Starbucks cards or gift certificates from other vendors) to induce lawyers to participate in their firm’s knowledge management effort. At one point or another, almost every firm relies on Ego to prod a lawyer into sharing valuable content. As for Ideology, we see this in the law firm context as an individual lawyer’s belief that contributing and collaborating are the right thing to do — that lawyers have a professional responsibility to participate and invest in the institutional knowledge of the firm. Ideology also shows up in the guise of firm culture. It’s a little harder to find a law firm analog for Compromise, but undoubtedly a little further thought would reveal it.

Of these various incentives, I find that Ego and Ideology are the most effective in law firms. In busy times and in economic slowdowns, it’s the lawyers that believe in contributing and collaborating who always find the time to participate in knowledge management initiatives. It takes very little effort on the part of knowledge managers to involve them. Similarly, Ego is a constant. The folks motivated by their ego needs to participate will do so regardless of the business cycle because they get enormous psychic satisfaction from having their names and work product prominently displayed. As for monetary awards, they might spur a little short-term participation, but I doubt they actually lead to long-term collaboration and contribution. (For an earlier discussion of incentives, see Chocolates and Roses.)

Whether dealing with enemy informants or busy lawyers, there are some incentives that have been proven to be effective with all human beings. Perhaps it’s time to put some MICE to work in your knowledge management system.


Change is Good…You Go First

Change is Good … You Go First.

That’s a great line — worthy of a great philosopher* (e.g., Dilbert or Garfield or Calvin & Hobbes). And it speaks to a fundamental of human nature. While we objectively may understand that a proposed change will be beneficial, we intuitively resist change. Whether it’s because it takes a lot of effort to overcome inertia or because we are inherently conservative, we resist change.

In my last post, Generation Y versus Big Law, I talked about some of the changes that we are told new Gen Y employees will force on their employers. There was even an example of an employer that seemed to be eagerly accommodating the changes required by Gen Y. However, on further reflection, I wondered whether this employer was a harbinger of things to come or simply atypical.

In the context of law firm knowledge management, I discussed the knowledge managers’ hope that Gen Y lawyers would prevail in their demands for state of the art technology at work since that was what they were used to in the rest of their lives. As a cautionary note, I pointed to the success (or lack thereof) in implementing meaningful work-life balance policies in law firms. While I acknowledge that this was a little like comparing apples and oranges, since the issues that motivate technology adoption are not entirely identical with those that motivate the adoption of health and welfare policies within a firm, I do believe it is a cautionary tale. Both work-life balance and web 2.0 technologies represent radical departures from the current way of doing things. They require change — and humans resist change. Law firms tend to be even more conservative than individuals. The question they usually ask when confronted with change is, “what are our peer firms doing?” How quickly do you think those firms will embrace Gen Y change? Ask the human beings that work there.

* If you do happen to know the source of the line “Change is Good…You Go First,” please do let me know. It’s too good a line to be consigned to oblivion.


Generation Y versus Big Law

I can’t wait until Generation Y lawyers start flooding through the doors of big law firms. We’re told that just about everything about Gen Y runs counter to the work ethic and environment of these firms. So a showdown is inevitable. It will be very interesting to see which force prevails.

Gen Y is often defined as that group between the ages of 11 and 25. These “millennials” have a very particular view of life, according to a recent article in The Observer, “They don’t live for work…they work to live“:

Here is a group that has never known, or even witnessed, hardship, recession or mass unemployment and does not fear redundancy or repossession, according to researchers. The result is a generation that believes it can have it all and is not embarrassed to ask for it; a generation that will constitute the majority of the workforce within a decade.

This article goes on to report that prospective employers have decided to bite the bullet and start catering to these employees. For example,

Procter and Gamble has already adapted its recruitment efforts and what it offers to meet the needs of Generation Y. Instead of just stressing higher salaries, this international company is highlighting the opportunity for flexible hours, the chance to work from home, the offer of up to a year of ‘family leave’ to look after children or elderly parents, and the promise of regular three-month sabbaticals. Similar packages are being offered by companies across Britain.

Does this sound like many law firms you know?

A few of us are lucky enough to work for rather progressive law firms. However, the majority of law firms can’t even begin to think about offering packages like that offered by Procter and Gamble. In fact, noted law firm commentator Bruce MacEwen at Adam Smith, Esq. has come to the conclusion that work-life balance in law firms may be nothing more than “a dream for another decade.” In his discussion of the report commissioned by Eversheds, “The Law Firm of the 21st Century,” we learn that big law firms may be quite resistant to the type of change invited by Gen Y. (This report reflects the views of partners at top firms, as well as general counsel and senior executives at major companies and investment banks.)

Here’s Bruce MacEwen’s summary of what the report said about work-life balance:

56% of clients and 45% of partners believe more flexible hours are not a realistic solution. More specifically, while 51% of clients believe firms ought to be able to offer a “credible” balance alongside excellent client service (and did not see their demands as part of the problem), 48% of partners thought that work-life balance and top-notch client service are “a contradiction in terms.”

And here is Bruce MacEwen’s stark conclusion: “Permit me, however, to editorialize for a moment on `work/life balance.’ I don’t believe you can have it at a top-notch firm.”

On the law firm knowledge management front, we’ve been telling ourselves for months now that once those Gen Y lawyers walk through the door, law firms will have to fulfill our KM technology requests because, after all, these young lawyers will demand it. These kids eat and sleep technology and they simply won’t stand to be thwarted at work.

So the battle lines are drawn with respect to work-life balance in law firms. What about the early adoption of new technology? Will we have another generational battle there. And, if so, who will prevail? For law firm knowledge managers banking on the new Gen Y lawyers, you might want to stop and think about the work-life balance at your firm.

[Thanks to Headshift for pointing out The Observer Article.]


Best Practice vs Next Practice

Mark Gould’s comment on my previous post (Not Quite) Best Practices pointed me to Derek Wenmoth’s blog post on Best Practice vs Next Practice. Derek makes the interesting observation that while best practice is a snapshot of what we know has worked well in the past, next practice is an attempt to take that prior experience and improve upon it rather than merely replicate it. This notion of next practice fits nicely with the Appreciative Inquiry approach to change. Here’s the money quote from Derek:

Best Practice asks “What is working?”, while Next Practice asks “What could work – more powerfully?”

Best practice has often functioned as a type of insurance policy: if you’ve followed best practices, who can criticize? However, the focus on next practice moves us out of the insurance policy nature of best practice into imagination and innovation. Very dangerous. And yet, so necessary.

Mark says that he might blog on this concept of next practice. I’m looking forward to reading his observations. In the meantime, thank you Mark and Derek for giving us a more nuanced way of thinking about best practices.


When Change Seems Impossible

Marshall Goldsmith, the noted consultant and leadership coach, gets right to the point in his Harvard Business blog post When People Don’t Want to Change:

Your job is to help people achieve positive, lasting change in behavior. How do you deal with people who have no desire to change?

I don’t!

Have you ever tried to change the behavior of an adult who had absolutely no interest in changing? How much luck did you have with your attempts at this ‘religious conversion’?
Have you ever tried to change the behavior of a spouse, partner or parent who had no interest in changing? How did that work out for you?

My guess is that you have tried and have been consistently unsuccessful. You may have even alienated the person you were trying to enlighten.

If they do not care, do not waste your time.

Research on coaching is clear and consistent. Coaching is most successful when applied to people with potential who want to improve — not when applied to people who have no interest in changing. This is true whether you are acting as a professional coach, a manager, a family member, or a friend.

Does the same apply to a law firm?

In terms of making macro changes, absolutely. We’ve seen it vividly in the world of law firm knowledge management. The firm may say that it wants a world class KM system, but if management doesn’t get behind that goal and support it through moral suasion and concrete rewards, that firm will have a hard time achieving its KM goal.

However, that’s not the end of the story because even when the opportunity for macro change is forestalled, there may be an opportunity for useful micro change. And this is where we see the difference between trying to change an individual and trying to change an organization.

Working with an organization offers a few advantages over coaching an individual. The most significant of these advantages is that an organization is a “system” with multiple points of entry and multiple points of control. Therefore, it is possible to find one of these points of control and making small-scale changes. As I’ve noted earlier, these incremental changes can add up over time. So, while it may not be possible to transform your law firm overnight from a knowledge management wasteland to a knowledge management paradise, you can take several key steps to move in the right direction:

* aligning the evaluation and compensation system to reward active knowledge sharing,
* integrating and leveraging existing silos of knowledge,
* identifying and recruiting content creators and thought leaders,
* implementing tech tools that facilitate active and passive knowledge sharing, etc.

This approach requires patience, but does produce results if done systematically.

The author Tobias Wolfe made a similar observation in an interview he gave National Public Radio this morning, when he said that we should not disdain the value of making a one-degree course correction in our lives. He pointed to Ernest Shackleton, saying that if he and his crew had missed their course by even one degree, they would not have made it to Elephant Island and South Georgia Island and would not have survived. In Wolfe’s view, we should seek every opportunity to make a one-degree course correction in our lives, because it can yield life-changing results for comparatively little effort.


What Went Right?

My last post rather morbidly focused on using KM Autopsies as a useful way of figuring out what went wrong with knowledge management projects. Sometimes, however, it’s much more effective to ask “What went right?”

This apparently contrarian advice is rooted in the field of Appreciative Inquiry, which starts from the perspective that it’s ultimately more productive to identify and build on your strengths than to constantly battle your weaknesses. This approach may not sit well with our Puritan forebears, but it can provide valuable insights as we think through new projects and old challenges. By contrast, the Puritans would more likely have championed a problem-solving approach in which you identify a problem, analyze its causes, and then work to ruthlessly stamp them out.

The focus of Appreciative Inquiry is to figure out what we’ve done well in the past and then determine how to do more of it in the future — building from strength to strength. Because the plan for proposed action is grounded in what was successful before, the people involved in executing the plan start with the advantage of working from a position of demonstrated success.

So going back to that knowledge management project we want to evaluate, how would it look through the lens of Appreciative Inquiry? First, we’d need to identify what actually worked — where that project actually succeeded. And then, identify what steps we took or what circumstances were in place to make that success possible. Next, imagine what more could be done and focus on how to repeat those steps or circumstances in order to facilitate another, bigger success. Then, just do it.

The key is that we are simply doing something we’ve done well before, with every expectation of success. That’s very different than taking a chance on implementing untried methods in order to address a perceived problem. However, Appreciative Inquiry is not about sticking to the status quo or mindlessly repeating prior actions. One of Appreciative Inquiry’s key strengths is that the confidence people experience from their demonstrated success gives them the creative energy to think productively about how to expand on that success. This constant raising of the bar allows incremental improvement without causing paralysis from fear of failure.

We’ve had years of training to think critically about our work and the work of others. We can spot a problem a mile away. It’s much harder to think as carefully about what went right. It wasn’t all just luck or good timing. Once you’ve identified the key ingredients of your past success, you’re in a much better position to deploy those elements to create a new success. And isn’t that a lot more satisfying than focusing on failure?


Getting Real About Law Firm Knowledge Management

In a recent post I discussed a 2007 study of the impact of knowledge management on the ability of Bolivian farmers to innovate and to support lasting change. The beauty of the cases studied is that the issues involved aren’t merely theoretical. If the farmers don’t get it right, they won’t grow enough to live, let alone thrive. A lot is riding on their successful adoption of knowledge management techniques.

Compare and contrast that with the average lawyer in a big city law firm. If the lawyer doesn’t have the necessary KM systems or can’t be bothered to use them, who pays? The Client.

Admittedly, this inefficient lawyer also pays by having to spend more time on their work, which means less time for other things. If this continues, that lawyer will find it difficult to be a profitable contributor to the firm and will also have quality of life issues. That said, as long as the client keeps paying, will lawyers ever really feel as if there’s a compelling reason to get their knowledge management systems right?

At a recent meeting of large law firm knowledge managers, we heard about in-house counsel who have retained knowledge management consultants to help them understand what KM systems a client should expect to find within a large law firm. We were told that these in-house counsel will soon be asking more pointed KM-related questions in their requests for proposals. Once the quality of a law firm’s KM program becomes a real factor in a client’s decision to hire and retain outside counsel, law firms will have to get real about KM. In the meantime, only those firms that are forward looking (rather than merely reactive) are likely to expand and enhance their knowledge management programs.


Bolivian Farmers: A KM Case Study

What can a Wall Street law firm learn from Bolivian farmers practicing semi-subsistence farming methods? A lot with respect to using knowledge management to foster innovation and make lasting changes.

In the case of these farmers, innovation was enhanced greatly when (i) knowledge management was the joint effort of multiple actors, including development agencies that provide knowledge and technology, farmers, financial institutions, and government, and (ii) the farmers were embedded in productive social networks.

A 2007 study of Bolivian farmers (Hartwich, F., M. Monge Pérez, L. Ampuero Ramos and J.L Soto, 2007, “Knowledge management for agricultural innovation: Lessons from networking efforts in the Bolivian Agricultural Technology System.” Knowledge Management for Development Journal 3(2): 21-37) compared the impact on the innovation behavior of farmers of two different methods of transmitting knowledge: either by a direct one-to-one transfer of technical assistance or via a combination of multiple sources of knowledge supported by a network of technology providers, farmers and a variety of public and private sector agents. Looking at four different agricultural innovation programs in Bolivia that used different methods of knowledge management, they found that the acquisition and adoption of knowledge is not a linear process. Consequently, the programs that relied on the linear, direct knowledge transfer were less successful in fostering change. Therefore, to promote innovation and lasting change, knowledge managers need to follow an approach that combines multiple non-competing sources of knowledge with active social networks.

The usefulness of the social networks was critical. The networks allowed the farmers to take the knowledge and technology provided and then test it against the experiences of other trusted individuals. In the words of the study’s authors, the farmers in these networks do not merely adopt the new knowledge, but they also “practice, process, improve the knowledge and adapt it to their needs and local conditions.”

Coming back to my organization (a law firm) and yours, what does this study suggest? That merely making information and tools available via the knowledge management system may be a reasonable first step but is ultimately insufficient. This effort needs to be supported by fostering active social networks within your organization that help the individual knowledge worker take that new knowledge, test it, adapt it and ultimately improve it.

In the context of a law firm, having great content and a slick content delivery mechanism (e.g., a Portal) is a good start. However, until that content is absorbed by the lawyers, tested in the company of trusted colleagues, and adapted to client needs, it isn’t really useful knowledge. And if we don’t have really useful knowledge to manage, what are we doing?


Snow Day

Large snowflakes are falling steadily outside my window, temporarily veiling the urban landscape. We heard breathless warnings this morning on the radio and TV of impending commuting disasters. We’ve been asked to stay home, but if we must travel, please use public transportation. New York City was winding up for one of those rare (but highly enjoyable) occurrences — a bona fide snow day that doesn’t fall on the weekend.

In the midst of all of this excitement are two interesting knowledge management lessons:

1. Garbage Trucks: In most normal towns, garbage trucks collect the garbage. And in New York City, that is usually the case. However, as soon as the snow starts to fall, garbage trucks here morph into snowplows. While they may look strange, they are effective. They are also good reminders of a basic knowledge management lesson: sometimes the easiest way to create excellent content is to repurpose existing materials. For example, organizations that have good communications between their training function and their knowledge management function have discovered that training materials are a rich source of actionable knowledge. Once added to the knowledge management system, they become more widely accessible and more widely used. This is a win-win for the trainers and the knowledge managers. Above all, it is a win for the knowledge workers who need this information. Similarly, materials created for marketing purposes can become valuable content in the KM system and vice versa.

2. Going to School on a Snow Day: One of the great joys of childhood is waking up to learn school has been canceled because of a snowstorm. The kids are oblivious to the agony of the school administrator, who must make a decision before dawn as to whether or not to cancel school. If there is an enormous snowfall and the administrator made the decision to cancel, the administrator is a hero. If school is canceled and the forecasted blizzard ends up being a light flurry, the administrator is vilified. In New York City, we sidestepped the agony by adopting what seemed to be a reasonable approach: if the city’s board of education decides to cancel school, then all schools (public, private, parochial, etc.) will be canceled. This takes the individual principals out of the decision making and puts the responsibility squarely on the shoulders of a faceless bureaucracy. Who could argue with that???

Since NYC has relatively few snow days, this scheme rarely gets put to the test. However, it has begun to irk some kids that in recent years the only decent storms seem to occur on weekends or during the February school break. It is particularly annoying for kids whose schools do not follow the public school calendar. In their case, even if you have a legitimate snow day that falls on a public school holiday, the board of education won’t go to the trouble of canceling school since the public schools aren’t in session. So these kids are deprived of the benefits of a snow day.

I recite these facts not to incite sympathy for this small, disaffected subset of NYC school children, but rather, to point to a little business process challenge. Arguably the NYC approach to snow days works most of the time by default since we almost never have large snowstorms and when they do happen they seem to fall on days when public schools are not in session. So when do you know you have a valid, reliable business process as opposed to a lucky way of doing things? Admittedly, the decision making that leads to declaring a snow day probably doesn’t rise to the level of a proper business process as envisioned by Frederick Taylor and others who studied manufacturing processes. Nonetheless, the question is worth posing with respect to the many practices organizations adopt over time. Followers of the “if ain’t broke don’t fix it” school of management, won’t understand the question. But that’s fine. Let them leave money on the table for the rest of us. In my knowledge management work I’ve discovered time and time again that by simply taking a closer look at how an organization goes through its routines we inevitably find ways of improving and adding value. Granted, not every change is a blockbuster, but that may be all to the good given the human tendency to resist change.

(Just to add insult to injury, not only do some kids have to go to school today, but they will also be missing the City Parks Department’s celebration of the First Snow Day of the Year. The Department will be providing sleds and hot chocolate in some city parks from noon- 4pm. Too bad about those afternoon classes!)