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.
  • Lawyers in most firms are given a lot of freedom to decide how to manage their own knowledge. In fact, it’s a rare law firm that can demand that its lawyers handle their knowledge in a particular way. For many, the battle began and ended with the document management system. At this point, most firms with document management systems have persuaded their lawyers to create and store documents primarily within the DMS. This has the signal benefit of ensuring that the firm’s work product is located in one place.  The problem, of course, is that while you can require that documents be created within the DMS, it’s much harder to get lawyers do anything more than the most rudimentary profiling of their documents.  As a result, it has until recently been extremely difficult to capture much metadata regarding a document. What’s changed? In part, it’s that lawyers are beginning to learn the value of metadata to assist in the document searches they do every day.  In addition, new document management systems are more intelligently designed and allow simpler filing of documents, coupled with the ability to let new documents “inherit” metadata from the folder in which they are placed.  Couple this with the metadata extraction capabilities of some work product retrieval systems, and the burden on the individual lawyer to create metadata is lightened considerably.

    So the good news is that after nearly 20 years of document management systems, we’re finally getting to a point where the technology allows them to work more seamlessly and intuitively for lawyers.  This should encourage greater use (and more rewarding use) of the DMS by lawyers. The bad news is that relatively little of a firm’s knowledge in contained in its work product. What’s your strategy for dealing with that problem?

    Unless your firm is run by Attila the Hun, you won’t be able to compel lawyers to share their knowledge via a central repository or medium.  Further, you will run into the problem observed by Steve Denning (see The Economic Imperative to Manage Knowledge) regarding the behavior of “experts” with respect to their knowledge:

    As preliminary efforts to establish what the organization knew were launched, it started becoming apparent – to the surprise of many – that the organization did not know what it knew. Inquiries as to the cause of the hesitancy revealed that even the experts were not sure of what they knew. The experts even contested whether they were responsible for sharing their knowledge. They often contended that their job was to meet with their clients and deal with their needs, not sit in an office in headquarters and assemble best practice manuals.

    What’s the solution? If you can’t compel sharing, you’ll need to coax sharing.  The best way to do this is to work individually with your experts to identify their personal knowledge management challenges and then find ways to address those needs in a manner  that results in a solution that is satisfactory for that expert AND yields rich material in a selectively shared content repository. Notice, that I used the words “selectively shared.”  Unless you can promise some measure of control over the knowledge, you’ll have a hard time winning the cooperation of your experts.  They will undoubtedly want the freedom to gather and organize the content as they see fit — not as necessarily as the IT department dictates. The key here for technologists and knowledge managers alike is to provide very lightweight systems that provide the individual flexibility cherished by experts. One obvious choice is the range of Enterprise 2.0 tools now available, but I could imagine implementing some firm-wide systems in a way that encourage personalization, sensible organization and sharing rather than the unmanageable wilderness currently found in everyone’s favorite content repository — Outlook.

    One challenge is that your work with these individual experts will result in information silos.  However, you can go some distance in managing these new silos by ensuring that the content can be shared easily. Then, see the good that happens when your intelligently-designed system interacts with what Dave Snowden observed as our basic tendency to help in times of true need.

    The bottom line is that you have to build a coalition of the willing — willing experts, that is.  Once you’ve helped them organize and find what they know, they’ll be better equipped to share that with others.

    [h/t to John Tropea for pointing out the Steve Denning piece]

    [Photo Credit: lumaxart]

    5 Comments
  • Kudos to Jordan Furlong at Law21 for his summary of the document management presentation by Steve Best and Debbie Foster at the ABA Techshow and his thoughtful observations on the depressing state into which lawyers and their document management systems have sunk:

    The speakers emphasized that the only truly effective DM system is one that makes compliance involuntary. Human nature and office culture are both such that staffers will always look for a way to get around the new system of naming, filing and locating documents in order to use their own. This reminded me of what I’ve been hearing more often in knowledge management circles, that the most reliable way to harness lawyers’ knowledge is to automate the process, extracting the information from lawyers without them knowing it or participating in the process: many law firms have not found ways to sufficiently motivate lawyers to freely share what they consider their stock in trade. It makes me wonder about the bad habits we’ve developed in the legal profession regarding the information we use every day, that we’re at the point of needing to circumvent choice and remove human activity to guarantee success. That’s not good.

    Where did we go wrong? To begin with, earlier generations of document management systems set up enormous barriers to entry in the form of over-reaching profile pages. These pages collected information that lawyers didn’t care about or didn’t care to share. Truly useful information (e.g., client matter numbers) was mixed up with much less helpful information (e.g., randomly-selected document types). At bottom, there was a huge disconnect between the source of the information — the lawyer — and the DMS. Unfortunately, there were few incentives or cogent explanations to bridge the gap.

    And then, there are the lawyers. What is it about lawyers that makes us so uncooperative on these issues? First, the pressure of the billable hour pushes us to move as quickly as possible through our work. When you are playing “beat the clock,” who has time to fill out an extensive profile page? Second, we are tightly focused on client demands. This necessarily makes the non-billable needs of firm administration and systems much less compelling. Third, it is the nature of big law firm practice that very few first-year associates will actually stay in their firm long enough to become partners. So what’s the incentive to contribute to the institution and its systems?

    The other problem with lawyers is that we’re only human. And most human beings don’t like to do what they don’t like to do. In fact, some will go to great lengths to launch workaround wars on systems they haven’t specifically endorsed. (To be honest, when was the last time the managers of your DMS sought user feedback much less endorsement?)

    And what are the “bad habits” lawyers have developed regarding the types of information that allows us to marshal and manage lawyer work product efficiently? Lawyers have grown accustomed to noncompliance with impunity. Law firms have not made compliance a priority. If they had, they would have found more successful ways of convincing us that sharing this information is useful not only to the firm at large, but to the individual lawyer as well. And, they would have enforced compliance more effectively. Firms have also allowed lawyers to focus on very short term goals (e.g., meeting the client requests of the day no matter what the cost) at the expense of long term goals (e.g., building a knowledge infrastructure that allows tomorrow’s client requests to be met with much less effort).

    Jordan Furlong’s observation applied to the full range of KM systems leads to a disquieting conclusion: if we are not able to elicit the voluntary participation of lawyers in the creation and sharing of knowledge, then we will be compelled to build KM systems that “circumvent choice and remove human activity to guarantee success.” But that is success at a high price.

    2 Comments