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.
  • After four days at the 2010 Enterprise 2.0 Conference, I’m feeling my age.  It’s not just that the days were intense with tons of new ideas and useful information to absorb.  It’s also that I felt a bit too much at home.  What do I mean?  If you listen to some pundits, E2.0 is the province of the young and the hip.  As a Gen Xer, I assumed I was going to be among the older folks attending.  To my surprise, I wasn’t.  With few exceptions, most of the folks I met were older than 30 (and some were considerably north of 30).  The gap between perception and reality  became even more apparent when one of the LaunchPad finalists — a chipper 20-something — declared to the audience that he was there to prove that there were in fact some Millennials involved in E2.0.

    So what’s going on? Are the E2.0 conference attendee demographics an anomaly or should we just face facts that this is a technology — even a way of life — that now spans generational boundaries?  If it’s the latter, then I’m very optimistic about our ability to embed social tools in the enterprise. If you think we’re dealing with an anomaly, please do let me know what you think is really going on.

    [Photo Credit: xflickrx]

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  • In a rousing presentation this summer at ILTA09, Jason Ryan Dorsey gave us a terrific overview of how the presence of as many as four generations in the workplace at once can lead to tensions or opportunities, depending on the quality of their management. The generational differences he described in his talk were quite striking. For example, he contrasted the boomer style (i.e., just leave me alone to get my job done) with the Gen Y need for constant attention and approval. In particular he spoke of the Gen Y tendency to engage their managers constantly, seeking feedback on their work.  When I heard this, I was initially dismissive of these folks who seemed to need to have their hands held at the office.  Upon further reflection, however, I find myself wondering if they are all that different from their older colleagues.

    The Gallup organization recently tested the impact on employee engagement of three different management styles: (1) my manager focuses on my strengths, (2) my manager focuses on my weaknesses, and (3) my manager ignores me.  The results of this study are thought-provoking:

    We were disturbed to discover that a significant percentage of the respondents fit into the “ignored” category (25%).  …many U.S. managers ignore their employees, or so the employees perceive. Even more importantly, we found that if your manager focuses on your strengths, your chances of being actively disengaged at work are only 1 in 100. If your manager ignores you, though, you are about twice as likely to be actively disengaged at work than if your manager focuses on your weaknesses. Being overlooked, it seems, is more harmful to employees’ engagement than having to discuss their weaknesses with their manager.

    So, it turns out that while we don’t all need hand holding, most of us do need to know we matter at work — regardless of age.  And, the best way for managers to communicate this is by talking to us.

    Those Gen Y folks may be on to something.

    [Photo Credit:  Lumaxart]

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  • Jason Ryan Dorsey has mastered the art of “edutainment.” Over the course of a rollicking keynote address and subsequent 90-minute presentation he shook us out of our complacency about the impact of generational differences in the workplace. (A cautionary note: As I was tweeting his 90-minute session, several readers asked what data he had to back up his assertions. I’ve cited some resources below, but encourage all of you to satisfy yourselves by doing further research.)

    While there has been lots of conversation about the impact of new Gen Y employees in the workplace, Dorsey believes that the biggest challenge most companies are facing is the enormous span between the oldest and youngest workers.  In many offices, you can find members of the following demographic groups attempting to work together:

    • Matures/Traditionalists – Born before 1946; while some have retired, finances have forced others back into the workplace
    • Baby Boomers – Born between 1946 – 1964; while they should be on  the verge of retiring, finances are keeping them on the job
    • Generation X – Born between 1965 – 1976; they should be moving into upper management, but are stymied by Boomers who won’t leave
    • Generation Y/Millennials – Born between 1977-1995; they have perfected “adult-olescence” and value lifestyle and relationships over work

    As Dorsey pointed out, each of these groups was shaped by distinctly different experiences and, as a result, has a distinctly different outlook on life.  For example, Gen Y (which, according to Dorsey,  was raised by their parents to prize personal fulfillment over duty) seeks instant gratification while the Matures (formed by the Great Depression and World War II) have confidence in their ability to survive and thrive, and believe strongly in delayed gratification. Or contrast Baby Boomers whose approach to work is defined by paying one’s dues a certain number of hours per week  (hello face time!) with Gen Y, which prizes time flexibility and whose approach to work is to blur the lines between work time and personal time.

    Perhaps the starkest difference among the groups was summarized by Dorsey as follows:  Boomers define themselves by what they accomplish at work.  Gen X and Gen Y define themselves by what they do after work. According to Dorsey’s calculations, Gen X and Gen Y combined now exceed 50% of the workforce and will redefine how we think about work.

    Because of these conflicting approaches to work, Dorsey believes it take a skillful manager to find a way to engage each generation effectively based on their workplace preferences and priorities.    Here are some strategies he recommends to managers:

    • Generation Y: Since this group often lacks work experience and key workplace skills, they cannot always interpret your instructions properly.  Therefore, provide explicit examples of the performance you expect — don’t just state goals.  This group needs to feel that they are in touch with you, so deliver continuous feedback in short bursts rather than waiting for the annual review to let them know how they are doing.  Give Gen Y a wide range of challenges with clear outcomes and then when they succeed reward them with time.   This group values recognition, so provide reviews and rewards that they can show their family and friends.
    • Generation X: This group is inherently skeptical and wants you to prove what you’re saying.  Therefore, be prepared to explain why you have chosen  a particular strategy and what your backup plan is.  This group values reliability (they don’t like to be surprised) so be sure to keep the promises you make with them or give them plenty of warning if things aren’t going to work out as expected.
    • Baby Boomers: Acknowledge their contributions and how hard they work (they really want to know that you have noticed).  Because of their time focus, try to accommodate their schedules by arriving early and leaving on time.
    • Matures/Traditionalists: Show respect by listening to them and asking questions based on their experience.  They are unlikely to brag (or to respect braggarts) and prefer to fit in rather than stand out.  Therefore, find ways to assure them that they are part of the group.

    Generational differences are going to push managers to the limit over the next few years as they find ways to identify and deploy the skills of each group in a constructive way.  Failure to meet this challenge could well result in miscommunication, underperformance and conflict at the office.  As far as Jason Ryan Dorsey is concerned, you’ve now been warned.

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    If you’re interested in indulging your skeptical inner Gen Xer and checking Jason Dorsey’s facts and assertions, you might start with the following resources:

    [Photo Credit: Brian Fitzpatrick]

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  • As we face the onslaught of Gen Y/Millennials in the workplace, it’s wise to remember that these new employees present some special management challenges by virtue of the way they have been educated. Tom Wagner has taken a look at how children are raised and educated in the United States and his conclusions are troubling. In his book, The Global Achievement Gap: Why Even Our Best Schools Don’t Teach The New Survival Skills Our Children Need — and What We Can Do About It, he identifies 7 key survival skills that they appear to lack:

    * Critical thinking and problem solving — at every level in the organization, people need to be rigorous thinkers who test assumptions and don’t rely on preconceived notions.
    * Collaboration across networks and leading by influence — increasingly people need the skills to lead across departmental lines by influence rather than authority.
    * Agility and adaptability — given the rate of change, today’s job may not exist tomorrow. So, we need people who can learn and change, rather than relying on static technical skills.
    * Initiative and entrepreneurship — we need self-directed people who can find creative solutions to difficult problems.
    * Effective oral and written communication — without good communication skills, it’s hard to collaborate, influence or lead.
    * Accessing and analyzing information — we need to be able to select and process information efficiently and effectively.
    * Curiosity and Imagination — we no longer want drones who merely carry out orders. Instead we need employees who participate creatively by adding value to both the process and the end product.

    Unfortunately for the employer, you can’t just rely on credentials to ensure that prospective employees have these critical skills. A good transcript from a name brand institution may simply indicate that the person in question has learned how to take tests. In Wagner’s view, these new graduates may have an even bigger problem:

    A senior associate from a major consulting firm told me that recent hires from Ivy League business schools were constantly asking what the right answer was — in [other] words, how to get an “A” for the job they were doing — and were not always very adept at asking the right questions, which was the single most important skill senior executives whom I interviewed identified.

    As we prepare to integrate Millennial new hires, we’re going to have to be very deliberate in the way we assess their mastery of the 7 survival skills and the way we coach them to improve that mastery. Equally, it would be wise to take a fresh look at the Boomer and Gen X members of your team to see if they have developed and are using these 7 survival skills. The success of your organization depends on it.

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  • A few weeks ago the blogosphere was hopping in response to the KM vs SM generational war piece Venkatesh Rao launched on an unsuspecting world. I responded at the time that declaration of war was first published, as did other thoughtful folks. Now Venkat’s piece has been republished in Social Computing Magazine, alongside Jeff Kelly’s rebuttal.

    Jeff argues that while some resistance to change is inevitable among human beings, it is unfair to characterize all knowledge managers as resistant to change. In Jeff’s personal experience, there are “many more eager adopters than resistant dinosaurs.” In fact, many knowledge managers I know have been excited and energized by the possibilities for KM offered by social media. To be honest, much of the resistance to social media that I’ve observed lately has been exhibited by managers who were skeptical about KM in the first place. This isn’t so much about age as it is about outlook and experience.

    I’m inclined to agree with Jeff that there is much more constructive peace than destructive war between the generations on this issue. His prognosis of the current situation rings true:

    Our technology and society will continue to evolve; people will continue to be resistant to (but finally adapt to) change; youth will continue to disdain their elders until they become tempered by wisdom; and the opportunities to learn and prosper will continue to grow for those wise enough to do so.

    The more things change, the more they remain the same.

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  • At some point, most of us realize that fighting the tide is an exercise in futility. The wise among us look for ways to work with and harness the tide. In that spirit, I offer this post on why law firm knowledge management should welcome the Millennials. However, this is NOT about the technological improvements many KM folks have been hoping Millennials will force on our firms. This is about more fundamental improvements in the way we operate.

    If reports about Millennials are correct, they are a group of people focused on and motivated by issues and goals that are quite different from those of Gen X and Boomer employees. The latter two groups could be managed by dangling the brass ring in front of them and then reinforcing performance through a strong command and control structure. The boss made the decisions and the Gen X and Boomer employees executed those decisions. Simple and straightforward. By contrast, Millennials are looking for something other than the brass ring. They want opportunities for learning and growth. They want to engage in projects and activities that are personally meaningful. And, they want to maintain a reasonable perspective on work — as children of workaholics, they want a life with better balance.

    What’s so crazy about their aspirations? Perhaps the truth is that we’re just jealous.

    The challenge for Gen X and Boomer knowledge managers is to harness this Millennial energy in a constructive way as Millennial aspirations and methods come up against established ways of doing things. Rather than forcing them into existing rigid structures, consider how a focus on growth and learning might change for the good the types of projects we tackle and the way we carry them out. By giving every member of the staff an opportunity to contribute creatively to the work of your knowledge management department you elevate them from mere worker bees to co-creators and, in one fell swoop, you finally achieve intellectual and creative leverage (which is the basis of any successful law firm).

    In making these recommendations, I don’t mean to minimize the stress this approach will place on traditional or authoritarian knowledge managers who know what they know and are just looking for employees who will carry out assigned tasks with minimum fuss and maximum efficiency. This is a warning that managers like that will soon be facing a supply problem — they may find it difficult to find Millennials willing to work on these terms. Then those managers have the choice of either fighting the tide or surfing it. It will be interesting to see what they choose.

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  • It was so common, that it was a joke — celebrating one’s 39th birthday for the 10th time. However, now we’re seeing Baby Boomers who have worked and worked out in order to beat Old Man Time. Their birth certificates may say one thing, but their energy levels, flexibility, physical strength, mental agility and willingness to innovate say another. Finally, the stars are aligned so that your age need not entirely be defined chronologically. Now, it really is plausible to say that age is more a state of mind.

    These changes in society have important implications for knowledge management. While some may say we are doomed by our chronology, the reality is that more and more enterprises are finding that the facile assumptions they had at the beginning of a social media implementation are being disproved by their users. Take, for example, Intellipedia, the online wiki for federal intelligence information sharing. According to KM Experts Dispute Age Gap, Intellipedia’s actual usage patterns “do not always fit standard expectations.”

    Chris Rasmussen, social software knowledge manager at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (and a top contributor to Intellipedia), recently reported on how the users of Intellipedia have defied the generational assumptions lots of experts make:

    For example, people assume Intellipedia users in their 20s would be the most prolific, but that is not necessarily the case, he said. One of the most active editors is in his 60s. Of the two-dozen most active editors, most are in their 30s and 40s….

    (Just for the record, Rasmussen is 33.)

    While GenY/Millenials may come to work with greater ease with social computing and more hard computing skills, they don’t always have the substantive knowledge or inclination necessary to make valuable contributions at the office. By contrast, Gen X and Baby Boomer employees have the edge on substantive knowledge, but may not have the skills or confidence to try social media tools. Thankfully, most of these tools are intuitive and easy to use. If we can just get them into the hands of these information and experience rich older workers, we should see huge gains in knowledge management programs.

    Don’t write off your Gen X and Baby Boomer users. Instead, get to know them. You may discover that they are much better candidates for your social media tools that some of their Gen Y/Millenial counterparts. In either case, ditch the generational stereotypes and focus on the individuals. They are only as old as they act and feel — age is a state of mind.


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  • My post last week on Generation Y versus Big Law and its impact on law firm knowledge management generated a great deal of traffic and some interesting discussion.  Among the commentators was Anna Ivey, who is an expert in law school admissions.  In her post Gen Y, Meet Big Law, she suggested that Gen Y will not have a revolutionary impact on Big Law, at least not initially, because the lure of large salaries (and the reality of mountains of educational debt) will cause them to refrain from making demands that result in material changes in the way Big Law does business.

    I agree that Gen Y most likely will not have an immediate impact on big law firms, but my reasons are a little different.  While there are shared tendencies that characterize a particular generation, each generation undoubtedly has within it a reasonably wide range of personalities and experience.  Within that range, there will be people in Generation Y who are bit more like their Gen X and Boomer predecessors and others that are on the extreme far side of Gen Y behavior.  I’d be willing to bet that law firms will tend to recruit from the quasi-Gen X/Boomer end of the range rather than the extreme Gen Y end of the range.  As long as this recruitment is successful, we shouldn’t expect to see many meaningful changes in the way law firms are managed or law firm knowledge management is carried out.  However, once that pool of potential lawyers runs dry, things will get interesting.  Big Law is built on the assumptions of the fungibility and high attrition of associates.  If there are not enough Gen X/Boomer types to feed the Big Law recruiting beast, then the beast will have to adjust its diet.   Along with that adjustment in diet will come changes in how law firms are managed as they struggle to accommodate (finally) Gen Y.
    With respect to law firm knowledge management, I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for all those cool web 2.0 tools to be adopted by firms merely on the threat of an influx of Gen Y lawyers.  Remember, we’ve been trying to sell that line to Boomer and Gen X managers, who are basically unsympathetic to the Gen Y perspective on life.  There is, however, a silver lining to this dark cloud.  As increasing numbers of Gen Y lawyers enter firms, they will be able to demonstrate in a more compelling way what we Boomer and Gen X knowledge managers have been trying to explain:  namely, that they live, work, socialize, dream and problem-solve using social media.  Therefore, if they are to be productive within law firms, it would be more efficient to give them the social media tools they already know and love rather than demanding that they use our tools (which must seem like quill pens to them).  The reason that the Gen Y lawyers will be more successful in championing web 2.0 is that their claims are more authentic.  They actually use the stuff.  By contrast, relatively few Gen X or Boomer lawyers or law firm managers are even familiar with the benefits of social media.  Therefore, most of our arguments are based on hearsay, hype and fear of the impending threat of Gen Y, rather than a belief (grounded in deep experience) in the practical merits of social media.
    So, instead of building web 2.0 castles in the air, what should law firm knowledge managers focus on until there is a critical mass of Gen Y lawyers within their firms willing to fight for social media?
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  • 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.]

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