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.
  • When we hire, we sometime focus too much on what lies within the boundaries of the job description rather than on what lies within the person we are interviewing. Granted, it’s extraordinarily difficult to assess fully a person you are meeting for the first time, but you nonetheless have to probe beyond their resumes.

    Elan Gil has given this some thought and provided a list of characteristics he thinks are important, as he reports in Hiring the First 5 Engineers – What Sort of People Do You Want on Your Team:

    1. Do what it takes-edness (to coin a term). Willingness to dive in and fix any problems that come up and to take charge since there will not be anyone else to do so. This includes the willingness to do lots of grunt work – there is no one to delegate to.
    2. Persistence/tenacity.
    3. Ability to deal with uncertainty and not freak out. You may end up with multiple pivots depending on company stage. You need people who will stay calm and keep with it.
    4. Generalist technical knowledge. You will not have a “front end team” an “ops team” a “backend team” and a “database team” etc. You need someone who can optimally work on all parts of the stack.
    5. Not religious about technology (or anything really). This is useful at any size company, but at a startup you really don’t want to waste time debating the merits of Python versus Java. You just want to build stuff and get it done. No engineering ego (I find the most confident engineers often don’t need to reinforce their ego – they already know they are very good so dont feel threatened easily) and no drama.
    6. Get a lot done. You need people who can just crank on product. They need to be able to problem solve independently and go figure stuff out.
    7. Do “just enough”. Focus on the 80% of stuff that needs to get done, not the 20% edge case which most users won’t care about (i.e. hire people who buil things that are very solid, but not “perfect” – this applies to an internet company, not e.g. a later stage hardware co)
    8. Get along with the team. This does not mean the person is not quirky or lacks personality. It does mean that you will be 5-10 people in a room every day and you need people you and the rest of the team get along with.
    9. Bonus points: financial stability. This could be a low personal burn rate, or ability to take a low salary either through a past financial success, being straight out of school so living costs low, or other means. This means the person may be more willing to take a low salary in exchange for more equity, which helps the company survive longer on less.
    10. Lots of other stuff, but I think the above is important.

    He goes on to suggest that while there is no perfect way of ensuring that the person you’re interviewing has what it takes, you can gather important information through reference checks, taking them out for a beer or dinner to see how they fit culturally with the team, and hiring them for a day and giving them a problem to solve.  The important thing is to keep digging until you’ve got a good sense as to whether this person meets your criteria.

    This list of key traits applies to a knowledge management dream team as well.  KM is a cost center with few traditional means of proving ROI.  As a result, the KM group will most likely be small and will have to operate with the energy, enthusiasm and tenacity of a classic start-up.  If you’re managing a group like that, you’d do well to hire the sorts of people Elan Gil recommends.  And, don’t forget the beer!

    [Photo Credit:  Roscoe Van Damme]

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  • There’s precious little honesty in advertising. And, if you think your small corner of the corporate world is immune from this truth, take a look at how people are described on your org chart. Title inflation is rampant. In my view, it is the bane of the corporate world. There was a time when we were either worker bees or craftsmen in guilds and professional associations. Now we are specialists, coordinators, managers, directors and C-Suite dwellers. What comes next?

    Similarly, information management morphed into knowledge management and, in so doing, won a new lease on life as a business fad. And now we seem to be stuck. Some clearly are hoping to ride the next wave by telling everyone that web 2.0 is really KM (or KM 2.0). However, the social computing advocates have been doing a good job of defending the barricades, explaining that web 2.0 is not just KM in fancier clothes. Interestingly, in the process of working through that explanation, they are shining more and more light on the skeletons in KM’s closet.

    Perhaps the biggest skeleton is one that I blogged on recently: the questionable notion that it is even possible to manage “knowledge.” Granted, saying that we manage knowledge makes us sound more specialized and wiser than our information management predecessors. After all, surely one must be knowledgeable before one can find and manage knowledge, right? By contrast (or so the argument goes), it doesn’t take much talent or expertise to recognize information and dump it in a repository. And, if managing knowledge were not tough enough, some have gone even further and suggested that we’re in the business of “wisdom” management!

    However, despite our pretensions, all we actually can capture, store and attempt to manage is information. As I wrote earlier, knowledge arises when an individual applies their experience to information within a specific context. Until they perform that alchemy, all you have are discrete bits of information.

    It’s time for us to be honest about the work we do. We need to find a better way to describe our activities and label our discipline. Given the range of activities within knowledge management, it’s most likely that there isn’t a single umbrella term we can use. Therefore, perhaps each of us should focus on the essentials of our jobs: information manager, librarian, content creator, collaboration facilitator, information sharing coordinator, etc. While these titles may seem pedestrian, they do have the virtue of being closer to reality. And that’s what honesty in advertising is all about.

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  • A 2001 article by John W. Amberg on the Los Angeles County Bar Association website begins with the words

    The adage that “a lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client” is the product of years of experience by seasoned litigators, the Supreme Court has remarked. See, Kay v. Ehrler, 499 U.S. 432, 438 (1991). But do all lawyers know why?

    It then goes on to explain all the terrible things that can happen when a lawyer disregards this adage and fails to obtain appropriate professional assistance outside the firm.

    More recently, Ross Kodner reprised his earlier advice on the downfalls that result when lawyers attempt to handle their own technology and practice management projects. In a piece entitled REDUX: The True Cost of DIY Legal Technology – Why Pro Se Tech is Such an Economic Disaster, he makes the following pithy observation:

    Lawyers should avoid representing themselves pro se on their tech and practice management issues.

    Does the same hold true for knowledge management? Should practicing lawyers be running the knowledge management effort in their firms? Or, should they outsource this to “KM professionals”? If they outsource, should those professionals having experience as legal practitioners or is it sufficient that they have demonstrable knowledge management expertise?

    To be honest, I’m not sure I have complete answers to these questions. Further, I suspect that the right answer depends on the firm in question. However, there are some things I’ve learned from experience that I think are universal. For example, while practicing lawyers within a firm undoubtedly are closest to their clients and understand best what is required for good client service, they rarely have the time or inclination to translate that knowledge into the wide range of content necessary for a robust law firm knowledge management system. Further, even if they are interested in creating a knowledge base for their practice area, they usually can’t devote the time and attention necessary to create a coherent firm-wide KM system. This suggests that you are going to have to do some outsourcing if you want dedicated attention for your KM effort.

    If you are going to outsource the work of law firm knowledge management, your choices of professionals depend on what you want to achieve and the extent to which you wish those knowledge managers to work independently of busy practitioners. If you can hire only one person, be sure that person has experience as a practitioner. Otherwise, they will not have the requisite experience to find and evaluate content for the KM system and most likely will not be qualified to create content for the KM system. If you can’t face the cost of hiring a lawyer, then hire a paralegal who has worked on the kinds of matters your lawyers usually undertake. Alternatively, hire a legal reference librarian. But understand that the paralegal or librarian is more likely to act as an organizer or manager of content provided by practitioners rather than a creator of content. And, if your lawyers are busy or insufficiently engaged in the KM effort, there won’t be as much content to organize.

    The other option is to recruit professional knowledge managers who are new to law firms, but have considerable KM experience in other industries or professions. These folks can help rationalize business processes and facilitate the creation of useful KM systems. And they will bring to your firm a broad perspective that can be invaluable in developing your firm’s approach to knowledge management. But, at the end of the day, they will need the consistent cooperation of practitioners to customize the KM system to meet your client service needs. If your lawyers are as busy as most lawyers have been recently, they simply won’t have the time to provide the guidance and input needed by these KM professionals.

    So, there are no easy answers. However, if this tempts you to decide that the path of least resistance is to have your practitioners just handle knowledge management on top of their client service responsibilities, remember the old adage about lawyers who represent themselves. Then go and reread Ross Kodner’s article.

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