Your Roadmap to KM Success in 2021 and Beyond

This panel will share their advice and experiences for growing and sustaining a KM program in the virtual world. They will touch on a range of topics including engaging with internal clients and successfully driving knowledge initiatives when informal and in-person interactions remain limited. The panel will also look at how managing, mentoring and motivating their teams has changed and what they are doing to ensure their team members are continuing to grow and develop the skills they need to support the evolving KM strategy.

These are my notes from the Strategic Knowledge & Innovation Legal Leaders’ Summit (SKILLS 2021), a private gathering of large law firms. As with all live-blogging, there will be inevitable errors so please excuse them. My editorial comments are noted in brackets.

The pandemic has reinforced the importance of the traditional knowledge management focus on people – their well-being and productivity. January is not too early to think about how to keep your team engaged and energized.

Staying Connected

  • Firms that are email-centric need to find other ways to stay connected in meaningful, human ways.
  • You can’t jump straight into business. You need to start meetings with a moment of social connection.
  • In the early days, we forced everyone on camera. Now we are focusing on doing more screensharing.
  • Pay attention to the latest research on Zoom fatigue.
  • Team members with young children have a great deal of stress to manage — and their stress affects the entire team.

Find Your WHY then stay Positive

  • Your KM team should be very clear about its WHY.
  • This helps you sort your priorities and keep your focus.
  • Don’t read every bit of COVID news. One firm provides regular updates on the good, as well as the concerning, COVID news and suggests that its people focus on those updates and ignore the rest of the information provided by the relentless 24-hour news cycle.
  • Be sure to share the positive news wherever it occurs in the world. One firm shared pictures of new babies born in the firm. Others share good news from other countries.

Managing a Large Team

  • Remote working can lead to a sense of insecurity — especially when people feel untethered from their teammates, from the various practice groups, or from the firm generally.
  • Developing a core competency model helps your KM team members focus on concrete next steps. It gives them a sense of being connected to their own career path.

Stay Connected to the Business

  • Stay visible — attend practice group meetings, stay in touch with individual fee earners.
  • Communicate value — even if there has not been a recent breakthrough in your area, is there a breakthrough in another practice that would be useful to share?

Branding & Marketing

  • Lawyers express interest in KM resources and opportunities but they get distracted when billing work comes in so their interest is not always sustained.
  • One firm does internal marketing by interviewing a single member of the firm who has found a better way to deliver client services and meet client needs. They then send a written update to the entire firm sharing their learning. This provides recognition to the interviewee and sparks the interest of others in the firm.
  • Remember: you have to communicate a message seven times in seven different ways.
  • Taking the time to craft a high-level presentation to the firm regarding your function helps your own team bond and get a better sense of what it does and why it does it.

KM After the Crisis: What’s Next?

  • The biggest mistake we can make is to revert to the three-year plan we were using before the pandemic. So much has changed.
  • People in the firm do not want to go back to the office five days a week. So the KM team needs to think about what hybrid work arrangements look like. How does KM support critical functions such as training and integrating new lawyers?
  • Think and read more broadly about what might happen after the pandemic. For example, what happens when we can move about and socialize freely. Will productivity drop radically?
  • Think about lawyer technological proficiency. Lawyers need to be proud and able to be their own help desk.
  • Boundaries will be an issue: just because you know everyone is online after business hours does not mean you should be touch. People need boundaries so that they can have some personal time.
  • Training will look different going forward. Large-group training sessions are less useful than small-group or one-on-one training.
  • Employers will shift from managing an employee’s work experience to managing an employee’s life experience.

Reimagining the Future

  • Looking beyond the immediate crisis, ensure that you have corporate legitimacy. Pay attention to external training, credentialing, and standards (e.g., new KM ISO standard).
  • Find more ways to exchange knowledge with people outside the firm. The resulting learning will keep you at the cutting edge.

[Photo Credit: Kevin Bhagat]


Mark the Occasion

4699612078_9b6048bede_m It’s graduation season again. Families all over the country will travel to academic institutions near and far to celebrate the completion by their loved ones of a course of study. Part and parcel of the process are the obligatory speeches*: the largely forgettable speeches filled with unwanted advice rendered in solemn tones by local worthies; the largely inane speeches filled with low humor and insider references to class jokes delivered by representatives of the graduating class. We sit through these events time and time again because we know it is important to mark the occasion.

A senior manager of a law firm knowledge management department recently told me that one of the challenges KM staff members face is that a fair measure of their time is spent on routine maintenance tasks. Given this reality, one day slips into another, without much sense of meaningful accomplishment. Granted, everyone notices when a maintenance failure results in a crisis, but rarely do we ever celebrate a crisis-free day. His advice was to ensure that in our periodic reporting efforts we take time to note when these routine maintenance chores are executed well or when conscientious effort expended on these tasks results in a crisis-free day.

If our KM systems rely on the faithful execution of maintenance work, it only makes sense to support these efforts. Rather than using sticks, consider using carrots. Just like we help celebrate academic achievement periodically, we should celebrate the less glamorous side of our professional responsibilities as knowledge management personnel. For the sake of our KM systems and our own professional satisfaction, we should remember to mark the occasion. After all, no ones really wants to deal with the crisis that results when we ignore the value of routine maintenance.

* For a welcome alternative, see National Public Radio’s collection of The Best Commencement Speeches, Ever.

[Photo Credit: US Army Africa]


The KM Dream Team

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]


Honesty in Advertising

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.


Having a Fool for a Client?

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.