A Season for Giving

If you are a traditionalist you’ll know that January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany in the Western Church, is the day for giving up and giving away. It is the day to give up your Christmas finery, packing it away until next December. It also is the Day of the Three Kings, when people give away gifts to commemorate the gifts offered by the kings. In Louisiana, today is the beginning of the Mardi Gras season — a time of fun and frivolity before the somberness of Lent.

A favorite food during this period of celebration in Louisiana is the King Cake.  For those of you who haven’t sampled this delicacy before, Wikipedia provides the following description:

In southern U.S.A., the tradition was brought to the area by colonists from France and Spain. King cake parties in New Orleans are documented back to the eighteenth century.It has become customary in the New Orleans culture that whoever finds the trinket must provide the next king cake.The king cake of the New Orleans Mardi Gras tradition comes in a number of styles. The most simple, said to be the most traditional, is a ring of twisted bread similar to that used in brioche topped with icing or sugar, usually colored purple, green, and gold (the traditional Carnival colors) with food coloring. Some varieties have filling inside, the most common being cream cheese followed by praline. Popular bakeries such as Gambino’s, Haydel, and Randazzo, feature original recipes and types of king cakes.

The King Cake is a wonderful metaphor for pragmatic knowledge management.  Just yesterday I thanked a colleague for his contribution to one of our knowledge management systems and in response he told me that his team had been able to complete their project in record time because another colleague had made an earlier helpful contribution to the same knowledge management system.  In other words, the first contribution was the trinket in the King Cake.  The lawyer who found it then stepped up to make a contribution of his own.  When things work this way, knowledge sharing increases exponentially and knowledge managers have to spend less time helping skeptical lawyers understand “what’s in it for me.”

Best wishes for a great season of Epiphany.  I hope you and your colleagues enter into the generous spirit of the season.

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Why Are You Hiding?

What are you hiding? And, more importantly, why are you hiding it? That’s the question to consider when you run across instances of knowledge hoarding within your organization. It’s very hard to create an open, collaborative, knowledge-sharing culture without first understanding what drives people to put up walls around their content.  Is it fear?  Ignorance?  An excess of competitive spirit?  Whatever it is, you’re going to have to identify it and then find ways to help the hoarders overcome their issues.  Otherwise it will be difficult to achieve a thriving knowledge management effort.

If you’re searching for inspiration, take a close look at Air New Zealand, a company that has gone all out to foster a spirit of openness.  They like to say that they’ve “got nothing to hide.”  Chances are your law firm won’t be willing to go to the same lengths for the sake of knowledge management.  But imagine if it did?

Here’s some additional information on the Air New Zealand transparency campaign:

[Photo Credit:  roboppy]

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Are You Clinging to the Wrong Business?

Are you ready to walk away from your major line of business?  If not, you may be turning away a new, more profitable line of business.  Or, you may find you’re soon out of business altogether.  Not convinced?  Well then, spend a little while with Xerox.  When you hear the word Xerox, you tend to think of office machinery. And, for a time, you would have been right. But that’s no longer the primary business of Xerox.  In fact, lately Xerox has started to tell its customers not to waste their money on unnecessary machinery purchases and is now selling consulting services to help those customers better manage the equipment they have in order to make their end-to-end printing processes as efficient and cost-effective as possible.  Scott Anthony‘s reaction to this change in strategy was overwhelmingly positive:

That’s a strong sales proposition in today’s tough economy. While Xerox might miss short-term printer and copier sales, it is building long-term, potentially lucrative relationships — and a base to move into additional productivity-related services.

Xerox had the courage to stop clinging to its traditional line of business and, by branching out, has opened up huge new opportunities for itself.  How do law firm knowledge management departments achieve that nifty trick? According to Scott Anthony, you need to do three things:

  1. Start with a deep understanding of how the customer frames the problems they are facing. It’s easy for companies to fall into the trap of thinking that customers care primarily about the products they purchase. Often they don’t. Those products are means to an end. In Xerox’s case, it doesn’t sell copiers. It sells workplace productivity. Understanding how the customer frames the problem helps to highlight different ways to address that problem.
  2. Build a solution that solves the customer’s — not your company’s — problem. Xerox could easily have designed a service offering that really was a veiled way for it to sell and support Xerox equipment. But that’s not what the customer wants. More than half of the 1.5 million devices under Xerox management are made by other companies. Ask how a startup company with no base business to defend would approach the challenge.
  3. Give the new business ample freedom. Corporate antibodies can often squash new offerings that look like competitive threats. Sufficient organizational autonomy can be critical for long-term success.

Now, what would happen if we were to apply these principles to the way we deliver KM services to lawyers within our firms?

  1. Understand how lawyers frame the problems they are facing. KM 1.0 has told us for years that lawyers want comprehensive,  carefully-organized collections of practice resources.  This has led us to track down content, attempt to convert the tacit into the explicit, and then build and maintain large databases.  In reality, lawyers don’t care about those collections and KM can never do enough to make them truly effective.  Lawyers just want easy access to information at the point of need.  It doesn’t really matter how you deliver those practice resources (e.g., through enterprise search,  Enterprise 2.0 technology, etc.) as long as it works when they need it.  As Scott Anthony says:  “Understanding how the customer frames the problem helps to highlight different ways to address that problem.”
  2. Build a solution that solves the lawyer’s — not your KM department’s — problem. Don’t think administratively about your staff and their job descriptions.  Focus instead on the nature of the support the lawyers actually need to do their jobs well.  Rather than deploying another database coder, would it be better to set up a Wiki or discussion board to facilitate lawyer-to-lawyer knowledge sharing?  In other words, how would you configure your services if you had no department (or, in the case of Xerox, no base business of machinery sales) to defend?
  3. Give the new way of working ample freedom. As you turn from KM 1.0 to KM 2.0 ways of doing things, you’ll need to resist the temptation to control the new means and methods of collaboration and knowledge sharing.   It doesn’t matter whether you’re motivated by honest concerns about risk or the short-term welfare of your department.  When you place unnecessary restrictions on collaboration and knowledge sharing, you impede the free flow of information. Then you are part of the problem rather than part of the solution. Giving lawyers the freedom to shape the way they share information is critical for long-term success.

As you think harder about this, you’ll realize that you need to move away from the KM 1.0 way of doing things.  That’s the old way of doing business.  The future lies in returning to first principles (or rather, the key 7 Principles of KM) and embracing KM 2.0.  Are you as brave as Xerox?

[Photo Credit:  treevis, Creative Commons license]

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Take An Expansive View

Knowledge managers around the world can learn a great deal from the example of the Hon. Judith S. Kaye, Chief Judge of the State of New York, whose tenure ends on December 31st. Besides being the first woman to hold the state’s highest judiciary office and author of some landmark decisions, she will be remembered for her reform of the judicial system in New York. Chief among these reforms was expansion of the jury pool by eliminating the automatic exemptions that excused far too many from serving on a jury. Prior to the repeal of these exemptions, you could be excused from jury service if you were, for example, a doctor, a lawyer, an embalmer, a maker of prosthetic limbs, a wearer of prosthetic limbs, etc.

Chief Judge Kaye tells an amusing story about why expanding the jury pool was necessary: her daughter discovered that it was “a great place to meet guys.” As any loving mother knows, you increase your daughter’s chances of making a good match by increasing the number of potential mates in the pool (regardless of the real purpose of the pool).

What works in matchmaking works in knowledge sharing as well. The bigger the pool, the greater the available knowledge on which you can draw. Users of social media are discovering that by interacting more regularly and transparently with their social networks they are able to learn and share more than ever before. In the process, the pool grows and the participants themselves grow. Despite this reality, finding a way to bring the power of the bigger pool inside enterprises via social media tools continues to be a challenge for knowledge management.

In 2009, look for more ways to take an expansive view — not only in how you work, but in the tools you provide that help make the pool bigger for everyone. If social computing has taught us anything, it is that this generosity is returned time and time again.

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9/11 and Knowledge Management

It’s cloudy today here in New York City. Even though the sky is not the bright, sparkling, optimistic blue it was early in the morning of September 11, 2001, there are plenty of other reminders of the events of that day.

In the aftermath of 9/11, we learned that the government in fact had much of the information that it needed to be aware of and counteract the 9/11 plot. However, some of that information was located in silos and protected by departmental rivalries. According to the 9/11 Commission’s Report:

The FBI did not have the capability to link the collective knowledge of agents in the field to national priorities.

The missed opportunities to thwart the 9/ 11 plot were also symptoms of a broader inability to adapt the way government manages problems to the new challenges of the twenty-first century. Action officers should have been able to draw on all available knowledge about al Qaeda in the government. Management should have ensured that information was shared and duties were clearly assigned across agencies, and across the foreign-domestic divide. … The U. S. government did not find a way of pooling intelligence and using it to guide the planning and assignment of responsibilities for joint operations involving entities as disparate as the CIA, the FBI, the State Department, the military, and the agencies involved in homeland security.

If there was ever an instance in which knowledge sharing and collaboration could have made a difference, that’s the one.

If we are fortunate, we’ll never again have to face so grave a test of our government’s knowledge management capabilities. If we are wise, we’ll take the lessons to heart and do something to increase the culture of collaboration and knowledge sharing within the government and within our own enterprises.

Since 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, some have spent time thinking about how to improve knowledge sharing and thereby improve our ability to respond to disasters and emergencies. David Bray, a doctoral candidate at Emory’s business school, is one such person. On 9/11, he was the information technology chief for Bioterrorism Preparedness Response Program at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In that role, he saw first-hand the KM failures within the government. This experience deeply informs his research. Here is a glimpse at what he is studying, as reported in Knowledge @ Emory:

“I saw several instances where this workforce of 1.2 million government workers, not counting contractors—which is probably another 800,000—had significant disconnects. In fact that’s what the 9/11 report specifically comes out as saying: the United States did not connect the dots across multiple agencies,” explains Bray, currently a doctoral candidate at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School. “There were times with our program where we knew something at the trench level, tried to pass it up the hierarchy, but unfortunately it never got anywhere. Events like Hurricane Katrina, 9/11, anthrax, occur in part because organizational structures in which we trust, particularly for government—but also for most large businesses—aren’t built to respond quickly to turbulent environments,” contends Bray. “And now, in part because of globalization and also because of technology, things can change so quickly half a world away.”

In his paper “Exploration and Exploitation: Managing Knowledge in Turbulent Environments,” Bray, along with Goizueta co-author Michael J. Prietula, a professor of information systems and operations management who also researches responses to disasters, develop a theoretical model about knowledge management in organizational hierarchies. Bray extends an existing model of exploration and exploitation to consider the context of multi-tier hierarchical firms faced with environmental turbulence, and then considers whether a knowledge management system that enhances knowledge exchanges across the organization alters the ability of the organization to match the conditions of a turbulent environment. Bray’s model considers different management approaches, such as a bottom-up cultivation strategy or a top-down command-and-control strategy.

“We wanted to explore whether having a top-down or bottom-up strategy would help or hurt organizational hierarchies when faced with environmental turbulence” says Bray. “We specifically were testing the idea that while top-down hierarchies may be great at command and control and maintaining internal control and reality, they’re bad at addressing a changing outside environment; a change in the marketplace, a change in competition, or an emerging national security threat.”

Bray’s research finds strong evidence that top-down hierarchies that stress command and control are ineffective in managing knowledge in turbulent environments because they decrease a hierarchical organization’s ability to maintain accuracy with its outside environment. [Emphasis added]

The work of David Bray and Michael Prietula suggests that bottom-up collaboration and knowledge sharing is the most effective way of keeping knowledge silos and human rivalries from hoarding critical information in times of change. And, because of the culture of collaboration, this sharing allows us to make better decisions and respond more effectively to the unexpected.

On the anniversary of September 11, 2001, it’s good to know that we’ve actually learned something and are headed, albeit slowly and fitfully, in the right direction.

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Knowledge Sharing Toolkit

The ICT-KM program of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research has created a Knowledge Sharing Toolkit that provides guidance and resources for organizations interested in developing knowledge sharing among their employees and constituents. Nancy White at Full Circle Associates asks that readers take a look at the Toolkit and send in their feedback. They are particularly interested in feedback from nonprofits, nongovernmental organizations and international development organizations. But even if you work outside those areas, it would be well worth your time to consider the materials provided by the Toolkit. You’re sure to find information on tools and methods you haven’t yet tried in your organization.

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KM Tools and Culture

In his Notes on Productivity blog, Eric Mack makes the following observation about technology and culture:

In the mid 1990s many of us thought of and promoted products (e.g. Lotus Notes) as Knowledge Management (KM) “solutions”, rather than “tools”.

For organizations that did not develop an underlying methodology or knowledge sharing culture, they blamed the “solutions” [read: tool] for failing to transform the organization, while other organizations that did develop a knowledge sharing and collaborative culture thrived with these same tools.

While his initial focus is on Lotus Notes, his conclusions have wider application. He rightly points out that Microsoft’s SharePoint may be headed for trouble if it continues to be marketed as the silver bullet KM solution, rather than a capable tool that can advance productivity in an organization that has an established knowledge sharing culture.

Which leads to an interesting question: if you’re at the point of considering a substantial investment in a tool like SharePoint, how do you first assess the quality of your Organization’s knowledge sharing culture?

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Active vs. Passive Knowledge Sharing

Let me begin by thanking Doug Cornelius of KM Space, whose comments on my previous knowledge sharing post got me thinking further about the current state of knowledge sharing among lawyers. Doug thought I was underestimating the level of sharing that currently exists in law firms, and pointed to the document management system (DMS) as an example of sharing. He is right that lawyers do share now, but it’s the quality of that sharing that interests me.

Many firms have passive knowledge sharing — we use a single repository for our documents. The beauty of such a system is that it reduces to one the number of places you must go to locate firm work product. With enough ingenuity and persistence you can usually find what you’re looking for there, provided (of course) that it exists. Within a few fortunate firms, lawyers need less ingenuity and persistence (at least with respect to finding documents) because their thoughtful knowledge managers and IT professional have installed fantastic search engines that make it almost painless to locate the desired content within the DMS.

This is all well and good, but it’s not the Holy Grail. For KM purposes, the Holy Grail is active knowledge sharing — where firm culture encourages lawyers to look for ways to make their knowledge available to their colleagues. Before you ask me what I’m smoking, consider the small handful of lawyers you know who voluntarily share with colleagues on their client teams or in their practice areas. Almost every firm has a few of these stellar folks. They produce while the rest of us loaf through life as knowledge parasites. What’s extraordinary is that these paragons do what they do because it is the right thing to do — despite the prevailing self-interested organizational culture. Imagine what would happen if the organizational culture actually supported the paragons and shamed the parasites?

There’s a terrific challenge here for all law firm knowledge managers. The law firm that truly cracks the knowledge sharing nut will reap enormous rewards in efficiency, in quality and in collegiality. But this means more than just facilitating access to content. This means having lawyers who actively contribute and promote content within their communities of practice. The goal is to create a culture that supports a self-propelling, self-sustaining system of knowledge exchange. Then the knowledge managers can spend their days at the beach. Clearly a win-win situation for everyone.

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Culture Matters

A persistent theme of this blog is that when it comes to doing knowledge management right, culture matters. In fact, there are days when I’d argue that having the right organizational culture in place is as important (if not more important) than having the best technology. You can buy great tech tools, but if you have a culture that does not encourage knowledge sharing, those tools will never yield the results you intend.

Unfortunately, no matter how complicated choosing and implementing technology can be, shaping and cultivating organizational culture is harder. And few of us are trained to think about culture in any meaningful way, much less actually change it.
What’s the optimal culture for an organization focused on knowledge sharing? At a minimum, a culture that (i) promotes the collective over the individual — a strong sense of “the firm,” (ii) has either a flat hierarchy or bosses who are confident enough to allow their colleagues to participate fully in idea generation and implementation, (iii) grows out of a shared sense of enterprise or mission. If this seems impossible in the context of your law firm, take heart from Jordan Furlong’s post on the positive trend he sees in law firm culture. According to him, the focus on the individual hot shot lawyer has taken a huge toll on law firms (both culturally and economically) and there will be a swing back to a fuller sense of the collective, of the firm. Let’s hope he is right because when that happens, knowledge sharing should become much easier to realize.
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Knowledge Sharing: Better Late Than Never

It looks like the Knowledge Sharing party has been in full swing for a while now. My last post reflected a growing conviction that I’ve had for some time: that facilitating knowledge sharing is a much more productive focus for an organization than attempting to manage knowledge. Well it turns out that I’m not the only one who has been thinking along those lines. In fact, a quick search revealed a variety of organizations and bloggers weighing in on the subject. Here’s a sampling:

* Knowledge Board’s summary of IBM’s Knowledge Sharing initiative
* Luis Suarez’ post: Into the Big Blue Yonder
* PWC’s Global Best Practices: Companies put a familiar face on knowledge sharing
* Dee’s post at splunk.com: Knowledge Management, Knowledge Sharing
* Library clips post: Knowledge Sharing in the New KM

According to Chris Cooper (knowledge sharing solutions leader at IBM Global Business Services), this change is a “philosophical repositioning.” He rightly observes that “[m]anagement suggests control: control of process and control of environment.” By contrast, knowledge sharing focuses on people, processes and tools to create “organic and unimposed sharing” leading to the efficient circulation of knowledge.

Now that a blue chip company has adopted knowledge sharing as its preferred alternative to knowledge management, the approach probably can’t be viewed as radical or cutting edge. So I guess I’m a little late to the party. (As are all of us who have been toiling in the vineyards these last few years trying to “manage” knowledge.) Oh well. Better late than never.

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