Remembering the Great War 11, 2018 marks the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War. That war was called the Great War, the war to end all wars. Tragically, it was misnamed.

Margaret Macmillan, one of the foremost historians of the First World War, reminds us in her recent Reith Lectures that war does not happen out of the blue. It happens because we choose not to act on the warning signs:

History is not much help when it comes to predicting the future, but it can remind us of the warning signals that always come before wars – the heightened rhetoric, for example, or the inability to understand the other side. What both sides learned in the cold war, sometimes nearly too late, is that they needed to grasp how the other side was thinking and feeling and how it might read or misread signals. In 1983, the Soviet Union became convinced, wrongly, that the United States and its allies were planning a sneak nuclear attack in retaliation for the Soviet shooting down of the Korean airliner KAL 007. Luckily, the west realised this in time and called off a planned military exercise.

The work of listening to and understanding the other is the work of every person, every team, every organization, every community, and every country. This 100th anniversary of Armistice Day reminds us that we ignore this critical work at our peril.


Over the last four years, I have written several posts relating to lessons from World War 1. If you are interested in learning more, please see the following posts:

Finally, here is the latest installment of the incredible video series on the Great War:

[Photo Credit:]


Happy 10th Anniversary!

On January 21, 2008, I tried something new. I blogged for the first time.

My reasons for starting this blog were fairly simple. I realized there was an interesting conversation happening online about technology, knowledge management, innovation, and collaboration; however, I did not have any way to be a part of it. At the time, the best way into the conversation seemed to be through blogging. So I started blogging.

Over the intervening 10 years, I’ve had more than my fair share of fascinating conversations thanks to this blog. I’ve also discovered that my approach to blogging provides the collateral benefit of really expanding my education. This is due in large part to my tendency to be a knowledge broker. According to Professor Andrew Hargadon (UC Davis), brokers learn from domains outside their own and then bring that new learning back to their own domain. For him, this is a critical element of innovation: “…revolutionary innovations do not result from flashes of brilliance by lone inventors or organizations. In fact, innovation is really about creatively recombining ideas, people, and objects from past technologies in ways that spark new technological revolutions.”

Understanding that information for information’s sake is not as powerful as information put to use, Hargadon has identified the powerful role brokers play in creating social networks that can spread new information and put it to work: “…brokers simultaneously bridge the gaps in existing networks that separate distant industries, firms, and divisions to see how established ideas can be applied in new ways and places, and build new networks to guide these creative recombinations to mass acceptance.”

Tracking just one idea shows the power of combining brokering with a network. Take the example of the Failure Party. I learned about the failure party phenomenon through conversation with someone in the pharmaceutical industry. Further research turned up a 2004 article in the Wall Street Journal. Given the clear benefits of failure parties, I was surprised that I had never heard of them in the legal industry. So, putting on my knowledge broker hat, I wrote: “Host a Failure Party” in 2009. While I’m not willing to claim cause and effect, I will note that since that post the International Legal Technology Association’s annual conference has included several failure party sessions and one city-wide group of law firm KM professionals hosts an annual failure party.

Blogging is an inherently social practice for me. It is an opportunity to share information, shape debate, and expand horizons. In the process, I’ve been truly grateful for the response of my readers. Some of you retweet my posts or email them to colleagues. Others send me private messages letting me know when a particular post struck a chord or was helpful. One friend and colleague sent me the following text message in response to my blog post, “Pick a Fight in 2018“:

Happy New Year Mary! Once again I am inspired by your blog. I definitely have a few fights to pick in 2018! Thank you for your generous inspiration! All the best to you and your family.

This message arrived out of the blue and is one I will treasure. When I write I have no idea sometimes if any of it helps anyone else. So I truly appreciate hearing from my readers and seeing ideas from this blog gain traction.

Let me end where I should have begun — by thanking my readers. You have been amazing partners on this journey. I look forward to the adventures the next 10 years together bring. Thank you!

[Photo Credit: Photo by Joseph Chan on Unsplash]


Pick a Fight in 2018

In the last few days of a year, it’s natural to review the year that is slipping away and consider plans for the year that is about to begin. If you are lucky, you will have cause for some self-congratulation and not too much regret. Inevitably, this annual review results in promises of change for the new year. And so we begin the perennial cycle of wishful thinking known as New Year’s Resolutions.

While I’m not planning to make any major resolutions for 2018, I think I might commit to picking some fights instead. For those of you who know me in person or through my writing, that statement may seem a little out of character. But please bear with me. Here are the battles in which I intend to engage:

Fight the delusion of rational decisionmaking

Having grown up in the legal industry, I am used to dealing with people who take great pride in their good judgment, critical thinking, and rational decisionmaking. So it was a revelation to read Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. He opened my eyes to the ways in which our minds trick us into making questionable decisions time and time again. We are not nearly as objective or rational as we believe. For example, we too often make decisions out of emotion or instinct and then dress those decisions up with “supporting data.” At the risk of disappointing you, I must tell you that this happens in all human spheres —  including the legal industry. Just because you have confirming data does not mean you are right.

To understand more about the pitfalls of human decisionmaking and how it is affected by our well-intended but sometimes unfounded belief in our own objectivity, I’d encourage you to read Thinking Fast and Slow. If you don’t have time right now for this fairly large tome, watch the following brief videos to get a sense of the scope of the issue:

Fight the opacity of numbers

As the world becomes more complex, some of us take an ostrich-like approach by burying our heads in the sand. Others seek to understand what is going on by gamely trying to master as much of the relevant data as possible. However, even this more responsible approach has its own hazards. Among the biggest are that we aren’t all sufficiently numerate to understand what those numbers are saying (or not saying) and we cannot always see what is behind those numbers. For example, when you see survey results do you also spend some time to understand the survey methodology and the implications of the choices made in how the data were collected and interpreted?

Things are complicated enough when reviewing a relatively small survey. What happens when you are dealing with thousands or millions of data points in this era of big data? Then you rely on algorithms to help you sort and interpret the data. However, we are learning that those algorithms are not necessarily neutral or objective. Rather, they encode the assumptions and biases of the people who created those algorithms. When you don’t understand those assumptions and biases, you put yourself in danger of making decisions based on algorithms that may not, in fact, serve you well.

To learn more about how to make numbers more transparent and meaningful, start by watching these two videos:

Fight the corrosiveness of certainty

Despite impressive advances in human development, individual omniscience is still not possible. However, there are lots of people in denial about this. They believe they know all the answers and, therefore, rarely ask the key questions that can upend their certainties and unlock new stores of understanding. If we had a little less certainty and bit more curiosity we would reduce the occurrence of “unintended” consequences. Ultimately, excessive certainty corrodes our critical thinking abilities.

So in 2018, I’ll be asking more of the following questions:

  • What don’t I know?
  • What is missing? What hasn’t been disclosed?
  • What if my understanding is not correct?
  • What disconfirming evidence exists? And how persuasive is it?
  • Would I reach a different conclusion if my goal were generosity rather than self-protection?

Fight the comfort of complacency

Humans are creatures of comfort. However, that comfort can be a dangerous gift. It provides temporary respite but may blind us to potential opportunities and dangers. Sometimes this is because we assume that the current situation will continue indefinitely or that a better (or worse) event is unlikely to occur. And what is the source of this false assumption? Often, it is our lack of understanding of the actual root cause of the current situation or our failure to observe and properly interpret ambient information or patterns of behavior that may indicate an imminent change. This blindness leads us into imprudent complacency.

So how to fight complacency? First, learn how to identify a root cause. This analysis is a staple of many business school courses. It should be a staple of every high school’s curriculum. Until we identify the root cause, any conclusions we draw and any interventions we propose will be flawed.

The second way to fight complacency is to turn up your own antennae. Start noticing what is happening around you. The old adage that we see what we are looking for is true. So start looking for more, start looking for different.

  • What surprises you?
  • What patterns do you observe? Are they similar to or different from prior patterns? Why?
  • What is the likely outcome?
  • What could change that outcome?

In these next few days, I’ll be preparing for my chosen battles. I hope you’ll consider joining me in at least one of them. At a minimum, we will have a clearer understanding of what is and what isn’t.

Wouldn’t that be a good start for the new year?

[Photo Credit: By kris krüg from Vancouver, Canada (Malloreigh – Retouch) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons]


Thanks for a great 2015

reflections-1402132Every year bring opportunities and challenges. And, if we are willing, along with those opportunities and challenges comes learning.

So what have I learned in 2015?

  • Reflection is critical for improvement. As I wrote earlier this year, studies show that regular, intentional reflection leads to improvements in productivity. So in 2015 I set about to build more time for reflection into my life. When I did it, I almost always was able to identify ways in which I could tighten my work processes or change my approach to improve my results. Without the reflection, I found myself repeating mistakes unnecessarily. Even still, I found it was a challenge to make and keep an appointment with myself for reflection on a daily basis — even when I knew it was for my own good.
  • Reflection requires discipline. Why do we need discipline for reflection? Because doing it right requires consistent and concentrated effort. If you have ever tried to stick to a diet or build a new habit, you understand the challenges of discipline. As a knowledge management professional, I have preached the value of reflection to myself and my colleagues for years. However, even if you believe in it and see the results, you still need to set aside time regularly to actually do it. That’s the hard part. That’s the necessary part. That’s where discipline comes into play.
  • Cognitive dissonance will bite you in unpleasant places. When things don’t add up, we often brush them off as aberrational. However, an after action review often reveals that the outlier data we ignored earlier were actually warning signals of an impeding disaster. So what’s the best way to address this? If you can do it, stop for a moment and ask yourself, if these data are not outliers but, in fact, warning signals, what are they likely to mean? Even if you cannot accurately predict the exact nature of the potential failure, this brief exercise will make you alert to other data that seem to be outliers, but that taken in the aggregate create an unwelcome pattern.
  • Show up. As a consultant, each year is only as good as the clients and assignments I’ve won. Thankfully, 2015 has been a very good year indeed. I’ve had the pleasure of repeat business with some of my favorite clients and I’ve also been privileged to work with some new clients. Interestingly, some of my  key projects this year have not come from specific marketing efforts, but rather from simply showing up. For me this has meant being present for face-to-face encounters and also being present online. It especially means staying in touch with people over the course of the year. As I have discovered this year, when you are top of mind, you are recommended when projects and opportunities arise.

Let me close this final blog post of 2015 by conveying my gratitude to my readers who ask the questions and provide the comments that keep me stretching, learning and growing. I look forward to continuing the journey with you in 2016.

[Photo Credit: Barry Vaughn]


More than a Facelift

Facelift_incisions_and_undermining_of_different_proceduresIf you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ll have noticed that it looks quite different today. Yes, Above and Beyond KM has had a facelift. But more than that, it’s also been upgraded to handle 2015. As part of the upgrade, email subscribers should receive new posts by email again. With any luck, RSS subscribers will also find new posts in their feed readers. Best of all, this new and improved should work well on any device ranging from desktops to smartphones.

Thanks for your patience. This upgrade is long overdue. I hope you find it as welcome as I do.

– Mary


[Photo credit: Wikipedia]


A Bump in the Blogging Road

Really, REALLY BIG RSS feed button A few kind readers contacted me recently to tell me they were worried that something had happened to the RSS feed for this blog. It turns out that they had reason to be concerned. Something was wrong and we were having trouble diagnosing the problem. We tried one approach after another, but were unable to find an obvious solution. This is the point at which even a calm technologist thinks seriously about hitting the monitor with a heavy object!

The good news is that after much gnashing of teeth and pulling of hair, we think it is fixed now. That said, I’d be grateful if you could let me know if you are a subscriber and are not receiving my posts. In the meantime, I’m going to resume blogging in the hope that everything is working with the RSS feed.

In my early days as a blogger I assumed that my blog offerings, once published, dropped into some deep dark hole, never to see daylight again. When I received my first blog comment, I was delighted to discover that somebody actually was reading my post. Since that time lots of somebodies have been kind enough to provide comments on my blog, as well as reactions via Twitter and Google Plus. This in turn has triggered exactly the kind of conversation I hoped would emerge.

Thanks for bearing with me through this technological bump in the road. I’ll continue to work to upgrade things on my end so that problems of this sort are minimized going forward.

[Photo Credit: HiMY SYeD]


New Year, New Beginnings

Happy New Year Every so often, it’s good to surprise the people you know. This year, it’s my turn.

I came to New York City to work as a first-year associate in a fabulous firm. The deal I made at that time with my family was that I would try the practice of law for three years — one for each year spent in law school — and then I’d move on to something else. Nearly 22 years later, I’m finally moving on. In the intervening time, I’ve had the good fortune to learn from and work with some of the best lawyers in the country, and I’ve had the opportunity to serve some terrific clients. In that period I also shifted from a full-time legal practice to the challenging discipline of law firm knowledge management.  And that shift provided even more opportunities to learn — about the business of law, about the opportunities and challenges presented by technology and, most importantly, about how and why people share knowledge.

Now it’s time for me to take that learning and move outside a single firm and industry. In fairness, I had been engaging externally for some time through this blog, via Twitter and by speaking at or organizing various knowledge management educational sessions, most notably those offered by the International Legal Technology Association (ILTA). In particular, the opportunities provided to me by ILTA to develop innovative session formats that improved the educational experience of attendees opened my eyes to the possibilities of helping others connect and learn in new ways.

So what’s next? To begin with, I’ve decided that for the next little while I’d like the flexibility of a portfolio of projects rather than a single employer.  I also know that I’d like to stretch some muscles and use some talents that haven’t always found an outlet in the legal industry. Accordingly, I’ve lined up several projects that will allow me to build on strengths and learn some new skills.

  • Technology. For years I’ve talked to technophiles about the critical importance of the people and process elements of knowledge management. I know some have thought this means that I’m a technophobe.  In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Rather, I’ve simply been frustrated by what can appear to be a blind faith in technology solutions implemented without due consideration for the human elements.  Now I have a chance to put my learning (and rhetoric) to the test. I’m teaming up with a wonderful group of designers, developers and entrepreneurs in this country and abroad to create some new knowledge sharing tools. As we get closer to a working prototype I’ll tell you more about it here. For the time being, suffice it to say that we’re exploring new ways of making social media relevant and useful to segments of the business population that are still waiting for their social media road to Damascus moment.
  • Education. I’ve been given the opportunity to help teach a class that is part of the Masters of Science in Information and Knowledge Strategy at Columbia University. It is an innovative hybrid program that combines brief residency periods with online learning. I’m very much looking forward to learning more about how this combination of face-to-face and distance learning contributes to a rich educational experience for the students. I expect it will provide a glimpse of how the education sector is reinventing itself to remain relevant. Again, more to come as I learn more.
  • Writing. Since I began writing this blog nearly five years ago, I’ve discovered that writing is critical for me. It forces me to stretch — I read more and I think more. The reflection that good writing requires gives me an invaluable opportunity to learn and develop. So my plan is to write even more in 2013 than I have over the last few years. Expect more blog posts here and elsewhere.
  • Facilitation. You only have to attend one pointless meeting to understand the value of good meeting facilitation. Over the last 15 years I’ve done a goodly amount of facilitating critical meetings, strategic planning efforts, retreats and workshops. For me, the joy in this work is seeing the attendees uncover their own truths. I don’t supply the answers, they do. And in the process they identify the strategic path they need to follow. This is hugely rewarding work and I plan to do more of it this year.

All of this adds up to a comfortably full plate. That said, if you see any interesting projects in which I might be helpful, please let me know.  (You can always reach me at  As I have discovered, I have only two speeds — fully engaged or resting. For the next few years, I want to be fully engaged.

2013 promises to be exciting. I hope you have a rewarding adventure this year as well.

Happy New Year!

[Photo Credit: Photon Bomb]


Gunpowder, KM and Elections

Ready for Guy Fawkes Day? When I was a child, we celebrated Guy Fawkes’ Day on November 5. For those of you who aren’t up on your British history, Guy Fawkes was one of a group of conspirators who planned to blow up the House of Lords in the infamous “Gunpowder Plot” of 1605. The aim of the conspirators was to assassinate the king, as well as the assembled members of Parliament, in protest of a lack of religious tolerance. If successful, this would have touched off a Catholic revolt in the country.

During my childhood we were directed to mark the occasion by building a bonfire, burning an effigy of Guy Fawkes and enjoying a fireworks display. As a practical matter, this often meant charring a small scarecrow in an oil drum while holding a sparkler in your hand. All in all, a bit of a come down.

Fast forward to November 5, 2012 and Guy Fawkes has some lessons for law firm knowledge management:

  • Good Search is Invaluable. While admittedly the search conducted in 1605 was a physical one, it bears remembering that good search tools and techniques can help avert disaster. If you had a ticking time bomb in one of your data repositories, would you know how to find it?
  • Beware of Leaks. The Gunpowder Plot failed in part due to an anonymous letter of warning sent to Baron Monteagle that resulted in a search of the undercroft of the Houses of Parliament where the gunpowder was stored. When it comes to data security, do you know where you might be vulnerable to leaks or attack?
  • Plan for Delay. The plotters thought they were ready, but they didn’t plan for delay. Therefore, they were caught short when an outbreak of the plague pushed back the opening of parliament from July to November. That was more than enough time for their stockpile of gunpowder to decay. Consequently, they had to replenish their stocks, thereby adding danger and cost to the enterprise.
  • Avoid Decay. Gunpowder is not the only thing that decays. More pertinent for knowledge workers is the fact that our knowledge decays. This means that we can’t rely on memorized facts to guide our decisions and actions. Rather, we have to keep learning, keep looking things up. Only by being constantly aware of the fragility of or knowledge can we hope to stay on the cutting edge of knowledge.

It is sometimes said that Guy Fawkes was the last person to enter the Houses of Parliament with honest intentions. Whether you agree or not, we now have more options available to us. This leads me to a final lesson from Guy Fawkes:

  • Forget the Gunpowder, just VOTE! On the night before the US elections, it’s good to be reminded that we have peaceful means of bringing about the government we want.  You can complain all you want about politician X or Y, but if you don’t actually get to the polls on November 6 to act on your concerns then you are no more effective than Guy Fawkes.

[Photo Credit: Archie McPhee]


New York, New York

After Sandy They say that the three most important factors in determining the value of a property are “location, location, location.” We’ve certainly learned the truth of that old adage this week. We were among the lucky ones who live in a New York City neighborhood that did not lose electricity. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case for many of our friends:

  • Our friends K&R in Greenwich Village have no electricity, heat or water.
  • Our friend MC, who lives in Long Island, cannot use her car because (a) she doesn’t have any electricity to open her garage door and (b) the nearby gas stations don’t have any fuel.
  • Our friend KH in New Jersey is dealing with trees that fell on her property, as well as three kids at home. To make matters worse, she has no electricity and the local schools are closed.
  • Our friend JH’s home on the New Jersey shore was flooded. She says that even the dresser drawers contain water.
  • Our friend PS in Chelsea found shelter with a kind friend — until that friend’s home lost heat and hot water too. Now he’s looking for a way to leave town.

Life after Hurricane Sandy has been one of discovering new flexibility and new limits. Many of us have learned the huge value of working remotely — especially when most of the bridges and tunnels connecting Manhattan to the rest of the world are closed and when subways and commuter trains are out of commission. Face time suddenly becomes less pressing when there are other (virtual) ways of completing the work in a timely fashion. Add to that the fact that some office buildings (like mine) have electricity, but no heat or hot water, and then you begin to appreciate the advantages of working from home

Sandy has also reminded us of the value of staying connected via social media. Texting and Facebook have been lifelines for people trying to contact friends and families in the storm-affected areas. For those of us dealing with the aftermath of the storm, social media has allowed us to help each other with words of encouragement and practical acts of kindness. Friends on Facebook have posted information on subway openings, where to get a free shower or WiFi, and where to find places to charge your electronic devices. Meanwhile, Twitter has been an important source of official news and an essential part of emergency communication plans, according to an article today in The New York Times:

With Hurricane Sandy, public officials and government agencies have embraced social media to a greater degree than ever. For proof, look no further than the Twitter feed of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York: 400 messages on Tuesday, 300 on Wednesday and well over 100 on Thursday, featuring everything from photos of storm surge damage to updates on power restoration.


Although phone service has been spotty in some places across the Northeast, people with working signals have been reliant on texting and social networking to a degree not seen during previous disasters.

According to Frank Sinatra, New York is the city that never sleeps. But if you take a look at the fantastic photo of Manhattan by Brian Angell that I’ve posted above, you’ll see that a significant part of the city is still dark. Here’s hoping the lights come back to the Big Apple soon.

[Photo Credit: Brian Angell]


Bags and Baggage

Friday was crazy busy as I tried to wrap things up at work, while completing final preparations for ILTA 2010. In the midst of all of this, I found myself focused on bags and baggage:

  • For a variety of reasons, I have to take a ton of gear with me to ILTA — several mobile devices, a laptop, thumb drives, cables and all the other tech accoutrements.  This is on top of the clothes and paraphernalia of life that I’ll need to carry for a week away from home. Consequently, I’ve been trying to figure out how to pack all of this in an efficient way that is least likely to trigger those aggravating airline extra charges.  Sometimes it’s tempting to think that all one needs is the perfect bag.  In truth, what’s important is to figure out exactly what one truly needs to carry.  Unfortunately, that can often seem more daunting than the endless quest for the perfect bag.
  • Reading the headlines today, I came across the story of Rolf Potts who has begun a trip around the world without any luggage.  Since I have trouble going around the corner (much less to the ILTA Conference) without several bags, I must admit I find his approach mind-boggling.  Nonetheless, it’s worth considering how little one really needs to carry – provided, of course, you have enough pockets and cash.
  • In the midst of preparing for ILTA this week, we learned of the death of the father of a friend of our family.  So I found myself at a memorial service on Friday morning.  It was a timely reminder that we cannot take with us any of the stuff we accumulate in life.  In fact, we leave exactly as we arrived — empty-handed.  The man we were honoring seems to have understood this well.  The remembrances shared during the service were a testament to a person who had left an indelible, positive mark on the people fortunate to know him. He may not be carrying anything now, however, it was clear during the memorial service that he has left behind not heavy baggage, but rather an important legacy.

At a graduation I attended in June, one of the speakers asked us to never forget that as we travel through life there is an important difference between luggage … and baggage. My day of wrestling with bags and baggage was a timely reminder of that truth.

[Photo Credit: Tom Magliery]