Chasing a Moving Target

When I first began talking years ago about the need to consider more than technology when implementing a knowledge management program, it seemed like a good start to have my technophile friends concede that there just might possibly be elements of user behavior, business process and corporate culture that could have an impact on their roll-out of a cool new tech toy. Now, however, it’s time we thought in more granular terms about corporate culture.

In a recent post on culture and knowledge management, Carl Frappaolo reminds us that culture is not static. Like many things in life, it responds and adapts to stimulus in its environment. He takes the example of current economic conditions and the impact they are having on previously happy-go-lucky Millennials who had been approaching life quite optimistically based on their relatively adversity free existence to date. Suddenly, they can’t find jobs and their outlook on life changes. And, as that outlook changes, the culture of their generation changes.

Similarly, corporate culture changes as it reacts to its environment. Here’s how Carl describes that process:

…the culture of a corporation can change, can move backwards if you will, if serious underlying conditions of an organization change. A culture thriving in “self actualization”, comprised of individuals that readily embrace knowledge sharing and social computing can see itself slip backwards, further down the evolution chain, should it be threatened or altered by radical change in profit, a poorly managed merger or acquisition, a change in leadership, or any such situation that alters the states of basic safety and stability.

Taking Carl’s reminder to heart, it’s not enough to assess your corporate culture early in your tenure and then treat it as a constant. Rather, you have to take regular readings. Are conditions around or inside your law firm shifting? Is the firm’s culture shifting to respond? As we move from the years of plenty to the lean years, are people changing the way the way they work and the way they spend? Of course. So, how are you adapting your law firm knowledge management program to suit this cultural shift?


Collaboration — All or Nothing?

In my prior post on Culture and Technology, I talked about the need to match carefully the social media tools you are offering in your law firm knowledge management program with the organizational culture of your firm. Now we need to go a little deeper. Many discussions on this topic treat collaboration in a binary fashion — either you’ve got collaboration or you don’t. And, if you don’t, you get a free pass on deploying social media tools. In reality, your choices are not just wide open collaboration or nothing. As Andrew Gent points out in his post, The Alternatives to Collaboration, there are several ways of working that result in productivity. We need to be sure we take account of all of these and provide the appropriate tools.

Here’s how he identifies two different modes of working that are alternatives to open collaboration:

Conspiring is very common among senior contributors within a team. Conspiring is simply a form of collaboration where the”community” is limited, usually to select members who the contributor trusts. Rather than speak out or agree during meetings, this individual will seek out others who they feel will understand and appreciate their contribution and work with those people to flesh out their ideas. They may even strategize privately about how to bring the rest of the team “around” to their way of thinking. (This is the conspiratorial part of the equation.)


Competing, on the other hand, happens out in the open. Competing is founded on two basic assumptions:

  • Ideas reached by consensus are not necessarily the best ideas. Rather, they are ideas that sound most agreeable or that provide the least resistance to current conditions (in other words, ruffle as few feathers as possible).
  • By openly pursuing multiple approaches in parallel, you can test more possibilities and (the key to competing) inspire each group to reach farther and develop a more complete and creative solution.

If you have wide open, top to bottom collaboration, then you’re closest to the internet model of social networks and should be able deploy the standard tools (e.g., blogs, wikis, forums, distribution lists) with minimal adjustment for the realities of corporate life. If you have a significant number of productive “conspirators” then you need tools that allow wide open collaboration within this very small group of trusted colleagues (e.g., IM, limited access wikis and blogs). For competitors, you need to provide a forum where they can battle their way to victory (e.g., open access wikis, microblogging).

By acknowledging that collaboration may not be possible for all, you give yourself permission to identify other productive ways of working within your law firm. Once you understand how these other methods work, you’re better placed to introduce effective social media tools that fit neatly with established modes of working. This requires moving from a monolithic view of organizational culture to a much more nuanced one. Done correctly, this should result in higher adoption rates within the various sub-groups that exist and thrive within your law firm. Do this with enough sub-groups and you’ll have reached enterprise 2.0 nirvana.


Culture and Technology

Knowledge management without cultural awareness rarely is successful. You can be on the verge of deploying the best technology tools in the world, but if those tools aren’t in synch with your organizational culture, you might as well distribute quill pens and parchment. Carl Frappaolo (VP Market Intelligence a AIIM International) and Dan Keldsen (Director, Market Intelligence at AIIM International) made this point very clearly in a terrific presentation they gave on October 3. (For helpful summaries of their presentation, see Ron Friedmann’s blog and Jack Vinson’s blog.)

Carl has posted their slides on his blog, Taking AIIM. When you get over to that blog, pay particular attention to slide 16, which shows the stages of cultural evolution, overlaid with the stages of technology. This slide demonstrates that you need an organizational culture that reflects a specific level of collaboration before you can implement particular tools successfully. If you’ve got folks working in splendid isolation with no desire to change their modus operandi (i.e., “islands of me”), they won’t be receptive to your brilliant web 2.0 technological advances. You can coax, you can beg, you can embarrass yourself anyway you choose, but they just won’t get it. And they most certainly won’t adopt your new tool.

Besides the degree of collaboration prevalent in your organizational culture, you also have to be aware of the limits your culture puts on information. So, you want a wiki? Make sure you’ve got an organizational culture that permits the free and open exchange of information. If you’re in an organization that discloses information on a need to know basis only, don’t be surprised if your wikis are under-utilized. Equally, if you’re in an organization that is excessively hierarchical, don’t expect junior folks to contribute to your new blog or wiki without explicit permission from senior managers. In each case, the organizational culture will severely curtail the open information exchange that blogs and wikis promote.

The trick here is to get better at anthropology and then pitch the tools to meet the culture. If you’ve got your heart set on yanking your law firm knowledge management program into the 21st century by introducing social media tools, wait until you see specific forms of collaboration or conversation emerging among your lawyers. Let them enjoy that for a while and then watch for stresses or pain points to emerge. If they do, offer a tool that can alleviate the pain. If there’s no pain, it’s unlikely there will be much user interest in changing how they work. Busy lawyers rarely push for new technology if what they’ve got basically functions — even if there is something that would objectively work much better. They sensibly weigh any inconvenience of their current methods against the perceived gross inconvenience of learning something new. As with most things, overcoming inertia is tough. However, it’s a much easier battle if you harness the natural forces of your organizational culture.


True Leaders Value Mistakes

It’s a natural human tendency to run from failure. In our understandable need to avoid pain, we try to put it behind us and move on. (The more cynical would say, we sweep it under the carpet, shrug, and move on.) While I’d be the last one to recommend that we should wallow in misery, it is useful to remember from time to time that the main point of experience is to learn and grow. And, it is hard to learn and grow without a little reflection and analysis. Reflecting on your successes may give your ego a brief boost, but that in and of itself doesn’t always equip you for the next challenge. Reflecting on your mistakes can, if you’re careful about how you uncover, analyze and handle the information.

Nancy White at Full Circle Associates makes this point in her post, Learning from our mistakes, in which she reports on the remarkable after action review undertaken at Amazon after an embarrassing technical failure. What comes through her report is the integrity and decency inherent in the way Amazon handled what could have been an opportunity for upset, abuse and unhappiness in the hands of less skillful managers and a less mature organization. Their object wasn’t to find fault, but to learn. As Nancy White observes:

“Pulling our mistakes out and looking with them, alone and with the aid of colleagues, is a simple and effective learning practice. But it takes both a personal commitment to productively looking at our warts (rather than simple self-flagellation or guilt) and an organizational culture that values learning along with success. And we all know it… we learn more from our failures than our successes.”

I can’t stress enough the importance of leadership in this exercise. Every child knows how to deflect blame and finger point. That isn’t an effective after action review. That’s an exercise in avoiding responsibility. In Amazon’s case, the participants appear to have assumed responsibility and then taken the next vital step: they understood that this responsibility required them to learn from the event sufficiently to avoid repeating their mistakes. Very few of us do this without the right leadership. I don’t know who at Amazon led this effort, but I do commend them.

Leaders help us rise above our natural tendencies and move us along the path to doing the right thing for ourselves and for our organizations. However, this isn’t a isolated action. Well before the mistake occurs, a good leader will have put in place an organizational culture that emphasizes the importance of innovating, going out of our comfort zone, and taking reasonable risks. Above all, a good leader understands that innovation inevitably involves mistakes. A great leader knows how to use those mistakes to yield the maximum advantage (in terms of lessons learned and growth) for their team and their enterprise.

When you’re dealing with an organization that faces liability if it doesn’t reach the right result every time in a predictable, controlled fashion, mistakes take on an even greater importance. Consequently, there can be a tendency to sacrifice innovation and growth for predictability and control. In that environment, mistakes are barely tolerated and rarely encouraged. The problem is that an organization without mistakes is an organization without innovation and growth.

In our drive to avoid mistakes, we don’t always spend enough time learning how to react to mistakes in a manner that is productive. Therefore, when we do respond, it is often in an ad hoc way that doesn’t take advantage of the tremendous opportunity for growth presented by mistakes. The good news is that response patterns to mistakes are learned responses and can be improved — provided participants know they won’t become scapegoats or pariahs. Looking to cases like the Amazon after action review can provide some guidance on a better way to learn from mistakes, grow, and achieve greater success.


Knowledge Management’s Secret Sauce: Trust

Fortunes have been made in the food industry through the development and use of “secret” sauces. These are the seemingly-magic ingredients that chefs use to elevate a simple food item into a must have (or must eat).

Knowledge management has a secret sauce — it’s trust. Trust is the magic ingredient that reliably increases user participation. Where there is trust there is a perceptible decrease in anxiety. With that reduction of anxiety comes a willingness to create, contribute and collaborate.

Knowledge managers have always known this. It drove our KM 1.0 efforts to build large databases of vetted content. In a web 2.0 world, trust is even more valuable because we are asking users to create, contribute and collaborate in a more unmediated way. This permits access to a wider range of content more quickly, but it may also be perceived as risky if the content doesn’t have the “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” that comes from the vetting built into KM 1.0 business processes.

Neil Richards (Knowledge Thoughts) provides an interesting analysis of the critical value of trust with respect to wikis. In his post, How trust & risk affect wiki adoption, he takes the concept of trust one step further and discusses the “trust threshold, ” which is the point at which trust and risk intersect. Here’s how Neil describes it:

Trust thresholds! It’s not just about trust; it’s also about risk of each task. You need to earn enough trust to overcome the risk. Therefore, wiki use is dependant on how much a user trusts the content. …when using a wiki to execute a task which involves risk, the trustworthiness of the wiki needs to exceed the risk of it being wrong.

Neil goes on to suggest ways of increasing the level of trust so that lawyers in your firm can get comfortable working with wiki content. If you’ve got a trust deficit in your law firm, also consider implementing some of the suggestions for increasing trust in the workplace contained in Shawn Callahan‘s recent post, Trust creating behaviours.

Trust may be the most valuable asset a knowledge manager has. Take the time to develop it in your workplace and then guard with your life!


Error + Flexibility = Innovation

Error + Flexibility = Innovation is a formula few of us were taught in school.  Even fewer of us were told about this during our orientation at our law firms.  Law firms, like most businesses, spend time thinking about the right way of doing things.  This results in business processes that are hardwired into the firm’s systems or “best practices” that are documented and distributed.  Then, all of us are encouraged (or required) to agree to never stray from the chosen path.  

An organization’s motivation for hardwiring recommended business processes and  demanding conformity arguably is laudable.  The organization is trying to increase predictability, reduce risk, and strengthen central control.  From the perspective of a senior manager, what’s not to like about this?
However this drive for control and predictability may be choking the life out of the innovators in our midst.  And a huge corporate emphasis on risk avoidance may result in the stillbirth of many potential innovators.  
Innovation thrives in an environment that permits flexibility for front line folks who are closest to the clients and their problems.  Innovation also requires a culture that, while demanding excellence, understands that errors are a necessary part of learning and, without learning, there can be no innovation.  Thus, innovation results from flexibility in processes and systems, and a culture that permits (and even encourages) constructive errors.
In his post On Process, Technology and Work Design, Jon Husband talks about the organizational drive to standardize work processes, the resulting “rigidities” and the impact of this on the ability of front line folks to use their experience with clients to improve the way the firm delivers services.  He also optimistically points to new web 2.0 tools such as wikis or purpose-designed blogs that have the potential of allowing the front line folks to interact with each other and their client challenges, create and document new ways of doing things as they work, and thus affect the official systems.  Or as he puts it, these tools allow us “to integrate social process into more static and more clearly defined work processes.”
Meanwhile, Dave Snowden sounds a warning to all in his post, The Context of Error, when he says,
Innovation happens when people use things in unexpected ways, or come up against intractable problems.  We learn from tolerated failure, without [which] the world is sterile and dies.  Systems that eliminate failure, eliminate innovation.
Think about the knowledge management systems at your firm.  Are they rigid?  Do they contain a level of flexibility sufficient to permit innovation — even by people outside [gasp!] your KM department?  And, what about the organizational culture of your law firm?  Is it so focused on eliminating error that it completely squelches any incipient tendencies toward innovation?  Law firm knowledge management needs innovation to stay current and relevant.  Does your approach to KM include flexibility for others and support for constructive error?
If your answer to the previous question is no, it’s time for you to go back to the drawing board.  Remember, The Point of KM is Innovation.
Error + Flexibility = Innovation.  It’s that simple.

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?


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.

Creating a Culture of Collaboration

Collaboration is all the rage. Proponents of web 2.0 tell us that it’s just the way we work naturally. However, for far too many years corporate culture has often emphasized the benefits of individual achievement and competition over collaborative efforts. This suggests that some folks are going to have to be retrained before they can rediscover their inner collaborator.

So how do you create and nurture a culture of collaboration? Once again, KM4Dev has found an interesting resource on collaboration: Seth Kahan’s article entitled “5 Guidelines for Creating a Culture of Collaboration.” He proposes the following guidelines:

1. Build engagement in the workplace. This means creating an environment in which employees feel that they have a stake in the outcomes of the enterprise — that their contribution matters.

2. Increase trust through emotional intelligence. It’s hard to collaborate with people you don’t know or trust. So this means creating opportunities for people to get to know each other and learn to rely on each other. This also means providing emotional support in difficult times and times of celebration.

3. Create space for connection. Provide physical places where people can gather informally. An interesting question is whether virtual spaces are as effective as physical spaces for these purposes.

4. Condone connection time. Let people know that the organization supports their efforts to get to know each other. This, of course, sets up an interesting tension in organizations like law firms which count every minute since they depend on the billable hour for their livelihood.

5. Favor flexibility. Acknowledge and support diversity, not only in terms of physical attributes, but also in terms of work styles. Having this variety makes the organization more adaptable and less rigid.

In his book, The Culture of Collaboration, Evan Rosen notes that collaboration thrives best in organizations that promote informal, non hierarchical relationships within a culture that encourages innovation. He has identified 10 cultural elements of collaboration:

– Trust
– Sharing — as opposed to hoarding
– Goals — everyone pursues the same group goals
– Innovation — the culture emphasizes the value of innovation
– Environment — the physical and virtual environment facilitates collaboration
– Collaborative Chaos — permitting the unstructured exchange of ideas
– Constructive Confrontation — learning to disagree about and discuss concepts and issues
– Communication
– Community
– Value — the point of collaboration is to create value for the enterprise

In thinking further about creating a culture of collaboration, Rosen notes that a critical element is ensuring that everyone has access to and ease with collaborative tools. In his post
Too Old to Collaborate? he debunks the notion that younger generations are naturally more collaborative than older ones. In his work he has found that the thing that often divides the generations is the ease with which they pick up and use collaborative tools such as IM, web conferencing and video conferencing. But merely providing the tools is not enough to create collaboration. You also have to provide the training so that everyone can use the tools comfortably.

So is collaboration our natural mode of work? Possibly — if we work within organizations that make it a priority to create and maintain a culture of collaboration.


Going Above and Beyond

Going above and beyond means pushing past the usual — doing more. In knowledge management, the usual often entails identifying a problem and then looking for the nearest technology solution. This almost reflexive approach has given technology vendors a wonderful new line of business: “KM solutions.” However, it hasn’t always resulted in workable solutions for the purchaser.

One reason for the tendency to focus on technology is the view that KM is largely about gathering and organizing things that can be found, such as documents, e-mails, hyperlinks, contact information, etc. This results, for example, in the endless quest for the latest and greatest search engine. However, even the most tech-savvy organization can find stuffed in its closets skeletons from botched implementations, where everything was done by the vendor’s book but the users couldn’t be convinced to actually use the product. Or if they used it, they did so with gritted teeth.

So what’s the Achilles’ heel of tech solutions? The users! Taking this one step further, it’s not just the users — it’s the fundamentals of human nature and interaction, and it’s the organizational culture those users create, destroy and recreate incrementally every day. Until you’ve mastered this Achilles’ heel, your knowledge management efforts won’t be entirely successful.

Given the extraordinary technology available today, KM should be a cakewalk. But it isn’t. If anything, the availability of cool tech toys has made more apparent the non-tech challenges of effective KM.

So now, the fun begins.