Above and Beyond KM

A discussion of knowledge management that goes above and beyond technology.

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This publication contains my personal views and not necessarily those of my clients. Since I am a lawyer, I do need to tell you that this publication is not intended as legal advice or as an advertisement for legal services.
  • Baigneurs Obesity in America is a problem of gigantic proportions. In fact, ABC News reports that “almost two-thirds of adults and almost one-third of children in the United States are overweight or obese.” Unfortunately, it’s getting worse:

    …according to a new study out Monday, the number of overweight people in the U.S. will grow to almost 42 percent of the country by 2030, and cost a whopping $550 billion in obesity-related health care costs per year.

    Clearly we have a consumption problem. But that’s not all. JP Rangaswami, one of the brightest lights in the knowledge management and Enterprise 2.0 firmament, recently gave a TEDx talk in which he suggested there were parallels between food and information. In fact, he suggests we should think about our information production, preparation and consumption like we think about our food production, preparation and consumption. Who is producing good quality information?  How can you identify good quality information? How do you set limits on your information consumption?  Do you need an information diet or even an information fast?

    Now, consider lawyers in America.  Many of us have an extremely unhealthy lifestyle: we work long hours, get little sleep, eat a poor diet, get insufficient exercise, and suffer high levels of stress. This could make us prime candidates for obesity. Lawyers are equally bad about their information consumption — we don’t always pay sufficient attention to the quality of what’s coming at us from the information fire hose.  Further, our orientation to service leads us to allow far too many interruptions in the name of staying on top of the situation or being responsive.  If JP Rangaswami were here, he’d say that when it comes to information consumption, lawyers snack all day.

    In light of the obesity epidemic with respect to both food and information, what can law firm knowledge management do?  Well clearly, knowledge managers cannot cut off the supply of information so we’ll have to help our colleagues make better choices.  In the realm of physical health, doctors will recommend more exercise, smaller portions of food and longer nights of sleep, among other things. With respect to information obesity, how do we turn the situation around? We need to teach ourselves and our colleagues a healthier approach:

    I’d strongly recommend you take the eight minutes required to watch JP’s talk. (I’ve embedded the video below for your convenience.) Then think about what changes KM can bring about to help colleagues adopt a healthier approach to their consumption of information.

    Hat tip to Luis Suarez who pointed out JP’s excellent TEDxAustin talk and also shared how he has made changes in his own life to avoid an unhealthy weight gain and information obesity (see the video below).

    [Photo Credit: Romain Pittet]

    1 Comment
  • What would happen if we turned our operating model on its head? What if we focused on individuals instead of the organization? What if we took Davenport and Prusak at their word and worked to make a reality of their claim that “knowledge management must be part of everyone’s job”?  No more ossified knowledge management systems. No more bureaucratic KM departments.  No more expensive KM “solutions” offered by eager vendors. No more struggles to achieve minimal user adoption.

    According to Steve Barth, there’s a significant upside to focusing on the individual knowledge worker:

    It seems obvious, but it is not often said that knowledge management works best when knowledge workers take the initiative and responsibility for what they know, don’t know and need to know. Doing so not only makes the individual more valuable to the corporation, it also enhances the value of intellectual capital for the corporation.

    Tempted?

    Here’s the plan:  learn about personal knowledge management (or personal sensemaking, if that is an easier concept for you).   Think about what it takes to aggregate, filter and share content effectively.  Put these principles into practice for yourself and measure their impact on your work life.  And then think about how you could pass on this learning to every one of your colleagues.  Taking this grassroots approach, could you help each of your colleagues become so good at managing their information flows that their work processes and work product improve?  Could you find a way to improve the overall performance of your organization?

    If you’re interested in learning more about personal KM/ personal sensemaking, please participate in the Twitter Chat on Personal Knowledge Management sponsored by KMers.org.  In addition, here are some other good introductions to the subject:

    [Photo Credit: moeyknight]

    12 Comments
  • Given the state of the economy, it’s wise to ask yourself from time to time if you are closer to obsolete than mission critical.  As you think about your answer to that question, I’d recommend that you take a look at Rick Mans’ post, Should Knowledge Managers Look for a New Job, and the accompanying comments.  The message that comes through is that in an Enterprise 2.0 world there won’t be much of a need for knowledge managers who act as gatekeepers (i.e., deciding what information is worthy of collecting or sharing) or archivists (i.e., collecting and organizing information in a central repository in accordance with a strict taxonomy).  Rather, knowledge managers who wish to remain employed will need to morph into facilitators who help people work with new collaboration tools, comply with community-derived tagging guidelines, and share information.  While I agree with the general thrust of Rick’s post and the accompanying comments, I fear that the implied time horizon is too short.

    Why too short?  I suspect that in the long-term organizations are going to be increasingly reluctant to fund large groups of knowledge managers to do work that should be done by front line knowledge workers.  Instead, employers are going to expect that every knowledge worker has at least minimum competence in personal knowledge management.  Accordingly, knowledge managers will move into personal knowledge management coaching.  These shifts make economic and practical sense.  For too long, knowledge workers have been outsourcing their KM responsibilities to centralized KM departments.  The distance between the KM department and the front line often results in central data repositories that tend to reflect management’s view of what’s important rather than the shifting concerns and interests of front line knowledge workers who actually have to use the information collected.  Unfortunately, as Dave Pollard aptly points out, management itself is often too far removed from the front line to understand what the front line knowledge worker truly needs.  The problem is compounded if the knowledge managers don’t have subject matter expertise.  Without the experience of walking in the shoes of the front line workers they are supposed to be supporting, their decisions about what’s important to collect and how to organize it or what collaborative tools to provide will largely be based on hearsay.

    Further, the traditional one-size-fits-all approach to information management has disregarded the fact that our centralized collections rarely fit many.  Research reported by the Wharton School of Business found that a focus on knowledge capture didn’t always yield the desired benefits and sometimes incurred some painful costs:

    We find that using codified knowledge in the form of electronic documents saved time during the task, but did not improve work quality or signal competence to clients, whereas in contrast, sharing personal advice improved work quality and signaled competence, but did not save time….  This is interesting because managers often believe that capturing and sharing knowledge via document databases can substitute for getting personal advice, and that sharing advice through personal networks can save time.

    Partly in response to this research, Harold Jarche has suggested that it’s past time that we moved beyond “central digital repositories.”  Instead, we should focus on enabling what he calls a “parallel system” to support knowledge workers in those many instances in which the central repository proves inadequate.  What would that parallel system look like?  Here are his suggestions:

    • Develop measures that can help experienced knowledge workers capture and make sense of their knowledge. [This is personal KM.]
    • Support the sharing of information and expertise between knowledge workers, on their terms, using personalized knowledge management methods & tools.
    • Keep only essential information, and what is necessary for inexperienced workers, in the organizational knowledge base – keep it simple.

    So what might a future knowledge manager spend their time doing?  Primarily, coaching individual knowledge workers to become effective personal knowledge managers and online collaborators. Secondarily, creating systems that facilitate collaboration and allow passive sharing of the results of these individual personal KM efforts.  This mission critical approach puts knowledge management where it belongs — on the front lines and in the hands of the the knowledge workers who can use the information shared to strengthen networks and produce revenue.

    * * * * *

    Here are some additional resources if you’re interested in learning more about Personal Knowledge Management and the possible future direction of KM:

    [Photo Credit:  Kimberly Faye]

    11 Comments
  • People talk about the velocity of current flows of information and inputs and say it’s like drinking from a fire hose.  That’s wishful thinking.  On far too many days, it feels more like living in the Lower Ninth Ward during Hurricane Katrina.  For Clay Shirky, that sense of drowning in information is a sure sign not of overload but, rather, of inadequate filters.  If he’s right (and I think he is), we have to find a better way of coping.

    A great deal of daily life now consists of filtering and managing the inputs so that we can be productive.  For me, this is a matter of personal knowledge management:  the art of gathering, organizing, storing, searching and retrieving the information we need to live well.   I’m an avid  student of the subject and have discovered that one never quite masters it.  There is always a new challenge and always something to learn.  So I thought I would collect some resources in this post for myself and any others who are seeking a slightly saner way of managing the fire hose.

    Gathering Information:

    • People First – If you’re looking for reliable information, you need not look any further than your friends and trusted colleagues.  Building your social network and ensuring you have accurate contact information will go a long way to helping you find what you need when you need it.  Once you know who is in your trusted network, how do you tap it?  Social media tools such as Twitter, Facebook and FriendFeed help you stay in touch and share information you consider interesting or important.  The beautiful thing is that when you use your social networks to gather information, your friends do the filtering for you.
      • See the quick tutorial in the Common Craft video:  Social Networking in Plain English
      • Twitter does much more than simply provide updates on your friends.  It can also be a great research tool.  However, it all starts with connecting online and here is a Common Craft video to explain how:  Twitter in Plain English
    • Let the Information Come to You – Through the magic of electronic subscriptions and web feeds (e.g., Really Simple Syndication (RSS)), you no longer have to go hunting for current information.  It will come to you.  All you have to do is place your order — and that just takes a couple of clicks of your mouse — and then sit back and wait for the content to be sent to your e-mail inbox or your RSS reader (e.g., Google Reader).
      • See the quick tutorial on how RSS readers work and how to subscribe in the Common Craft video:  RSS in Plain English.

    Organizing Information:

    • Create a Personal Archive – When I first started practicing law, each lawyer would create an elaborate set of folders (aka the “form file”) that housed every piece of paper that seemed interesting.  That’s where you stored precedent documents, research results, notes, etc.  The idea was that you created a private archive of useful information designed to help you work more efficiently.  We still need personal archives, but today they consist primarily of electronic content.  And, given how cheap electronic storage has become, there really are not many physical limits on how large your personal archive can be.
    • Organize Your Electronic Materials Electronically – A few years ago hand held label makers were all the rage.  They allowed you to create the illusion of order despite the underlying chaos of your system.  An electronic storage system can be every bit as chaotic and electronic labels every bit as illusory.  However, employed properly (according to a scheme that makes sense to you and that you diligently apply in a consistent fashion), these electronic labels can help you organize enormous amounts of information.  You can apply these labels via a variety of Google applications (e.g., Bookmarks, Mail, Reader, etc.) or through social bookmarking, as discussed in the next section.
    • Let Others Help You Organize Information – through social bookmarking tools (e.g., Delicious), you can enjoy the benefits of the organizational efforts of others.  When they identify interesting content and label that content electronically, that creates an organizational scheme that is available to anyone else who is interested in that content.

    Storing Information:

    • People Information – In the olden days, all you needed was a simple address book (hard copy or electronic).  Now, just sign up to that giant rolodex in the sky known as LinkedIn and let others take care of keeping contact information up to date for you.
      • For information on how LinkedIn works, see this Common Craft video:  What is LinkedIn?
    • Electronic Storage Only – Don’t store information in hard copy unless it is something you really need at hand in a physical format.  Otherwise, store it all online.  If you don’t have concerns about information security, store it remotely in an externally-hosted blog or wiki, or via Google or any other comparable service provider.
    • Minimize the Number of Storage Sites – Remember that old paper form file?  The great thing was that it was the only place you had to check for information you had saved.  Now, you have to check your e-mail folders, the favorites on your web browser, your social bookmarks, your hard drive, etc.  Stop the Madness! Try to consolidate as much as you can in just one or two places online so that you don’t have to search over and over again for the information you have saved.
    • Make Your Personal Archive Portable – If you work exclusively at the office,  relying on a hard copy form file is still feasible (barely).  But if you have lots of electronic information you need to keep, then putting it in a paper file is neither convenient nor considerate of the environment.  Further, if you’re ever working at a client’s office, at home or in a hotel, you won’t have access to those paper files and then you’ll understand why so many of us believe in the value of a portable electronic archive that is accessible anywhere you have an internet connection.  And, given today’s economic realities, I should mention that having a portable personal archive means that if you should ever part company with your current employer, you can keep the archive you’ve built up so carefully, provided it is outside your employer’s firewall.  (Obviously, client confidential information should not be stored outside the firewall, but information you obtain publicly via the internet is yours to store and organize outside the firewall.)

    There you are — an introduction to some personal knowledge management information and techniques.  Try them out and see what works for you.  And if you have other suggestions for effective personal KM, please leave a comment below and let us all know.

    [Photo Credit:  Anxious223, Creative Commons license]

    15 Comments
  • Knowledge management folks have to interact with technology daily. In fact, all knowledge workers have to interact with technology daily. There’s no other way to do your job well in the 21st century. The problem is that those of us who are 40 years old or more learned to be knowledge workers at a time when there was much less technology, and the technology we had didn’t work terribly well. In the nearly 20 years I’ve been in the workforce, we’ve seen enormous changes: from the IBM Selectric to desktop computers to fully mobile computing; from telephones to e-mail to microblogging; from internal memos to enterprise blogs and wikis. And there’s more change coming down the pike.

    Are you ready?

    Are you sure you’re ready?

    Being ready is not just about knowing about the tool or knowing how to use the technology. It’s about changing your attitude and approach to the technology so that you really know how to use it well. For example, if you were trained to find information in a time when information appeared to be scarce, you developed some great sleuthing skills. (Remember having to go to a library, and then to the card catalog, and then to the place on the shelf where the book should have been, only to find it missing? That’s one form of info scarcity — when finding it is hard.) Now contrast that with our current situation, where you can Google “knowledge management blogs” and get 6,760,000 results in 0.15 seconds. That’s not just information abundance, that’s information overload. And that overload calls for different skills; it calls for filtering skills.

    In a helpful post, New Work and New Work Skills, Tony Karrer sets out some benchmarks against which we can measure our readiness for 21st century work in an age of information abundance. Here are some of the ways of working he believes we should learn:

    And here’s his quick test to see how well we’ve adopted the change in attitude and approach necessary to master the new technology:

    • I effectively use the Google filetype operator
    • I know what the Google “~” operator does
    • I’m effective at reaching out to get help from people I don’t already know
    • I’m good at keeping, organizing my documents, web pages that I’ve encountered in ways that allow me to find it again when I need it and remind me that it exists when I’m not sure what I’m looking for
    • I’m good at filtering information
    • I’m good at collaboratively working with virtual work teams and use Google Docs or a Wiki as appropriate in these situations

    So, take the test and tell me. Do you have what it takes to be an effective knowledge worker in the 21st century?

    [Thanks to Bill Brantley for pointing out Tony Karrer's post.]

    6 Comments
  • Clay Shirky has fired a shot across the bow of every person who ever complained that they couldn’t get things done because of information overload. He suggests that our current approach to the Internet has infantalized users. As he points out, there have always been more books in any given bookstore than you can read in one sitting. So how do you deal with it? You make choices based on quality, price, needs, interests and personal taste. Now contrast that with the multitude of materials to read on the Internet? Do we make intelligent choices? More often than not, we abdicate personal responsibility and resort to complaining about information overload. The main difference between the bookstore and the Internet is the price of the information presented. Now that we have access to a vast array of free information, we can’t use the price filter. However, there is nothing about the virtual information source that relieves the consumer of the necessity of making choices based on the other filters of quality, needs, interests and personal taste.

    For some, law firm knowledge management’s answer has been to spoonfeed the lawyers by using administrative staff and tech tools to scour the resources, make editorial choices, and then pass on the cream of the crop to the lawyers. And, we lawyers have enjoyed the service, while complaining when those editors don’t quite make the right choices. However, the minute the editor (virtual or real) disappears, the lawyers find themselves on the wrong end of the firehose of information with no personal tools for managing the flood. This creates a class of people who know how to consume fish, but haven’t been taught to fish. That’s failure of knowledge management and information technology training. It’s a place where basic instruction in personal knowledge management can yield great dividends.

    Continuing the fish metaphor, Clay Shirky says, “we are to information overload as fish are to water. It’s what we swim in.” So, from his perpective, it’s time we stopped bemoaning the existence of our information environment and started paying closer attention to the filters we use. His advice: whenever it feels like you’re drowning in information, stop and take a look to see if you can identify which of your information filters just broke. And, my advice? None of this works if you don’t have a sensible set of personal information filters. So the onus is on you to find and use tools that tailor the information to your interests, needs and tastes. While law firm knowledge management can provide lawyers with some basic personal KM training and help identify useful tools, each individual lawyer has got to quit the moaning and start taking personal responsibility for the quality and quantity of information they process daily.

    You can’t (and probably don’t want to) stop the information flow. All you can do is manage it effectively so that it doesn’t wrestle you to the floor every day. Good luck!

    For more on this topic, see the video of Clay Shirky’s presentation.

    [Thanks to Gina Trapani for pointing out this Shirky presentation.]

    8 Comments
  • Returning from a few days out of the office, I was reminded again of how oppressive a jammed Outlook Inbox can be. Even though I diligently checked and responded to e-mail messages during my absence, I still faced a daunting pile of messages and related items that required follow-up. The resulting sensation was a little like suffocation — with the likely outcome of death by e-mail.

    There is an extreme, but highly effective, strategy for avoiding death by e-mail: simply declare an e-mail moratorium. Luis Suarez has completed seven weeks of Giving up on Work e-mail. Others like Lawrence Lessig and Fred Wilson have declared “e-mail bankruptcy.” In the words of Wilson, “I am so far behind on email that I am declaring bankruptcy.” Haven’t we all experienced that feeling.

    A less drastic measure is to follow the advice of Lifehacker Gina Trapani who recommends dumping that backlog into a separate Outlook folder and starting with a clean slate. You’ll feel like you’ve lost 20 pounds. Alternatively, the folks at Lifehack offer How to Avoid E-Mail Bankruptcy: 5 Rules that Work.

    Jack Vinson’s post, Yours is bigger than mine, ha ha, points out that a key problem is that we are profligate in our approach to e-mail. We send too many messages to too many people. Mutually assured destruction by e-mail. The only solution to this is to send e-mail sparingly.

    Being an advocate of incremental change, I took Gina’s advice. It’s an interesting experiment in personal knowledge management, but it seems to me to be very necessary. I can attest to the incredible lightness of being I experienced when my inbox shrank from several thousand messages to fewer than 10. Now let’s see how long this lasts.

    2 Comments