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.
  • Hello everybody!
    Look at yourself.  Now back to me.
    Now back at yourself.  Now back to me.
    Sadly… you are not a Monster.

    [A MONSTER????!!!]

    Those are the words of Sesame Street’s engaging blue monster, Grover, spoken in a clever twist on the now-famous Old Spice Man television commercial. (See below) These videos show examples of an eye-catching monster (or man, as the case may be) and then ask you to contrast your humdrum existence (or man) with what might be if you were a bit more blue or he were a bit more studly.

    In each case, you are invited to indulge in that all too human tendency to compare your situation to that of another. In the face of such monster (or masculine) superiority, is it any wonder that we find ourselves believing that the grass is in fact greener on the other side?

    Lately, law firm knowledge managers have been comparing themselves to project managers, alternative fee wizards and marketing mavens.  This exercise has left many feeling just a little inadequate and a touch insecure.  Nonetheless, the answer to that uncomfortable feeling is not to jump on the nearest bandwagon.  Rather, it is to think more strategically about the value you bring to your organization. Focus on your core competencies.  What do you do better than anyone else? Then think about which of your abilities and activities provide high impact with relatively little effort. If you need some help sorting your high-value activities from the low-value ones, follow the advice of Oz Benamram and try placing all your activities on an Effort-Impact Grid. Done correctly, this will help you improve your ability to deliver value to and have an impact on your organization.

    You may not be a blue monster, but with this information in hand you should understand better how to be exactly what your firm needs.

    3 Comments
  • A friend at another firm e-mailed me today thanking me for my earlier post, What’s Your KM Priority?   In her e-mail she said,

    To me KM has to be `strategic’ to avoid being depressing.

    On this gray, rainy day in New York City, I know exactly what she means.  The purpose of strategy is to ensure that your daily activity is not an exercise in futility but, rather, amounts to something meaningful.  So, how do we make our law firm knowledge management strategic?  Focus your KM activities around a central goal worth pursuing.  The catch is that your ultimate success depends on the nature of that strategic goal.  Here are some typical goals:

    1. Promoting yourself within your firm.
    2. Promoting your group or department within the firm.
    3. Promoting particular groups (other than your own) within the firm.
    4. Promoting the firm and its clients.

    As you move from stage one through to stage four you move out of short-term, limited goals to long-term goals with greater impact.  If self-promotion (or promotion of your immediate group) is your primary goal, Condolences.  Your chances of achieving something of lasting good are circumscribed.  I will admit that the pressure to focus on a stage one strategy is great given the anxieties caused by the current economic situation.  However, the fact is that the more you are able to have a direct impact on the well-being of the firm and the quality of the service it provides to its clients, the more likely you are to achieve job security and job satisfaction.

    Is your KM effort depressing or strategic?

    [Photo Credit:  Thomas Hawk]

    2 Comments
  • When I first started in the knowledge management business, I asked a group of senior New York law firm knowledge management experts what advice they would give me. One extremely pragmatic colleague said: “Collect the Low-Hanging Fruit.”

    Nearly a decade later, I still find I keep an eye out for low-hanging fruit. However, now I have a better understanding of the limitations of low-hanging fruit. (For those of you puzzled by the expression “low-hanging fruit,” one suggested definition is : “a thing or person that can be won, obtained, or persuaded with little effort.”)

    First, let’s talk about the benefits of low-hanging fruit:

    - they are visible and easy to identify
    - they are within reach and relatively simple to address (with a little concentrated effort)

    Unfortunately, there are problems with low-hanging fruit. Because these pieces of fruit are apparent to most careful observers, you probably won’t be the first one to tackle them. In fruit parlance, they are bruised. In the knowledge management world, they may be projects that have been attempted and abandoned for good reason. Therefore, be very sure you have a winning approach before you publicly go after a piece of low-hanging fruit. If you fail (like all the others before you), there will be lots of folks ready to say “I told you so.”

    In addition to being bruised, some of that low-hanging fruit may be over-ripe or not worth the effort. Sure you can collect it, but what good will it do you? These are problems that you might easily solve, however, if the problem or proposed solution are ephemeral, then you’ve wasted your time. Thinking in KM terms, these kinds of low-hanging fruit often are problems that have arisen as firms have failed to keep step with advances in techology. You can provide a home-grown solution, but if there is suitable third-party technology readily available, you really haven’t advanced the ball very much. These over-ripe fruit may also be problems that are aggravating, but not central to the business of the firm. Solving them may provide temporary relief, but if the problem you’ve solved is only tangential to the business of your firm, why bother?

    Another problem with low-hanging fruit is that they tend to be scattered randomly on various trees. Even if you go after this fruit in a systematic fashion, you’ll end up with a knowledge management effort that is as diffuse and scattered as that fruit. Unfortunately, this means your KM effort will appear unfocused and that rarely reflects well on you.

    Collecting low-hanging fruit is a knowledge management tactic NOT a legitimate strategy. Strategy sets your goals and gives you a reason for the projects you undertake and the methods you employ. Tactics are fine, if they are deployed to advance an agreed strategy. Otherwise, they are little better than busy work. And, busy work rarely results in meaningful gains in productivity. Or, as Sun Tzu is reputed to have said: “Strategy without tactics is the long road to victory; tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”

    Low-hanging fruit is tempting. It can provide a few easy wins to kick start your KM effort. However, if you are ever tempted to make low-hanging fruit your sole or main knowledge management goal, remember Adam and Eve. Sometimes that fruit is more trouble than it’s worth.

    (For a terrific discussion of strategy and tactics, see Bruce MacEwen’s Adam Smith, Esq. blogpost, The Balanced Scorecard, version 5.0.)

    1 Comment
  • In honor of Canada Day, here’s a Canadian perspective on developing a knowledge strategy. Courtesy of Knowledge Flow, we have an article published by the Queen’s University School of Business entitled Creating a Knowledge Strategy for your Organization: A Special KM Forum Report.

    This article provides a useful overview of knowledge management. For example it begins with a helpful explanation of the differences between knowledge management processes, knowledge management enablers and knowledge management drivers. For those of us who do not have a theoretical bent, here’s a thumbnail sketch:

    KM Processes:

    * the methods “an organization uses to create, harvest and refine, store and retrieve, distribute and share, and apply and leverage knowledge”

    KM Enablers:

    * organizational factors (e.g., structure and culture)
    * technology

    KM Drivers:

    * mission and business strategy
    * the firm’s intellectual resources

    Michael Zack, a professor who studies how firms use knowledge and knowledge management, suggests that until now most firms have focused on KM Enablers. In other words, they’ve tried to create the right structure and culture for knowledge sharing and then they’ve tried to implement the right technologies to facilitate this knowledge sharing. However, in Zack’s view, this work has been fundamentally flawed in that it has occurred largely without reference to essential KM Drivers: the overall mission and business strategy of the firm. To explain how fatal this flaw is, Zack gives the example of Polaroid, a company that in his view had great commitment to KM and did a terrific job of fostering a collaborative and sharing culture. However, because that collaboration and sharing was not directed towards the business strategy of mastering digital imaging, the firm lacked the requisite knowledge to compete in this area and, ultimately, went out of business. What a waste.

    Zack is unequivocal in advocating a single-minded focus on KM Strategy. As recounted by the authors of this article,

    In short, stated Zack, a company can do KM extremely well but not focus it on the right things. In order for it to have an impact on firm performance, KM must be linked to business strategy at all levels in the organization. If an organization has a poor business strategy, KM may not be able to make a difference. However, if it has a good business strategy, KM can support it. Knowledge and learning must support and inform an organization’s competitive position. This is what will give a firm a strategic advantage and this in turn, will add value.

    So what is a Knowledge Strategy and how do you formulate it? According to Zack, you begin by determining what a firm needs to know to compete. A firm’s ability to compete is directly related to its knowledge.

    Managing the gap between what a company needs to know to execute its strategy and what it actually knows is the most strategic role of KM. The more knowledge is tied to strategy, the greater the value of KM will be. The link between strategy and knowledge is a knowledge strategy. This is different from knowledge management, which focuses on the processes whereby knowledge is created, harvested, stored, distributed and applied. KM supports the management of knowledge needed by the firm, which in turn supports the firm’s knowledge and business strategy. A knowledge strategy focuses on knowledge content gaps, while knowledge management emphasizes knowledge process gaps. These two must be aligned if a firm is going to use knowledge competitively.

    If you’re serious about developing a Knowledge Strategy, you will have to do the following analysis:

    Assess knowledge gaps:

    * What does the firm need to know?
    * What does the firm actually know?
    * What do the firm’s competitors know?

    Assess your knowledge resources:

    * What knowledge is worth developing?
    * What knowledge is worth acquiring?
    * What knowledge is worth capturing to facilitate transfer?
    * How will the firm derive value from this knowledge?

    Assess your learning cycles:

    * How quickly and how well does your firm learn as compared to its industry at large?
    * Does this provide a competitive advantage or should your firm pursue learning more aggressively?

    The article reminds us that this analysis is not something you do once and then put on the shelf. It is more in the nature of a continuous assessment. Just as the firm is dynamic, the knowledge strategy must be dynamic– reflecting the changing environment and any shifts in business strategy. Above all, this analysis needs to be done in close cooperation with senior management. This is not an exercise to be undertaken by knowledge managers operating in a vacuum without the deliberate input of the people designing the business strategy.

    By focusing on strategy, knowledge managers move from the ranks of knowledge plumbers to the ranks of knowledge architects. Are you ready for this change in status?

    And, while you’re chewing on that thought, Happy Canada Day!

    1 Comment