Reading the Landscape

The sign was clear.  It proudly announced that yet another bank I’d never heard of before was about to open a new branch on a busy corner in Manhattan.  With the opening of that branch, there will be three different banks at that single intersection.

If you walk down the street, you’ll soon discover that this corner is quickly becoming the rule rather than the exception. In fact, an extraterrestrial landing in New York City in 2010 could be forgiven for thinking that the residents of this city are totally obsessed with money, health and…coffee.  In fairness, just a few minutes spent reading the local landscape could quickly lead anyone to that conclusion since it appears that most of our storefronts are either banks, drugstores or coffee shops. However, do those storefronts provide a fair reading of the landscape? Or do their large eye-catching signs draw your attention away from the other businesses on the street?

Now, take a look at the landscape of your intranet, portal, public-facing website or other knowledge management system.  Are the signs there clear?  Do they communicate unambiguously what your KM program or legal practice are about? Are the important content items easy to find? Is the critical functionality easy to use? Would an extraterrestrial looking at these resources understand what it is you are trying to do? Or would you be misunderstood just like the streetscape of Manhattan?

Reading the landscape is something we do every day.  It helps us navigate efficiently through life.  Have you created a landscape that provides clear, easy to use signs?  If you think you have, congratulations.  Nonetheless, you would be wise to check with your internal and external clients.  After all, they are the ones for whom you created the landscape.

[Photo Credit: Andrew Mace]


Do You Really Know?

Do you really know how your colleagues work? Do you really know what they need? Are you sure? If you don’t truly understand them, how can you provide the right knowledge management and technology support to help them?

Every time I hear someone in law firm knowledge management or IT say “Our lawyers would never…,” I’m tempted to ask them to produce the evidence for their assertion.  All too often the person declaiming about the “lawyers” has never actually worked beside them for any meaningful period of time. However, this doesn’t stop them from making overly broad statements about “those lawyers” based on incomplete or misconstrued information.

How do they get themselves in this mess?  There are any number of ways:  collecting anecdotal information in an unsystematic way, failing to grasp the context for what they are being told, not understanding the business processes in which the lawyers are engaged, not discerning what motivates those lawyers, refusing to consider evidence that contradicts their preconceptions, etc. Regardless of how they found themselves in this mess, the consequences are not trivial.  Their approach can prevent these knowledge management or IT personnel from offering services and resources that could materially improve the work life and work product of their lawyer colleagues.  Further, it can be an enormous barrier to innovation when a service provide in KM or IT hides behind misguided impressions, rather than relying on facts.

So what’s the solution?  At the recent ILTA 2010 Conference, we heard of several more fruitful approaches to understanding better how your internal clients work.  Connie Hoffman (CIO at Bryan Cave) recommended engaging in active listening, as well as creating a close development partnership with the lawyers.  Sandy Owen (Operations Director, Legal & Corporate Affairs, Intel Corporation) and Jessica Shawl (Operations Program Manager, Legal & Corporate Affairs, Intel Corporation) told us how Intel used flip cameras to document in video exactly how their in-house lawyers worked and ways in which technology made their lives easier or more challenging.  They also conducted “web jams” to gather information on user needs from their internal clients.

Moving beyond the world of lawyers, Ted Schadler at Forrester recently recounted how Peter Hambling (CIO of Lloyd’s of London) set about to change the way the IT department interacted with the end-users at Lloyd’s:

They’ve … embedded IT staff directly into the cubicle farms of business employees; they’ve built innovative solutions with teams comprised of business and IT employees; they’ve created applications that empower employees to understand global risk through a familiar interactive map. They created a new contract with business managers and employees that gives IT professionals a place in the business.

So now you’ve seen some examples of ways to get closer to your internal clients and understand better how you can improve their work lives. If you’re tempted to try video, take a look at Life in a Day: the story of a single day on earth.  It’s a rather extreme example of documenting how people work and live. Perhaps it will inspire you.

[Photo Credit: dsb nola]


Bevin Hernandez Keynote: Culture & Engagement

Bevin Hernandez, Project Manager, Penn State

“You have installed your Enterprise 2.0 solution. Now you’re wondering, “what’s next?” Bevin answers that question by explaining what to include in your strategy to realize Enterprise 2.0’s business value as well as the uncommon approach taken by Penn State Outreach to transform their organization.”


[These are my quick notes, complete with  (what I hope is no more than) the occasional typo and grammatical error.  Please excuse those. Thanks!

From time to time, I’ll insert my own editorial comments – exercising the prerogatives of the blogger.  I’ll show those in brackets. ]


  • Explains the impact on the business of three different types of employees: highly engaged, basically engaged, actively disengaged.
  • Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs is key to orgs and plays into using social media.  It doesn’t address biological or security needs.  However, it does address the need for relationships and the ability to achieve self-actualization.
  • They took a look at networks and their value. They found that networks can break down when nodes break. However, a network built on a foundation of triadic relationships proved to be very stable.
  • They created a graphic: on the horizontal axis you track social engagement, on the vertical axis you track purpose.
    • Lost – they have no purpose and aren’t social
    • Social Butterfly – they are all social but lack purpose
    • Type A “All work, no play” – they have lots of purpose/focus, but aren’t social
    • Magic – they have clear purpose/focus and are social
  • You can help people move horizontally/vertically to another quadrant, but you cannot move people diagonally. To help them move by providing support.
  • Social Butterflies can be moved to the Magic quadrant by helping connect them to purpose. Highlight the stories that explain the purpose and motivate change.
  • The “Lost” can move either to the Social Butterfly quadrant (to create connections) or to Type A (by giving them the tools that make them more productive and make their lives easier).
  • UPenn is using (and clearly loving) ThoughtFarmer.

Feel First, Act Next

Lawyers pride themselves on being logical. Our work lives are focused on problem solving and we relish the intellectual challenge of finding innovative solutions to the issues that vex our clients. It’s therefore not surprising that in designing law firm knowledge management systems we tend to focus first on a rational design and sensible implementation.  However, once the hoopla of the launch is over, we’re often left wondering why adoption rates are so low.

Next, take the challenge posed by good knowledge management practice, which frequently requires our users to behave differently.  We know that the recommended change in behavior will lead to all sorts of beneficial effects and we usually tell our users this.  But is that enough to make them change the way they behave? Usually not.

Have we been going about this the wrong way? According to Dan Heath, we’re absolutely wrong.  He believes that knowledge alone won’t change behavior.  In a recent article in Fast Company entitled Want your organization to change? Put feelings first, he cites change management expert John Kotter:

John Kotter, one of the top gurus on organizational change, [says] that most people think change happens in three stages. You analyze the situation, and you think really hard about the solution, and then you just change. But he says that’s almost never the way change happens. He says that in his experience, it’s a different three-stage process: people SEE something that makes them FEEL something that gives them the fire to CHANGE. SEE-FEEL-CHANGE.

So coming back to our KM system — perhaps we should focus on design that makes the user feel good rather than design that appeals simply to the intellect.  And, what about those pro-KM behaviors of knowledge sharing and collaboration?  Perhaps the key there is to help users experience the reality of those benefits rather than simply preaching the theory of the benefits.  Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing bad about working in a logical, systematic fashion.  However, if we want to effect change, we can’t eliminate emotional content from our work product.  At the end of the day, if we can’t make our colleagues feel something, their indifference will bury KM.

[Photo Credit: Kevin Labianco]


Women Love Drama?

“Women love drama!”  I overheard this pearl of wisdom on the street the other day. If I hadn’t been racing to a meeting, I might have stopped to engage with the two “gentlemen” who were pontificating about women on a busy street corner in Manhattan. Perhaps it’s just as well that I was in a rush. After all, how do you begin to address a hopeless generalization like “women love drama”? Somehow I doubt that creating my own drama on that corner would have helped the cause of women.

As I walked away, I wondered how often we make generalizations in our lives and thereby avoid the need to analyze closely what’s really going on around us. For example, in law firm knowledge management circles I often hear statements that begin with the words: “THE LAWYERS…” As a lawyer and a knowledge manager, I know that I’m not part of a monolithic indistinguishable mass. In fact, I know lots of quirky people who act in unexpected ways — even though they are lawyers.  Therefore, building a knowledge management system around someone’s personal generalization of an entire group of people makes no sense at all.  However, it does happen.

What’s the antidote?  Start by being honest about your sample size.  How many lawyers have you spoken to or observed with respect to a particular generalization? Then, look outside your experience of your firm to the experience of other firms.  Does your generalization hold up?  If not, is it because you’re working with a truly unique group of lawyers or are you working with a flawed view of lawyers?

If we can’t safely rely on personal generalizations, what other shortcuts can we reliably use in planning, deploying and maintaining KM systems? There are by now many studies (backed by lots of data) regarding human behavior and usability preferences.  Make sure you stay aware of this literature.  And, if you’re working with a good vendor, you should be able to take advantage of their experience of deploying their product in a variety of environments and with a range of users.

At the end of the day, don’t assume that all users are like the handful you actually know.  Failure to follow this rule could lead to a great deal of unwelcome drama that is a whole lot more substantial than the female drama some think they’ve experienced!

[Photo Credit:  Schroedinger’s Cat]


Don’t Break Noses

He nearly broke my nose yesterday. We were both walking at the typical New York City pace (fast), when I rounded the corner and almost ploughed right into him. If we hadn’t stopped ourselves in time, we would have had a broken nose or two.

What happened?  We were walking in opposite directions in tunnels that connected two separate subway lines.   The problem was caused by the architect and builders of those tunnels who clearly didn’t spend even one nanosecond thinking about traffic patterns. If they had, they wouldn’t have created a path that put this man and me on a  collision course.  Since we both were essentially blind going around that corner, we had to rely on the foresight and thoughtfulness of the architect and builders.  Unfortunately, their design let us down.

Now think about the paths you create in your various knowledge management systems.  Have you designed them thoughtfully, taking care to make things simple and intuitive for your users?  Or, have you set your users up for frustration and, possibly, a broken nose?


Here are some additional resources if you’re interested in reading about usability and design:

[Photo Credit:  rytc]


Trading Our Privacy

In Rousseau’s social contract, people surrendered part of their autonomy to a central authority in order to gain the benefits of civil society, not least among which were social order and personal security.  In the Internet’s social contract, we seem to have given up our bargaining power.  All too often we surrender our privacy because of laziness and inertia.  Of course, we dress it up by claiming that a loss of privacy is the cost of increased efficiency.  Thanks to the open way we transact much of our social and personal business online, there is very little that can’t be found out about us with minimal effort. Given the ubiquity of Google, much of our lives are discoverable by Google.  Your e-mail?  Google has it.  Your social media exchanges?  Google is indexing those as well.

I don’t mean to pick on Google.  Let’s look at Facebook.  People flock to that platform daily, jump in with both feet, and start recording the minutiae of their lives in this public forum.  How many of them bother to look at, much less do something about, the privacy options Facebook provides? And, what about all those online retailers who know not only what you buy, but what catches your interest as you browse their inventory.

Did we mean for this to happen?  Should we just roll-over and take it or is this something we should fight?

I’ve posted below a video from Google that discusses their alternative to the Internet’s lack of privacy.  Google calls it the Opt-Out Village.  While the video is tongue-on-cheek, it does provide a sobering reminder of how much of our privacy we’ve surrendered.  I suspect Google considers privacy an over-valued relic of the past.  And, based on our recent behavior, it’s hard not to reach that conclusion.  But is that a fair conclusion?  On the other hand, do we deserve privacy when we seem to value it so little?

Google’s Opt-Out Village:

[Hat tip to Neil Richards for passing on the Google video link.)

[Photo Credit:  Mikey G Ottawa]


How to Ruin an IT Project

If you ask users, they might well tell you that in their experience of KM and IT implementations, the old saying sadly holds true:  “There’s many a slip twixt the cup and the lip.”  That saying captures what often happens when law firm knowledge management and IT personnel start building systems to “meet user requirements.”  Lots of well-intentioned folks spend far too much time worrying a problem to death and yet, in the process, sometimes lose sight of what the end-user actually needs or wants.  The best cure for this malady is to stick as closely as possible to the user during each of the requirements gathering, design and implementation phases.  And, as you’re doing this, make sure that your work product reflects at each stage the users’ growing understanding of the tool and your growing understanding of the users.  Otherwise, you’ll end up with a system that faithfully follows the initial requirements document while missing the mark on what the users ultimately realize they needed all along.

For those of you who read this blog post by e-mail or via an RSS reader, please do take a look at the image above.  I promise it will be worth your while.

[Photo credit:  Dullhunk]


When Right is Easy

Pearls of wisdom sometimes turn up in the unlikeliest of places. In this case, I was sitting through yet another vendor presentation when the voice behind the PowerPoint slides said: “Make doing the right thing the easy thing.” Brilliant.

When we deploy new technology or knowledge management systems, we have enormous influence over the users.  We set up the expectations of “normal” behavior and provide the tools.  In the course of our planning, we identify the optimal ways of using the tool and hope that our users will agree and use it as planned.  All too often, that doesn’t pan out.  Why?  Even assuming you’ve chosen the correct tool for the job, things can still go off the rails if you aren’t careful in your design.  Here are some of the usual problems that result:

  • The “right thing” is largely theoretical and is the product of over zealous but well-meaning people in IT and KM who haven’t had the front line experience of delivering service directly to a client of the firm.
  • The “right thing” requires so many steps that you’d have to be a plaster saint to comply.
  • The “right thing” addresses a “wrong thing” of which the users were blissfully ignorant.  If they don’t understand (or care about) the problem, they won’t assist with the solution.

On the other hand, since you’re the one setting up the system, you have a ton of flexibility (or at least as much as the vendor will provide) in organizing things for the convenience of your users.  Equally, with a little forethought you can help guide them to better behavior:

  • Change the default options so that the preferred behavior is the one that occurs automatically.  Interesting work has been done in the area of automatic enrollment for 401K programs, for example.  By changing the default from opt in to opt out, the number of participants has increased dramatically.  Unfortunately, since the default in many employer retirement programs assumes minimal contribution, people aren’t taking advantage of their total 401K opportunities.  Perhaps this is a place where further adjustment of the default setting might be helpful.
  • Be sure that your user interface assists rather than impedes doing the right thing.  More often than not, it’s the UI that frustrates the user so much that they just don’t have the energy to overcome it in order to do the right thing.
  • Demonstrate the rewards of doing the right things and keep track of the cost of doing the wrong thing.  These statistics can demonstrate the real impact on the enterprise of your planning and design choices.

Before you deploy any system, take a little extra time to confirm that you’ve identified what the “right thing” is AND that you’ve created a system that makes it easy to do that right thing.  If you haven’t, you might as well save yourself a boatload of pain and just go back to the drawing board now.

[Photo Credit:  Jungle Boy]


Linear is Not Always Best

Our society has made a fetish of linear thinking. We’ve been trained to expect that A will lead to B, which in turn will lead to C. We breathe a sigh of relief whenever we experience what Webster’s New Millennium Dictionary of English describes as a “step-by-step progression where a response to a step must be elicited before another step is taken.”  All of this is deeply comforting — even when it is not entirely appropriate.

In the June 2009 issue of KMWorld Magazine, Dave Snowden recounts an experience from the beginning of his career in which he elected to design a new system in a manner that didn’t fit well within established design methods.  He was creating something that had never existed before and decided early on that IT’s usual linear approach wasn’t going to work.  In fairness, it sounds like he initially did try to conform.  However, once he set about to gather requirements he quickly discovered that

…few if any of the users had any idea of the capabilities of software.  As a result, if you asked them what they wanted, they told you what they currently did, or asked for automation of existing processes.  To use an adage of that time, `Users say they know what they want until they get it, and then they want something different.

Instead of IT’s traditional linear approach, he adopted an iterative method whereby he and his clients engaged in a more curvaceous  “co-evolutionary process” to develop the new system.  Drawing on his own substantive experience of the work his clients were trying to do, he approached the design effort in the following way:

…I could talk with the users in their own language; go away and develop a module with real data; and create reports, monitoring screens and other processes based on a synthesis of my knowledge, the stated needs of the client and my knowledge of the technology.  The application would work in novel ways, users would find new ways of working, and modifications would be agreed upon.  Over the course of a year, a powerful application emerged that was very different from anything that either the user or I could have defined.

In many ways, this is a textbook description of how to implement social media tools within the enterprise.  Work iteratively with your users, create opportunities to learn from each other and from the tool using a series of “safe-fail” experiments, stay in beta for as long as it takes to reflect user reality in your tool, and don’t be afraid to step off the straight and narrow path of linear thinking.  To be clear, this is not a recommendation that you abandon all logic in your design and implementation.  Rather, it is a reminder that there can be great beauty and greater rewards in following a more circuitous route.

[Photo Credit:  Headsqueeze]