Pushing the Envelope: From CMS to KCMS #KMWorld

kmworld-socialSpeaker: Laurie Nelsen, Sr. Manager – Ontologist, Mayo Clinic

[These are my notes from the KMWorld 2014 Conference. Since I’m publishing them as soon as possible after the end of a session, they may contain the occasional typographical or grammatical error. Please excuse those. To the extent I’ve made any editorial comments, I’ve shown those in brackets.]

Session Description: Mayo Clinic’s delivery of high-quality, affordable healthcare depends on integrating knowledge to promote innovation across patient care, research, and education. Providing the best current health information and services requires an agile and responsive content management ecosystem for creating and managing content as well as meeting the emerging needs for the delivery of “smart” content. The Clinic’s solution was to extend traditional CM technologies with a semantic services layer to support standards-based knowledge interoperability within and between organizations. Nelson shares the technical architecture and design choices made to build and deploy its Knowledge Content Management System (KCMS). KCMS’s solution to the problem of knowledge integration and flexible access is twofold: First, it utilizes the capabilities of the CMS to author, manage, and deliver the information. Secondly, it tightly integrates the CMS with a semantic services layer that provides the intelligence that enables users to find the right information, no matter who authored it or how it is stored.


  • Start by defining the problem: Content management system (CMS) technology provides content, authority and delivery functionality, but is fundamentally different than vocabulary and annotation (tagging) management technology, which provides the semantic context of the content to support findability.
  • Then learn to tell the story well: Create success story about how the problem could be solved and then told it, over and over again. Their story illustrated “semantics in action.”  (For an example, see their MayoClinic.com guide on Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Their approach: Their approach involved creating a pattern with a semantic overlayer to the content manager. This could be used to create one or one thousand disease guides. They were also able to replace manual links with new dynamically generated links that were organized by the semantic layer. As a result, the organization banned all manual links.
  • Vocabularies: While they try to use as many of the standardized vocabularies, they found that there were not great standard patient-facing or consumer-facing vocabularies. So they had to create those themselves. They have a series of ontologies: people, organization, medical condition, clinical studies, etc. Once they started identified the connections among these ontologies, they found powerful relationships.
  • Next stage: They are working on integrating their systems into a single system. They have learned that innovation does not end with implementation of the technical solution. You need upgrades and you need to continuous improve. They also need to find and tell new stories.
  • True adoption is a really long process: you need to keep nurture the tool and you need to keep telling potential users about how it works and how it can help.
  • Understand and exploit your tools and systems: Why drive a Honda when you have a Maserati in the garage?
  • Biggest Lesson Learned: It’s really about the story. Read The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling by Stephen Denning.

The Disruptive Collaborative Organization #KMWorld

kmworld-socialSpeaker:  Mark Alarik, President, Sales Overlays, Inc. Ariel Host Professional Services

[These are my notes from the KMWorld 2014 Conference. Since I’m publishing them as soon as possible after the end of a session, they may contain the occasional typographical or grammatical error. Please excuse those. To the extent I’ve made any editorial comments, I’ve shown those in brackets.]

Session Description: Alarik focuses on enterprise system thinking and continuous collaboration.  He illustrates with real world examples how systems thinking can build bridges between organization silos to align all units, projects, processes, and personnel with the company’s true mission – to serve the customer better, and for the long term!


The Disruptive Collaborative Organization: How KM can lead innovation & transformation

  • Mark Alarik uses Systems Thinking to solve organizational challenges.
  • Silos are dangerous:
    • Most organizations are organized by silos. In fact, “silo-ization” is so bad that there are sometimes silos within silos. All of this makes sense if you are trying to support a command-and-control organizational structure, but it serves to preserve the status quo. It squashes innovation.
    • Silos cause us to constrain ourselves since we are limited to the information we have within our own silo.  All analyses of problems are based on a small group of decision makers, from a limited number of perspectives. This leads to far too many unintended consequences.
  • Complicated versus Complex problems: With complicated probems, there is broad agreement on the definition of the problem, range of solutions, etc. By contrast, when you have a complex problem, there may not even be basic agreement as to the definition of the problem.
  • Systems Thinking: Systems thinking recognizes that the value of the system is not in its parts. The value is in the interconnectedness of its parts. Therefore, you can’t introduce a new part without disrupting the rest of the parts. When Lou Gerstner arrived at IBM, he found not only silos, but kingdoms! So he forced collaboration across silos by basing performance management on the success of all parts of the systems. Cutting cost and waste is not a strategy. It is a benefit of systems thinking.
  • System of profound knowledge: it gives you freedome from trapped policies and mindsets. It gives you the freedom to pursue the Idealized Design (i.e., what your organization would look like if you built it tomorrow from scratch). It also creates a process of continuous improvement.
  • The boundary-less enterprise: This is an organization that looks outside its walls for innovation. It may even look beyond its industry to find that innovation. The Gutenberg printing press was based on a wine press that Gutenberg found on a farm. By going outside his industry, he found inspiration and innovation.
  • Theory of Constraints: What is the most vital thing this organization should focus on? And what should we stop focusing on? Once you’ve found your area of focus, identify the constraints and bottlenecks. In addition, find the waste in the organization. Once you eliminate that waste, you’ll surface excess capacity and resources that can be redeployed more productively.
  • Increase velocity of change: Build the ability of your organization to increase the speed of change from years, to months, weeks and even hours. This will make your organization extraordinarily responsive and adaptive. Alarik citing Jake Chapman: The whole organization learns only when everyone in it has access to the learning (and provides feedback).
  • KDSD Team: Knowledge discover, sharing and distribution team. This team should be made up of systems thinkers. They should work with right stakeholders. Then find the appropriate technologies that fit with your systems thinking approach.
  • To learn more on Systems Thinking: 

Seth Earley Keynote: Winning the Customer Experience Arms Race #KMWorld

kmworld-socialSpeaker: Seth Earley is CEO of Earley & Associates, an information management strategy consulting firm.  Seth also serves as Editor, Data Analytics, for IT Professional Magazine from the IEEE.  His interests include Knowledge Strategy, Data and Information Architecture, Search-based Applications and Information Findability solutions.  Seth has conducted workshops for senior leadership around aligning information management strategy with measurable business outcomes and developed information governance programs for clients in healthcare, technology, manufacturing, insurance, retail, pharmaceutical and financial services industries.  He has worked with a diverse roster of Fortune 1000 companies helping them to achieve higher levels of operating performance by making information more findable, usable and valuable through integrated enterprise architectures supporting analytics, e-commerce and customer experience applications.  His twitter handle is @sethearley.

[These are my notes from the KMWorld 2014 Conference. Since I’m publishing them as soon as possible after the end of a session, they may contain the occasional typographical or grammatical error. Please excuse those. To the extent I’ve made any editorial comments, I’ve shown those in brackets.]

Session Description: As product differentiation diminishes in many markets, companies are increasingly investing in the customer experience as a competitive advantage. Winning organizations have decision-making processes and feedback mechanisms that enable them to experiment and respond quickly to their evolving market landscape. They have also taken action to make their full portfolio of product and customer information accessible to their customer-facing processes. Earley looks at which Fortune 1000 companies are winning the customer experience arms race and how they are doing it and provides ways to frame the needs and opportunities to senior leadership.


  • What’s customer experience? Customer experience is about ALL of the interactions the customer has with an organization: the marketing, product, communications, interchanges, etc. It applies to external AND internal customers. (Customers often do business with the company they hate the least at the moment.) Customer context is key.
  • What makes customer experience challenging? The customer experience ecosystem is complex. It cuts across lots of different interaction, touch points, systems, silos, etc. (E.g., email, print, shipping/logistics, support, legal/contracts, receivables, web, call center, bricks and mortar store, billing, mobile, social media, sales, service, partner portal, etc.)
  • Two-site syndrome: According to Forrester, most corporate websites have segregated brand marketing and ecommerce sites that are poorly stitched together. Therefore, the customer must leap across various rorganizationaldivides as they switch between exploration, education, purchasing and support.
  • The customer experience must be seamless across the product lifecycle: This can be tough when different stages rely on different systems and processes. To make matters worse, internal customers also have to contend with this disparate systems and processes. To address this problem, you need an enterprise view of the systems/processes that underpin the customer journey. Map the customer journey through use cases and scenarios.
  • Start by describing the customer: Look at their social graph, behavioral segmentation, marketing and any other relevant attribute models. Use whatever makes most sense in your context AND in your customer’s context. When you mine the social graph, you can make personalized recommendations. Remember, however, that context changes. To cope with this, build libraries of customer use cases. What information do people need in the context of this step of the process toward their goal?
  • Don’t be creepy: There is a very fine line between excellent customer experience and being really creepy. The more you know about your customer, the more you can anticipate your customers’ needs. However, don’t cross the line into invading their privacy or making unauthorized disclosures. (Eg., Target’s famous pregnancy case.)
  • Move from fragmentation to integration: This means moving along a maturity model from confused to siloed to coordinated and fully integrated. For many, building an enterprise taxonomy is a key part of this effort. Building an enterprise taxonomy is very challenging, but it is the foundation for knowledge management, content architecture, workflow and biz processes.

10 Mistakes to Avoid When Purchasing Digital Workplace Technology #KMWorld

kmworld-socialSpeaker: Jarrod Gingras, Senior Analyst and Managing Director, Real Story Group

Session Description: Based on work with thousands of enterprises, Gingras shares the common mistakes that cause technology projects to go off the rails before they even start. He reviews the 10 most critical mistakes that enterprises make during the digital workplace technology selection process and introduces ways to navigate around them.

[These are my notes from the KMWorld 2014 Conference. Since I’m publishing them as soon as possible after the end of a session, they may contain the occasional typographical or grammatical error. Please excuse those. To the extent I’ve made any editorial comments, I’ve shown those in brackets.]


  • Perspective & Disclaimers: Real Story Group describes itself as the consumer reports of the digital workplace space and digital marketing space. They analyze the weaknesses and strengths of the tools and their vendors. They also do some consulting on technology audits; technology strategy & roadmaps; and product and vendor selection (i.e., tech matchmaking). They consider themselves to be a buyer’s advocate for enterprises looking to invest in content technologies (e.g., web content and experience management, digital and media asset management, enterprise collaboration and social software, SharePoint, etc.).
  1. Neglecting the Business Case: Now that there are some cheap/free technology options, it is easy to overlook the business case. After all who wants to go through the hoops of identifying and documenting the business case? Wrong! It’s important to consider more than just the financial implications of new technology. The companies that go through the discipline of creating a business case find that they are more honest about goals and requirements, and it improves their communications internally about the project.
  2. Prioritizing systems over screens: IT tends to focus on the “IT stack” (e.g., access channels, common core of standards and frameworks such as permissions and security, systems of records, technology platforms, infrastructure services). This approach is good for the enterprise, but Gingras says you should take a more employee-centered view. Employees want efficiency, effectiveness, ease of use. They want applications that help them work better. Think about giving them a social Q&A capability rather than thinking about a system (e.g., document management system). Focus on what they want to get done. This means you have to put a priority on the user experience (e.g., user journeys and top tasks, workplace “contextually inquiry,” etc.). This may mean poaching UX/UI talent from other businesses/industries.
  3. Thinking project, not product: Think beyond the implementation project. Think about your digital workplace initiative as a product that needs to managed, they need care and feeding, they need continuous improvement. Focus on product managers, not just project managers. Product managers work with your internal communities to improve the product and mine those communities for new ideas and use cases.
  4. Falling into the requirement checklist trap: The RFP isn’t the problem. The type of RFPs are the problem. Don’t start by identifying all your technical requirements. Vendors will just respond by claiming that they can do every little thing you want. Do start with a handful of high-level technical requirements. Then, focus on typical scenarios and processes for which you need a tech solution. Be careful to be sufficiently DEScription without being excessively PREscriptive. This allows the vendor to engage with your issues/dreams rather than disembodied requirements. These scenarios can be used to shortlist the right vendors and create a bake-off among vendors.
  5. Shortlisting the wrong vendors: If you shortlist the wrong vendors, you end up doing an apples-to-oranges comparisons. It can be confusing to sort out vendors because many of them overlap. Yet not all of them are right for your needs. Yes, they all may be able to solve your problem BUT they will likely use very different approaches.  Do your homework so you understand the difference in their approaches. How do you get to the right shortlist? Start with your use case scenarios. Then compare those to the “canonical use cases” that each vendor is best at. (When they move outside their sweet spot, they end up customizing massively to get their square peg into your round hole.”) You want to match your key use case to their greatest area of strength. In other words: find the products that were built with your use case in mind.
  6. Only viewing canned demos: Most canned demos are a waste of time. They always look good, but they have very little to do with your use case/problem. Demand that the vendor provides a demo that matches your scenario. In addition, insist that they spend the vast majority of their time on these scenarios and just a few minutes (10?) on their company. Be aware that vendors want to focus on the Sexy: social, mobile, cloud, sentiment analysis, etc. Instead force them to focus on the Not Sexy: workflow, version control, audit trails, content models, taxonomies, metadata, etc.
  7. Underestimating the full implementation picture: Most companies overbuy and over-estimate. Don’t overbuy on products. If you can’t implement or adopt them sufficiently, it’s a waste of time and money. Equally, don’t over-estimate your capability to implement and use a technology. Often you need a third-party integrator, implementor or consultant to help you actually standup and adopt the new tool. You may need a blend of in-house team, professional services and third-party advisors.
  8. Improperly test-driving the solution: Conduct a realistic bake-off or proof-of-concept to build out something that closely addresses your most important scenarios. This will reveal what it is really like to accomplish simple things (e.g., configure users, create templates, modify workflows, etc.) and it reveals the harder things you will face. Use “your kitchen, your ingredients and your cooks.” This means your premises, your users, your scenario.
  9. Ignoring the intangibles: Don’t purchase without first assessing vendor professional services, channel partner services, support & community, strategy & roadmap; and the viability & stability of this product and this vendor. You need a scenario fit, a technology fit, a vendor fit and a value fit.
  10. Waiting too long to negotiate: List pricing is always negotiable in larger deals. They have seen up to 100% price reductions in order to win/keep a customer. So don’t accept rack rates. (Obviously smaller deals have less room to negotiate.) Most organizations do their price negotiations at the selection/launch phase, which is after you have made a substantial investment of time and effort. This is too late. At this point, you don’t have much negotiating room. It’s better to negotiate at the time you are getting your true scenario onsite demos — always pushing the price down as the vendor learns more about you and how well the product fits out of the box.

What Scares Law Firm Knowledge Managers?

halloween-150363_1280We’ve all heard the “what keeps you up at night” question. Nonetheless, on a day devoted to terror, it seems appropriate to ask again: “What scares you?” If you’re a law firm knowledge manager, here are some things you ought to be considering:

  • Serious Security. Security is a good thing, no? Not if a concern for security significantly encroaches on the free flow of information across your firm. This is precisely the conundrum facing law firm knowledge managers who see clients driving their outside counsel to lock down information on a need-to-know basis. When these hyper-restrictive measures are in place, how do you ensure that the work of each lawyer represents the collective wisdom of the entire firm? This is the scary side of security.
  • Moldering Models. You may be in a KM department that has done an outstanding job of creating the model documents that the lawyers in your firm believe they need to work efficiently. But have you been equally successful in keeping those models updated? If not, how do you keep lawyers safe from errors that can occur when they rely on an outdated model?
  • Fewer Tech Toys. In the early 2000s, there were lots of technological advances to drive KM programs. Law firm KM personnel could keep themselves well-occupied by implementing client extranets, SharePoint portals and enterprise search engines. Recently, however, there have been few if any shiny new tech toys. This means that law firm knowledge managers must move beyond working for their vendors to actually considering a more strategic approach to KM. For some, this will be a daunting if not downright scary challenge.
  • Stagnant Career Path. Have you assessed the professional development of your KM staff recently? How many have been expanding their skills? How many have been assuming additional responsibilities? How many are ready for a new, more senior position? Can your firm provide them with a satisfying career path? In these days of reduced budgets, few firms are creating new positions. So how will you keep your best performers engaged and growing?
  • Competition from Financial Services Firms. In Snacking on Big Law’s Crumbs, I reported on how some accounting firms were doing work that looked an awful lot like legal work. In fact, they came close to competing with law firms. Competition from the financial services industry has now spilled over into law firm knowledge management.  While law firm KM jobs do not come up all that often, recently a few firms have seriously considered KM personnel from the financial services industry for senior roles in law firm KM departments. If you thought you could make steady progress up through the ranks to claim your law firm CKO crown someday, think again. It may not be all that easy if there is competition from law firm personnel AND financial services personnel. Are you ready to compete?

So what scares you? And what are you going to do about it?


After Ark: Notes from the Legal KM Conference

ark-logoAs I discovered at last week’s Ark Legal KM Conference, one of the benefits of being a conference co-chair is that you have an opportunity to provide some closing remarks. Eager to take advantage of this opportunity, I prepared my remarks and a slide deck before the conference started. However, by the end of the first day of the conference it was clear to me that I would have to toss my materials and start over again. Why? Because the speakers took the conversation into some new areas that I had not heard discussed at recent Ark conferences.

How nice to be surprised!

Among the themes that emerged during the conference were the importance of trust, strategy, knowledge flows and alliances:

  • Trust. According to psychologist Robert Plutchik, trust is one of the eight primary emotions. As Bruna Martinuzzi points out, it may be the most fragile of the emotions: Trust is “difficult to establish, hard to maintain and easy to break.” The challenge for knowledge management personnel is that without trust there can be little effective knowledge sharing. Yet how many of us intentionally focus our efforts on establishing and preserving trust?
  • Strategy. As I discovered in the course of my research for Optimizing Law Firm Support Functions, having a strategy is critical if you wish to optimize your KM department. While any number of activities may be worthy, they won’t be ultimately worthwhile unless they serve your firm’s business strategy.  Interestingly, while many of the KM personnel attending the conference said that their firms had a business strategy and that their KM program was aligned with that strategy, virtually no one in the room was willing to claim that they used metrics to track their progress against strategic goals. Do we have a fundamental problem?
  • Knowledge Stocks versus Knowledge Flows. Traditionally, law firm KM has focused on building up sizeable knowledge stocks: inventories of model documents, practice guides, clause libraries, etc. To be honest, far too many lawyers believe it is the role of law firm KM to create these knowledge stocks and then make them accessible via the firm’s intranet. During the conference, however, we talked about the value of switching focus from knowledge stocks to knowledge flows. This switch would mean shifting from capturing, organizing and classifying knowledge into databases, collections and websites, to sharing knowledge by convening and facilitating conversations. If we’re agreed that the firm’s most valuable and elusive knowledge is its tacit knowledge, then why are some of us spending the bulk of our time on stocks of explicit knowledge?
  • Administrative Alliances. Lori Reese Patton (Chief Learning Officer) and Bill Turner (Chief Knowledge Officer) of Womble Carlyle showed the conference attendees an inspiring example of how much more can be accomplished when heads of administrative departments reach across departmental boundaries and silos to create alliances for the benefit of the firm. In a time of reduced budgets and smaller staff, strategic administrative alliances can expand a KM department’s opportunities, resources and impact.

This is just one of my snapshots of the conference. Each attendee of the conference undoubtedly has their own snapshots of memorable moments and lessons from the presentations. I hope the conversations begun at the Ark conference continue. There is much for all of us to learn together.


Where is Your Failure Report?

Engineers Without Borders logoIf your organization is populated by perfect people with a perfect track record, feel free to ignore this post. For the rest of you, I’d urge you to spend a little time with Engineers Without Borders Canada. This nonprofit was founded in 2000 by two young engineers who had “a dream of an organization that would enable engineers to contribute something other than another bridge or another electrical grid.” Since then, the organization has built its fair share of wells in Africa, but it has also moved beyond those projects to tackle some really big ideas:

Some are social enterprises that bring affordable financing the rural entrepreneurs. Some improve African government service-delivery and decision-making. And some mobilize Canadians and engineers to create change in areas like ethical consumption. All challenge the status quo and provide radical alternatives to unjust systems.

One key to the organization’s growth and success has been failure. Or, more precisely, it’s gutsy approach to failure. These engineers understood early on that they couldn’t move forward if they did not learn from both their own experience and the experiences of others. A critical part of this was learning from failure. But how can one do this when few people own up to their failures? To address this, Engineers Without Borders Canada set out to create a new learning and innovation culture in which disclosing, discussing and even celebrating failure would not only be possible but, in fact, be expected. While a conversation behind closed doors might be tempting from a risk and reputation management perspective, Engineers Without Borders Canada puts its money where its mouth is: this organization discloses its failures publicly. Since 2008, the organization has published an annual Failure Report that contains “strong reflections on misaligned expectations, misplaced intentions, and incorrect assumptions.”  That’s right — they put it out there for the entire world to see.  They put it out there for their donors to see. Talk about transparency and accountability.

So why should any of this matter to someone working in a professional services firm or other for-profit business? If your organization is serious about innovation and improved performance, it has to confront the results of experiments gone wrong. And, it has to do so in a culture that supports learning rather than lynching. Engineers Without Borders Canada seeks to help all organizations build a supportive culture through storytelling. Their aim is to encourage as many organizations as possible to come clean about what’s really going on. Why?

The more stories that are shared, the easier it becomes to share your own. Slowly but surely, failure becomes less of the “F Word,” and a more commonplace, even celebrated vehicle for humility, learning, and innovation.

Striving for Humility is the title of the 2013 Annual Report of Engineers Without Borders Canada. While I don’t expect anyone in a law firm to draft a report with that title, consider what you might write if you told the truth about what’s happening on your watch. What would change if you successfully identified repeatable lessons that could be shared with your colleagues. What if those lessons were incorporated in your organization’s operating procedures? To be clear, this is not about paying lip service to transparency with an occasional after action review or, worse still, a database of lessons learned that no one ever consults. Rather, this is about encouraging attitudes and behaviors that enable us to share knowledge, learn and innovate. It’s about creating an organizational culture that is more honest and, perhaps, a tad more humble.

So in that spirit, I’ll ask again: Where is your failure report?


A Law Firm Lesson from Apple

Apple_gray_logoOkay. I’ll admit to a fangirl moment (or three) as I watched the much-anticipated Apple announcement. Apple had lots of good news for device junkies: bigger and better phones and a gorgeous new watch.

Wedged between the announcements about new devices, however, was an interesting introduction to an innovative service: Apple Pay. In brief, Apple deploys near-field communication technology to allow us to use phones and watches to make contactless payments. Apple’s vision is to replace the wallet altogether, beginning with payments.

According to Apple CEO, Tim Cook, credit and debit payments are a huge business in themselves — 200 million transactions each day totalling $12 billion per day and $4 trillion each year, just in the United States. However, this business is built on a precarious foundation: thin pieces of plastic that use magnetic strip technology that is five-decades old and security codes that are not terribly secure.

None of this is news. In fact, we’ve known for some time that this business was ripe for disruption, yet that disruption never materialized — despite the evident dangers of the current system.

Enter Apple and Apple Pay. Granted, Apple has the technology, reach and audacity to reform a business so different from its core business. (After all, we’ve seen Apple make this move before in the music industry and the telecoms industry.) Yet, what made it possible for Apple to take on the financial services industry when others have tried and failed? Here’s the answer in Tim Cook’s words:

It’s no wonder that people have dreamed of replacing [credit cards] for years. But they’ve all failed. … Why is this? It’s because…most people that have worked on this have started by focusing on creating a business model that was centered around their self-interest instead of focusing on the user experience.

We love this kind of problem. This is exactly what Apple does best. So we’ve created an entirely new payment process and we call it Apple Pay.

In case you missed it, here are the critical words: “most people that have worked on this have started by focusing on creating a business model that was centered around their self-interest instead of focusing on the user experience.” When I heard these words, I sat up and took notice. I couldn’t help but wonder: was he talking about law firms? How many firms are built on a business model that privileges the self-interest of partners instead of focusing on the client experience?

While every law firm claims to put its clients first, does it really? Does your firm?

If you’re wondering what the client-first approach would look like in practice, consider Riverview Law. This firm claims to have built its business model “from the client up” as opposed to “from the partner down.” According to Karl Chapman, Riverview’s CEO, putting the client first has a direct impact on the type of people they recruit, the systems they use, and the way they reward and compensate people. Above all, it means developing a firm culture that is markedly different from that of most firms you know.

Apple is considered the most valuable company in the world. Riverview Law is tiny compared to Apple, but it shares Apple’s focus on the client experience. And, like Apple, it has created an entirely new process to serve that client focus. How does your law firm stack up?

[Photo Credit: Wikimedia.org]


When Dysfunction Leads to Disaster

Archduke Franz Ferdinand If the consequences had not been so tragic, the situation would have been laughable.

The project team had been warned that there could be massive problems if they proceeded with their plan, yet the boss insisted on going ahead with the project. Later, when some members of the team wisely decided that a change of course would be advisable and then told the other members of the team, their decision was ignored. Why? Because the people who were supposed to act on the new information spoke a different language and did not understand the newly issued instructions.

This dysfunctional behavior undoubtedly happens more frequently than we would like to admit — especially when working in a rigidly hierarchical organization or across geographies, languages and local cultures.

In the case I have in mind, the head of the team was Archduke Franz Ferdinand (heir presumptive to the Austro-Hungarian throne) and the project was a state visit to Sarajevo on June 28, 1914. Just before his visit, the rumors of an assassination plot were so prevalent that he was asked to call off the visit. He refused. Then when a bomb thrown at his motorcade exploded under a car behind his and injured his aide, he still refused to cancel the visit. When some members of his team finally agreed to take a route that differed from the previously published route, the driver of his car was oblivious. Why? Because the conversation regarding the new route occurred in German and the Czech driver did not understand German. It was one dysfunctional moment compounded by another.

If the consequences had not been so tragic, the situation would have been laughable.

Ironically, when the Archduke’s entourage finally managed to persuade the driver to turn around, the driver stopped the car right in front of a general store — just as assassin Gavrilo Princip came out of the shop with the sandwich he had bought there. Princip seized the moment, raised his gun and took two shots. Both were lethally successful.

What lessons can the wise manager learn from this pivotal moment in history?

  • Keeping a steady course is admirable. However, persistence in the face of credible threats is foolhardy at best and positively dangerous at worst. Unlike Franz Ferdinand who was bullheaded in following his outdated plan, a wise manager will pause to evaluate threats before committing more resources.
  • If you decide to proceed even in the face of credible threats, make sure you have reasonable protection. Franz Ferdinand owned a bulletproof silk vest that he apparently forgot to wear on that fateful day. According to recent tests, that silk vest might have saved his life.
  • Be aware of the extent to which a leader’s personal character and temperament has an impact on that leader’s team. Franz Ferdinand was said to have an ” impatient, suspicious, almost hysterical temperament.” This is not conducive to a calm, reasoned discussion of threats, opportunities and alternatives. Team members generally will refrain from providing their best advice if the team leader does not consistently demonstrate a willingness to listen to and follow reasonable advice.
  • Failure to communicate happens far too frequently. A team must work hard to address any gaps in understanding that might arise because of cultural or language differences.  Merely issuing a directive is insufficient.  A wise manager will ascertain early whether the message was received and understood as intended.

Exactly one month after Franz Ferdinand’s disastrous state visit, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. By August 4, 1914, the Great Powers were engaged in the First World War.

This clearly was a case in which dysfunction led to disaster. Don’t let that be the epitaph of any of your projects.

[This account is taken in part from a wonderful retelling of Franz Ferdinand’s misbegotten trip, as reported in Robert Siegel’s interview of Christopher Clark (author of The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914).]

[Photo Credit: forum.alexanderpalace.org]


What ever happened to?

optimizing book cover.main_image Every so often magazines will run a feature that begins with the words, “What ever happened to…?” Sometimes, the question they ask is “Where are they now?” Often their curiosity is focused on child stars who once seemed ubiquitous but now have all but disappeared. There are even websites devoted to these critical questions.

For those of you who have been loyal readers of this blog over the years, you might be justified in wondering what ever happened to Above and Beyond KM. After all, the activity on this site has declined quite noticeably in recent months. The reason behind this is quite simple. Over the course of the last year I was immersed in two substantial projects: (1) building a business and (2) researching and writing a book. I’m delighted to report that things are going well on the business front. As for the book, it has just been published.

The book is entitled Optimizing Law Firm Support Functions and it studies all the parts of a law firm that are not populated by fee earners. In some firms there are as many (or more) folks working in support functions as there are practising lawyers. These departments ran the gamut from Accounting and Administration to IT and Knowledge Management. But what does firm management really know about how to optimize the work of support departments? In fact, what does an optimized support function look like?

To answer these questions, I conducted over 50 interviews with senior law firm managers, as well as some managing partners, executive directors, consultants and clients. Through these conversations, I was given a behind-the-scenes look at 33 firms in Australia, Canada, England and the United States. While there are admittedly many support departments that are struggling to meet basic requirements in the face of reduced staff and budgets, my research turned up several departments that were able to achieve much more than merely getting by. In fact, their performance was so good that they were well on the way to optimization, if they had not already achieved it.

What is optimization? To optimize is to make something as good or as effective as possible. Optimization means operating at peak performance. For the purposes of the book, I looked for the outliers: the support departments that seemed to be achieving more than their cohort on a consistent basis. They are not flash-in-the-pan successes, but have developed a way of working that yields steady and growing progress.  Through careful hiring and training, as well as wise management and thoughtful internal processes, these support departments routinely produce results that impress. In short, they have transformed themselves from mere cost centers into strategic partners for their respective firms.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be writing more here about what I learned while researching this book. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with this link to the book’s executive summary. For those of you who are interested in reading more, please contact the Ark Group for purchase details.