KM for the Obese Lawyer

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]

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Managing the Fire Hose

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]

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