Resting on Your Laurels Ruins Best Practices

Yesterday’s post, Just Tell Me What Works, discussed some of the weaknesses arising from a blind obsession with best practices. The chief weakness is the false belief that someone else’s solution will work perfectly for you.  But what if you avoid that weakness and actually do the hard work of thinking for yourself in order to create a definitive statement of a best practice in your context.  Are you done? As Joe Firestone reminded me today, unfortunately not.

Once you’ve successfully created a best practices (or next practices) document, it’s tempting to breathe a big sigh of relief, celebrate your accomplishment and then rest on your laurels.  With the passage of enough time, however, you end up with a moth-eaten collection of practices that are interesting primarily for historical purposes.  Your much vaunted “best practices” are now woefully out of date and may even be dangerous from a risk management perspective.

So what’s the solution?  Under the old model, you would ask the chief author of each best practices document to assume responsibility for updating the document as necessary.  Unfortunately, busy schedules (and disinterested authors) can make this difficult.  Yet, we’ve persisted in pursuing this model because it allowed the author to maintain control over a resource that was considered too important to have distributed authorship.  So, you focus on perfect control and get imperfect content.

A related problem with this approach has been identified by Joe Firestone and Steven Cavaleri as a gap between the claims of a best practices document and its track record.  Have those best practices been tested?  Have they passed the test?  If so, is that reflected in the record?  If not, what improvements are necessary?  To do this effectively, you need different folks interacting with the best practices document over time and reporting their results.  This can be done through the imaginative use of Enterprise 2.0 tools (e.g., collaborative tags and annotations), but it does require a willingness to relinquish a measure of control.

For best practice documents and all the other “solutions” promoted by the  firm, Firestone and Cavaleri advocate building a living and breathing knowledge base that provides current information and promotes innovation:

For flexibility and variety, the real knowledge bases we have in mind, ought to be distributed, rather than centralized, and Enterprise 2.0 and 3.0 technology including tagging, annotating, and mashups, and new semantic web applications, should be applied to create both a new and richer layer of meaning and integration across stove pipes. To be effective in creating high quality knowledge bases that will be most useful in enhancing thinking up new ideas, social computing technology must be applied both collaboratively, and in a way that includes all ideas, no matter how new and untested they are. The rule should be to let the knowledge base reflect the track record of performance of ideas comprising solutions, or the absence of such a track record, and leave it up to people to factor that into their own creative thinking.

At the end of the day, identifying best practices is the first rather than the final step.  You then have to test them regularly for currency.  If you give into the temptation to rest on your laurels, you’ll quickly turn those best practices documents into quaint historical artifacts.  Now, please explain to me how that helps your firm manage risk?

[Photo Credit:  Elizabeth Thomsen]


Enterprise 2.0: All Talk and No Action?

Don’t get me wrong. I love hanging out with my social media buddies. They keep me informed and they are a ton of fun.  Their enthusiasm and generosity has facilitated viral growth in the leisure time use of social media.

Unfortunately, their enthusiasm is not quite as infectious as one might hope.  It appears that corporations in this country aren’t totally sold on social media. To be fair, they have made some progress — many of them now admit that they have heard of social media.  But, what are they doing about it?   Not much.

According to a recent AIIM report, while organizations seem to know more about how Enterprise 2.0 works and how it might be helpful in their organizations, it appears they are having trouble translating that knowledge into action.  Apparently, only 25% of the corporations that participated in the study are actually deploying social media tools behind the firewall.  To be fair, that is twice as many as last year.  But it still is just a drop in the bucket and doesn’t constitute a workplace revolution.

But is the revolution happening elsewhere?  It would be interesting to compare the performance of the private sector with that of the public sector.  Is there anything to be learned from government social media use?  According to recent reports, the Government 2.0 movement is definitely picking up steam.  How does it compare to social media adoption by corporations?

Back in the private sector, social media advocates have to be honest about the slow adoption of Enterprise 2.0 (i.e., social media behind the firewall).  Are we on the cusp of real change? Or is it still all talk and no action?  There may be some clues in the rate of growth.  If it continues to double annually, we should soon see a material change in the way corporations work.  So here’s a question for social media advocates:  what can we do to maintain (or even increase) that rate of growth?


For more information on what’s happening with Government 2.0 in the U.S., see GovFresh.  It offers “Gov 2.0 news, ideas and live feeds of official U.S. Government social media activity, all in one place.”

[Photo Credit:  fatboyke]


There’s No Easy Magic in E2.0

Have you noticed the breathless, starry-eyed approach of some Enterprise 2.0 advocates? To be honest, I’ve been guilty of it myself on occasion. In part, it comes from the excitement experienced when you first glimpse the transformative powers of social media tools and let your mind race ahead to the day when organizations operate differently — with real collaboration and transparency. For many, however, the distance between their current reality and this E2.0 dream is great and may seem impossible to bridge. Into this state of frustration comes what can appear to be the magic of E2.0. This has led some fervent E2.0 advocates to take an “if you build it they will come” approach or, in E2.0 terms, “if you provide it they will transform” approach.  Their operating idea seems to be that social media tools are so easy to use and so viral, that once you introduce them into your organization they will spread like wildfire with little effort on the part of the knowledge manager.  Unfortunately, too many of us are discovering that this is not necessarily the case.

In his report on the recent Enterprise 2.0 conference, Lee Bryant writes:

Adoption was a big theme at E20 this year, but I find the whole notion of adoption, which usually means software adoption, to be slightly problematic. What we really should be talking about is redesigning organisations and their networks to harness people power to get things done quicker, better and cheaper, and enabling businesses to scale in a better way. This, not tool use, is probably the goal of social business design and E20.

While he’s undoubtedly right, organizational redesign may be more of an assignment than most of the E2.0 magical thinkers were prepared to take on.  In fact, they are still struggling to gain traction for their social media efforts and are beginning to realize that the tools are just tools and not magic.  For these folks, Lee has a wealth of experience to share regarding Transition Strategies for E2.0 Adoption and offers some sound practical advice:

  • Build quickly and iterate rapidly
  • Add a social layer to existing tools
  • Focus on quick wins, but be strategic

Do you believe in magic?  If so, that’s nice — but don’t look for it to appear without serious effort on your part in the early stages of your E2.0 implementation.  Rather, plan like a general while retaining the flexibility to adapt your approach and deploy your social media tools differently to meet the changing needs of the people in your organization.  It’s that flexibility and adaptation that ultimately conjure up the real magic of E2.0.

[Photo Credit:  The Rocketeer]


Do They Give You Eggs for E2.0?

Be grateful for your insightful friends. Their wisdom can speed your path to learning. Accordingly, I’d like to thank Mark Gould and Jack Vinson, both of whom were kind enough to comment on my earlier post, The Four Chickens Problem.  In that post I discussed the challenges to adoption that organizations distributing bed nets face in their effort to eradicate malaria.  Using the example of the superb work of Nets for Life, I described one path we could take to effect behavioral change and expedite adoption:

  • Educate people as to the actual cause of the problem.
  • Educate people as to the theoretical benefits of the proposed solution.
  • Prove the solution in such an obvious way so that you make the theoretical real.
  • Include monitoring and evaluation to keep proving your case as you implement the solution in their community.

In his comment to that post, Jack Vinson dove a little deeper and pointed out that rather than just teaching people, it is far more effective to help them discover for themselves the benefits of the proposed solution.  When the solution comes from them, you don’t have to spend time winning their agreement.  Rather, you can spend your time and energy to support them in adopting the change they themselves have identified as beneficial.

Yesterday, Mark Gould wrote a wonderful review of Made to Stick, the work of Shawn Callahan (of Anecdote) and the power of storytelling.   In that context, he recounted The Four Chickens Problem and  Jack’s helpful advice, and then made the following observation:

These answers are fine, but they depend on ensuring that the message you are selling actually resonates with the audience. If there is a powerful story to tell, the education piece will follow.

He is right.  The team at Nets for Life have to powerful story to tell future recipients of bed nets and future underwriters of the bed net distribution program.  And, this story isn’t about statistics.  As told by Rob Radtke (President of Episcopal Relief & Development), it’s about lives and A Bowl of Eggs:

Last month when I was in northern Ghana, I visited about six different villages to assess our programs and to learn about some of the challenges facing the communities where we are working…. The particular villages that I was visiting on this trip are participating in the NetsforLife® program and so we were learning about the challenge that malaria poses to families with young children and pregnant women.  Virtually every family that we visited had lost a child to malaria and so the NetsforLife® program is making a huge impact here.


In the last village visit I made … the village headman came forward to say that he had a presentation to make to me on behalf of the entire village.  I was a bit taken aback. … As I sat down, the headman said that although they had a gift to give to me they were very embarrassed as it was such a small and poor gift.  He told me that they had wanted to give me an elephant as a gesture of thanks as that was the grandest gift they could imagine presenting to show how important the malaria nets were to their community.  However, they were too poor to give me an elephant.   (I was trying to imagine what I was going to do with an elephant!)

Instead all of the family heads of the village had met that morning to discuss what would be the most valuable thing that they could give me to show their gratitude for all that had happened in their village as a result of the net distribution.  They had decided to collect all of the eggs laid that day and present them to me in a bowl.

He explained that the eggs represented the entire village’s wealth for that day and while it wasn’t very much, it was everything they had.  [emphasis added]

Do we have anything comparable for our law firm knowledge management or Enterprise 2.0 implementations?

We have to be in the business of story gathering and storytelling.  In the world of knowledge management and Enterprise 2.0, it can be hard to find numbers that paint an accurate picture.  So, we have to find the stories that resonate and we need to develop the skill to tell those stories effectively.  Until that happens, it will be hard to persuade anyone to overcome their inertia to try something new.

[Photo Credit:  laurenipsum]


The Four Chickens Problem

The most effective way to prevent death by malaria is by using long-lasting insecticide-treated bed nets. Yet organizations that distribute these nets have discovered that the folks who receive the nets sometimes choose to trade them for four chickens rather than use the nets. Why?

  • The four chickens solve an immediate, obvious and painful problem — hunger.
  • The net addresses a future, less obvious problem.
  • They know that a chicken and its eggs will give relief.
  • They don’t always realize that mosquitoes cause malaria and, therefore, don’t understand the value of the solution represented by the net.

In Enterprise 2.0 implementations, if we aren’t very careful about what we’re offering and to whom, we can end up distributing nets to people who don’t understand their need for them.  As a result, they ignore our solution in favor of doing nothing or doing something else that provides immediate relief to the problem they (rather than you) have identified.  To be clear, I’m not suggesting that an E2.0 implementation is as important as saving lives.  However, I do think knowledge management teams can learn from the experience of  organizations fighting malaria because the fundamentals of human behavior and change management they face and we face are the same.  In order to achieve changed behavior (or adoption of a new tool) we must:

  • Educate people as to the actual cause of the problem.
  • Educate people as to the theoretical benefits of the proposed solution.
  • Prove the solution in such an obvious way so that you make the theoretical real.
  • Include monitoring and evaluation to keep proving your case as you implement the solution in their community.

Don’t just throw your nets (or E2.0 solution) at the nearest group of people.   You can’t solve problems they don’t realize exist.  If they are unaware of the problem, you’ll have to embark on the longer process of educating them so that they truly understand the issue they are facing and are ready to do something productive to alleviate it.  Otherwise, all you’re doing is providing a chicken dinner.

For more information on the enormous benefits of malaria nets, see the NetsforLife website.  (Disclosure:  This is an organization my family supports.)

[Photo Credit:  Broterham]


Take this E2.0 Pill

“Take this Enterprise 2.0 pill, it’s good for you.” These words seem to encapsulate how many organizations are encouraging the adoption of social media tools behind the firewall.  Unfortunately, the list of things that are good for us but we don’t try is longer than any blog post I’ve ever written.  And yet we persist in ignoring the good advice. So what makes these E2.0 advocates so sure that their slightly paternalistic approach will work?

According to Seth Godin, they are using a low-effort sales technique that rarely leads to good results:  they are doing little more than putting the facts out in front of their target audience and hoping they will be swayed.  The reality is that while stating the facts clearly sometimes does close the sale, all too often you need more than that.  In Godin’s view, the facts are just the first step:

Great brands and projects are built on real value and a real advantage, but great marketers use this as a supporting column, not the entire foundation. Instead, they build a story on top of their head start. They focus on relationships and worldviews and interactions, and use the boost from their initial head start to build competitive insulation.

So, if you’re serious about E2.0 adoption, you’re going to have to get serious about change management.  You’re going to have to focus on building relationships.  In addition, Dennis Stevenson suggests that “driving change in people is about motivating them to want to change.”  Think about what motivates your potential users.  Help them answer their first question:  “What’s in it for me?” And then figure out how to support them as they begin to use  the tool.  After all, you’re not just trying to recruit users, you’re trying to create social media advocates who will help E2.0 go viral behind your firewall.

[Photo Credit:  Rennett Stowe]


A Pirate’s Approach to E2.0

“The floggings will continue until morale improves” is a famous pirate saying that could well be the motto of some old school knowledge managers who are trying to join the cool folks at the social media party. At least twice in as many weeks I’ve heard reports of misguided flogging within organizations in New York. In one instance an old school KM type suggested that the best way to help knowledge workers overcome their reluctance to shift to microblogs, blogs and wikis from e-mail was simply to force them out of e-mail. In another instance an old school KM type decided to encourage a knowledge worker to try an Enterprise 2.0 tool by hounding the poor person to death. In both cases, these knowledge managers were trapped in their command-and-control approach to life, not realizing that a successful Enterprise 2.0 deployment is by definition the antithesis of their modus operandi.

Paula Thornton suggests that the key to avoiding a pirate’s flogging approach is to use good design in your E2.0 deployment:

If you have to “drive adoption” you’ve failed at 2.0 design and implementation. The fundamentals of 2.0 are based on design that is organic — meets the individual where they are and adapts based on feedback — it emerges. The ‘adoption’ comes from rigorous ‘adaptation’ — it continuously morphs based on involvement from the ‘masses’. If done right, you can’t keep them away…because you’ve brought the scratch for their itch.

Her comments serve to highlight the fundamental difference between top-down old style KM and bottom-up emergent Enterprise 2.0.  The pirates think they can make you participate, while those wiser about E2.0 understand that the right tool in the hands of the right group will be adopted with enthusiasm because it meets user needs.

In the world of Enterprise 2.0, flogging people into submission and participation is a sure sign that you’ve missed the whole point of the exercise.  When that happens, it’s time for you to walk the plank.

[Photo Credit:  Grant MacDonald]


Are You Obsolete or Mission Critical?

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]


The Cost of a Dysfunctional Community

Cynics sneer at what they characterize as the Kumbaya tone of some social media advocates. As far as these cynics (or as they prefer to say, realists)  are concerned, only Pollyanna would make such rosy projections of network effects and community building.  Exhortations to share and share alike, or to just give your personal intellectual property away without charge or expectation of reciprocity are met with disbelief.  This is so far outside the reality of life within many businesses that it’s not surprising that management occasionally finds the social media talk high on new age bromides and low on concrete facts.

One of the problems facing those of us who try to explain the value of Enterprise 2.0 tools is that most companies have not measured the cost to the enterprise of their failure to nurture internal social networks and a spirit of collaboration. Does management know how many deals weren’t closed because expertise was hidden rather than shared? Has management measured the hits to efficiency and effectiveness that result when critical information is buried in a silo rather than easily accessible via the community?  Does management understand the impact that dysfunctional communities have on employee morale and productivity?

Until you’ve counted the cost of a dysfunctional community, how can you properly value the potential benefits of social media tools that could help build and strengthen a healthy community?

[Photo Credit:  Niall Kennedy]


If Technology is the Answer, What’s the Question?

At the Enterprise 2.0 workshop I attended yesterday, someone asked Livio Hughes of Headshift the following question:  What’s the worst mistake we can make with respect to law firm technology? His answer was interesting:  Don’t fall into the habit of thinking that problems can be solved only by launching a massive multi-year IT infrastructure project.  In other words, don’t assume that big technology is the answer to every question.

Livio told the story of a client that had invited Headshift to help revamp some technology systems.  Once they were engaged and were able to inspect “under the hood of the car,” they discovered that the real question to be answered was not the one the client had identified and that the right answer had very little to do with technology.  Based on this and other experiences, Livio’s advice was to take the time to analyze properly what was really going on in your firm from a process, behavior and cultural perspective.  Next, identify a range of possible solutions and see if there aren’t grassroots, low-key, tiny spend ways of testing some of these solutions in a variety of safe-fail pilots. Then, finally, make your choice.  Obviously, once you’re talking about grassroots, low-key, tiny spend solutions, you’re not heading down the path of the big ticket “total enterprise solution” that the vendor is desperate to sell to you.  Rather, you’re more likely to try Enterprise 2.0 tools, which tend to be much easier, cheaper and faster to deploy than those mega solutions.

Do you have an inadequate document management system?  Don’t assume the answer to that problem is the latest model DMS.  You may be able to side-step the pain of DMS replacement and go straight to a really robust search tool.  Or, have you considered a wiki that allows users to surface useful documents in context.  Or, internal microblogging/ tagging/ social bookmarking applications that use social signals to help high quality content rise to the top.  After all, we rarely need to find and reuse every item in the DMS.  We’re usually just looking for “something good” and would be glad to accept a document recommended by a trusted source in our network.

This is just one example of a key area of law firm knowledge management and technology that could be re-imagined in creative, economical and effective ways.  So, before you leap to the conclusion that a particular big ticket technology “solution” is the answer, make sure you really understand the question.

[Disclosure:  I had the pleasure of working with Livio’s colleagues,  Lee Bryant and Christoph Schmaltz, in February when Lee and I presented an introduction to Web 2.0 at LegalTech New York.]

[Photo Credit:  Leo Reynolds]