Living in a Fact-Based World

data slide What dataset informs your mindset? That’s the question that Dr. Hans Rosling would ask you if he could. When he probed this issue with his university students in Sweden, he discovered that some of their views in the 21st century were based on a dataset that reflected the reality of … the 1950s.  In fact, their responses to his questions were so bad that he said that chimpanzees could do better. (Apparently chimps are able to get the answer right 50% of the time.)

Dr. Rosling is a Swedish professor of public health who has become famous for his ability to take dry statistics and convey them in a clear and compelling fashion.  Along the way, he has been dispelling many of the myths that inform our mindset.  He challenged a US State Department audience in 2009 with the following words:  “Does your mindset correspond to my dataset? If not, one or the other needs upgrading….” The unspoken premise was that his dataset should trump the flawed mindset of anyone who does not have a fact-based view of the world.

Building a Fact-Based Worldview

If you go the website of Gapminder, the organization Dr. Rosling co-founded, you’ll find the following appeal:

Gapminder is a non-profit foundation based in Stockholm. Our goal is to replace devastating myths with a fact-based worldview. Our method is to make data easy to understand. We are dedicated to innovate and spread new methods to make global development understandable, free of charge, without advertising. We want to let teachers, journalists and everyone else continue to freely use our tools, videos and presentations.

Your contribution will help us in our efforts to explain how the world is changing. Your generosity will strengthen our independence.

Help us achieve a fact-based understanding of the world. Support our work by making a donation today.

As I read the appeal, I found myself wishing that the legal industry had a Gapminder-like organization to help us move from myth to a fact-based worldview. What data is your firm collecting? Do the data have integrity? Do you have capable people who can analyze that data and communicate what’s meaningful? Or are your firm leaders making decisions that reflect their favorite myths?

Ron Friedmann has a recommendation for law firms intent on developing a fact-based worldview:  “Law firms should collect data to measure the multiple aspects of `service delivery’ and the `client experience’.” If you were to follow Ron’s recommendation, what would that mean for your firm?  What would you count? What would matter? I suspect you’re going to have look far past billable hours and realization rates to examine the profitability of matters and individual lawyers. What about measuring the rate at which lawyers of your firm innovate? Or the rate at which they convert business development opportunities into sustainable income streams? How do you measure client engagement and client satisfaction? How do you measure the contributions of law firm administrative departments? (In terms of dollars under budget? Or in terms of value delivered to clients?) And, how do you measure the contribution of each person in your firm towards the health and welfare of the firm?

There are many opportunities for us to learn more about our business through the careful gathering and analysis of data. However, I don’t mean to minimize the challenge.  Most folks in law firms are not trained statisticians. We don’t always know what to count or understand the problems implicit in how we collect and analyze what little data we have.This is an area in which our entire industry could benefit from some training and some standardized approaches.

What dataset informs the mindset of your law firm leaders? That’s the question Dr. Hans Rosling would ask them if he could.  But, since he can’t, shouldn’t you?

[Photo Credit: Tom Woodward]


Making the Case for KM: One Magic Washing Machine at a Time

Servis Superheat Washing Machine Poster (Poster 21)In a world run by bean counters, knowledge managers sometimes fear that they will get short shrift if they cannot marshal the data necessary to impress the folks in green eyeshades. The problem is, of course, that it can be challenging to find compelling metrics to support the case for KM. In the context of law firm knowledge management, we often say that KM done well helps lawyers work more efficiently and effectively.  But has anyone at your firm produced recent data to support this proposition?

This comparative lack of data has always made me uncomfortable.  We may shrug and say that trying to prove KM ROI is a fool’s errand, but that doesn’t always dispel the lingering discomfort. Consequently, I was heartened to receive a reminder this week from a master of data, Dr. Hans Rosling, of the value and limitations of data. Dr. Rosling is famous for making data sing. If you want an impressive demonstration of his abilities, take a look at his four-minute video below: 200 countries, 200 years, 4 minutes – the Joy of Stats.  By any measure, it’s a tour de force. Unfortunately, it isn’t one I could reasonably replicate standing before the executive committee of my firm.

So what is to be done?

Draw inspiration from Dr. Rosling’s most recent TED Talk about the Magic Washing Machine.  In  his usual fashion, he presents a stunning array of data relating to global population, income distribution and energy consumption.  All of it is interesting, however, the statistical pyrotechnics are slightly depressing for a data-challenged knowledge manager like me.  But then suddenly, at the 7:50 minute mark, he explains the magic of washing machines and does so without a single data point. Rather, he relies on anecdote and illustration to make his point very powerfully. At the end of the presentation, I remembered his explanation of the magic, not the specifics of the  data he provided during the bulk of the presentation.

When making the case for KM, don’t ever underestimate the power of storytelling.  In truth, Dr. Rosling’s greatest strength is his ability to tell a compelling story.  That story may be grounded in data, but it’s the narrative line rather than the scientific detail that remains in your memory.  You don’t need to be statistician or magician to pull this off.  Rather, you just need to be able to recognize —  and tell — a good story.

200 Countries, 200 Years, 4 Minutes – the Joy of Stats:

Dr. Hans Rosling and the Magic Washing Machine:

[Hat tip to Michael Mills of Neota Logic Inc. for sending me Hans Rosling’s TED talk on the Magic Washing Machine.  Hat tip to Evangeline Warren and Mark Salamon for sending me Dr. Rosling’s talk on the Joy of Stats.]

[Photo Credit:  Black Country Museums]