Are We Organizing the Right Stuff?

As a self-confessed pack rat, I’ve had a morbid fascination for folks who preach and practice the virtues of minimalism and a clutter-free existence.  Call it a form of self-abuse, but I just can’t help reading their propaganda.  And then, I come every workday to a business that never has a shortage of stuff to organize.  No matter how much we try to move away from the old KM 1.0 chores of building, organizing, maintaining and searching data repositories, the reality is that as long as we work in a document-intensive business, law firm knowledge management will always include a significant portion of KM 1.0 work. Vendors promise silver bullets in the form of super search and auto-profiling to help us manage all this data, but even still we hear stories of people spending hours searching fruitlessly.

Recently Kathleen Hogan reported that studies show that managers and executives spend 6 weeks each year just looking for stuff. My initial reaction was what a waste of time! Can’t they get a better search engine? And then, I had a radical thought — what if we really aren’t supposed to save and organize all this stuff? What if there really is too much to organize effectively? What if there’s no reasonable way to stay on top of it all? Are our taxonomies and search engines designed to cope comfortably with our exploding data collections? What if they can’t?

If you take a look at all the anti-clutter propaganda I’ve been saving for a rainy day, you’ll soon discover that the first step to organizing stuff is — get rid of what you don’t need.  By so doing, you reduce the amount of material you actually have to organize and maintain.  I know we think we need to organize all the data in our firms, but do we really?  Does it all matter?  Does it all need to be saved and organized for posterity?  Or, is some of it truly ephemeral?

Greg Lambert suggests that law firms have been saving all this stuff for all the wrong reasons:

There are certain things we should legally and/or ethically keep for a specific period of time. But, most of the data that we handle does not fall under these requirements. In fact, I’d wager that 90% of the emails, electronic documents, or paper documents we keep, we do because we are implementing the “CYA” rule.

Folks who drink the super search kool-aid will say that the cost of saving and searching data is becoming increasingly trivial, so why spend any time at all trying to weed the collection?  Rather, save it all and then try Filtering on the Way Out.  On the other hand, look at the search engine so many of us envy — Google.  It indexes and searches enormous amounts of data, but even Google doesn’t try to do it all.  Google doesn’t tackle the Deep Web.

So why are we trying to do it all?

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For information on searching the Deep Web:

From my deep stores of anti-clutter information:

[Photo Credit:  Jason Rust]

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Are You Clinging to the Wrong Business?

Are you ready to walk away from your major line of business?  If not, you may be turning away a new, more profitable line of business.  Or, you may find you’re soon out of business altogether.  Not convinced?  Well then, spend a little while with Xerox.  When you hear the word Xerox, you tend to think of office machinery. And, for a time, you would have been right. But that’s no longer the primary business of Xerox.  In fact, lately Xerox has started to tell its customers not to waste their money on unnecessary machinery purchases and is now selling consulting services to help those customers better manage the equipment they have in order to make their end-to-end printing processes as efficient and cost-effective as possible.  Scott Anthony‘s reaction to this change in strategy was overwhelmingly positive:

That’s a strong sales proposition in today’s tough economy. While Xerox might miss short-term printer and copier sales, it is building long-term, potentially lucrative relationships — and a base to move into additional productivity-related services.

Xerox had the courage to stop clinging to its traditional line of business and, by branching out, has opened up huge new opportunities for itself.  How do law firm knowledge management departments achieve that nifty trick? According to Scott Anthony, you need to do three things:

  1. Start with a deep understanding of how the customer frames the problems they are facing. It’s easy for companies to fall into the trap of thinking that customers care primarily about the products they purchase. Often they don’t. Those products are means to an end. In Xerox’s case, it doesn’t sell copiers. It sells workplace productivity. Understanding how the customer frames the problem helps to highlight different ways to address that problem.
  2. Build a solution that solves the customer’s — not your company’s — problem. Xerox could easily have designed a service offering that really was a veiled way for it to sell and support Xerox equipment. But that’s not what the customer wants. More than half of the 1.5 million devices under Xerox management are made by other companies. Ask how a startup company with no base business to defend would approach the challenge.
  3. Give the new business ample freedom. Corporate antibodies can often squash new offerings that look like competitive threats. Sufficient organizational autonomy can be critical for long-term success.

Now, what would happen if we were to apply these principles to the way we deliver KM services to lawyers within our firms?

  1. Understand how lawyers frame the problems they are facing. KM 1.0 has told us for years that lawyers want comprehensive,  carefully-organized collections of practice resources.  This has led us to track down content, attempt to convert the tacit into the explicit, and then build and maintain large databases.  In reality, lawyers don’t care about those collections and KM can never do enough to make them truly effective.  Lawyers just want easy access to information at the point of need.  It doesn’t really matter how you deliver those practice resources (e.g., through enterprise search,  Enterprise 2.0 technology, etc.) as long as it works when they need it.  As Scott Anthony says:  “Understanding how the customer frames the problem helps to highlight different ways to address that problem.”
  2. Build a solution that solves the lawyer’s — not your KM department’s — problem. Don’t think administratively about your staff and their job descriptions.  Focus instead on the nature of the support the lawyers actually need to do their jobs well.  Rather than deploying another database coder, would it be better to set up a Wiki or discussion board to facilitate lawyer-to-lawyer knowledge sharing?  In other words, how would you configure your services if you had no department (or, in the case of Xerox, no base business of machinery sales) to defend?
  3. Give the new way of working ample freedom. As you turn from KM 1.0 to KM 2.0 ways of doing things, you’ll need to resist the temptation to control the new means and methods of collaboration and knowledge sharing.   It doesn’t matter whether you’re motivated by honest concerns about risk or the short-term welfare of your department.  When you place unnecessary restrictions on collaboration and knowledge sharing, you impede the free flow of information. Then you are part of the problem rather than part of the solution. Giving lawyers the freedom to shape the way they share information is critical for long-term success.

As you think harder about this, you’ll realize that you need to move away from the KM 1.0 way of doing things.  That’s the old way of doing business.  The future lies in returning to first principles (or rather, the key 7 Principles of KM) and embracing KM 2.0.  Are you as brave as Xerox?

[Photo Credit:  treevis, Creative Commons license]

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