Times Are Changing — Are You?

For the last few Sunday nights, my family has been completely absorbed by the upstairs downstairs drama of Downton Abbey. This English import provides a glimpse of life in an aristocratic home just before the First World War. One very poignant moment occurs early in the series when a man trained to be a gentleman’s valet realizes that the skills he has spent a lifetime perfecting are no longer needed.

I found myself thinking of that valet as I read some recent posts on the shifting boundaries of law firm knowledge management. There are some who seem bewildered to find themselves in a world where the traditional things they have done don’t seem valued anymore. Meanwhile, there are others who are finding increasingly inventive ways to stretch their job descriptions.

If you think we are not in a period of flux, you would do well to read some of the posts below. Taken together, they present a picture of law firm life and the role of the knowledge manager that is rather unsettled and unsettling. In the face of these tensions several law firm knowledge managers I know are looking for ways to ensure their continuing relevance. As is so often the case, the interests and innate abilities of particular individuals lead them to explore avenues (and hidden alleys) that may not have been within the traditional territory of knowledge management. I expect this will only accelerate. No matter what our views are on these developments, it’s hard to ignore the pace of change around us. The question for each of us is how are we going to reshape our jobs before the oncoming revolution does it for us?

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Flat KM

Back in the 1960s, the world was introduced to Stanley Lambchop.  As you may remember, an unfortunate meeting between Stanley and a bulletin board rendered poor Stanley flat as a pancake.  As a result, he became known worldwide as Flat Stanley.  The books Jeff Brown wrote about Flat Stanley provide detail on what it might be like to live in one dimension. Nearly fifty years later, it appears that Stanley Lambchop’s approach is alive and well in some law firm knowledge management quarters, as evidenced by a preference for Flat KM.

What’s Flat KM?  It’s KM constrained to a single dimension and a limited purpose.  It’s KM that focuses on traditional activities, perhaps with a slight technological boost.  It’s KM that provides incremental improvements in quality and efficiency, but rarely makes fundamental changes to the way we do business.

To be honest, Flat KM is not uncommon.  There are law firms and KM personnel for whom Flat KM is the form of KM with which they are most comfortable.  In fact, when I read Greg Lambert’s report of a recent knowledge management conference we attended, I wondered if his concept of “traditional KM” might be a bit uni-dimensional:

I was a little disappointed with the direction that many of the law firms are taking with the idea of Knowledge Management (KM). Some of the presenters were showing products that were very `flashy’ and useful, but weren’t really what I would consider `KM’ resources.

Many of them were `Client Services’ products… or were fancy dashboards attached to accounting or time and billing resources, but not really what I would think of when it came to capturing `knowledge’ at a firm. Don’t get me wrong, these projects were very cool, they were very useful for getting information in the hands of clients or attorneys, but to call them knowledge management resources would be stretching the truth a little bit because they didn’t really capture and reuse existing firm knowledge in the traditional meaning of knowledge management.

Although Greg does not define traditional KM in his post, I suspect he had in mind some of the following tasks:  creating model documents and precedent banks; providing current awareness; and implementing search technology. In other words, KM activities closely related to the core of the craft of law that focus on “managing” legal knowledge. These activities are more concerned with documents than processes.

While Flat KM may bring with it certainty of mission, I don’t believe it is adequate for the way lawyers practice law today.  Perhaps once a upon a time it was possible to be a successful lawyer simply by being a good legal craftsman who produced excellent documents and provided wise counsel.  However, the practice of law has moved on.  Today, lawyers know that being good at the craft of law is necessary but not sufficient.  Now they also need to be good at the business of law — the developing of client relationships, the winning of business, the hiring and nurturing of excellent talent, the running of an efficient, humane firm, etc.  Any one of these tasks would be a challenge.  Facing all of them together at once can seem insurmountable.  Thankfully, there are lawyers and firms that are finding ways to meet these challenges every day.

Given the scope and depth of these challenges, can law firm KM afford to slide by as Flat KM much longer?  I don’t think so. Knowledge managers need to provide support to their firms for both the practice of law and the business of law.  In most cases this will mean, at a minimum, finding more realistic ways to provide the annotated models, practice guides, market precedents and current awareness lawyers need in a timely fashion.  However, there is much more KM can do.  (For a fuller discussion of the purpose of KM, I commend to you Mark Gould’s commentary on the “breadth of possible (and justifiable) KM activities.”) Just as we help uncover and deliver information useful for the practice of law, we can help uncover and deliver information useful for the business of law. This may involve information in our time and billing system, our client relationship management system  or our competitive intelligence system.  It may mean bringing KM principles to bear to make business processes within the firm more sensible. It may even require the occasional cool user interface.

Some firms don’t have the resources necessary to achieve even Flat KM.  Others lack the will to go beyond it.  In either case, knowledge managers need to suit their activities to the abilities and aspirations of their firm.  That said, if you are at a firm that understands that knowledge management principles can make a material difference to both the practice of law and the business of law, then you can move past Flat KM to the richness of working in multiple dimensions.  This opportunity may well involve significant challenges — but it certainly beats living a flat life.

[Photo Credit: Dena Williams]

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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]

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The Road Not Taken

Those of us who chase knowledge for a living have learned the hard way that our target frequently is elusive and the available tools and methods are not always adequate. Despite this, we do strive to identify and follow the best route for achieving the knowledge management goals set by our firms.  In a prior post, Off-Route, Recalculate, I wrote about how the current economic situation was forcing those of us in law firm knowledge management to recalculate our KM routes.  I also noted how difficult this recalculation was in the absence of any available KM global positioning system (or GPS) capable of suggesting viable alternative routes.

In response, Mark Gould recounted in Direction-finding how truly helpful his own car satellite navigation system was, and suggested that we could provide a similar navigation service for our external and internal clients:

This conversation made me think about extending the metaphor in a slightly different direction. As lawyers, we can be compared to navigation assistance for clients. They are the ones who specify the ultimate destination, and lawyers (together with other advisors) suggest different routes to get there, and keep things on track if diversions are made (whether those diversions are necessary or frivolous). Within law firms, those supporting KM and other internal activities need to adopt a similar role. Admittedly, our advisory role can be very different from that of a GPS system — we can influence the decision about the destination itself as well as the route taken to get there — but ultimately we have to respect the client’s choice of destination. This means that our advice should not be tainted by regret that a different destination was not chosen or that the business prefers to use back-roads rather than pay the tolls on the autostrade.

I’m struck by Mark’s observation that while we can suggest routes, we are not ultimately responsible for the choices made by our clients.  Our job is to identify the viable alternatives, make a recommendation and then, once the client has made a choice, do our level best to ensure an optimal outcome for the client.  It really isn’t terribly productive to spend a lot of time and energy mourning the road not taken.  Admittedly, it’s hard to work enthusiastically knowing that we don’t entirely agree with the client’s choice, but I guess that’s why they call it work.

While we’ve probably come to the end of the useful applications of this metaphor, I thought I would close by drawing on the wisdom of Robert Frost.  As he noted with such insight, while we may not always fully understand the choices before us, we should not foreclose the possibilities inherent in the road less traveled by.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

– “The Road Not Taken
by Robert Frost

[Photo Credit: Joaaso]

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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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