Focus on the Present

One of the great challenges of KM 1.0 is that we have to make guesses about the future when populating our document repositories. When considering whether or not to add a particular document to the collection, we have to make a bet as to the likelihood that this particular content item will be useful or even remotely interesting at some point in the future.  But how do you really know?  How often are you right? And do you have the metrics to vindicate your guesses?

To add insult to an injured system, law firm knowledge managers ask their lawyer colleagues to invest in these document repositories by contributing content in the hope that some of this content might be helpful someday.  Not surprisingly, law firms around the country have reported that few lawyers actually make the effort to contribute content.  Before you launch into a diatribe against lawyers, I should remind you that this lack of engagement is more a human failing than a commentary on lawyers.  If you don’t believe me, consider a recent article by Jane Brody in which she discusses the widespread failure of society to motivate people to exercise more.  Some try threats, while others try promises.  However, the results are the same:

… for many people, future health benefits may just be too abstract and speculative to overcome inertia and take up walking, running, swimming, cycling or working out in the gym.

According to Dr. Michelle Segar, a motivational psychologist, we shouldn’t make exercise (or contributing to the KM system) a chore or matter of obligation.  With respect to exercise, she suggests ” borrowing the motivational approach used by commercial marketers, `an emotional hook that creates positive, meaningful expectations of how exercise can enhance people’s lives, a way to feel better.’”

If we can’t get people to exercise now in the exchange for promises of good health and long life later, why do we think that promises of future benefit will increase levels of lawyer engagement in law firm knowledge management?  When it comes to exercise, Jane Brody reports that people tend to be more willing to stick with an exercise regime over the long term if they receive current tangible benefits from exercise buddies or communities that spring up around exercise activities:

For years now, I’ve been struck by the camaraderie among the elderly women, most of them widows, whose water aerobics class follows the morning lap-swim. Few knew one another before they joined this activity. Now they lunch together almost every month, celebrate birthdays together, check on one another if someone fails to attend a session or two, even raise money for a beloved staff member who lost her job in the recession.

Are there ways we can apply this approach to lawyer engagement in law firm knowledge management activities?  And, when we are asked “what’s in it for me,” do we have an answer that explains the current, tangible benefits of lawyers engagement and contribution?

[Photo Credit: Scott Ableman]

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KM Bribery

There have been some recent high profile investigations of bribery in the business world. Has anyone checked the knowledge management world? I’ve heard reports of cash rewards, gift cards and coveted electronics offered by various KM departments to induce knowledge workers to participate in KM systems. In what way are these not bribes?

Here’s the sad part, while greasing the palm of a corrupt official may win a piece of business, bribing a knowledge worker to do anything except rote work rarely works.  I’ve linked below to a David Gurteen video on KM Incentives and a Daniel Pink video on Motivation, both of which explain some of the problems with offering incentives.  According to Dan Pink, knowledge workers find that extrinsic motivators (like cash rewards and gifts) tend to narrow their focus, limit their creativity and increase the pressure.  Rewards discourage risk taking.  In other words, extrinsic motivators create precisely the kind of conditions least conducive for creative, expansive, innovative work.  David Gurteen raises some additional issues relating to incentives for KM participation:

  • By offering an incentive for KM work, you imply that this work is a burden — an extra chore that no sane person would undertake without coercion or incentive.  Is this really the message you wish to convey?  Or, worse still, is this the reality of your KM program?
  • KM incentives change human behavior, training people to participate in a KM system only when bribed, rather than participating because it is the right thing to do.  He cites Alfie Kohn (author of Punished by Rewards) who believes that rewards can destroy the intrinsic motivation to do a job well or to do the right thing.  (See summary by Justin Podur.)
  • External motivators tend to encourage people to game the system.  Since they are being asked to do something they don’t really want to do, sensible people will try to do as little of it as possible for the maximum gain.  This leads to participation peaks near the deadline for tallying credit or forming alliances to rig the outcomes.

If KM incentives have little more than short-term value, then what should a wise knowledge manager focus on?  Focus on the elephant that has been standing quietly in the corner during this whole discussion:  you have to prove the value of your KM system.  If knowledge workers don’t believe that a system is valuable, then they will have little internal motivation to participate, and any external motivators offered will produce only grudging cooperation.  At the end of the day, effective people don’t really want to waste time.  If we can’t prove the value of our KM systems, then we are asking them to waste their time.  Under these conditions, offering an incentive is little more than providing a tranquilizer to ease the pain.

Daniel Pink’s Video

David Gurteen’s Video

[Photo Credit: jessicafm — using candy and toys to induce cooperation during a haircut]

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Cash or Credit?

Given the economic realities of this year, many firms have found themselves unable to offer their employees material increases with respect to either salary or benefits. So how do you let colleagues know they are valued when you don’t have cash?  It’s simple — use Credit.

When I say “use credit,” I don’t mean to suggest that you give your colleagues IOUs.  Rather, you should find many and varied means of letting them (and others) know how much you value them.  In fact, studies have shown that cash is sometimes the least effective way of motivating others to perform.  So look at this year as a wonderful opportunity to learn more effective methods to manage your team.  Here are some tips:

  • Be unstinting in your praise for work well done by members of your team.  I know they are getting a paycheck to do a good job, but that paycheck provides few of the psychic rewards most people crave.
  • When you are commended for work done by your team, be sure to let your superiors know who on your team shouldered the laboring oar.  (If you are the insecure type who hogs the credit in an effort to shore up your personal position within the organization, let me tell you a secret about this.  When you highlight the excellence of individuals on your team you actually remind others of your good judgment in hiring and managing great people.  The fact that you look generous as well doesn’t hurt one bit either.)
  • When anyone outside your team does a terrific job, thank them.  Better still send a note to their supervisors letting them know (and copy the employee so they know as well).
  • Be straightforward and sincere.  Most of us sense a con when we hear it.  Credit works in lieu of cash only when the emotion and intent behind the praise is genuine.
  • Saying “thx” rarely is sufficient.  If the work done is deserving of praise, then surely it merits more effort from you than is required to write “thx” in an offhand, reflexive manner.  (The only possible exception to this is when you are facing the 140 character limit in Twitter!)

Above all, I’d recommend that you read Charles Green’s fantastic post, Pin the Credit on Someone Else, and adopt that as your modus operandi going forward.  This will be a challenge for the insecure manager, but it will make a world of difference in the way members of the team view their work and their manager.

In this season of gratitude and generosity, try being grateful and generous at work.  It’s a gift that keeps on giving.

[Photo Credit:  chrisjohnbeckett]

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