Steve Jobs and Legal KM

Tribute to Steve Jobs 1955 - 2011 The day after Steve Jobs died, a knowledge management colleague at another law firm asked why a man who had such a profound influence on technology had seemingly little influence on legal knowledge management.  That stopped conversation for a moment.  Tongue firmly in cheek, I countered with the proposition that if Steve Jobs had turned his attention to legal technology, it would work a great deal better and be easier to use than it is.

All joking aside, my colleague’s question started me wondering about Steve Jobs’ legacy with respect to knowledge management.  After a little Google research, I must admit I haven’t found anything that Steve Jobs said directly about knowledge management.  However, I have found lots of things he said and did that legal KM should not ignore:

  • Focus on Simplicity. Steve Jobs was famous for his commitment to simplifying tools and processes. His drive to eliminate fussy, confusing buttons from the cellphone led to the iPhone. Stephen Wolfram says that Jobs stood out for his astonishing clarity of thought.  He “took complex situations, understood their essence, and used that understanding to make a bold definitive move, often in a completely unexpected direction.” Sometimes lawyers and legal KM professionals can make the error of over-complicating matters.  Steve Jobs would not approve.
  • User Experience Trumps All. Cliff Kuang, writing for Fast Company, said:  “Jobs may not be the greatest technologist or engineer of his generation. But he is perhaps the greatest user of technology to ever live….”  In short, Jobs was a “user-experience savant.” Kuang continues, “It’s not that Jobs doesn’t think like a consumer–he just thinks like one standing in the near future, not in the recent past.” Even if you don’t have someone like Steve Jobs in your firm, you can achieve better results by listening carefully to your internal clients.  Steve Denning argues that even with Steve Jobs’ famous aesthetic sense and conviction about what the customer wanted, Apple listened to its customers very carefully.
  • Plan Early for the Next Improvement. The launch of a system or application doesn’t mark the end of the project, it’s just the beginning.  Cliff Kuang describes how this fact has become reality at Apple:  “[Jobs] has taught his entire organization to play in the span of product generations rather than product introductions. Apple designers say that now, each design they create has to be presented alongside a mock-up of how that design might evolve in the second or third generation.”  Now contrast that with the plausible view that nothing much new is happening in legal knowledge management.  Things would be different in legal KM if Steve Jobs were in charge.
  • Knowledge Sharing is Essential for Innovation. There is a famous story of the visit Steve Jobs paid to Xerox’s R&D facility.  Daniel Stuhlman recounts it in the following way:

    The computer mouse and the graphical interface were invented at Xerox’s research center. Steve Jobs went on a tour of the facility and was able to get enough ideas to create a new computer software system that eventually led to Mac OS and Windows. Xerox was never able to capitalize on its own discovery. Steve Jobs did not steal an idea, he took a great idea and developed it. I wonder if Xerox had a knowledge management problem or was Steve Jobs a gifted visionary?

If you are wondering what law firm KM might look like had Apple taken an interest in it, look no further than Apple’s 1987 Knowledge Navigator.  I bet the lawyers in your firm would kill for a system like this.


[Thanks to Ron Young for reminding me about Knowledge Navigator.]

[Photo Credit: Cornelia Kopp]



Momento Mori

10-07 Store Shrines  005 Remember your mortality. That’s what the Latin phrase “momento mori” means.  It’s also the message behind  some significant art produced over the centuries.  In earlier times, the artists were not always subtle about their message regarding the inevitability of death.  They simply added a skull or another example of decaying nature to the portrait or still life they were painting.  Over the years, we’ve come to understand this symbolism when we see it.  However, nothing in art history prepared me for the symbolism of the post-it note.

We were walking to dinner late Friday night when I saw something odd on a nearby storefront:  post-it notes plastered on the store’s windows.  Below, some candles and flowers.  It was only when I got closer that I realized the store was an Apple store and the post-it notes were a tribute to Steve Jobs. Some of the sentiments expressed were trite, but all were heartfelt. The body language of the people gathered outside the store was telling as well — quiet, thoughtful, somber — they were trying to assess the scope of the loss.

Steve Jobs wasn’t coy about death.  In his famous Stanford commencement speech he told us that death had been a constant companion since he was 17-years old and read a life-altering quotation:  “If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.”  Jobs continues:

It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: `If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?’ And whenever the answer has been `No’ for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.

In Jobs’ view, it was vitally important to love what you do:

You’ve got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle.

Stephen Wolfram wrote a very personal tribute to Jobs in which he made the following observation about his friend:

In my life, I have had the good fortune to interact with all sorts of talented people. To me, Steve Jobs stands out most for his clarity of thought. Over and over again he took complex situations, understood their essence, and used that understanding to make a bold definitive move, often in a completely unexpected direction.

Clarity of thought, doing what he loved, being passionately committed to excellence.  These are the hallmarks of this influential man.

It’s easy to think about this now and then shove it away in a drawer until another public figure dies too young.  However, that would be to do great disservice to the man and to the message.  For myself, I suspect that whenever I see a post-it note, I’ll be reminded of why it’s important to do great work, to do work that I love.

The post-it note is designed to adhere and re-adhere without leaving a residue.  It is used to capture the ephemeral.  It is not meant to last forever. It’s meant for now.  On reflection, perhaps it is a very suitable medium for momento mori in the modern age.


You owe it to yourself to take a few minutes and watch this video of Steve Jobs’ commencement speech.  (His remarks start at the 7:30 minute mark.) I’ve also provided links below to the text of his speech and some additional materials.



Text:  (courtesy of National Public Radio)



[Photo Credit: Pelcinary]