KM Guardian or KM Guide?

World_Map_1689What is knowledge management’s core function? Are we to be guardians or guides?

When I started in law firm knowledge management, my role was fairly clear: I was to be a guardian. What does this mean? My job was to gather and guard the intellectual capital of the firm. I was to help filter the useful material from the less useful, put the useful material in a central location, and then provide easy access to it based on the firm’s confidentiality rules and permissions structure. While this was a fair amount of work, it was not hard to grasp. Further, it fit nicely with one of the traditional roles of law firms: gatekeeper of esoteric knowledge. Just as law firms accumulated knowledge of the law and then provided it to clients, I was to provide the same service to the lawyers who were my internal clients. In a sense, I was to be the firm’s gatekeeper of gatekeepers.

In many law firms today, this is still the primary function of their KM personnel. They hunt down or create legal content. They cajole or harass fee-earner colleagues to draft, review and approve materials for the central repository of firm crown jewel documents (e.g., model documents, practice guides, matter process maps, etc.) They tangle with IT in an attempt to create a user-friendly environment for that central repository (e.g., an intranet/portal or even a simple wiki). And once they have some content in this collection, they then need to start the work of finding fee-earning colleagues who will actually keep those materials current and relevant.  On the best of days, being a KM guardian is a sisyphean task.

Being a KM guide is no less time-consuming, but I would suggest that it is far more productive.

What is a KM guide? The role of a KM guide is not that different from a tour guide: identifying the trail, illuminating the path, providing context, enabling fellow travelers to discover and learn from the experience.  The pathways in question here are not physical pathways, but rather pathways to learning and knowledge.  Accordingly, rather than saying “this document contains what you need to know,” we would instead say “this how others in a similar situation found what they needed to know.”

Before you dismiss this as an inefficient, roundabout method, consider the following example. If you come to me looking for information and I hand you something off-the-shelf, generally one of two things will happen: either it will be exactly what you were looking for (and you will thank me profusely) or it will not be what you were looking for (and you will wonder why you wasted your time). This is the experience many people have when they go to their intranet looking for information.

There is also a variant on the second experience that can be profoundly aggravating: they find something that is almost, but not quite, what they were looking for. So they have to reverse engineer it to figure out how much they can salvage and how much they must create from scratch. However, because there rarely are any “reverse engineering instructions” attached to the document, they often have to reinvent the wheel in order to meet their goal. Talk about a colossal waste of time! Yet it goes on every day in organizations around the world.

Now are you ready to consider an alternative?

What if we had a map of the path the earlier traveler took to their destination. You would know that you didn’t need to go as far as they did, but you could follow the map until you reached the point where you had to take a turn onto another road. Obviously, your path on that other road would be beyond the map you were given, so you would have to figure that part out for yourself. However, that would be the ONLY part you would have to create from scratch. For the earlier part of your journey, you would simply have to follow the map rather than creating your own trail (machete in hand) through the undergrowth.

The beautiful thing about working with journey maps rather than destination documents is that these maps show the next traveler where the previous trailblazer was trying to go and how they did it. Then the newcomer can determine how best to plan their own journey. In doing so, they will build on the work of others rather than being forced to reinvent the wheel.

While I have not yet had a chance to test the software, there is a new tool that promises a similar experience by mapping the research path people take through the internet in pursuit of answers to life’s burning questions. Twingl’s Trailblazer is an extension to Chrome that shows what sites you visited and, in the process, reveals something of your thought process. There are several benefits to this approach:

  • You can step away from your research and then return later without having to repeat steps.
  • You can review your map to see where you might have missed something or taken an unproductive turn.
  • You can share your map with others — thereby transferring both the knowledge of where you ended up, as well as how you got there.

Now imagine if we could create similar maps of how the lawyers in our firms arrived at certain judgments, negotiation stances or language in documents. Then we could share within the firm a much deeper and better quality of knowledge — not only what we decided, but how we got there. These knowledge pathways set one lawyer apart from another. Aggregated, they could set one law firm apart from the others.

KM personnel have a role to play here by being KM guides.  A KM guide helps lawyers uncover and map their journey. Then that KM guide can maintain and share those maps. Just as we groom cross-country ski trails,  a KM guide keeps the knowledge trails within an organization accessible, well-tended, free of debris and easy to follow. Over time you will have a collection of overlapping maps that build on the work of earlier generations of lawyers and then extend the collective learning in new directions. What a fantastic outcome for a KM effort!

In an era of disintermediation, it makes less sense to be the guardian of information that often can be found by a variety of means in multiple places. It is more productive to help all the people in your firm rise to a higher point on the learning curve by building systematically on the knowledge maps of colleagues. You can accomplish this by being a KM guide.


[Photo Credit: Wikipedia]