Are You a 19th Century Knowledge Manager?

Are you a 19th century knowledge manager? The answer to that question most likely is yes if you work in a 21st century US law firm. Now, before you start rebutting my assertion by reciting the long list of cool 21st century tech tools you’ve deployed at your firm, let me state that I’m focused more on mindset and approach than on tools. In fact, I’d posit that our mindset and approach has not evolved all that much from the knowledge management approach (such as it was) in the time of Charles Dickens’ novel Bleak House.

In my last post, Does Your Firm Really Value Knowledge?, I discussed Larry Prusak’s views of the 19th century business as opposed to the 21st century business. In the 19th century business, knowledge was a relatively rare resource that “reside[d] in the heads of owners and managers.” Meanwhile, the workers who powered these businesses received knowledge on a need to know basis. That knowledge was transmitted through a “command and control structure” supported by a hierarchical bureaucracy.

What’s the contrasting 21st century approach? Knowledge is abundant and resides in many and diverse places. Therefore, instead of relying on a command and control structure to enforce a top-down flow of information, the 21st century firm creates systems and implements tools that allow the firm to gather knowledge no matter where it resides and then distribute knowledge everywhere it might be needed. This means that the partner’s negotiating insight is considered valuable knowledge in the KM system, as is the junior associate’s innovation in due diligence or closing mechanics, and both are freely available within that KM system.
But what about ensuring that the knowledge gathered and distributed is accurate and authoritative? In the 19th century model, we have knowledge guardians who vet content before it is allowed to enter (and possibly contaminate) the KM system. These guardians — whether they be senior lawyers or knowledge managers — often end up being censors rather than knowledge sharing facilitators. Because they are focused on risk management, and their vetting responsibilities frequently are added to an already full billable workload, these guardians can also become bottlenecks in the KM system.
How would a 21st century KM system handle the challenge of ensuring that content is accurate and authoritative? The system would track contributors and usage, letting end-users know which contributors had applicable expertise and which content was used repeatedly. In addition, allowing users to tag and comment on useful content would enrich the system and distribute the burden of validating contributions.

This 21st century approach is in line with the trend towards the democratization of knowledge that Prusak identified, which will undoubtedly have a radical impact on the role of knowledge managers within law firms. So are you a 19th century knowledge manager? And what would it take for you to become a 21st century knowledge manager? Are you ready?

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