When KM is Supported by the Top Brass

Most knowledge management treatises and guides will tell you that it is hard to carry out an enterprise wide knowledge management program without the full support of senior management. Unfortunately, within a lot of enterprises the members of senior management are sometimes those least likely to understand or use a KM system. Therefore, their support can be theoretical and that gets communicated to the rank and file as a lukewarm endorsement. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to guess how the rank and file react to a mandate from above that doesn’t seem to have any teeth.

With respect to law firm knowledge management the problem is widespread. The senior partners or administrative partners will certainly understand on paper the potential benefits of a knowledge management program. They may even remember back to the days when they were junior associates facing a new assignment without models or practice guides. However, they’ve come a long way since then and have platoons of associates under them who deal with those issues firsthand. And, with that distance comes a loss of urgency to pursue knowledge management.
Another problem that arises in law firm knowledge management occurs when senior lawyers have acted on their natural tendencies to create order out of chaos and have developed personal knowledge management systems that increase their own efficiency. Even when presented with a reasonably-effective firm wide knowledge management system, they are often reluctant to give up their own tried and true approach.
Finally, there’s the culture of most law firms: an aggregation of people who are fiercely autonomous and largely introverted; people who wish to practice law, but don’t always want the bother of running an efficient business. These folks cherish their independence and only grudgingly submit to community edicts and systems. It’s hard to sell KM systems to these lawyers until you’ve answered adequately their fundamental question: what’s in it for me?
I’m still working on effective solutions to all of these problems, but found it instructive to look at a case in which the “top brass” truly supports the KM program. The top brass I have in mind are senior managers in the US Army. In his article, Army Retools Knowledge Culture, Brian Robinson reports that the Army has taken a decisive move away from its 2001 position of focusing its knowledge management efforts on information technology. They have now decided they need to broaden their focus to encompass people and culture, process, and technology — in that order. Further, they are taking the radical step of moving away from a culture that fiercely protects the security of information to a culture that emphasizes openness and information sharing:

The culture has historically protected information closely and released it on a must-know basis. Now, Army managers need to learn to see broad information sharing as a natural military skill.

“It’s all about increasing collaboration, and that has huge implications for warfighters,” said Bob Neilson, knowledge management adviser to the Army’s chief information officer. “It’s about not only sharing information but having the responsibility to provide knowledge across the enterprise.”

The 2008 knowledge management principles adopt the move to collaboration that is increasingly prevalent in society:

The creation of a collaborative culture is embedded throughout the list of 12 principles and was the major rationale for the expanded approach to knowledge management that Army Secretary Pete Geren and Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey offered in a memo they sent in July introducing the principles.

They firmly embrace an Army enterprise perspective, they wrote, and “will create an Army where good ideas are valued regardless of the source, the existing knowledge base is accessible without technological or structural barriers, and knowledge sharing is recognized and rewarded.”

All in all, this Army initiative contains a great deal that civilians could learn from and follow. Pay particular attention to the 12 principles articulated in their policy. They would be as apt in a law firm or any other enterprise. The only catch is that in the Army, senior management really appears to understand and endorse effective knowledge management. And, when the top brass speaks in the Army everyone listens. Those are benefits not all of us can claim.

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