The KM Solution?

In a recent meeting,  a vendor said with great enthusiasm, “Let me show you our KM solution.”  For a brief moment of intense joy, I actually thought I was about to experience KM enlightenment.

I should have known better.

After a bit of fanfare, he unveiled … a search engine.  Admittedly, it appeared to be a very fine search engine.  Nonetheless, if search and retrieval were the entire KM solution, most of us engaged in law firm knowledge management could have retired years ago.  The reality is that while good search and retrieval are important components of a law firm knowledge management program, they cannot fairly be described as the complete answer.

I know that and you know that.  When will the vendors figure it out?

[Photo Credit:  Sharon Pazner]

18 thoughts on “The KM Solution?

  1. I wonder if it is the fact there can never be a complete solution? Or maybe they will figure it out when someone with longtime KM experience develops it. I do firmly believe that vendors need to employee staff that have performed the roles they are providing solutions for. Plus, those staff members need to be true to their KM roots once they start working for a vendor. Not as easy said as done, many people change or develop different opinions when they go to work for someone else.

    1. Craig – Perhaps the more accurate approach is to call these vendor offerings “KM products” that can be “components” of a KM solution.- Mary

  2. Mary – how funny, why is that Vendors seem to think search is the answer to everything? I could understand why they might think this is they had experience of working in a LAW Firm, but must of them don't.I'm still waiting for enlightment.

  3. I'll assume they said this without getting a good understanding of your needs, with the possible exceptiont that they know you are in a law firm.

    1. Jack – In fairness, they had been asked just to show us their product line and they didn't have the benefit of an in depth prior conversation regarding our KM program. That said, I was still struck by the fact that the vendor used this expression — despite having worked with lots of other firms with reputable KM programs.- Mary

  4. Frankly, I think that the word “solution” is being over-used to the point of meaninglessness. There was a deli in the business district here that advertised that they delivered “hunger solutions” – I fervently hope it was a joke. “Solution” presented in this way means that the vendor hasn't really thought about the problem. KM cannot be generic – the tools and processes you employ must be relevant to the organization, reflect its culture and values, and fit with the way it works. That doesn't come out of the box.

    1. You're absolutely right, Wendy. (Although I do like the sly humor of the expression “hunger solution.”) This one-size-fits-all approach is emblematic of what has gone wrong with knowledge management in recent years. Thankfully, more KM practitioners have learned the necessary lessons and now are taking a more holistic approach to knowledge management. Let's hope the vendors catch up soon.- Mary

  5. For reasons I haven't yet figured out, a comment left earlier by James Mullan hasn't yet appeared on this page. I've pasted it below:amesM <> (unregistered) wrote:Mary – how funny, why is that Vendors seem to think search is the answer to everything? I could understand why they might think this is they had experience of working in a LAW Firm, but most of them don't.I'm still waiting for enlightment.Site URL:

    1. James – I wonder if the vendors just follow the money? They've been able to charge significant amounts for the search engines they produce. As far as they are concerned, it's a great solution — to their own business needs.- Mary

  6. I definitely agree with you. The KM “problem” is about so much more than search. That said, search can help with, say, a fifth of the problem!I was once asked to speak at a conference on the provocative topic: “can effective search solve the knowhow problem?”. I thought it was hilarious that knowhow was a problem that needed to be solved, but rather than re-wording the question in true exam style, I agreed to take it on. I referred to an article in Harvard Business Review by Jacobson and Prusak called “the cost of knowledge” (this was a couple of years ago) where they said that KM efforts focused too much on expensive search engines; in their view this was not the right place to focus attention. They advocated focusing on helping employees use the knowledge that they find. They based this on studies showing that 20% of a knowledge workers' time was spent searching, the rest on eliciting, interpreting and applying what was found. This mirrors what we've found at our law firm.Where I think that good search undoubtedly helps KM:- ensuring that employees have the right knowledge at the right time- making knowledge systems easy and useful (obviously the content itself plays a key role here too!)- integrating internal and external knowhow- finding knowledge that is most relevant to clients- ROI: time spent searching gets written off if it doesn't bring results;- even if you don't accept that argument, think of how much time partners spend preparing for pitches, looking up what deals they've worked on for whom, what relevant points arose, what similar work has been done by the firm; – lawyers fear they are missing something so search with broad search terms; they then get way too many results and can't do anything useful with them- it's often difficult to search outside your own office or practice area- if you can't find what you want, you reinvent the wheel; are clients really going to pay for this?- lawyers get frustrated with search and the underlying KM systems, and don't use them in the future.- search can help you find the right people to solve your problem; this has to be the ultimate goal.We've had some success with federated search; at least this allowed us to search multiple repositories at once. But it ultimately relies on the underlying “native” search engines; those frequently relied on lawyers having the advanced search skills of information professionals; of course, they can't be expected to have these skills – on the other hand, they do have high expectations of search thanks to Google. I believe that the new generation of search engines (especially faceted search) can help a lot by allowing lawyers to do powerful advanced searches with only basic search skills.But what doesn't it solve?- obviously let down by the quality (or lack of) in the knowledge itself. If the underlying content adds no value to the client, it doesn't matter how good your search is. But even beyond this pure-KM point…- you need excellent content management (with approval, review, etc.)- a strong knowledge sharing culture in which creation of new knowledge is paramount- a lot of value of explicit knowhow comes from its context, the way it is structured; search just returns lots of related knowhow but fails to add value by means of context and structure- even the best search engines rely on good taxonomies, despite what the vendor may tell you. Has anyone seen reliable automatic concept extraction yet?- search as a pull mechanism will only go so far; lawyers need to see relevant knowhow being delivered to them at the right time and place, ie. in the document they are drafting. Query whether search engines have really got there yet.I think that most firms still have a way to go to have solved the search problem, let alone the knowhow problem. Good search can help make knowledge more useful and easy, but surely only part of the struggle.

    1. This is terrific, Sam, and merits a post-length response. Please stay tuned!- Mary

  7. I so agree!I am not sure whether they really think it is a KM solution (naievity on their part), or whether they think it will sell better if they call it a KM solution (naievity on the part of the market). I suspect the latter

    1. I think you're right, Nick. (However, on some days I worry that it is in fact cynicism on the part of the market.) The trouble is that we're all complicit in this foolishness. Unfortunately, it just makes things harder for those who really want to make a difference through knowledge management.- Mary

  8. Mary, it is good to see that I am not the only one facing this endless of solitude. Whether it is for KM or social computing, big vendors come out with poor solutions. They simply don't get it and confuse an application with a feature. They are proud of a blog or a wiki, not understanding that blogs or wikis are like cars: either you get the low end or the Porsche. And that their stuff is the low end. They are backwards so far.@Jack (hey mate!): the last big vendor visiting me took the example of collaborative writing of a book. Not only he demonstrated the document versioning instead of the wiki, but he was convinced that in libraries our job is to write books.@ Wendy Reynolds: I like your approach.

    1. Olivier – If this problem is widespread with vendors, how do we change things? – Mary

  9. Olivier – If this problem is widespread with vendors, how do we change things? – Mary

Comments are closed.

Create a website or blog at

Up ↑