Do You Really Know?

Do you really know how your colleagues work? Do you really know what they need? Are you sure? If you don’t truly understand them, how can you provide the right knowledge management and technology support to help them?

Every time I hear someone in law firm knowledge management or IT say “Our lawyers would never…,” I’m tempted to ask them to produce the evidence for their assertion.  All too often the person declaiming about the “lawyers” has never actually worked beside them for any meaningful period of time. However, this doesn’t stop them from making overly broad statements about “those lawyers” based on incomplete or misconstrued information.

How do they get themselves in this mess?  There are any number of ways:  collecting anecdotal information in an unsystematic way, failing to grasp the context for what they are being told, not understanding the business processes in which the lawyers are engaged, not discerning what motivates those lawyers, refusing to consider evidence that contradicts their preconceptions, etc. Regardless of how they found themselves in this mess, the consequences are not trivial.  Their approach can prevent these knowledge management or IT personnel from offering services and resources that could materially improve the work life and work product of their lawyer colleagues.  Further, it can be an enormous barrier to innovation when a service provide in KM or IT hides behind misguided impressions, rather than relying on facts.

So what’s the solution?  At the recent ILTA 2010 Conference, we heard of several more fruitful approaches to understanding better how your internal clients work.  Connie Hoffman (CIO at Bryan Cave) recommended engaging in active listening, as well as creating a close development partnership with the lawyers.  Sandy Owen (Operations Director, Legal & Corporate Affairs, Intel Corporation) and Jessica Shawl (Operations Program Manager, Legal & Corporate Affairs, Intel Corporation) told us how Intel used flip cameras to document in video exactly how their in-house lawyers worked and ways in which technology made their lives easier or more challenging.  They also conducted “web jams” to gather information on user needs from their internal clients.

Moving beyond the world of lawyers, Ted Schadler at Forrester recently recounted how Peter Hambling (CIO of Lloyd’s of London) set about to change the way the IT department interacted with the end-users at Lloyd’s:

They’ve … embedded IT staff directly into the cubicle farms of business employees; they’ve built innovative solutions with teams comprised of business and IT employees; they’ve created applications that empower employees to understand global risk through a familiar interactive map. They created a new contract with business managers and employees that gives IT professionals a place in the business.

So now you’ve seen some examples of ways to get closer to your internal clients and understand better how you can improve their work lives. If you’re tempted to try video, take a look at Life in a Day: the story of a single day on earth.  It’s a rather extreme example of documenting how people work and live. Perhaps it will inspire you.


[Photo Credit: dsb nola]

9 thoughts on “Do You Really Know?

  1. Interesting post Mary! I also see the problem you describe in practise and like the approaches others are taking to address it. It's interesting to see many companies bringing back the 'supporting departments' (like IT, HR, Facilities, …) back into the primary process. What I understand is that lots of companies split the primary and secundary processes in the nineties. Basically splitting work and the quality of work. This could have been a good move and there probably are examples of companies that did this successfully. But many didn't, leading to little or no focus on quality in the primary process (only when needed). This also led to the 'we'-'they' talk you hear a lot in companies.By the way, another approach companies have taken is to install employees that move between business and the rest of the organization (IT a.o.). The business, information etc architects of this world. That's my job… 🙂

    1. Thanks, Samuel. It sounds like you have a pivotal job. Having both front
      line experience plus the bigger picture that administrative positions
      provide is an invaluable combination. This should make you perfectly
      situated to translate the needs of your front line colleagues into truly
      helpful support efforts.

      – Mary

  2. Mary,

    I agree, this is a huge problem.

    My concern is that the solution is not as simple as it sounds, or even harder than it might sound if it sounds hard. Typically, in firms, the IT and even KM functions are separated from the users who matter: attorneys. Having been both an attorney and in KM, I can confirm this fact. And they are becoming more separated. IT is now outsourced or nearsourced (to India, Wheeling or Melville, NY) and other support staff placed on separate floors.

    Lawyers won't want to be 'splied' on with videocams, or the few who do won't be representative, which is unsystematic. I think until firm leadership realizes that technology and process initiatives impact their competitive advantage and there needs to be more cross pollenation, this issue won't be fixable by IT/KM alone.

  3. As a software training and support firm specializing in the legal environment, we see this issue frequently. We're often called in to train a problem help-desk staff, only to discover their technical skills are high; instead, the problem is that they don't understand the business of law. The first thing a help-desk worker must do is understand/decipher the question/problem posed by the caller. A lack of understanding of their “customers” business and work practices, creates an obstacle in doing that. A caller may start a help-desk call saying they have a filing or closing — translation, which is lost, “time is of the essence”; and it goes downhill from there. Years ago, to deal with this issue, we developed an “Understanding the Practice of Law” training session for IT Professionals. This type of training should be mandatory training for all IT staff dealing with end users.

    Heidi Herpel

    1. Heidi –

      You're right that it is extremely helpful to understand the context of the
      request when you are in a support function. It would be interesting to know
      how many law firm IT departments provide this kind of training for their
      personnel and whether they can document an improvement in the level of
      service provided post-training.

      – Mary

      1. Mary,
        In my experience, “soft skills” training (such as this), unfortunately, tends to be a low priority at firms for IT staff. We promoted this at our booth one year at ILTA (not that is is a particular revenue generator for us, it's a short training, we promoted it because we saw great value in it), but IT folks attending the show are generally, and understandably, more interested in Tech services.

        Actual ROI on training is hard to quantify in general. At one large Florida-based firm we conducted this at, the very experienced CIO sat through the training, which was conducted on a weekend. His response to me was that it was “Fabulous and exceeded his expectations”.

        Heidi Herpel
        King, Herpel and Associates

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