Flat KM

Back in the 1960s, the world was introduced to Stanley Lambchop.  As you may remember, an unfortunate meeting between Stanley and a bulletin board rendered poor Stanley flat as a pancake.  As a result, he became known worldwide as Flat Stanley.  The books Jeff Brown wrote about Flat Stanley provide detail on what it might be like to live in one dimension. Nearly fifty years later, it appears that Stanley Lambchop’s approach is alive and well in some law firm knowledge management quarters, as evidenced by a preference for Flat KM.

What’s Flat KM?  It’s KM constrained to a single dimension and a limited purpose.  It’s KM that focuses on traditional activities, perhaps with a slight technological boost.  It’s KM that provides incremental improvements in quality and efficiency, but rarely makes fundamental changes to the way we do business.

To be honest, Flat KM is not uncommon.  There are law firms and KM personnel for whom Flat KM is the form of KM with which they are most comfortable.  In fact, when I read Greg Lambert’s report of a recent knowledge management conference we attended, I wondered if his concept of “traditional KM” might be a bit uni-dimensional:

I was a little disappointed with the direction that many of the law firms are taking with the idea of Knowledge Management (KM). Some of the presenters were showing products that were very `flashy’ and useful, but weren’t really what I would consider `KM’ resources.

Many of them were `Client Services’ products… or were fancy dashboards attached to accounting or time and billing resources, but not really what I would think of when it came to capturing `knowledge’ at a firm. Don’t get me wrong, these projects were very cool, they were very useful for getting information in the hands of clients or attorneys, but to call them knowledge management resources would be stretching the truth a little bit because they didn’t really capture and reuse existing firm knowledge in the traditional meaning of knowledge management.

Although Greg does not define traditional KM in his post, I suspect he had in mind some of the following tasks:  creating model documents and precedent banks; providing current awareness; and implementing search technology. In other words, KM activities closely related to the core of the craft of law that focus on “managing” legal knowledge. These activities are more concerned with documents than processes.

While Flat KM may bring with it certainty of mission, I don’t believe it is adequate for the way lawyers practice law today.  Perhaps once a upon a time it was possible to be a successful lawyer simply by being a good legal craftsman who produced excellent documents and provided wise counsel.  However, the practice of law has moved on.  Today, lawyers know that being good at the craft of law is necessary but not sufficient.  Now they also need to be good at the business of law — the developing of client relationships, the winning of business, the hiring and nurturing of excellent talent, the running of an efficient, humane firm, etc.  Any one of these tasks would be a challenge.  Facing all of them together at once can seem insurmountable.  Thankfully, there are lawyers and firms that are finding ways to meet these challenges every day.

Given the scope and depth of these challenges, can law firm KM afford to slide by as Flat KM much longer?  I don’t think so. Knowledge managers need to provide support to their firms for both the practice of law and the business of law.  In most cases this will mean, at a minimum, finding more realistic ways to provide the annotated models, practice guides, market precedents and current awareness lawyers need in a timely fashion.  However, there is much more KM can do.  (For a fuller discussion of the purpose of KM, I commend to you Mark Gould’s commentary on the “breadth of possible (and justifiable) KM activities.”) Just as we help uncover and deliver information useful for the practice of law, we can help uncover and deliver information useful for the business of law. This may involve information in our time and billing system, our client relationship management system  or our competitive intelligence system.  It may mean bringing KM principles to bear to make business processes within the firm more sensible. It may even require the occasional cool user interface.

Some firms don’t have the resources necessary to achieve even Flat KM.  Others lack the will to go beyond it.  In either case, knowledge managers need to suit their activities to the abilities and aspirations of their firm.  That said, if you are at a firm that understands that knowledge management principles can make a material difference to both the practice of law and the business of law, then you can move past Flat KM to the richness of working in multiple dimensions.  This opportunity may well involve significant challenges — but it certainly beats living a flat life.

[Photo Credit: Dena Williams]

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