Steve Jobs and Legal KM

Tribute to Steve Jobs 1955 - 2011 The day after Steve Jobs died, a knowledge management colleague at another law firm asked why a man who had such a profound influence on technology had seemingly little influence on legal knowledge management.  That stopped conversation for a moment.  Tongue firmly in cheek, I countered with the proposition that if Steve Jobs had turned his attention to legal technology, it would work a great deal better and be easier to use than it is.

All joking aside, my colleague’s question started me wondering about Steve Jobs’ legacy with respect to knowledge management.  After a little Google research, I must admit I haven’t found anything that Steve Jobs said directly about knowledge management.  However, I have found lots of things he said and did that legal KM should not ignore:

  • Focus on Simplicity. Steve Jobs was famous for his commitment to simplifying tools and processes. His drive to eliminate fussy, confusing buttons from the cellphone led to the iPhone. Stephen Wolfram says that Jobs stood out for his astonishing clarity of thought.  He “took complex situations, understood their essence, and used that understanding to make a bold definitive move, often in a completely unexpected direction.” Sometimes lawyers and legal KM professionals can make the error of over-complicating matters.  Steve Jobs would not approve.
  • User Experience Trumps All. Cliff Kuang, writing for Fast Company, said:  “Jobs may not be the greatest technologist or engineer of his generation. But he is perhaps the greatest user of technology to ever live….”  In short, Jobs was a “user-experience savant.” Kuang continues, “It’s not that Jobs doesn’t think like a consumer–he just thinks like one standing in the near future, not in the recent past.” Even if you don’t have someone like Steve Jobs in your firm, you can achieve better results by listening carefully to your internal clients.  Steve Denning argues that even with Steve Jobs’ famous aesthetic sense and conviction about what the customer wanted, Apple listened to its customers very carefully.
  • Plan Early for the Next Improvement. The launch of a system or application doesn’t mark the end of the project, it’s just the beginning.  Cliff Kuang describes how this fact has become reality at Apple:  “[Jobs] has taught his entire organization to play in the span of product generations rather than product introductions. Apple designers say that now, each design they create has to be presented alongside a mock-up of how that design might evolve in the second or third generation.”  Now contrast that with the plausible view that nothing much new is happening in legal knowledge management.  Things would be different in legal KM if Steve Jobs were in charge.
  • Knowledge Sharing is Essential for Innovation. There is a famous story of the visit Steve Jobs paid to Xerox’s R&D facility.  Daniel Stuhlman recounts it in the following way:

    The computer mouse and the graphical interface were invented at Xerox’s research center. Steve Jobs went on a tour of the facility and was able to get enough ideas to create a new computer software system that eventually led to Mac OS and Windows. Xerox was never able to capitalize on its own discovery. Steve Jobs did not steal an idea, he took a great idea and developed it. I wonder if Xerox had a knowledge management problem or was Steve Jobs a gifted visionary?

If you are wondering what law firm KM might look like had Apple taken an interest in it, look no further than Apple’s 1987 Knowledge Navigator.  I bet the lawyers in your firm would kill for a system like this.



[Thanks to Ron Young for reminding me about Knowledge Navigator.]

[Photo Credit: Cornelia Kopp]


3 thoughts on “Steve Jobs and Legal KM

  1. Mary, as one of the provocateurs who inspired you to write this particular posting, I feel entitled to a response!  Jobs was certainly a visionary and innovator when it came to user interface and other design elements of software, computers and other digital devices.  He introduced us to the possibilty of digital aesthetics and style. For that we should be grateful. But perhaps because of his obsession with simplicity, coolness and the “personal experience” he was pretty disconnected with the technology factors that tend to relate most intimately with what KM cares about. 

    Think about it…For KM it’s all about the content – creating it, organizing it, finding it, linking it, communicating it, etc.  Ultimately, it’s what’s IN the box, not the box itself that needs to look good for us.  It may be a gross oversimplification, but I don’t think Jobs cared as much about the content as he did about the experience of interacting with the content; and while I’d like my interactive experience to be a pleasant one, it will do me no good if the content isn’t there or isn’t accessible because the system I’m using is too closed or otherwise too limited in its basic data management capabilities. 

    In Dealers of Lightning, the fun (and enlightening) book about Xerox PARC, Michael Hiltzik provides a nicely balanced picture of what took place when Jobs came to PARC to check things out.  He recounts how Jobs admitted later that he was so taken with the GUI capabilities of SmallTalk that he missed the more radical innovations demonstrated – namely, object-oriented programming and networking.  Reputedly, when the original Mac came out Jobs responded to a question about why it didn’t have networking built-in by saying, “You want networking in a Mac?  Here’s your networking!” And then he threw a disk at the questioner…That pretty much sums up the blindspot Jobs always had toward factors that are critical to KM.

    – Brent

    1. Brent –

      Thanks for inspiring this post and thanks for your comment. You’re absolutely right when you say that Steve Jobs was a visionary and innovator with respect to design and the user experience. But I don’t believe that is the end of his innovation. If you think about the iPod, you’ll know that while it wasn’t the first mp3 player, it certainly was one of the nicest and easiest to use. But that wasn’t all. It was, above all, the gateway to an impressive collection of content — the iTunes store that Jobs and his team created and have defended energetically. I haven’t looked at the data, but I suspect that the revenue from iTunes sales far outstrips the revenue from iPod sales.

      From a knowledge manager’s perspective, the iTunes store is a remarkably easy collection to navigate. To be honest, if we could make law firm data were this easy to navigate, law firm knowledge managers would be heroes.
      – Mary

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