Is Your KM Department Human Middleware?

Warning: Do not exceed maximum capacity! It’s great to feel needed.  It’s nice to be known as the go-to person with the answer. In a client-service industry like the law firm world, you can get a small buzz on knowing that you helped improve the delivery of client services — especially at crunch time.  But it’s a double-edged sword. Inevitably, because you step into the breach time and time again, your firm comes to rely on you for your ability to make problems seem to go away.

Law firms are not unique in having folks like this.  According to Mark McDonald, every organization has “human middleware”:

Human middleware are the people in your organization whose responsibilities revolve around greasing the skids to keep things moving.  Just like their technology counterparts, human middleware sits in the gaps between processes, they coordinate corporate messages, and they are both the grease that keeps things moving and the glue that keeps things from falling apart.

Does that sound like your law firm knowledge management department?  If you’ve got KM folks who demonstrate a desire to “get things done” and a greater desire to be needed, then you most likely have a law firm knowledge management department that finds itself pulled in different directions to meet the many demands it faces. But let’s be honest — that’s not all. With the recent economic bad times, some KM departments have been looking for more ways to remind their law firms how vital they are to the smooth operations of their organization.  So, we find KM seeking out new opportunities, filling gaps all over the organization, meeting growing needs.

While this trend is perfectly understandable, Mark McDonald probably wouldn’t endorse it.  Unchecked mission creep leads to overworked staff and then demands for new hiring. In his view, throwing people at problems is a “sign of distortion” within the organization. The issue is that when you “use people to paper over” challenges to the organization, you run the risking of ignoring some key indicators of disease within the organization:

  • Inconsistent business processes
  • Inaccurate systems
  • Incomplete interfaces
  • The proliferation of too many “me too” products
  • Inadequate management capacity and capability
  • General inefficiencies across the organization
  • Weak general management
  • Baseline budgeting
  • Accretive change

To be clear, this is not an argument to return law firm knowledge management to its bare-bones function of content repository.  However, it is a warning that not every gap in the firm should be filled by KM.  Unless KM uses its resources judiciously, KM personnel end up simply “papering over” structural problems in the firm.  According to Mark McDonald, this leads to even more pernicious results:

Human middleware is a silent killer of performance, responsibility and effectiveness. It starts with good intentions, it sounds good – after all who is against greater coordination, improved service, or greater time to market?  All are business justifications for creating human middleware.

For McDonald, the answer is relatively straightforward:  eliminate the distortions to improve operations and restore the organization to health.  If KM is part of the distortion, then it will have to be trimmed back or removed. To avoid this fate, be careful whenever you find yourself tempted to throw people at a problem — even your very talented KM personnel. Consider first if the real issue is some distortion in your system that ought to be addressed by business process improvement, better technology or greater clarity as to strategy, for example.

As I said at the beginning of this post, it’s great to feel needed. But don’t let your drive to be needed lead you to make KM part of the problem rather than the solution.

[Photo Credit: Jay Goldman]

7 thoughts on “Is Your KM Department Human Middleware?

  1. You make some fabulous points.  Being the hero is definitely alluring, especially the praise for rescuing a situation at the last minute.  Leaders can help tilt the scales in the other direction: praise ‘boring’ success that delivers as planned WITHOUT strenuous and flashy exertion.

    Better-yet, use incentives to reward proactive work that addresses a real issue via “business process improvement, better technology or greater clarity as to strategy”!
    You’ve inspired me to comment further over on my blog.

      1. You’re very welcome. Thanks for bringing the ‘middleware’ analogy to my attention.

        In thinking further about ‘throwing people at a problem’ I realized it resonates with an article I read in early February in HBR: “Why you should automate parts of your job to save it” It approaches the effort equation from a different angle – that an individual who’s filling the gaps can&should look to incorporate automation. Not just management’s responsibility to consider business process improvement.

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