Is Your KM System Built to Last?

Sydney Harbour bridge and ferries Today the Sydney Harbour Bridge celebrates its 80th birthday. Affectionately know as the “Coathanger,” it is the world’s widest long-span bridge. It also is a popular destination for tourists. If you walk across it (or climb to the top of its arch) you can enjoy panoramic views of Sydney’s beautiful waterfront.

More than a tourist destination, the bridge was purpose built to provide a vital transportation link between central and north Sydney. When it opened in 1932, the bridge handled 11,000 vehicles a day. Now it carries 160,000 vehicles each day.  According to John Nicholson, author of Building the Sydney Harbour Bridge, “They didn’t skimp on material in those days, so it was designed to take 10-20 times more traffic than necessary.” In fact, in the March 2012 issue of Virgin Australia’s magazine, Nicholson goes so far as to suggest that the bridge still hasn’t reached its limit: “…you could put a new deck on the bridge and double the traffic load, and it’ll take it.”

Built to last, built to accommodate increased demands. That’s what we’d like to be able to say about everything we buy and everything we create. But can you honestly say that about your KM systems? When your KM system depends on a cutting-edge technology, you’re building in planned obsolesce that will become painfully apparent as that technology becomes outmoded. When your KM system depends on constant care and feeding by staff members to remain current, the ongoing cost and inefficiency will weigh the system down to the breaking point over time.

These tendencies put particular pressure on some knowledge management projects that are favorites of law firms: special document collections (e.g., precedent banks), intranet pages that depend on members of a practice group to add current content, and databases that manually track matter information. While senior lawyers love these projects in concept, few firms have the wherewithal to maintain them in peak condition over the long term. Consequently, they end up with outdated documents, stale intranet pages and incomplete matter information.

So where does this leave us? Theoretically, a good search engine should be able to uncover “know what,” “know why” and “know who” within a law firm. (After all, we simply use Google when we need to find this information outside the firm. Why not use that search impulse within the firm as well?) The trickiest type of knowledge to gain access to may well be “know how.” Except in highly regulated circumstances, we rarely document and faithfully follow every step of a procedure. This suggests that once you have a search engine in place that really can deliver the goods, you should focus your KM efforts on improving knowledge sharing regarding “know how.”

But if you are going to build a “know how” system that lasts and can accommodate increased demands, where do you start? I suggest that you concentrate on the following:

  • Create more opportunities for those with the “know how” to share what they know with others while working “in the flow.”
  • Remove any impediments in the system that cause unnecessary friction or otherwise make it difficult to share “know how” in the moment.
  • Build an organizational culture that reinforces and rewards this type of knowledge transfer.

Notice I said nothing about compelling people to disgorge their tacit knowledge so that it can be “captured” and saved in a knowledge repository. Notice I said nothing about creating special document collections or hiring dedicated staff. This KM system is about making it easier for the people on the front lines of your organization to work together to share their knowledge without having to route it first through a central KM organization.

This type of distributed, in-the-moment sharing of “know how” can be tremendously powerful. And, it’s always current and never obsolete. It’s a KM system that is built to last.

While I won’t be around in 80 years’ time to enjoy the celebration, I’m willing to bet that a well-designed and well-executed “know-how” sharing system could be the one KM system that rivals the Sydney Harbour Bridge for longevity and usefulness within your firm.

[Photo Credit: KLW NFC]

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