December 31, 2008

Take An Expansive View

Knowledge managers around the world can learn a great deal from the example of the Hon. Judith S. Kaye, Chief Judge of the State of New York, whose tenure ends on December 31st. Besides being the first woman to hold the state's highest judiciary office and author of some landmark decisions, she will be remembered for her reform of the judicial system in New York. Chief among these reforms was expansion of the jury pool by eliminating the automatic exemptions that excused far too many from serving on a jury. Prior to the repeal of these exemptions, you could be excused from jury service if you were, for example, a doctor, a lawyer, an embalmer, a maker of prosthetic limbs, a wearer of prosthetic limbs, etc.

Chief Judge Kaye tells an amusing story about why expanding the jury pool was necessary: her daughter discovered that it was "a great place to meet guys." As any loving mother knows, you increase your daughter's chances of making a good match by increasing the number of potential mates in the pool (regardless of the real purpose of the pool).

What works in matchmaking works in knowledge sharing as well. The bigger the pool, the greater the available knowledge on which you can draw. Users of social media are discovering that by interacting more regularly and transparently with their social networks they are able to learn and share more than ever before. In the process, the pool grows and the participants themselves grow. Despite this reality, finding a way to bring the power of the bigger pool inside enterprises via social media tools continues to be a challenge for knowledge management.

In 2009, look for more ways to take an expansive view -- not only in how you work, but in the tools you provide that help make the pool bigger for everyone. If social computing has taught us anything, it is that this generosity is returned time and time again.

December 29, 2008

Why People Resist Change

We're two-thirds of the way through the eating marathon composed of Hanukkah, Christmas and New Year's Eve. And, as surely as night follows day, many of us are considering our expanding waistlines and the necessity of a diet in the New Year. Just as predictably, many of us will fail in our quest to change our eating habits and keep that weight off permanently. Similarly, in these waning days of the year, our thoughts often turn to the resolutions we plan to make on January 1 regarding the changes we know we need and the great expectations we hope to realize. Unfortunately, we likely will be as unsuccessful next year as we were this year in making radical changes.

Why is change so hard? According to a recent article in Scientific American, from our mid-twenties until our late fifties, we tend to be less open to new experiences and this makes us more resistant to change. As we face the challenges and responsibilities of adult life, our brains seem to prefer the security of stability rather than the chaos that change represents. According to Gerhard Roth,
The brain is always trying to automate things and to create habits, which it imbues with feelings of pleasure. Holding to the tried and true gives us a feeling of security, safety, and competence while at the same time reducing our fear of the future and of failure.

The final nail in the coffin of change is our tendency to have unrealistic expectations of what can be achieved. This is known as the "false hope" syndrome in which we attempt more change than is wise or possible, and then fail. No wonder most of us find it so difficult to change.

So what happens when your knowledge management program requires a change in behavior on the part of the lawyers in your law firm? You should assume that you will meet passive if not active resistance. But that doesn't give us a free pass to avoid change. Since change often is necessary, we need to plan carefully to ensure that the proposed change can be achieved. This suggests that we set reasonable goals requiring incremental (rather than radical) change and that we frame the change in a way that is least threatening to the sense of stability and security of our users.

Incremental change rarely results in banner headlines, but given what we now know about human psychology, it may be the only kind of change that is viable.

December 26, 2008

Great Canadian Content

Growing up in Canada, we were the "beneficiaries" of Canadian Content, a government policy designed to ensure we had enough exposure to homegrown culture that we didn't succumb to the allure of those cultural hegemonists south of the 49th parallel. When I first moved south of the 49th, it was hard to find overtly Canadian content (although media watchers will know that there are a surprisingly large number of Canadians active in US media.) Today, however, we have access to lots of great Canadian content -- not because of government regulation, but because of the excellence of the content and the open nature of the internet.

To celebrate that excellence, our blogging colleagues in Canada have instituted the Canadian Law Blog Awards, or CLawBies. The creator of the CLawBies, Steve Matthews (the terrific Vancouver Law Librarian and founder of Stem Legal), has implemented an innovative nomination process this year with the goal of fostering "some audience sharing & link-based infrastructure between members of the Canadian law blog community."

In deciding which blogs I would nominate, I was interested to discover that in every case I read these blogs because they are consistently good rather than because they are Canadian. (The fact that they are Canadian is a bonus as far as I'm concerned.) Here are the Canadian blogs I've enjoyed in the past year:

Connie Crosby -- I read Connie's blog regularly and follow her on Twitter. Her background in law libraries and social networking gives her insight into those knowledge management issues that keep me occupied. Above all, how can you not pay attention to a great "Info Diva"?

Law21 -- Jordan Furlong's blog is a must-read for anyone thinking hard about intelligent ways to practice law. And, even if you're not, he's such a good writer that I'd recommend you read him anyhow!

Slaw -- This is a category-busting blog: a community effort that covers a wide range of legal and cultural topics. There's always something of interest and, due to the number of contributors, there is always something new.

Finally, I do want to thank Steve Matthews personally. He has been a terrific supporter of legal blogging on either side of the 49th parallel. Steve's efforts to promote individual bloggers and legal blogging generally are marked with the kind of personal generosity that makes the blawgosphere such a rewarding place for those of us interested in good conversation and community. Thanks, Steve!

December 24, 2008

Christmas Lessons and Carols

One of our favorite holiday traditions is to listen to the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols broadcast from King's College Cambridge. It provides a glimpse of a useful knowledge management lesson -- in this case regarding innovation.

For those of you unfamiliar with the service of lessons and carols, it is a tradition that began in 1918. It tells the story of prophecy and fulfillment, drawing on sources in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. The lessons read from the Bible each year are the same ones read in 1918. What changes from year to year are the carols chosen. After each lesson, the superb King's College choir sings two different carols that are thematically related to the lesson just read. These carols draw on centuries of Christmas music and always feature some golden oldies. However, every year the choir commissions one new carol to be premiered during the service. This year, the new carol is entitled "Mary" and was composed by Dominic Muldowney.

I've written before about the value of incremental change. Not every law firm needs a revolution in order to have a great knowledge management effort. However, every law firm will benefit from knowledge managers who are constantly focused on making incremental improvements to the KM program, especially if those changes result in improvements in the way the firm delivers superior service to its clients. The key incremental change offered by King's College is the newly-commissioned carol. Commissioning a new piece of music is not something you do on the fly. It requires planning, inspiration, effort and time. It also requires the consistent excellence in delivery for which the choir of King's College is famous.

Plan for constant incremental improvements. Cast your net widely to find your inspiration and then cull those ideas until you find something truly worth the effort and time required. Next, be sure that you have staff and systems that operate at a level of excellence. With all these elements in place, your KM program and your law firm will be able to reap the benefits of constant incremental improvement.

Merry Christmas!

December 23, 2008

An Early Holiday Gift from Dennis Kennedy

Our family has a strict rule (guaranteed to drive children crazy): first send the thank you note and then enjoy the gift. In this case, however, the gift arrived electronically and put an immediate smile on my face. In fact, I've been enjoying Dennis Kennedy's gift for hours and this note of thanks is a little tardy.

And what was the gift? Dennis Kennedy was kind enough to include Above and Beyond KM on his 2008 list of notable blogs, also known as Dennis Kennedy's 2008 Law-related Blogging Awards (The Blawggies). I was surprised and delighted to find myself in the company of some terrific bloggers. I invite you to spend a little time with the blawgs and blawggers Dennis called out for recognition. The list covers a wide range of law-related subjects and provides lots of thought-provoking reading.

All of this starts with Dennis, one of the pioneers of legal blogging. I was reading his writing before I even realized what a blog was. He has set a high standard not only for great content and longevity in this business but, most of all, for generosity.

So, thank you Dennis Kennedy!

With best wishes for the Holidays,


And, because I couldn't resist, here's an excerpt from my post on April 15 in which I quote Dennis Kennedy:
In the inimitable words of Dennis Kennedy: "I have no doubt that Tom Mighell has mentioned many more new legal blogs than the number of blogs that have links back to his blog. He's a saint I'm not quite that saintly." Dennis makes this observation in the course of a post entitled "What are the Most Common Mistakes a New Legal Blogger Makes," in which he reminds bloggers who are lucky enough to be mentioned by a more established blogger that they should not be delinquent in thanking the experienced blogger.

December 22, 2008

Pay Attention to People

At the heart of every knowledge management effort has to be the people we hope will use and benefit from it. Yet far too often, they are not considered sufficiently in the design or implementation stage. Most of the time we plan based on our "impressions and preconceptions" of how our target audience will behave. These "impressions and preconceptions" are what we call experience, but they often block us from truly working with people as they are now, rather than how we thought they once were.

What's the corrective for this? Pay attention to people -- pay close attention. In a post about living artfully that is well worth reading as we approach the season of resolutions, Dustin Wax has the following observation about why paying attention to people pays off:
When we pay attention to people, really pay attention, it brings forth something in them that’s amazing. This is something I learned as an anthropologist – people love to tell their stories. All they need is someone to really listen to them. And when people give you their stories, it enriches your own story.
It's those stories that allow us to match our KM program to the current needs or pain points experienced by the people we serve. It also helps prevent our deploying programs that miss the mark. Pay attention to the people first and then see how technology can help. You won't regret it.

December 19, 2008

Choosing Among 31 Flavors

There is a particular kind of paralysis that can overtake a person standing in front of an ice cream shop counter, trying to choose among 31 (or more) flavors of ice cream. Sometimes you end up choosing vanilla just because it seems impossible to make a single choice from all the available options. That's how I felt when Greg Lambert at 3 Geeks and a Law Blog asked me to send him my favorite blog posts. We're fortunate that there are so many folks who have interesting and intelligent things to say about knowledge management, social media, human behavior and all the other topics I like to follow. So nominating some for his consideration was a pleasure. But then came the difficult part: which of my own blog posts did I like the best?

(Cookies `n Cream? Heath Bar Crunch? Mint Chocolate Chip? Butter Pecan? Help!)

So here's what I did. I looked at the blog posts my readers seemed to like the most (based on site traffic reports and comments received) and then I thought about the posts I particularly enjoyed writing. Here's the list I came up with today:

Is Your KM Department Serving Fish?

The Problem with Low-Hanging Fruit

Overcoming Hurdles to Web 2.0

Is Your Knowledge Management Strategic?

Why KM Needs Good Design

KM and the Pantyhose Fallacy

Putting Blinders on to Enhance Productivity

Just One Thing

If you asked me tomorrow, I might come up with a different list. But, for today, this is my multi-scoop alternative to plain vanilla.

Be sure to check back with 3Geeks and a Law Blog. They're planning to publish today the list of all the recommended blog posts. I'm looking forward to reading them.

[photo courtesy of ulterior epicure under a Creative Commons license]

December 18, 2008

In Vino Veritas

We just spent the evening at the home of friends who are in the wine importing business. As you might imagine, we didn't drink much water. There is an old proverb: "in vino veritas." It simply attests to the fact that there is an inverse relationship between the amount of wine consumed and the degree to which one can edit one's conversation. In fact, you learn the most interesting things when your companions are under the influence...

With the advent of social media, teetotalers and imbibers alike now have multiple opportunities to converse online without editing themselves. In case you have blindly assumed that it doesn't really matter how you behave online, you should know that lawyers are now beginning to think about the e-discovery implications of Twitter.

To be fair, if you've ever thought that your activities via social media are entirely private, you've been deluding yourself. Google owns your personal archive. Facebook knows who you know. And millions of folks like you are surfing in and out of your online life. Now more than ever, you need to manage your web presence like Hollywood agents manage movie stars. You no longer can limit your image to the four corners of your resume. Now, every time you hit the Web you add to the world's understanding of who you are. And your digital profile can be powerful -- particularly when it doesn't square with your resume. Be aware and be careful.

[photo courtesy of Rob Bieber under a Creative Commons License]

December 17, 2008

Shall I Tell You Where to Go?

Do you know where you're going to?* That's the critical question Mark Gould asks in his recent post on social media, in which he makes the fair point that there really isn't a one-size-fits-all social media strategy. Each person and each organization has to figure it out for themselves. And it all begins with knowing what you're trying to achieve. Then you choose the tools that will get you to your goal.

That said, I know folks are always looking for the silver bullet, the one sure-fire way of achieving success. Putting to one side the fact that I don't know how you define success, let me make a suggestion: Go where the conversation is. In the brief time I've been using social media tools, I've been struck by how well they facilitate conversations that cut across status, age and geography. Above all, I've been impressed by the richness of those conversations. But don't be fooled by the fact that they can be brief, casual and, on occasion, banal. The reality is that these online conversations build relationships, and those relationships enrich your life. In fact, they can even be profitable in your professional life.

There was a time when the critical business conversations happened on the golf course or in particular private clubs. Increasingly, they are happening online. So if you want to participate, find a social media tool that works for you** and then use it to go where the conversation is.

[*When I first saw the blog title, "Do You Know Where You're Going To?" I thought Mark was joining me in my series of blog posts based on popular songs. Unfortunately, it was not the case. However, for those of you who don't mind a trip down memory lane, here's the song I had in mind.]

[**And, for those of you who have read this far, here's a small bit of advice: try using Twitter for three weeks and then let me know what you think. There are great conversations to be enjoyed there. If you wish, you can find me on Twitter using the tag @VMaryAbraham.]

December 16, 2008

Straight Talk About Social Media

It's been fascinating to watch the reaction of law firms to social media. Some firms have jumped right in and experimented enthusiastically with the new tools. Others have tiptoed around the edges, exploring their options, but not really diving in. And then there are the firms that aren't going to "do it" until all their peer firms "do it," or who believe that social media doesn't offer them anything they don't already have the old-fashioned way.

For the firm that is skeptical about the usefulness of social media, here is some straight talk (not snake oil) from Kevin O'Keefe, who has been equipping law firms all over the country to participate effectively in the Web 2.0 world. When asked which three social media tools deliver the most bang for the buck, his answer is very clear: blogs, Twitter and LinkedIn.

In his typically direct fashion, here's how he describes the value of these tools:

Blogs? Got to have one. How else can you develop a central place where clients, prospective clients, and the influencers (bloggers, media, and social media hounds) pick up on your passion, philosophy, reasoning, and skill? How do you get seen when people search for info? You think I'm picking a pig in the poke by reading a lawyer profile on a website or Martindale? That's nuts.

Twitter? Single biggest learning, brand building, network expanding, and reputation enhancing tool for me this year.
LinkedIn? LinkedIn has won the professional social networking/directory space. The race is over. I get invites from professionals inviting me to join their network elsewhere. Other than LinkedIn and Facebook I ignore them.
So there you have it, straight talk from a man who has been at the forefront of law firm social media deployments. Now, let's hear your questions and concerns. What's holding your firm back from engaging fully with social media?

December 15, 2008

Why KM Needs Good Design

If you don't believe design matters, read this post, buy a can of Altoids and reconsider. I heard a great story at lunch on Sunday of a presentation made by Claudia Kotchka, Proctor & Gamble's design and innovation maven, who explained what made Altoids great. And then, to drive the point home, showed her audience what would result if the green eye shade guys designed Altoids. Once they removed the tin (too expensive) and the paper (unnecessary), they ended up with something Claudia Kotchka calls "Proctoids." The packaging was "a box made of cheap white plastic from P&G's baby-wipe containers." Very appealing. In fact, according to one report, "[w]ith uniform beige ovals jammed into the container, fewer colors on the lid, and no paper, Proctoids taste like Altoids, but they look as appealing as a pile of horse pills." Unfortunately, people aren't as willing to pay the 400% premium for unappealing horse pills in a plastic case as they are for the pleasure they get from opening that Altoids tin.

Now, let's think about knowledge management systems as if they were P&G consumer products. What would your intranet look like if Claudia Kotchka was in charge of its design? What about your blogs and wikis? Your document management system? Not sure? Well, here's the test: Would the lawyers in your law firm pay a 400% premium to use your KM system? If not, you should consider applying Claudia Kotchka's design principles as reported by Chas Martin at Innovativeye:

1. Make it user centric through a deep understanding of user habits [and] need – physical and emotional.

2. Make it collaborative. Never work alone. There is no one right answer, so it’s not cheating to share information. A mix of skills are essential. (See Ten Faces of Innovation)

3. Challenge Mental Models. Ask different questions. The problem will look different, requiring a different type of solution.

4. Abductive. Start with prototype solution and test it. Learn backwards and logic the way to explain the result.

5. Experimental. Designers prototype with visual and tangible models. It’s easier to discuss something you can see. Prototyping starts the dialogue. It’s not the solutions, but [the] first of a continuous series [of] possible solutions. The second version can be radically different.

Good design is about problem solving, making things work better, and finding new opportunities. According to Tom Armitage, web developer at Headshift, "Design is not how it looks." A.G. Lafley, the CEO of P&G, understood this when he asked Claudia Kotchka to incorporate design into P&B's approach to business. In his words: "The goal is to transform the company from a place that's good at selling `more goop, better' into one whose products infuse delight into customers' lives."

Are your customers as happy as P&G's? If not, make sure you incorporate the principles of good design at the planning stages of any KM implementation to ensure an end-product that works beautifully and delights your users.

December 12, 2008

The Wrong Kind of Marathon

Here in New York City, we know something about marathons. The NYC Marathon rightfully is famous as one of the sporting highlights of the year. It takes an enormous amount of dedication and effort on the part of participants and organizers alike to prepare for and complete this marathon.

Unfortunately, NYC also hosts another type of marathon, which occurs daily. It's the "meeting marathon." Worse still, NYC isn't the only town with this sporting event. We've all been in a meeting marathon -- the ultimate corporate test of endurance and, in some cases, sanity. Folks have responded by ignoring the discussion at the meeting and focusing instead on buzzword bingo, texting, doodling, daydreaming ... you get the picture.

I've written about meetings being the credible alternative to work. However, there are times when holding a meeting is exactly the right thing to do. For example, if you're trying to implement innovation by teamwork, a meeting will undoubtedly be necessary at some point. So what should you do? To begin with, be very sure that the person who is calling the meeting actually knows how to run a productive meeting. By this I don't mean that they can convene a meeting without chairs or use some similar gimmick. Too often, the only thing these approaches ensure is that the participants are uncomfortable. They don't necessarily result in a high-quality productive meeting.

Here are some proven techniques for delivering a productive meeting:

- set a clear time frame and stick to it -- this is useful discipline
- be sure the purpose of the meeting is publicized and understood
- realize that the very act of asking the key question changes the outcome of the discussion
- make preparatory materials available before the meeting
- identify potential issues/hurdles and try to address them before the meeting
- understand the constituencies that will be participating -- where they sit in the organization will determine where they stand on the issue you're discussing
- decide whether the goal is to air issues, test a proposal, reach a consensus or close out a discussion and then structure the meeting accordingly
- be clear whether you need a neutral facilitator or a facilitator who actual advocates for a particular position
- be sure you have a meeting facilitator who has the social skills and discipline to help move the conversation along without unnecessarily offending participants

There is no substitute for good preparation. In fact, the quality of preparation is almost always reflected in the quality of the meeting. Chances are that every meeting marathon you've ever attended lacked adequate preparation or was chaired by someone who did not have the necessary skills and focus. Thankfully, preparation, skills and focus can all be addressed and improved. There is no longer any need to waste time at meeting marathons. Insist on productivity!

[Photo courtesy of the City of New York]

December 11, 2008

What Numbers Can't Do

Recently I had the interesting experience of reading survey results relating to a subject I actually knew something about. At first blush, the numbers were quite impressive. And then I read a little more closely and discovered that the presentation gave the impression of results that were better than warranted by reality. Since just the "bare numbers" had been reported, important context and nuance were lost. As a result, the story the numbers told was a little misleading.

So how do we restore context, nuance and meaning? And, more importantly, how do we help initiate needed change within our organizations? According to the folks at Anecdote, the answer lies in telling good stories and then listening properly to those stories:

Surveys and metrics can uncover trouble in an organisation, but they usually don't help you identify the reasons for dysfunctions, let alone generate the resolve to springboard people into action. Instead, learn to use stories as listening posts and tap into the emotion to spark action. From time immemorial, stories have contained collective lessons in condensed form. When gathered and examined, stories that are told in your organisation reveal important themes and patterns that in turn indicate effective solutions.

To be clear, I'm not trying to trash quantitative analysis. However, I do believe there are some things that can be communicated best by numbers and other things that can be communicated accurately only through narrative. Be very sure that when you make your choices about what to measure, how to measure and how to report the results, you choose the right tools and methods. If you cut corners here you will compromise your project and, possibly, your credibility. Why risk it?

[Thanks to Stan Garfield for pointing out the Anecdote post.]

December 10, 2008

A Place for Every Thing

There is an old adage: "A place for every thing and every thing in its place." And yet, if you've ever shared space with another human being, you know how hard it can be to (i) identify that one place and (ii) get everyone to put each thing in its "proper" place. (As I write, I'm staring at a bottle of dish washing liquid that always ends up on the "wrong" side of the kitchen sink, despite my best efforts!)

So why is it we think we can do better in our law firm knowledge management programs? The reality is that people often define the "proper place" for content differently. You only have to look at the variations in social bookmarking to see this. So, for example, instead of creating a rigid top-down taxonomy that imposes a regime of a single place for each thing (and then devoting the necessary resources on enforcement), why not spend your energy creating systems that allow users to organize the content as they see fit? After all, the point is to enable their easy use of the content -- it really isn't about ensuring that they find and use that content only in particular places.

At the end of the day, the purpose of the adage of one thing/one place is to eliminate options so that that you always know where to find your keys, your wallet, your cellphone, etc.  With the advanced search tools available today, we don't need to worry about this quite the same way when it comes to electronic content. So instead of enforcing a single way of doing things, meet your users where they are. I guarantee they'll be happier  -- and then so will you.

December 9, 2008

Persistence Pays

Persistence pays ... when applied correctly.

We all know someone who just keeps at you like a battering ram until you throw up your hands and agree to whatever they are asking. This application of persistence is not dissimilar to the modus operandi of many three-year olds. It may provide short-term benefits, but it invariably takes a toll on relationships and may well jeopardize long-term gains.

By contrast, there is the story I heard recently of how a friend of mine (a knowledge manager at another law firm) obtained the cooperation of the head of his firm's technology committee who had become a roadblock to necessary change. At issue was integrating into a single user interface the firm's intranet with an enterprise search tool. My friend made his case to the partner and asked nicely for cooperation. It was not forthcoming. So, my friend waited a while (presumably checked his own assumptions to confirm they were correct) and then went back a second time. No dice. My friend is famous for his persistence, so he went back a third time and was successful.

What made the difference? Here are my observations: It wasn't a typical battering ram approach. Rather, between the second and third visits, my friend worked on his relationship with his colleague. In a natural (not manipulative) way, he got to know his colleague better. And, his colleague got to know him better. As a result, when that third conversation occurred, each had a deeper understanding of the other's concerns and in the process put more capital in the bank of their relationship. This foundation allowed the partner to step aside and permit the proposed change, despite his own misgivings.

When seeking collaboration or cooperation, it is not enough merely to be persistent or to impose your views through sheer determination. By doing so, you undercut the very ground on which collaboration is based. Rather, take the time to establish understanding and trust with your proposed collaboration partner. We've heard time and again how critical trust is to collaboration. It's equally important for good professional relationships which, in turn, are critical to your success.

So be persistent ... at building trust. You'll reap the benefits sooner than you imagine.

December 8, 2008

Innovation is a Team Sport

A recent New York Times article touted the benefits of collaborating to innovate. Debunking the myth of the lone genius who creates in solitude, the article suggests that the best innovation comes about through collaboration -- where many people and perspectives intersect to create and refine ideas. However, it isn't enough just to put a group of people in a room and ask them to brainstorm. In fact, according to the article, brainstorming is not nearly as productive as we'd like to believe. Instead of asking folks to "solve a problem" or "devise a new strategy" (favorite brainstorming topics), the better path is "systematic inventive thinking" in which the participants are asked to identify products and processes that work, break those down into their components, and then think about how those components can be put to other productive uses.

When I read this description of systematic inventive thinking, I realized that it appeared to share some of the principles of appreciative inquiry, which encourages us to build on our strengths. What a difference from the traditional approach of focusing on what does not work! (In a prior post I talked about the benefits of asking What Went Right rather than What Went Wrong?) Further, when you ask a group to focus on what's good, you stand a better chance of avoiding some of the negative dynamics that emerge in problem-solving sessions such as refusing to speak up out of fear of failure or a desire to hoard ideas.

Whether you attempt innovation in solitary confinement or through a group process, research has shown that innovation isn't a flash in the pan. According to Keith Sawyer, a professor of psychology and education and author of Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration:
Innovation today isn’t a sudden break with the past, a brilliant insight that one lone outsider pushes through to save the company .... Just the opposite: innovation today is a continuous process of small and constant change, and it’s built into the culture of successful companies.
So what would it take to build innovation into the culture of your company? Sawyer believes that even the lone genius is part of a wider web of ideas and people -- the people the genius talks to, the people who write the things the genius reads, etc. This suggests that a company that wants a robust innovation culture has to build robust social networks that facilitate the cross-pollination of ideas.

How can knowledge management help? KM knows all about social networks and social media tools. KM knows how to reduce information silos and enable information sharing. KM knows how to foster collaboration. We've often said that the whole point of knowledge management is innovation. With this focus on group genius, it's becoming clearer how the things that knowledge management does well can be deployed to build a vibrant culture of innovation within every company.

[Thanks to Kevin O'Keefe at LexBlog for pointing out this article.]

December 5, 2008

Just One Thing

Here is a brief recipe for sanity that should make next week better than this week. As you go through your work today, look for Just One Thing that meets any of the following criteria:

- it is a drag on your efficiency
- it does not contribute to the revenue of your firm
- it could reasonably be done more cost effectively by a colleague
- it is done more from habit than conviction

and then, eliminate it.

Rinse and repeat each business day.

If done effectively, this should remove from your plate tasks you shouldn't be doing and give you more time and energy to focus on those areas in which you really can make a difference.

The result of this exercise? Sanity.

All you have to do is begin today with Just One Thing.

December 4, 2008

Being a Cost Center in Difficult Economic Times

It's budget season in many law firms. If that weren't bad enough, we're preparing budgets against the backdrop of disturbing economic news. And worst of all, most law firm knowledge management departments are cost centers. What are you going to do?

Traditionally, there have been two approaches to dealing with difficult economic times: cut costs and grow revenue. As you plan your budget for 2009, chances are you have been asked to take a serious look at your costs. In a recent APQC KM poll, 44% of respondents expected to cut their KM budgets in 2009, 35% expected to hold the line on their budget and a fortunate 22% expected a slight increase (1%-9%) in their 2009 budget.** The reality is that even holding the line requires great discipline with respect to costs, so fully 79% of the respondents will be extremely cost sensitive in 2009.

Cutting costs in knowledge management programs requires close scrutiny of your KM operations. Do you have the right mix of staff? Are your KM projects aligned with your firm's business strategy? Is each staff member engaged in the right mix of projects? And, is their work being done in the most cost effective way possible? Once you can answer yes to all of these questions, you've probably done all you can do with respect to sensible cost cutting.

If cutting costs is tough, growing the revenue of the KM department can be even tougher. It may be possible for KM staff to get involved in client billable work, but chances are that the billable work will at best account for only a small fraction of total time spent. So how about helping grow the revenue of the firm? Now we're onto something interesting. As you think about implementing KM projects that enhance fee-earning capability, first see if you can identify activities for which there is a direct line between KM efforts and revenue. (We've talked before about the challenges of KM ROI, but that doesn't absolve us from the responsibility of looking for ROI opportunities.) These opportunities can run the gamut from improving realization rates (by maximizing the value of the services rendered) to helping to develop new client services or new market share. Regardless of which revenue enhancing strategies you pursue, be sure that at the planning stage you identify appropriate metrics and methods for tracking KM's contribution to the top line. Too many successful KM programs have gone unnoticed by law firm management because knowledge managers failed to institute a reliable approach to metrics early in the life of the program.

Over the course of the next 18 months, we will be hearing stories of firms that managed (seemingly against the odds) to turn in good results. Pay particular attention to those cases where smart knowledge management made a difference. Hopefully, your firm will be one of those success stories.

(** I've reproduced the numbers faithfully, even though they add up to 101%.)

December 3, 2008

Chasing a Moving Target

When I first began talking years ago about the need to consider more than technology when implementing a knowledge management program, it seemed like a good start to have my technophile friends concede that there just might possibly be elements of user behavior, business process and corporate culture that could have an impact on their roll-out of a cool new tech toy. Now, however, it's time we thought in more granular terms about corporate culture.

In a recent post on culture and knowledge management, Carl Frappaolo reminds us that culture is not static. Like many things in life, it responds and adapts to stimulus in its environment. He takes the example of current economic conditions and the impact they are having on previously happy-go-lucky Millennials who had been approaching life quite optimistically based on their relatively adversity free existence to date. Suddenly, they can't find jobs and their outlook on life changes. And, as that outlook changes, the culture of their generation changes.

Similarly, corporate culture changes as it reacts to its environment. Here's how Carl describes that process:
...the culture of a corporation can change, can move backwards if you will, if serious underlying conditions of an organization change. A culture thriving in “self actualization”, comprised of individuals that readily embrace knowledge sharing and social computing can see itself slip backwards, further down the evolution chain, should it be threatened or altered by radical change in profit, a poorly managed merger or acquisition, a change in leadership, or any such situation that alters the states of basic safety and stability.
Taking Carl's reminder to heart, it's not enough to assess your corporate culture early in your tenure and then treat it as a constant. Rather, you have to take regular readings. Are conditions around or inside your law firm shifting? Is the firm's culture shifting to respond? As we move from the years of plenty to the lean years, are people changing the way the way they work and the way they spend? Of course. So, how are you adapting your law firm knowledge management program to suit this cultural shift?

December 2, 2008

Context Matters

Mark McGuinness would like you to test your perception. Take a moment to read his post, Are You Trapped in Black-and-White Thinking, and then tell me which square is darker. He uses this test to illustrate his concern about our tendency to think concretely in black and white terms -- no ambiguities, no shades of gray. In his view, this rigid approach cuts off creativity at the knees.

Spending a little time thinking about the restrictive lenses we use in daily life and how they affect our ability to think creatively is definitely a useful exercise. However, I'd also like to draw your attention to another aspect of this black/white test: Context Matters. When we saw the square surrounded by dark squares, we assumed it was lighter than it was. Equally, when we saw the square surrounded by light squares, we assumed it was darker than it was. In each case, however, the squares in question were exactly the same color. It was the immediate context of those squares that led us to perceive them differently. But, when we look at both of those squares in the context of the entire board, we get a much clearer sense of their true color.

Without getting carried away by this optical illusion, it is helpful to think about the value of context in knowledge management where there isn't always an objectively right answer. There is a lesson here for folks who think super-search is the ultimate answer to knowledge management challenges or who believe that extracting explicit knowledge and warehousing it in a KM repository is the best solution. With each of these approaches you run the risk of losing valuable context that can help the user make sound judgments about the content in question. In the language of law firm knowledge management, model document X may be the perfect precedent in situation Y and a complete disaster in situation Z. The only way you are going to know for sure is by looking at document X in context.

As you think about your approach to content, think about whether you're doing a good job of providing the context necessary to allow users to make wise decisions about the content they choose to use. Context matters.

[Thanks to ProBlogger, Darren Rowse, for pointing out Mark McGuinness' post.]

December 1, 2008

Safe Mode

I spent some time this past weekend working through some problems I was having on my home computer with Mozilla Firefox. After doing a little research, I found the way through the problem by using the safe mode Mozilla provided. What a brilliant option!

We've talked often about the need to tolerate failure in order to maximize the opportunities for innovation. However, for many risk averse businesses, this prospect is too scary to contemplate much less implement. Dave Snowden draws the useful distinction between the fail-safe approach versus the safe-fail approach. The former is the favorite of anxious risk managers who don't want anything to go wrong -- ever. The latter is favored by managers who understand that innovation usually is the result of trial and error.

If we're serious about innovation, we should consider developing some safe modes of operating in which temporary changes can be tried without great risk. If we, like Mozilla, can find a way to reduce the downside of failure, then we open the door to innovation. Of course, sometimes the really great breakthroughs come about only when we take large gambles. However, until we're ready to really roll the dice, testing incremental improvements in safe mode may be a happy compromise. After all, innovation that results in improvements -- no matter how small -- moves your knowledge management program and your organization forward. The alternative is safe stagnation.

November 28, 2008

Rothko and KM

Those of you who follow the art scene will know that the Tate Modern in London is hosting a celebrated exhibition of Mark Rothko paintings. Thanks to the BBC, those of us outside London can have a taste of the exhibit via a brief video tour by the sculptor, Anish Kapoor, and Sarah Montague.

The conversation and controversy surrounding this exhibit provide interesting lessons that can be applied to knowledge management. First, consider the description by Anish Kapoor of the "restricted vocabulary" with which Rothko worked. That vocabulary contained only color, a field and a foreground. In Kapoor's view, Rothko worked successfully within the constraints of that limited vocabulary to "draw on deep human emotional realities." For those of us who tend to spend our time protesting our constraints, there is an important lesson here in using our contraints to move ourselves to richer insights and more creative output. For those of us thinking about KM budgets during an economic downturn, it's worth thinking harder about how financial and staffing limitations might provide opportunities for new and innovative work. When you consider what Rothko was able to do with some black paint, you realize that we don't always push ourselves to make the best use of what we have.

The second lesson relates to the dispute as to whether some of these Rothko paintings were hung incorrectly. Critics have charged that two of the paintings in Rothko's Black on Maroon series should have been hung horizontally rather than vertically. Nonetheless, the curator and gallery are sticking by their decision to display the paintings vertically. The discussion about the "right way" to hang the paintings was a salutary reminder to me that sometimes breaking with tradition or convention can provide fresh perspective and insight. As knowledge managers, we can get caught up in the role of librarian or guardian of the canon. In fact, our primary function is not archival; rather it is to provide the resources necessary to facilitate innovation and growth. Key to that function is offering a new perspective on what our organizations know. If that means turning things on their head from time to time, so be it. The purists may protest, but if you've facilitated insight and innovation, it's worth it.

Coming full circle, if you find yourself working with severely limited resources, consider whether trying a different angle on an old KM program or resource might provide the opening you need to achieve something new or useful. Now is not the time to play it safe. Otherwise, you'll find your programs and impact shrinking faster than your budget.

November 27, 2008

Gratitude on Thanksgiving Day

It's good to have a day to remember the good in life. And, it's even better when that day is a public holiday. As usual, we'll be spending the day at the home of some dear friends who happen to be phenomenal cooks and generous hosts. In addition, they have a talent for gathering a congenial group around their table. As a result, we have a great deal to look forward to and be thankful for today.

Before heading downtown to eat, drink and make merry, I wanted to take a moment to thank all of the wonderful folks who read this blog from time to time. For those of you who have left comments or sent me e-mails about my posts -- I give you my heartiest thanks. A big reason for this blog was that I wanted to be part of the larger conversation that's going on about knowledge management, social media, law firms and life. Your comments help move that conversation forward in very interesting and rewarding directions. For those of you who have told me you read my blog, but haven't yet left a comment, please accept my thanks and my invitation to you to join the conversation. Jump right in -- the water is fine.

Have a great Thanksgiving!

November 26, 2008

Behind Every Successful KM Effort

In the November 24 edition of Newsweek there's a humorous quote:
There is no one more surprised than I -- except my husband. You know what they say: "Behind every successful woman, there is an astonished man."
These are the words of Gen. Ann Dunwoody, while speaking at a ceremony held recently in Washington, D.C. to recognize the fact that she is the first woman to achieve the rank of four-star general in the US military. Of course, she's playing with the old adage: "Behind every great man there is a great woman."

Reading her words made me wonder -- what lies behind every successful KM effort? I'd suggest vision, a collaborative firm culture and entrepreneurial knowledge managers. You also need great teamwork with IT. I'm not sure you need a lot of money or a large staff. But, then again, I've always been of the opinion that working within financial or staffing constraints often leads to game-changing innovation.

What would you add to this list?

November 25, 2008

Sending Out an SOS

Help! Woman drowning!

That's increasingly my reaction as I consider the Herculean task that social networking presents to time-strapped people. It started with this blog. Then LinkedIn and a little Twitter action. Now I'm told I've got to invest in both Facebook and FriendFeed, not to mention several social bookmarking sites.

In a recent post, Chris Brogan laid out a personal social media strategy. It's filled with great tips, however, I need something more: clear guidance on how to engage with social media while still holding down a job, spending face-to-face time with family and friends, and taking care of the mundane chores of life.

If you've got some useful advice, I'd love to hear it. Just toss that life preserver in my direction soon, please.

November 24, 2008

You Get What You Measure

You get what you measure. This isn't news -- first you decide what you want to achieve and then you design your metrics to let you know when you've arrived. That's good practice and it's the message of my earlier post, The Metrics Mess. Simple stuff, right? Wrong. You'd be amazed how often folks misunderstand where true success lies and, therefore, collect metrics that drive them in the wrong direction.

Let's take the example of the typical law firm. How does it define success? Profits per partner? Long-term client relationships? Employee attrition? Recruiting rates? The reality is that there are many bases on which to judge success. So, what do firms typically choose to track? Billable hours. When you track hours, you send the unmistakable signal that you are interested in time -- lots of time. After all, time spent equals money. However, where in that equation is the notion that time spent well is worth more than money? At the end of the day, you know the cost of the time spent. But, do you know the value to the firm or, more importantly, to the client?

If we defined success as delivering high-value services to clients, what would we track? If we defined success as building value within the firm as an institution, what would we track?

For law firm knowledge management, the issue of metrics is a persistent problem. We've chased various ways of trying to prove return on investment, but with little success. What should we track to show how our efforts provide value to clients and to the firm itself? Until we've conquered this challenge, we can't expect to achieve any real measure of permanence within a law firm. And, that's a problem when the economy is heading south.

November 21, 2008

Millennials and the Achievement Gap

As we face the onslaught of Gen Y/Millennials in the workplace, it's wise to remember that these new employees present some special management challenges by virtue of the way they have been educated. Tom Wagner has taken a look at how children are raised and educated in the United States and his conclusions are troubling. In his book, The Global Achievement Gap: Why Even Our Best Schools Don't Teach The New Survival Skills Our Children Need — and What We Can Do About It, he identifies 7 key survival skills that they appear to lack:

* Critical thinking and problem solving -- at every level in the organization, people need to be rigorous thinkers who test assumptions and don't rely on preconceived notions.
* Collaboration across networks and leading by influence -- increasingly people need the skills to lead across departmental lines by influence rather than authority.
* Agility and adaptability -- given the rate of change, today's job may not exist tomorrow. So, we need people who can learn and change, rather than relying on static technical skills.
* Initiative and entrepreneurship -- we need self-directed people who can find creative solutions to difficult problems.
* Effective oral and written communication -- without good communication skills, it's hard to collaborate, influence or lead.
* Accessing and analyzing information -- we need to be able to select and process information efficiently and effectively.
* Curiosity and Imagination -- we no longer want drones who merely carry out orders. Instead we need employees who participate creatively by adding value to both the process and the end product.

Unfortunately for the employer, you can't just rely on credentials to ensure that prospective employees have these critical skills. A good transcript from a name brand institution may simply indicate that the person in question has learned how to take tests. In Wagner's view, these new graduates may have an even bigger problem:
A senior associate from a major consulting firm told me that recent hires from Ivy League business schools were constantly asking what the right answer was — in [other] words, how to get an “A” for the job they were doing — and were not always very adept at asking the right questions, which was the single most important skill senior executives whom I interviewed identified.
As we prepare to integrate Millennial new hires, we're going to have to be very deliberate in the way we assess their mastery of the 7 survival skills and the way we coach them to improve that mastery. Equally, it would be wise to take a fresh look at the Boomer and Gen X members of your team to see if they have developed and are using these 7 survival skills. The success of your organization depends on it.

November 20, 2008

The Metrics Mess

I recently saw the perfect illustration of how we can get ourselves completely tangled up in unproductive activity by measuring the wrong thing. In this case, it was someone on Twitter who thought they had hit the jackpot because they had hundreds of followers. Further, this person was offering advice on how to increase the number of followers his readers had. This struck me as misguided at best. To be honest, there are folks I follow whom I'm sure don't realize I exist. Equally, there are folks who follow me, but I'm largely oblivious to them because our paths don't cross very often. So the numbers alone don't tell the whole story and may, in fact, tell a misleading story.

The real issue isn't size of following as much as it is scope of impact. How many of these folks are really paying attention to you? How many do you actually affect? Unless you know this, you don't have a good understanding of your interaction with Twitter. Admittedly, there are Twitter stars whom everyone likes to follow. And, assuming we follow because of their established reputations, we're more likely to pay attention to what those Twitter stars say. For the rest of us in the Twitter mob, however, the number of our followers is a poor (and possibly inaccurate) proxy for our impact.

Coming back to law firm knowledge management, take a moment to consider whether your efforts to measure the wrong thing are leading you into unproductive activity. Don't focus on bulk -- focus on impact. For example, counting how many times a particular document is opened via your portal or document management system may be interesting but not helpful. What you really want to know is how many times was it opened and actually used? And, how often was it exactly the thing the user was searching for? In the latter two cases, you learn much more about the quality of your content and the quality of your search engine.

Consider the following: a document was opened 10 times and used each time, but then opened 20 times and discarded because it was not on point. For someone looking at bulk alone, they'd say, the document was opened 30 times, declare victory and go home. However, someone measuring impact would say it was used 10 times not 3o, and then would ask why. When you ask that question you create the possibility of learning and insight. That's when you know you're on the path to using metrics intelligently.

[permission to use granted under a creative commons license]

November 19, 2008

KM vs Social Media: Give Peace a Chance

A few weeks ago the blogosphere was hopping in response to the KM vs SM generational war piece Venkatesh Rao launched on an unsuspecting world. I responded at the time that declaration of war was first published, as did other thoughtful folks. Now Venkat's piece has been republished in Social Computing Magazine, alongside Jeff Kelly's rebuttal.

Jeff argues that while some resistance to change is inevitable among human beings, it is unfair to characterize all knowledge managers as resistant to change. In Jeff's personal experience, there are "many more eager adopters than resistant dinosaurs." In fact, many knowledge managers I know have been excited and energized by the possibilities for KM offered by social media. To be honest, much of the resistance to social media that I've observed lately has been exhibited by managers who were skeptical about KM in the first place. This isn't so much about age as it is about outlook and experience.

I'm inclined to agree with Jeff that there is much more constructive peace than destructive war between the generations on this issue. His prognosis of the current situation rings true:
Our technology and society will continue to evolve; people will continue to be resistant to (but finally adapt to) change; youth will continue to disdain their elders until they become tempered by wisdom; and the opportunities to learn and prosper will continue to grow for those wise enough to do so.
The more things change, the more they remain the same.

November 18, 2008

Welcoming the Millennials

At some point, most of us realize that fighting the tide is an exercise in futility. The wise among us look for ways to work with and harness the tide. In that spirit, I offer this post on why law firm knowledge management should welcome the Millennials. However, this is NOT about the technological improvements many KM folks have been hoping Millennials will force on our firms. This is about more fundamental improvements in the way we operate.

If reports about Millennials are correct, they are a group of people focused on and motivated by issues and goals that are quite different from those of Gen X and Boomer employees. The latter two groups could be managed by dangling the brass ring in front of them and then reinforcing performance through a strong command and control structure. The boss made the decisions and the Gen X and Boomer employees executed those decisions. Simple and straightforward. By contrast, Millennials are looking for something other than the brass ring. They want opportunities for learning and growth. They want to engage in projects and activities that are personally meaningful. And, they want to maintain a reasonable perspective on work -- as children of workaholics, they want a life with better balance.

What's so crazy about their aspirations? Perhaps the truth is that we're just jealous.

The challenge for Gen X and Boomer knowledge managers is to harness this Millennial energy in a constructive way as Millennial aspirations and methods come up against established ways of doing things. Rather than forcing them into existing rigid structures, consider how a focus on growth and learning might change for the good the types of projects we tackle and the way we carry them out. By giving every member of the staff an opportunity to contribute creatively to the work of your knowledge management department you elevate them from mere worker bees to co-creators and, in one fell swoop, you finally achieve intellectual and creative leverage (which is the basis of any successful law firm).

In making these recommendations, I don't mean to minimize the stress this approach will place on traditional or authoritarian knowledge managers who know what they know and are just looking for employees who will carry out assigned tasks with minimum fuss and maximum efficiency. This is a warning that managers like that will soon be facing a supply problem -- they may find it difficult to find Millennials willing to work on these terms. Then those managers have the choice of either fighting the tide or surfing it. It will be interesting to see what they choose.

November 17, 2008

Just the Way You Are

For those of my readers who were secretly hoping that I'd lose interest over the weekend in my current fascination with popular music and management, I'm sorry to disappoint you. I was getting ready to stop and then I discovered that Billy Joel is not only a philosopher, but a pragmatic one. His song, Just the Way You Are, is viewed by the more romantic among us as an extraordinary statement of the complete acceptance many hope to find in a relationship. For those of us more pragmatically minded, we realize that he is just stating the obvious: it's really hard to get a person to change -- so you might as well get along with what you've got.

While optimism and a deep belief in the perfectibility of humankind are an important part of the culture of the United States, it would be foolish to base a knowledge management department or KM program solely on the hope that folks will change. There are some fundamental elements of human nature that simply can't be undone, although they may be tweaked around the edges. For law firm knowledge managers, understanding the basic personality type of lawyers is an important prerequisite to organizing a law firm knowledge management program that has a prayer of succeeding. For all knowledge managers, understanding the patterns of behavior in your employees and users will allow you to be much more effective.

So, let's return to the prior discussions about the importance of recruiting the right people to your team, really knowing the people who work with you (their values, strengths and weaknesses), and then deploying them strategically so that they achieve their highest and best. If we take Billy Joel's song to heart, getting the recruiting right is critical. By hiring people who have the right values for your team and demonstrate the ability to think critically, work creatively, learn and grow, you free yourself to pursue an ambitious knowledge management program without having to waste precious time in the nearly futile task of trying to change their fundamentals.

Understand early who they are and then take them "just the way they are."

November 14, 2008

Hop off the bus, Gus.

I really didn't intend to write a series on management skills and popular songs but, after yesterday's reference to "Love the One You're With" by Crosby, Stills & Nash, here we are today with staffing issues again and Paul Simon's classic "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover."*

The impetus for the journey from one song to the next came from some thoughtful reactions to yesterday's post that I received in the form of blog comments and some sidebar e-mail conversations. The folks who wrote to me pointed out that sometimes there simply is a mismatch between the employee and the needs of the law firm and, in these instances, you really have to part company with that employee for the firm's sake and theirs. They are right about this. However, before things get to this state it's important to be sure that you've really taken the measure of the person in question.

In his book, Good to Great, Jim Collins makes an interesting observation about the importance of staffing:
We expected that good-to-great leaders would begin by setting a new vision and strategy. We found instead that they first got the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats -- and then they figured out where to drive it. The old adage "People are your most important asset" turns out to be wrong. People are not your most important asset. The right people are.
Why this focus on people? According to Collins,
First, if you begin with "who," rather than "what," you can more easily adapt to a changing world. ...Second, if you have the right people on the bus, the problem of how to motivate and manage people largely goes away. ...Third, if you have the wrong people, it doesn't matter whether you discover the right direction; you still won't have a great company. Great vision without great people is irrelevant.
Interestingly, in separating the right folks from the ones that don't measure up, his research indicated that skills were not necessarily the deciding factor:
...the good-to-great companies placed greater weight on character attributes than on specific educational background, practical skills, specialized knowledge, or work experience. Not that specific knowledge or skills are unimportant, but they viewed these traits as more teachable (or at least learnable), whereas they believed dimensions like character, work ethic, basic intelligence, dedication to fulfilling commitments, and values are more ingrained.
So coming full circle to yesterday's discussion, spend the time you need to be sure that you understand the employee in question -- their character, values, motivations, knowledge and skills -- and then see if they meet the demands of being a part of an A+ team, regardless of the tasks to be tackled. If they have the necessary fundamentals, invest in them. This may mean moving them around the bus a little until you have them in the right seat. If they don't have those fundamentals, get them off the bus.

*For those of you who are really paying attention, let me apologize for misquoting Paul Simon in my title. The actual lyrics of the refrain are as follows:
You just slip out the back, Jack
Make a new plan, Stan
You don’t need to be coy, Roy
Just get yourself free
Hop on the bus, Gus
You don’t need to discuss much
Just drop off the key, Lee
And get yourself free

November 13, 2008

Love the One You're With

Two stories this week from senior managers I know made me think again about the responsibilities of managers with respect to their staff. In the first case, the manager was a senior executive in a financial firm. He said he was struggling with what to do with certain members of his staff who "would never meet their career objectives." The problem was that while he might have fired them in better economic times, secure in the knowledge that they could most likely find work in a less challenging firm, he was equally sure that these folks would not be able to find work easily given current economic conditions. Add to that the fact that his firm has a strong culture that emphasizes the "firm as family" and you have a difficult managerial challenge.

The second story comes from a manager who felt that his staff was stretched, exhausted and needed assistance. However, when he made his request for additional staffing, he was told that his company was in a cost-cutting mode and there could not be any additions to headcount in his department.

What's a manager to do?

When assessing how well your staff members are performing and whether they are able to operate at their highest and best level, consider your role as manager. Two qualities that set an excellent manager apart from the herd are (i) the ability to understand what talents and abilities each member of staff has and (ii) the ability to provide a framework that allows that staff member to utilize those talents and abilities to the utmost degree to the benefit of the firm. Adherents of the strengths-based approach to staffing and management will tell you that encouraging folks to build on their strengths and successes rather than focusing primarily on their shortfalls inevitably results in higher performance for the group overall.

In the case of the manager with the under performing staff member, consider whether they are not meeting expectations because you've set the wrong expectations. In other words, is their under performance because they haven't been given the opportunity to set goals and work in an area in which they have demonstrated talents and abilities? (E.g., I can practice 8 hours each day with all the determination in the world, but because I don't have the necessary innate ability, I will never play baseball as well as Derek Jeter. If recruited to the Yankees, I would never "meet my career goals.") In the case of the second manager with the exhausted staff, consider how much effort your existing staff members must expend to get things done. Are they working in their areas of strength or struggling in areas for which they are ill-equipped. Asking your staff to do things for which they don't have natural talents or abilities requires them to spend additional time and energy to get up to speed and overcome their own hard-wiring. Sure they can do it, but at what cost? Contrast that with the speed and ease with which people are able to do the things for which they are hard-wired. (E.g., with enough training and perseverance, any educated person should be able to read an actuarial formula -- but never as easily as someone who is naturally highly numerate and enjoys that strange language actuaries speak.) With a reasonably diligent staff, they will try hard to get the job done, but it will take longer and be more painful than if they had the necessary talents and abilities. As a result, they will be perpetually over-stretched, unable to complete all the work, and your department as a whole will under perform.

So what's the take away from all of this? In these hard economic times managers have a greater responsibility to ensure that they are deploying their staff in a way that takes the best possible advantage of the unique talents and skills these folks bring to work. This approach maximizes the probability of high performance and high morale. Don't waste time thinking about how you could replace these employees. Except in special circumstances, you won't be allowed to spend the necessary funds to recruit and train someone new -- assuming, of course, you're even allowed to hire.

So, in the words of Crosby, Stills & Nash, "If you can't be with the one you love, love the one you're with."

[Here's a link to hear a recording of the entire song: Love the One You're With, Crosby, Stills & Nash]

November 12, 2008

Aspiring to KM Geekdom

While I don't have a snowball's chance in any place warm of ever achieving geekdom, I couldn't resist testing my abilities against Gizmodo's The 50 Skills Every Geek Should Have. I flunked -- but I'm not too worried. In fact, I suspect that I'm in pretty good company.

That said, I do sometimes wonder what a comparable list for knowledge managers would contain. To do our work well, we need a strange mix of technical and people skills, as well as substantive legal knowledge if you're working in the world of law firms, for example. So here's my first stab at a list for knowledge management -- in no particular order:

1. Superior listening skills
2. Empathy
3. The ability to translate from user speak to "geek speek"
4. Skills in organizing chaos
5. Analytical ability
6. Superior persuasive writing and speaking skills
7. No tendency to technophobia
8. Deep knowledge of human nature
9. Openmindedness
10. A willingness to plan cooperatively via an iterative process rather than imposing solutions
11. Basic kindergarten competence (i.e., plays nicely with others, doesn't run with scissors, etc.)
12. Ability to build strong and productive teams
13. Creativity
14. An understanding of database configuration and functionality
15. An understanding of social computing
16. An understanding of law firm (or your industry's) economics
17. ?

What would you add? What would you omit? Why?

November 11, 2008

Creating a Great KM Department of One

In my earlier post, Is Your KM Department Selling Fish, I asked what a great knowledge management department staffed by only one person would look like. This is not a purely academic exercise. To begin with, every member of your staff has to be willing to step up as if they are the only ones responsible for the productivity of your department. But beyond this, I wanted to encourage us to think in more organic terms about what we are and what we can be.

Every acorn holds the potential of a giant oak. What sort of acorn are you? What sort of oak tree will you produce?

November 10, 2008

Is Your KM Department Serving Fish?

Have you ever heard an administrator say that their department could fulfill its mission without additions to headcount? Yet in this economy, more and more administrators are going to be told that they must meet their institutional obligations with a smaller staff. Before we let panic overtake us, let's spend a moment thinking about the wonderful opportunity this mandate presents. Necessity drives us to think critically about our mission, how we've chosen to tackle it and how we've chosen to staff it. In these last few years of feasting, many have become bloated. Now we have to rethink our approach.

Rather than thinking small, let's blow up the model and start again. What would you do if you could afford only a knowledge management department of one? What would you have that person do? Suddenly, routine chores that consume so much time and effort are much less justifiable. Equally, expending energy on projects that benefit relatively few is short-sighted. So, for example, instead of grinding away at database maintenance chores of marginal value what high-impact project would you tackle? In the context of law firm knowledge management, drafting a model document that might be used occasionally by a relatively small group of lawyers becomes less compelling. So does working on a lawyer's pet technology project, unless the resulting opportunity cost is one the firm is prepared to tolerate. Instead, spending time to train lawyers to filter and organize the flood of information that comes to their computers daily so that they and their colleagues can find this material efficiently makes much more sense. So does giving them centrally-accessible places to store and exchange the tribal lore that sets the great law firms apart from their competitors. In each case, you make individual lawyers self-reliant and leverage the efforts of one to benefit many.

In the language of economic development, this is about teaching people to fish so that they can sustain themselves over the long-term rather than handing them fish for a single meal. In the days of plenty, we could afford a large knowledge management staff to find the fish and serve it to hungry lawyers. Things have changed now and everyone will have to know how to do their own fishing. Are you and your firm prepared for this?

November 7, 2008

Ask and You Shall Receive via Enterprise Microblogging

A lot of electronic ink has been spilled on the possibility of adapting microblogging technology for use behind the firewall. As with other social media tools, the ability of many to imagine enterprise uses for microblogging (or microsharing or microlearning) has been constrained by their encounters with the microblogging tools some of us have learned to love in our leisure hours such as Twitter. A casual visitor to Twitter sees lots of social interchanges and some downright inane ones, and wonders in their skepticism if this is a plague that should be inflicted on their law firm. (Included in the mix is plenty of useful work-related information, as well as recommendations for reading** and for life, but a casual observer may not notice those right away.) Others will say, given the existing worries about of information overload, we should not add to the pressure by exposing law firm employees to loads of trivia.

As with most things, we know what we know and don't know what we don't know.

For those of us in need of having our vision expanded a little on this topic, I'd recommend you take a look at a terrific piece in Fast Company by Marcia Conner entitled Enterprise Micro-Learning. In it she provides lots of examples of how these tools could improve social conditions and business productivity within an enterprise. For knowledge management folks, there is a gem in that article that is worth thinking about a little further:
Too frequently organizational knowledge-sharing mirrors the news-cycle society around us, in which we share the highs and lows, ignoring the ordinary stuff in the middle. It's in that middle ground people make sense of the work done around them, understand how we can play a part to help fulfill the vision, and know where we can turn to find the help we need. It's the middle stuff that's truly interesting and helps us connect with one another.
She is absolutely right. For many, law firm knowledge management is about capturing and sharing the "high value items" such best practices and models. In most cases, we don't have the time or tools to handle the items from any other part of the spectrum and allow requests for those to clutter e-mail or go unfulfilled. Yet, it is those requests for the "ordinary stuff" that actually allow folks within the law firm to work more easily and productively. Enterprise microblogging could fill this need.

And what about the information overload issue? To begin with, unlike e-mail, the user can choose with laser-like precision from whom they would like to hear (or "follow" in Twitter speak). So, you get to put together your own cabinet of advisers: perhaps the partner from the capital markets (or bankruptcy) practice to shed light on current economic conditions + the savvy junior associate who is completely plugged in + the person who makes great recommendations regarding what's good to eat in the law firm cafeteria. In addition, there are technologies emerging (such as TweetDeck) to help you filter what could be a constant stream of inputs. With these tools, you can decide whom you'd like to follow and how you'd like to group those folks. So each user could create, for example, a practice-focused group, a client or matter focused group, an economy alert group, a firms news group (including your cafeteria advisor), a collection of lawyers in your affinity group, etc. With this structure in place, you could then follow at any particular time the group that is most pertinent for your work or life.

Microblogging presents lots of possibilities for productivity and for building community within your law firm. Don't make the mistake of discounting this technology just because you haven't yet had an opportunity to broaden your experience and vision with social media tools.

[**I discovered Marcia Conner's article through a tweet by noted social media industry analyst Jeremiah Owyang.]

Another Reason to Resist Change

In a recent post in the Forrester blog, Tim Walters discusses some of the reasons why IT (and knowledge management) folks cling to their top-down one-size-fits-all approach and resist the drive to enable personalization of their offerings. He clearly finds this frustrating since, in his view, personalization is now a matter of "Thurvival".** Unfortunately, the folks resistant to change have a new compelling excuse to hide behind. Here's how he paraphrases it:
It’s the economy, stupid. The trouble with a trial and error approach to personalization is that it harbors the possibility (and probably guarantees the occurrence) of error – and error is an expense that, at this juncture, we’d best avoid. For now, let’s stick with what we know works, and we’ll indulge in experimentation when our corporate head is back above the surface of the water.
So now it's the state of economy that gives them license to cling to the Pantyhose Fallacy. Yet, in Walters' view, taking the one-size-fits-all approach ensures that your site "will be really relevant and engaging for almost no one. " That's quite an accomplishment.

In light of this, it appears that we have two options. We can either sit tight and hope to weather the economic storm without daring to risk anything in the short-term or we can take a radically different approach in which we permit a few short-term risks in order to gain some significant long-term benefits. Tim Walters definitely favors the latter approach: is the time to make selective, small scale investments in personalization tools and skills. Yes, your experiments will produce errors, and the effect will probably not be as favorable as your “sure bets.” But in addition to whatever financial benefits you achieve, you’re building up a knowledge base, intellectual capital, and competitive advantages that will be extremely valuable later.
So what are you going to do? Make a smart short-term investment (at the price of a few managed errors) or hide behind the economy as a reason to resist change?

** According to Tim Walters, "Survival during the downturn + Ability to thrive afterwards = Thurvival."

November 5, 2008

When People Care...

...they participate.

We've seen extraordinary voter turnout in this election. What caused these voters to break through their apathy and actually participate in record numbers? They cared.

There's a lesson here for knowledge management. You don't need incentives. (Not even the free coffee one vendor offered to all voters... and then all customers.) You just need to give folks a reason to care. We saw that on November 4, 2008 in the United States. How will you do that in your law firm?

The Mysteries of Human Behavior

Let me introduce you to My Little Pony Scootaloo. According to the manufacturer, "SCOOTALOO pony loves to play games and be outside. She’s always on the go to meet and play outdoors with all her pony friends!" The suggested retail price for this toy is US$4.99.

To be honest, My Little Pony is not something I've spent any time thinking about before, but last Saturday night I couldn't avoid thinking about it as I watched a My Little Pony toy just like the one pictured get auctioned to the audience at the current Broadway revival of Equus. After the curtain call, the cast asked the audience to bid on the toy in order to raise money for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. By the time the bidding ended, they had raised US$800. That's impressive considering the prize normally sold for US$4.99.

What accounts for this incredible increase? You can find chapter and verse online about the psychology of auctions. Were the folks who bid on the toy completely irrational? Some (like Seth Godin) would say yes. However, that isn't the complete answer. What I observed that evening was an audience that got caught up in the excitement of the show, the unscripted interaction with the cast, and the perceived value of the prize. It should be noted that the perceived value likely had less to do with the great work Broadway Care/Equity Fights AIDS does and more to do with the fact that members of the cast (including Daniel Radcliffe of Harry Potter fame, Richard Griffiths (History Boys) and Kate Mulgrew (Star Trek: Voyager)) had autographed the toy.

People don't always act rationally. However, people do tend to react predictably -- if you know enough about human nature. When implementing a knowledge management program don't assume that people will always do the right thing or even the sensible thing. People usually just do the thing they've always done. But they can be swayed by powerful countervailing forces. So while you're drawing up your neat, logical plans on paper, make sure you spend a little time thinking about human psychology, documented user behavior, and key elements of your law firm's organizational culture. That way you can plan for the way the very real people in your law firm are most likely to react. And, if a countervailing force is needed, you can dedicate the necessary time and effort to arranging it. To be clear, this is less about offering incentives (which according to many do not work), than it is a warning that perfect paper plans that assume rational user behavior rarely result in flawless implementations. Above all, you need to account for the messy and sometimes mysterious behavior of the users you are trying to help.