Let me begin by thanking Doug Cornelius of KM Space, whose comments on my previous knowledge sharing post got me thinking further about the current state of knowledge sharing among lawyers. Doug thought I was underestimating the level of sharing that currently exists in law firms, and pointed to the document management system (DMS) as an example of sharing. He is right that lawyers do share now, but it's the quality of that sharing that interests me.
Many firms have passive knowledge sharing -- we use a single repository for our documents. The beauty of such a system is that it reduces to one the number of places you must go to locate firm work product. With enough ingenuity and persistence you can usually find what you're looking for there, provided (of course) that it exists. Within a few fortunate firms, lawyers need less ingenuity and persistence (at least with respect to finding documents) because their thoughtful knowledge managers and IT professional have installed fantastic search engines that make it almost painless to locate the desired content within the DMS.
This is all well and good, but it's not the Holy Grail. For KM purposes, the Holy Grail is active knowledge sharing -- where firm culture encourages lawyers to look for ways to make their knowledge available to their colleagues. Before you ask me what I'm smoking, consider the small handful of lawyers you know who voluntarily share with colleagues on their client teams or in their practice areas. Almost every firm has a few of these stellar folks. They produce while the rest of us loaf through life as knowledge parasites. What's extraordinary is that these paragons do what they do because it is the right thing to do -- despite the prevailing self-interested organizational culture. Imagine what would happen if the organizational culture actually supported the paragons and shamed the parasites?
There's a terrific challenge here for all law firm knowledge managers. The law firm that truly cracks the knowledge sharing nut will reap enormous rewards in efficiency, in quality and in collegiality. But this means more than just facilitating access to content. This means having lawyers who actively contribute and promote content within their communities of practice. The goal is to create a culture that supports a self-propelling, self-sustaining system of knowledge exchange. Then the knowledge managers can spend their days at the beach. Clearly a win-win situation for everyone.