May 30, 2008

The Power of Saying Thank You

Yesterday a colleague asked me to help him locate a particular sort of precedent that was not all that common. When I asked him about his time frame, his reply was "the usual." (Based on prior experience, I knew that the best translation for that was "yesterday.") After quickly reorganizing my schedule, I turned to his request only to discover that what he needed wasn't easy to find. Consequently, I had to hunt for some reasonably similar agreements that could provide sufficient drafting guidance to help him create the required document efficiently. After some focused effort, I was able to send him a few options in relatively short order.

Today I received the following e-mail from him: "This was really incredibly helpful! Thanks again for the quick turn around."

With those two brief sentences, he made a huge positive impact on my day.

So much of what we do in law firm knowledge management seems buried in the infrastructure. As long as the knowledge management system works, people often forget to thank us. Add to that the fact that the lawyer population is great at issue-spotting and quite confident in its ability to do your job better than you do, and you have a situation in which it can at times be a little disheartening to be a knowledge manager. Given this context, my colleague's expression of thanks was doubly appreciated.

This is a small slice of my life, but others have had similar experiences. Seth Godin writes in his blog about the potential power of "honest recognition" for work well done as opposed to "mumbled thanks." Even mighty Microsoft has a guide to gratitude entitled The Power of Saying Thank You. Add to that the following snippets from a Fortune article, "Why saying `Thank you' is more than just good manners, reporting on a study of 200,000 managers and employees over a 10-year period that found that:
People will work harder and more enthusiastically for an appreciative boss, and companies that praise topnotch performance are more profitable than those that don't.
It seems saying "thank you" is even more important in retaining people than paying them more money - and a pat on the back is free.
At the end of the day, remembering to say thank you helps make your organization a much more rewarding place in which to work. And, given the number of hours we spend at the office, who wouldn't support that?

May 29, 2008

Setting Limits on Collaboration

Collaboration is the business buzzword* du jour. As with any other fad, it's tempting for business leaders to say that everything they do is collaboration. Resist this temptation.

As aptly pointed out in a recent Economist Intelligence Unit report and discussed in this Wikinomics post, if we define collaboration so broadly as to cover virtually everything we do, it loses meaning. With that loss of meaning comes the inability to actually identify and measure the effects of collaboration within your organization. Above all, if you define collaboration to mean anything and everything, it becomes such an unwieldy tool that you can no longer use it with laser-like precision to actually improve processes and outcomes within your organization.

True collaboration is more than just doing something with someone else, more than just cooperating. Several have tried their hand at explaining the difference between collaboration and cooperation. Here are some samples of their conclusions:

- From CSCL: collaboration is a mutual engagement in coordinated effort, while cooperation is a division of labor where each person has responsibility for a different portion of the work.

- From the AASL Collaboration Brochure (1996): see a great chart showing the differences among cooperation, coordination and collaboration.

- From Dave Pollard's blog How to Save the World: another great chart explaining cooperation, coordination and collaboration.

Business processes and outcomes are affected differently by the level of cooperation, coordination or collaboration applied to them. Savvy business leaders will use each of these tools separately, understanding what each can deliver and then applying them strategically. That's how you avoid becoming a business "fashion victim" and become known as a effective leader. It's your choice.

*For an amusing set of definitions of current business buzzwords, see Slacker Manager.

[Thanks to John Tropea (at Library Clips) for pointing out this Wikinomics post via his always interesting tags.]

May 28, 2008

Change is Good...You Go First

Change is Good ... You Go First.

That's a great line -- worthy of a great philosopher* (e.g., Dilbert or Garfield or Calvin & Hobbes). And it speaks to a fundamental of human nature. While we objectively may understand that a proposed change will be beneficial, we intuitively resist change. Whether it's because it takes a lot of effort to overcome inertia or because we are inherently conservative, we resist change.

In my last post, Generation Y versus Big Law, I talked about some of the changes that we are told new Gen Y employees will force on their employers. There was even an example of an employer that seemed to be eagerly accommodating the changes required by Gen Y. However, on further reflection, I wondered whether this employer was a harbinger of things to come or simply atypical.

In the context of law firm knowledge management, I discussed the knowledge managers' hope that Gen Y lawyers would prevail in their demands for state of the art technology at work since that was what they were used to in the rest of their lives. As a cautionary note, I pointed to the success (or lack thereof) in implementing meaningful work-life balance policies in law firms. While I acknowledge that this was a little like comparing apples and oranges, since the issues that motivate technology adoption are not entirely identical with those that motivate the adoption of health and welfare policies within a firm, I do believe it is a cautionary tale. Both work-life balance and web 2.0 technologies represent radical departures from the current way of doing things. They require change -- and humans resist change. Law firms tend to be even more conservative than individuals. The question they usually ask when confronted with change is, "what are our peer firms doing?" How quickly do you think those firms will embrace Gen Y change? Ask the human beings that work there.

* If you do happen to know the source of the line "Change is Good...You Go First," please do let me know. It's too good a line to be consigned to oblivion.

May 26, 2008

Generation Y versus Big Law

I can't wait until Generation Y lawyers start flooding through the doors of big law firms. We're told that just about everything about Gen Y runs counter to the work ethic and environment of these firms. So a showdown is inevitable. It will be very interesting to see which force prevails.

Gen Y is often defined as that group between the ages of 11 and 25. These "millennials" have a very particular view of life, according to a recent article in The Observer, "They don't live for work...they work to live":
Here is a group that has never known, or even witnessed, hardship, recession or mass unemployment and does not fear redundancy or repossession, according to researchers. The result is a generation that believes it can have it all and is not embarrassed to ask for it; a generation that will constitute the majority of the workforce within a decade.
This article goes on to report that prospective employers have decided to bite the bullet and start catering to these employees. For example,
Procter and Gamble has already adapted its recruitment efforts and what it offers to meet the needs of Generation Y. Instead of just stressing higher salaries, this international company is highlighting the opportunity for flexible hours, the chance to work from home, the offer of up to a year of 'family leave' to look after children or elderly parents, and the promise of regular three-month sabbaticals. Similar packages are being offered by companies across Britain.
Does this sound like many law firms you know?

A few of us are lucky enough to work for rather progressive law firms. However, the majority of law firms can't even begin to think about offering packages like that offered by Procter and Gamble. In fact, noted law firm commentator Bruce MacEwen at Adam Smith, Esq. has come to the conclusion that work-life balance in law firms may be nothing more than "a dream for another decade." In his discussion of the report commissioned by Eversheds, "The Law Firm of the 21st Century," we learn that big law firms may be quite resistant to the type of change invited by Gen Y. (This report reflects the views of partners at top firms, as well as general counsel and senior executives at major companies and investment banks.)

Here's Bruce MacEwen's summary of what the report said about work-life balance:
56% of clients and 45% of partners believe more flexible hours are not a realistic solution. More specifically, while 51% of clients believe firms ought to be able to offer a "credible" balance alongside excellent client service (and did not see their demands as part of the problem), 48% of partners thought that work-life balance and top-notch client service are "a contradiction in terms."
And here is Bruce MacEwen's stark conclusion: "Permit me, however, to editorialize for a moment on `work/life balance.' I don't believe you can have it at a top-notch firm."

On the law firm knowledge management front, we've been telling ourselves for months now that once those Gen Y lawyers walk through the door, law firms will have to fulfill our KM technology requests because, after all, these young lawyers will demand it. These kids eat and sleep technology and they simply won't stand to be thwarted at work.

So the battle lines are drawn with respect to work-life balance in law firms. What about the early adoption of new technology? Will we have another generational battle there. And, if so, who will prevail? For law firm knowledge managers banking on the new Gen Y lawyers, you might want to stop and think about the work-life balance at your firm.

[Thanks to Headshift for pointing out The Observer Article.]

May 24, 2008

Getting Your Money's Worth Out of KM

Lately I've been thinking about whether law firms value knowledge management and how to measure knowledge management ROI. The underlying concern is that law firms don't know how to measure and value knowledge management activities. (If you ask most law firm knowledge managers if their firms are doing a good job valuing KM, I suspect you'd receive only negative answers.) And, allied with this is the concern that knowledge managers don't know how to assist this effort in a meaningful way. We often just throw up our hands and say that it is impossible to measure the ROI on knowledge management. Or, we bury law firm management in an avalanche of useless statistics regarding our activity rather than demonstrating true productivity. And then, we slink back to our corners and feel sorry for our undervalued selves.

Stepping back from that a little, I wondered whether there was a way to separate some basic human tendencies from the economics of law firm life. For example, is it a basic human tendency for all but the most arrogant of us to feel as if we are not properly valued for all the wonderful contributions we make to our organizations (and the world, the universe, etc.)? After all, how many of us actually ever have our egos stroked sufficiently??? If so, how does this color our assessment of our KM contributions? From the perspective of the organization, does the firm even know what it is spending on knowledge management? Does it know what it ought to expect for that investment? And, does the firm know how the lawyers value the results of that investment?

All of this came into sharp focus when I read a report of a recent airline initiative to charge $15 for the first checked suitcase and $25 for the second. Suddenly, the cost/value of having extra clothing and gear options on a trip became very stark. What if we were to charge $150 (or some other amount appropriate for the purposes of this exercise) for the first use by a lawyer of the KM system and $250 (or some other amount) for each subsequent use? Assuming we priced this correctly, and made these personal charges rather than client billable charges, would we then see what value lawyers placed on the KM system?

As long as KM systems are free to users, will those systems always be taken for granted, undervalued, and criticized? Conversely, if these systems are expensive to the user, will we have a better way of judging their true value in the firm's internal market? Now let's slink off into our corners and ponder those questions rather than feel sorry for our currently undervalued selves.

May 23, 2008

The Key to an Effective Knowledge Management System

Is the key to an effective knowledge management system a "non-optional mindset"? This is an attitude that says that a certain activity (e.g., contributing content or collaborating) is a necessity and must be done. It cannot be avoided, evaded, delayed or ignored.  Therefore, it takes precedence over all optional activities.

In his provocative post, How to Create a Non-Optional Mindset, Craig Harper discusses why most people would never think about skipping their daily shower, but will think about skipping a daily workout. For him, it is simply because these folks have decided for themselves that showering is an absolute necessity, but that a workout is optional. And they come to this decision despite all the research and advice that clearly demonstrate that regular exercise is critical for good health!

Turning back to knowledge management, there is lots of evidence about the usefulness of knowledge management activities such as creating, contributing or capturing content; organizing and distributing content; facilitating collaboration, etc. In fact, some have argued that success in these activities is critical to the ongoing health of most organizations. Yet, KM often is treated like daily exercise -- an optional activity.

One way to change this approach is to work on an individual basis to convert each lawyer in a law firm to the personal belief that their participation in law firm knowledge management is non-optional. But this is an undertaking that requires years of effort and, given the rate of attrition from most big law firms, may ultimately be doomed to failure. Another approach is to have management mandate that participation in KM is non-optional. But, as long as there is non-optional client billable work to do, will management ever make KM non-optional? An intermediate approach is to find cohesive, disciplined practice groups within your firm and have them make a commitment to mandatory knowledge management.

Is there a better way to achieve an non-optional mindset with respect to knowledge management? While you're thinking about that, I'm going to the gym.

May 22, 2008

Collaboration and the Golden Rule

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. This is the "Golden Rule" and it may be a key to collaboration.

If the basic sense of fairness underlying the Golden Rule set the terms of collaboration within an organization, it might in fact be possible for otherwise competitive co-workers to begin to collaborate. Adherence to the Golden Rule allows participants to work together and to share their insights knowing that they will have access to the best work of colleagues and will receive fair credit for their own contributions. This is a first step for people who are not yet convinced of the benefits of collaboration and are fearful of the potential loss of competitive advantage as a result of collaboration.  

For those who have moved beyond the simplistic belief that merely providing web 2.0 tools will create a collaborative culture, there has been a further challenge to identify the necessary preconditions for a collaborative culture. In my earlier post on Creating a Culture of Collaboration, one critical precondition mentioned was trust. More recently, in his interesting post, Reflections on the Nature of Collaboration, Shiv Singh talks about how essential trust is to collaboration.  That trust is built on a foundation created from evidence within an organization that a participant will be treated fairly.

However, achieving an adequate level of trust is easier said than done. Developing trust is incredibly difficult in an organization that fosters constant competition amongst its employees. Trust also is hard to sustain in an organization that isn't scrupulous about insisting that true teamwork be honored and that the contributions of individual members of a team be recognized. And trust may well be impossible in organizations where the guy tooting his own horn loudly drowns out less pushy colleagues. At the end of the day, most people need to know that to the extent they make useful contributions, those efforts will be noticed and rewarded.

Yet, in the absence of complete trust, it may still be possible to begin an effective collaboration provided there is a basic agreement on the part of the organization and its employees that fairness matters. This is where the Golden Rule or the Ethic of Reciprocity comes into play. Even if you aren't entirely comfortable with the notion of collaboration, and you don't completely trust your colleagues to do the right thing when left to their own devices, management support for the Golden Rule should go a long way towards creating an environment within which collaboration is less risky and, therefore, possible.  

May 20, 2008

Measuring Knowledge Management ROI

We've achieved unprecedented levels of unverifiable productivity! That's the punch line from a fabulous Dilbert cartoon I saw last year. And, it sums up so much of what passes for measuring the Return on Investment (ROI) of knowledge management. All too often knowledge managers report on their level of activity because that is concrete, but have a much harder time determining the true impact on their organizations of their KM activities.

In the context of law firms, the ROI of KM conundrum becomes even more vexing. When value to the organization often is summed up by the amount of billables realized, it isn't always clear how a particular how-to guide or model document made a financial difference to the firm. Sure, having that KM content probably allowed a lawyer to work more efficiently (reducing billables, which may not be seen as a good thing), thereby permitting that lawyer to provide service to more clients (expanding the client base) or get home earlier (improved work-life balance) and maintain better morale (increased retention levels and decreased recruitment costs). But exactly how do you reduce this to dollars and cents?

Given this perennial problem, it's worth taking a look at the commonsense advice contained in the European Guide to Good Practice in Knowledge Management -- Part 4: Guidelines for Measuring KM. This guide proposes the following starting points:

1. define your goals -- the clearer the goal of a KM initiative, the more obvious the measures
2. identify the stakeholders for your measures -- each stakeholder defines KM success differently
3. define the measures -- they need to be valid and reliable, and must yield actionable information
4. decide what data will be collected and how it will be collected
5. analyze and communicate the measures -- communicate your findings in a way that helps the reader understand the value of the KM initiative -- don't just present raw data
6. review your combination of measures -- finding the right measures comes through a process of trial and error, so you need to monitor and evaluate your measures regularly -- adjusting them as your goals develop.
7. "measuring for the sake of measuring is a waste of time" -- measure for a specific purpose
8. be sure that useful action will result from the measures
9. don't measure everything -- focus on what's important
10. to the extent possible and productive, use measurement systems that are already in use within your organization -- presumably, these measures exist because they relate to something important for the organization, and this piggybacking allows you to integrate your results within organizational reports.

[Thanks to the UK National Library for Health for pointing me to this guide.]

May 19, 2008

Crisis Prevention & Recovery KM Toolkit

The Bureau for Crisis Prevention and Recovery (BCPR) of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has published an interesting Knowledge Management Toolkit for the Crisis Prevention and Recovery Practice Area. BCPR "is responsible for consolidating UNDP’s CPR-related knowledge and experience; providing a bridge between humanitarian response and the development work of UNDP; and acting as an advocate for crisis sensitivity in the context of development policy."

This Toolkit was created out of the BCPR's commitment to make UNDP a global leader in crisis prevention and recovery by ensuring that knowledge gained throughout its network is shared efficiently to make UNDP's response to crises more effective. The Toolkit features specific knowledge management techniques that BCPR recommends for use in preventing or responding to crises.

The Toolkit includes a discussion of the Golden Rules of Knowledge Management, which involve asking whether content about to enter the KM system complies with the following criteria in that it is:

- meeting demand
- strategic
- relevant
- practical
- replicable
- accessible
- personal
- critical
- followed up

Given the urgency of the work of UNDP and its focus on crisis and recovery, the benefits of mastering knowledge management techniques are great. For those of us who work in less urgent circumstances there also are benefits to be gained from effective KM and this Toolkit helps by providing learning that has been tested in extreme conditions.

[Thanks to the UK National Library for Health website for providing information on this Toolkit.]

May 15, 2008

Are You a 19th Century Knowledge Manager?

Are you a 19th century knowledge manager? The answer to that question most likely is yes if you work in a 21st century US law firm. Now, before you start rebutting my assertion by reciting the long list of cool 21st century tech tools you've deployed at your firm, let me state that I'm focused more on mindset and approach than on tools. In fact, I'd posit that our mindset and approach has not evolved all that much from the knowledge management approach (such as it was) in the time of Charles Dickens' novel Bleak House.

In my last post, Does Your Firm Really Value Knowledge?, I discussed Larry Prusak's views of the 19th century business as opposed to the 21st century business. In the 19th century business, knowledge was a relatively rare resource that "reside[d] in the heads of owners and managers." Meanwhile, the workers who powered these businesses received knowledge on a need to know basis. That knowledge was transmitted through a "command and control structure" supported by a hierarchical bureaucracy.

What's the contrasting 21st century approach? Knowledge is abundant and resides in many and diverse places. Therefore, instead of relying on a command and control structure to enforce a top-down flow of information, the 21st century firm creates systems and implements tools that allow the firm to gather knowledge no matter where it resides and then distribute knowledge everywhere it might be needed. This means that the partner's negotiating insight is considered valuable knowledge in the KM system, as is the junior associate's innovation in due diligence or closing mechanics, and both are freely available within that KM system.

But what about ensuring that the knowledge gathered and distributed is accurate and authoritative? In the 19th century model, we have knowledge guardians who vet content before it is allowed to enter (and possibly contaminate) the KM system. These guardians -- whether they be senior lawyers or knowledge managers -- often end up being censors rather than knowledge sharing facilitators. Because they are focused on risk management, and their vetting responsibilities frequently are added to an already full billable workload, these guardians can also become bottlenecks in the KM system.

How would a 21st century KM system handle the challenge of ensuring that content is accurate and authoritative? The system would track contributors and usage, letting end-users know which contributors had applicable expertise and which content was used repeatedly. In addition, allowing users to tag and comment on useful content would enrich the system and distribute the burden of validating contributions.

This 21st century approach is in line with the trend towards the democratization of knowledge that Prusak identified, which will undoubtedly have a radical impact on the role of knowledge managers within law firms. So are you a 19th century knowledge manager? And what would it take for you to become a 21st century knowledge manager? Are you ready?

May 14, 2008

Does Your Firm Really Value Knowledge?

How much does your firm value knowledge?  It's not a complicated question, but the answer can be illuminating.  The extent to which your firm values knowledge should be reflected in a proportionate investment in knowledge creation, capture and reuse.  The extent to which the firm understands the economic benefits of knowledge should be reflected in its organization and business processes.

A report of a recent interview with Larry Prusak brought these issues home with great clarity.  In his view, while many organizations have begun to understand that knowledge management is important to their health, now they have to grapple with the reality that KM is more than a "nice to have" -- effective KM is essential if they are to squeeze the economic value out of the knowledge within their organizations.  According to Prusak, most organizations reflect 19th century business values, which lead them to treat land, labor and capital as the critical sources of wealth.  (In the case of a major law firm, the outlay on salaries and office space usually dwarfs all other expenditures.)  And where did knowledge fit within this 19th century model?  Knowledge was a relatively scarce resource and "reside[d] in the heads of the owners and managers."  As a result, they created hierarchical organizations based on a "command and control" structure since this was seen as the most efficient means to transmit critical knowledge from the few to the many.  (Again, this structure looks a lot like the modern US law firm.)

So what would be different if an organization treated knowledge as a source of wealth that was as important as land, labor and capital?  Presumably, that organization would dedicate resources to knowledge management that were commensurate with its expediture on land and labor.  In addition, once the firm understood that its long-term viability depended on the effective creation and distribution of knowledge, that firm would act as if it had an undeniable incentive to create and foster a vibrant knowledge sharing culture.

So why should you care about the extent to which your firm values knowledge?  The answer to the value question will explain much about the context in which you must work.  It should give some indication of the resources you can expect to receive in carrying out KM initiatives.  In other words, the answer provides important context for your work, and may suggest the level of effort that you will have to exert in order to achieve even modest goals in the absence of necessary institutional support.   My previous post on Personality and Law Firm Knowledge Management was also about context in that it sought to explain one reason why knowledge management in law firms is so difficult.  Similarly, trying to push forward a KM program in a law firm that does not yet value knowledge like labor will be an uphill battle.  Clearly, law firm KM is only for the brave.

May 9, 2008

Personality and Law Firm Knowledge Management

In the hype about web 2.0 and social networking, you'd be forgiven for thinking that all you needed to do was purchase the perfect silver bullet (i.e., whatever technology the vendor of the day is hawking) and your organization would be transformed into a hip, reflexively-collaborative, effortless knowledge sharing, 21st century knowledge management heaven.

But what if your organization happens to be a law firm???

In Neil Jordan's 1992 film, The Crying Game, we hear the story about the frog and the scorpion. The scorpion wished to cross the stream, but had no obvious means of doing so himself. So he asked the frog if the frog would swim across the stream, carrying the scorpion on his back. The very pragmatic frog declined because he couldn't be sure that the scorpion would not sting him. When the scorpion reasonably pointed out that to sting the frog was to risk the death by drowning of both the frog and the scorpion on his back, the frog relented and agreed to carry the scorpion across the stream. Just before they reached the other side of the stream, the frog felt a sharp pain and realized the scorpion had stung him. When the frog asked the scorpion why he had behaved so badly when they both knew that the scorpion's action would cause the two of them to drown, the scorpion replied, "I can't help it, it's in my nature."

Is it in the nature of lawyers to be collaborative? By collaborative, I mean more than simply working with others to get a job done. By collaborative, I mean a mindset or tendency that favors sharing intellectual resources with others over individual hoarding, that understands that the work of a group can be so much more powerful than the work of an individual, that prefers to work through problems with others in the belief that this process leads to better solutions. Does this sound like many lawyers you know?

Ronda Muir, a senior consultant with Robin Rolfe Resources, specializes in "the organizational and personal dynamics issues that are unique to law firms and law departments." In her article, The Unique Psychological World of Lawyers, she discusses the personal style, personality attributes, emotional intelligence and conflict resolution strategies of lawyers, as revealed by psychological testing. These results bear consideration in the context of knowledge management.

Among her findings are the following:

* The psychological profile of lawyers is "strikingly different" from that of the general US population.

* While over 70% of the US population are Extraverts, the majority of lawyers are Introverts, according to the Myers Briggs Type Indicator. This means that lawyers prefer to work things out for themselves rather than to work through things with others. Further, since people tend to distrust those with a different personality style, "
Extraverts tend to be suspicious of people who are not as instantly forthcoming with their thinking as they are, whereas Introverts may find off-the-cuff brainstorming dangerous and unprofessional."

* According to Dr. Martin Seligman, founder of the school of Positive Psychology, optimism is a critical attribute for success and happiness. His testing regarding the correlation between personality attributes (such as optimism) and career success revealed that only lawyering exhibited a high correlation. And that correlation was between success and ... pessimism!

* In the Caliper Personality Profile, the highest scoring personality trait for lawyers is skepticism, with a score of 90 as compared to the general population's score of 50. And, since people tend to use their highest scoring traits in other areas of their lives, lawyers have a hard time suppressing their natural skepticism in interactions that rely on trust and collaboration (e.g., personal relationships, team relationships, partnership relationships).

* Lawyers score high in a sense of urgency (which may be expressed as impatience) and they relish autonomy/independence.

* On the emotional intelligence front, lawyers are badly handicapped, scoring below the national average in t
he Mayer Salovey Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test.

* As for conflict resolution, lawyers
"have strong preferences for competing and avoiding, the two least cooperative of the strategies" outlined in the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode. According to Ronda Muir: "The upshot of this preference is that lawyers tend to either engage in an all-out war over divisive matters, with the intent of `winning,' or they walk away. "

Taken together, these attributes create a person who prefers autonomy and thinking things through privately rather than working things out with others, brings a high level of pessimism and skepticism (and a low level of trust and collaboration) to every facet of their life, finds "
off-the-cuff brainstorming dangerous and unprofessional," and has a strong preference for competition and conflict avoidance, which are the two conflict resolution strategies least compatible with collaboration.

While the wonderful success of web 2.o and social networking may be entirely consistent with the psychological profile of the general US population, I wonder if they will ever enjoy the same level of success with the lawyer population. To achieve similar levels of collaboration, lawyers would have to act in ways that are contrary to their natures. If the tale of the frog and the scorpion is true, this will never happen.

May 7, 2008

The Point of KM is Innovation

If you've ever had one of those days when you've wondered why you bother to chase down yet another after action review from a reluctant content contributor or wrestle with a difficult node in your taxonomy, take heart. There is a reason for this work, and that reason is Innovation. Innovation is the goal knowledge management serves; it's why our organizations need KM (and why they need knowledge managers like us). For manufacturers and the service industry alike, innovation leads to growth (by creating new or improved products or services), efficiency (by creating new or improved processes), and profits.

So what does it take to create an environment that fosters innovation? One key component is having ready access to the available knowledge. This reduces the danger of reinventing the wheel and provides a solid foundation on which innovation may be built. Another component is knowing what knowledge is lacking within your organization. It has been argued that knowing what you don't know is in fact critical to achieving that state of open-mindedness in which you are willing and able to entertain a new idea. Both of these elements are by-products of an effective knowledge management system.

Of course, knowledge management by itself will not turn your organization into a wildly creative place. You also need people who are willing to absorb this knowledge, think about it differently, and then take risks with it. In addition, you need an organizational culture that (i) encourages experimentation, (ii) understands that innovation is a numbers game (i.e., you need to produce a lot of ideas before you will find one worth pursuing), (iii) seeks to turn failed experiments into positive learning opportunities, and (iv) generously rewards success.

For an introduction to the ways in which knowledge management can promote and support innovation, see Knowledge Management and Innovation: An Initial Exploration, which is an Ernst & Young Working Paper written in 1997 by Rudy Ruggles and Ross Little. For a more recent and very thoughtful guide to innovation, see Mark Gould's blog post Ceci n'est pas une pipe.  

May 5, 2008

Tangling with The Four Paradoxes of KM

In the inimitable words of Yogi Berra, it was "déjà vu all over again" as I read Andrew Gent's discussion of The Four Paradoxes of KM in his blog, Incredibly Dull. (Gotta love that name.)

According to Gent, you cannot avoid confronting these paradoxes at one point or another in your knowledge management program, regardless of the system you implement. In fact, these pesky paradoxes have a way of surfacing time and time again. Here's how he sets the stage:
These are problems without a solution. They trigger intense philosophical debates when they arise and can lead to quite heated, sometimes personal, attacks on one position or another. The professional careers of a number of consultants in the field are based on advocating one side or the other of the debate.

Why? Why must it be one or the other? Why can't there be a middle ground? The reality is that any given KM program has only so much time, money, or attention to spend and must tactically select what problems to attack and how, thereby staking a position on each issue. And when you do, there will be advocates within management, among your professional peers, and in your audience base who will argue -- loudly -- for the alternative.
In brief, these Four Paradoxes are:

1. Tacit vs Explicit: Are you going to chase documents, best practices guides, etc., and then manage them using a comprehensive taxonomy and powerful search engine, or are you going to tease out elusive tacit knowledge by forming communities of practice, encouraging storytelling, and providing blogs and wikis to catch these heretofore unwritten pearls of wisdom?

2. Local vs Global: What are the geographic limits to knowledge sharing within your KM system? Are you going to support the natural tendency for communities of practice to be confined to local areas, or are you going to fight the institutional battles necessary to create communities that span geographic boundaries and force participants out of their cozy local groups into bigger gatherings?

3. Open vs Closed: This issue goes to the security of the knowledge within your KM system. The tension here lies between the understanding that information is most useful when it is shared widely, and the fear that some information is so confidential (or proprietary) that it cannot be disclosed. Of course, the problem with this is the tendency to be unnecessarily protective of the information within the system.

4. Quantity vs Quality: This paradox concerns the preference to either limit the content in the KM system to a few excellent examples (for the sake of efficiency), or to cram the system full of as much content as possible (for the sake of completeness).

If your experience is anything like mine, you've tangled with these questions many times. In fact, you may have argued with yourself about each of these and come out on different sides of the issue at different times. They are that confounding.

Gent takes an ultimately pragmatic view when he says that these paradoxes are insoluble as long as we persist in discussing them in the abstract. By contrast, when faced with a concrete business example, he believes that most of us can find the practical solution -- regardless of the high-minded stance we assumed in the earlier abstract discussion. However, while these ad hoc practical decisions taken on a case by case basis may move you past the Gordian knot of these paradoxes, the cumulative effect may be the creation of a knowledge management system that is neither fish nor fowl -- with limited collections of high-quality explicit knowledge in one place and snatches of tacit knowledge scattered through blogs and wikis elsewhere. Even if this schizophrenic approach may be completely defensible, it certainly does pose some management challenges for KM staff. On the other hand, if the knowledge gathered is of the type and in the form requested by the users within a specific community of practice, who are we to argue? Perhaps it's time we gave up our pretensions of actually being able to control all of this in a "father knows best" way.

May 3, 2008

KM in an Era of Information Snacking

In a recent letter to his customers about the eBook reader Kindle, Amazon's Jeff Bezos discussed the current tendency to engage in "information snacking":
We humans co-evolve with our tools. We change our tools, and then our tools change us. Writing, invented thousands of years ago, is a grand whopper of a tool, and I have no doubt that it changed us dramatically. Five hundred years ago, Gutenberg’s invention led to a significant step-change in the cost of books. Physical books ushered in a new way of collaborating and learning. Lately, networked tools such as desktop computers, laptops, cell phones and PDAs have changed us too. They’ve shifted us more toward information snacking, and I would argue toward shorter attention spans. I value my BlackBerry—I’m convinced it makes me more productive—but I don’t want to read a three-hundred-page document on it. Nor do I want to read something hundreds of pages long on my desktop computer or my laptop. As I’ve already mentioned in this letter, people do more of what’s convenient and friction-free. If our tools make information snacking easier, we’ll shift more toward information snacking and away from long-form reading. Kindle is purpose-built for long-form reading. We hope Kindle and its successors may gradually and incrementally move us over years into a world with longer spans of attention, providing a counterbalance to the recent proliferation of info-snacking tools. 
As a reader, I'm supportive of Bezos' attempt to give reading the advantages of the electronic age, but I can't help wondering if he is entirely right about the impact of tools on how we read.  Perhaps it isn't just the tools that nudge us away from long-form reading and towards information snacking.  Could information snacking in fact be a by-product of the pace of modern life?  Or does the abundance of available information at our fingertips force us to find faster, more efficient ways of retrieving and reviewing what we need?

Wikipedia's article on Information Foraging, which appears to draw on the work of Peter Pirolli and Jakob Nielsen, notes that once users have been trained by search engines to go to a variety of sites to gather information, they will be reluctant to invest much time on a single site. Instead they make quick strategic raids to collect specific information and then leave the site.

If information snacking and short attention spans are an unavoidable part of the knowledge terrain of the 21st century, this leads to some interesting questions for law firm knowledge management:

- Are we providing lawyers with tools that encourage information snacking over long-form reading and analysis? (Bloggers and Twitterers may want to take the Fifth on this one.)
- Are there risk management issues arising from the increasing tendency to engage in information snacking?
- If information snacking by lawyers is a bad thing, how do we counteract it?
- If information snacking is inevitable, how do we adjust our KM systems to accommodate it?

As we deploy increasingly more powerful search engines within our firms, we give lawyers the ability to find more information with Google-like ease.  And that information is fragmented, providing a perfect opportunity for information snacking.  Perhaps the most important thing knowledge management systems can do now is to ensure they provide adequate context for and connection among these fragments so that we diminish some of the negative side effects that result from information snacking.  

May 2, 2008

Storytelling and Law Firm KM

As I was writing my earlier posts recounting Dave Snowden's concept of "fragmented knowledge" and Fred Nikols' strong recommendation that we focus knowledge management on human interactions and development rather than structured content, I must admit that I experienced mild anxiety about the implications of this for law firm knowledge management.

For years we've been chasing the Holy Grail of model documents and precedents, practice guides and practice notes (best practice materials), checklists and timetables, and the like. These are all examples of structured knowledge that is difficult and expensive to capture, but is so highly valued within a law firm. I imagined having to tell our management committee that rather than working on a record number of model documents this year, I'd be spending my time collecting anecdotes from lawyers. Next, I worried about whether storytelling lawyers actually existed. And then it struck me, if lawyers are humans and if Snowden and Nikols are right about knowledge and human behavior, then even lawyers must engage in storytelling to exchange knowledge. Based on this very narrow view of human beings (or homo narrans, as Snowden refers to them) and some further reflection, I'm happy to report that lawyers are human (really) and do tell stories.

And when do they tell their stories? At practice group meetings, when lawyers provide an oral debriefing on the highlights, challenges and lessons learned of recent or current matters. In formal continuing legal education sessions, when more experienced lawyers use their stories to illustrate the legal points they need to convey in order to help their colleagues master new developments in the law. When lawyers do pitches, they share with prospective clients the stories of their successes with similarly-situated clients. It's these stories that help the prospective client envision being a client of the storytelling lawyer.

So what are the implications for law firm knowledge management? It would suggest that we should broaden our focus beyond capturing written materials in document management systems and Portals since it is unlikely that many of these valuable stories will ever be written down and stored there. Instead, we should collect, organize and distribute video clips of these stories that can be played and replayed at the point of need. Further, we should consider investing in search engines that can parse, profile and index audio-visual content. It also means that we need to bring the rigor of model document and best practice document creation to the art of storytelling. We must train our lawyers to tell stories well -- stories that have a point that is clearly articulated and easily understood.

These are challenges that require law firm knowledge managers to take a turn from the well-trodden path of managing documents. It promises to be a very interesting journey.

May 1, 2008

Hijacking Knowledge Management

Each week, Stan Garfield puts the following question to a different KM thought leader: "If you were invited to give a keynote speech on knowledge management, what words of wisdom or lessons learned would you impart?" This week's answer in The Weekly Knowledge Management Blog is from Fred Nickols, Toolmaker to Knowledge Workers.
It seems to me that KM, like lots of other things (e.g., reengineering, change management, and communities of practice to name three) has been hijacked by the information technology (IT) folks. Abraham Maslow is often credited with saying that “If your only tool is a hammer then every problem looks like a nail.” To paraphrase him, when your only tool is a computer, then every problem reduces to the bits and bytes of data. For me, people should be front and center in any true KM effort and, as far as I can tell, they are not. As a consequence, neither is the most important form of knowledge: the kind that resides in human beings.
Nickols goes on to identify the three types of knowledge (i.e., explicit, tacit and implicit), and points out that current technology deals best with explicit knowledge while largely ignoring tacit and implicit forms of knowledge. In his view, this leads to the following sad state of affairs: "we have huge databases and huge piles of documented practices, etc., etc., but we are no closer to being able to manage knowledge (i.e., concentrate and channel the capability for action along productive lines) than when the KM movement began. Many others will no doubt argue otherwise, but they have a huge investment to protect and I don’t."

For Nickols, the "true focal point" of knowledge management should be "managing human capability for effective action." This suggests less attention paid to structured content and more attention paid to storytelling, mentoring, training, communities of practice, etc. A shift away from technology towards people and how they interact with and learn from each other. This is tough stuff. It almost makes one long for the seemingly simple off-the-shelf solutions technology vendors claim they can provide. If only it were so.

Celebrating May Day

In many parts of the world, May 1 is the day on which they commemorate efforts to limit the working day to eight hours. They celebrate by taking the day off. For my colleagues in US law firms, an eight-hour work day may seem Utopian, and May 1st this year most definitely is a work day. But things are even worse for those sad souls who have caught the blogging bug -- we put in a day at the office and then compulsively burn the midnight oil blogging. Having tried in April to pick up the pace on my blogging, I must admit that I am in awe of blawgers who manage to blog almost daily. That requires a level of stamina and creativity that seems beyond most mortals.

Well, today is the start of a brand new month. It's another opportunity for balance and restraint. Or will it be a month for cramming as much work and blogging as possible into 31 days?

In honor of a less frenzied time in my life when it almost seemed to make sense to stay up all night to hear the Magdalen College choir greet the dawn on May 1st, here are links to two YouTube clips of Oxford on May Day. Enjoy!

Magdalen College Choir on May Day 2007

Morris Dancers