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.


3 comments:

Doug Cornelius said...

Mary -

Please don't tell the lawyers that they are human, we may not be able to weather the backlash. From non-lawyers putting them at less than human and lawyers putting themselves at more than human.

I came to this same place last year, which why I have been on this enterprise 2.0 bandwagon.

Lawyers, like all people, enjoy telling stories, about the deals, the case or the document. We need to be able to capture those stories and link them to underlying content.

That is the problem with the DMS. Millions of documents, but so few stories about why I should care about any any of the documents that come back in my search results.

There is still a great need for creating forms and collecting precedents. We need that for efficiency. But we need to do a better job associating the story with those documents.

Gloria Fox; fox-g@BlankRome.com said...

Hi Mary,

I'm coming in late to this discussion, but wanted to comment nonetheless. I work as a knowledge manager in a law firm and my background is in organizational psychology. I totally understand knowledge management as being about people connecting to one another and sharing knowledge. For me, technology is a tool that paves the road for this journey. I like to think of knowledge as "reuseable information" and "know-how knowledge", the reuseable information calls out for databases and technology tools. "Know-how knowledge" is really the "in my head knowledge", unique to everyone and which will not lend itself to being captured per say. It's really the oral tradition which of course has been around ever since man could utter words. I believe strongly that podcasts/videos of attorneys telling their best stories about pertinent learnings is the best way to pass on the oral tradition to many. We're already screen oriented and I believe it can really take off. These stories need to be share with Associates and younger Partners. It really is part of succession planning and vital to any firm. Go for it!
Gloria

Mary Abraham said...

Hi Gloria,

It's never too late to move a conversation forward! Thanks for your comment.

Your idea of using video and podcasts is a great one. The challenge would seem to lie in the editing. In this age of instant gratification and just-in-time learning, I'd guess that most lawyers won't believe they have time to hear a long story (or tall tale) and will want instead short, pithy explanations of the issue and solution that best fits their situation.

-- Mary