July 30, 2008

Encouraged Blogging

The comments to my earlier post, What Have You Learned, indicate that it would be worth pushing the conversation further to see if there is a middle path between the completely mandatory approach (i.e., blog ... OR ELSE!) and the completely voluntary approach (i.e., blog only if it makes you feel good). John Tropea suggests that the best approach is to increase participation through example rather than coercion:
I think the key is to get a few dedicated willing people to do personal blogs. Keep going at it till a success story happens. ... It has to happen naturally and virally, people have to want to do it...I think a bottom-up approach is best.
He then goes on to cite a success story on Kevin Jones' blog, Engaged Learning, in which one employee's blog post helps another locate invaluable assistance and save the enterprise time, effort and expense. Obviously, as these successes are documented, the enterprise will get more invested in promoting blogging. But what about those reluctant employees who don't see themselves as bloggers? As John rightly observed: "...it's not going to be for everyone, some people are just not inclined to blog."

Meanwhile, Mark Gould points to some helpful examples at Jive Software where blogging was required in relatively nonthreatening ways and this led to some positive results for the individuals involved and the enterprise generally. In the case of the mandatory new hire blog, it helped build community within the enterprise and introduced blogging to folks who had never had the chance to try it before. (Never underestimate the power of the fear of the unknown technology. Sometimes, just knowing that you have no choice about pressing forward helps you tackle the task. It is only afterward that you realize how the value of the exercise outweighed the imagined worries.)

Karyn Romeis provided a link to an interesting summary of the pro-blogging and anti-blogging points of view. The article quotes David Gurteen, whose explanation regarding resistance to blogging is recounted as follows:

Gurteen says a lack of understanding attributes to the masses that are yet to be persuaded. "They're not understanding it and not wanting to understand it. They're the people that say, whose got time to read those?"

Gurteen presents three different scenarios: "Those that see it, get it, love it and adopt it. Those that never, ever get it and see blogs as vanity tools and the group in the middle that are sitting on the fence and aren't sure." The ratio, says Gurteen, between those groups is very different.

Perhaps mandated blogging would help the agnostic and indifferent get over the hump. As for the terminally resistant, I'm not yet ready to venture a solution for dealing with them.

Finally, Mick Leyden points to what may be the fundamental flaw in the entire discussion: namely, that we've smothered blogging with the label social media. Here's what Mick had to say:
As I read your post I found myself wondering if are we doing ourselves a disservice to describe the blog as a 'social media' tool in this context? ... So the question is, is a blog classified as social media simply because it is a blog or because of how the blog is used?
This is a question worthy of a separate post. Stay tuned.

In a related blog post, Mick coins the phrase "encouraged" blogging. I like this one. It seems to capture the middle path: blogging isn't just for those who feel like it, but equally, failure to blog need not necessarily result in summary termination (or execution). Rather, you bring social pressure to bear within the organization so that most understand that blogging is expected, if not absolutely required. In the event individuals really truly can't (or won't) participate in this fashion, hopefully they can find other effective means of contributing to their organization's knowledge base and sense of community.

Encouraged Blogging -- this sounds like an approach that could yield dividends within an organization. And, it might be the elegant middle path needed between the purely voluntary blogging and the mandatory blogging points of view.

July 28, 2008

What Have You Learned?

It is with great trepidation that I gingerly re-open a can of worms that I inadvertently opened a couple of weeks ago. The blog flurry around mandating use within an organization of social media, generally, and blogging, specifically, was one I didn't anticipate, but did find extremely educational and (after a while) a little exhausting.

So what encouraged me to overcome my reluctance about jumping back into the fray? A thoughtful post by Mick Leyden entitled, Is that a Tumbleweed. He too was drawn to the potential benefits of mandating blogging, but his approach is nicely-nuanced and bears repeating. Here are some snippets:
Initially I supported the idea and promoted it within our team. I reckon there is a lot of value in encouraging your team to put an hour a week aside to blog about their successes, challenges and random issues from the week.

...if we look at it as part of a personal learning strategy I see immense value in regular reflection for an individual’s practice....
He makes an important point that I want to endorse. Personal reflection is critical to the growth of every person and every learning organization. However, it is in the nature of most of us to be "human doings" rather than "human beings." ** It is a rare person who stops regularly to review what has happened and why. In the context of social media and knowledge management, those folks willing to reflect spend their leisure time burning the midnight oil to write blog posts or contribute to wikis. They do it for the psychic rewards.

Those of us too busy doing stuff to stop to reflect sometimes just need to be given the time and space for reflection. Too often, that happens only when someone or something interrupts you long enough to stop the perpetual motion. What if that someone were management?

But what happens when the reflection is "forced" by an employer? Here's what Mick Leyden (citing Karyn Romeis) has to say on that issue:
To come back to the point, you have to ask, is an individual going to gain the value from a reflective experience if they feel they are being forced to do it? This is where we come back to Karyn’s story, if we force adoption of a learning tool the learning experience will be tainted and the maximum value is unlikely to be obtained. More advisable, yet more difficult is - you guessed it - articulate the value to be obtained from the experience and make time available to the team to take up the opportunity.
So here's my stab at (re)framing the proposal:

Ask each employee or employee group to use social media tools to record what they have learned each week.

This seems like a legitimate request for management to make. If employees have learned something, this request will encourage them to record that information where it can be shared and used by others. If they are given the time to reflect and the tools to record their reflections but don't have anything to record, that's an important indication to management. Are folks engaged in mindless activity that does not promote learning and growth for the organization? Are they failing to see opportunities for business process or work product improvement because they don't stop long enough to really think about what they are doing? Does management need to take a closer look at the organizational culture that permits this approach?

As I said in an earlier post, work sometimes involves lots of things we wouldn't otherwise choose to do (e.g., time tickets in law firms). That's why it's called work. And, our employers pay us to cooperate and produce. Social media tools are not sacred. Once they are imported into an organization they undergo changes as they adapt to a more constrained enviroment. At bottom, they are a means to a business end. This may seem far too hard-nosed to social media purists, so I apologize for being blunt.

I close by quoting the comment I left on Mick Leyden's blog:
Mick: Thanks for advancing the conversation in such a constructive manner. It's hard when a tool used initially for primarily social purposes is moved within a corporate environment. There inevitably is a restriction of freedom that comes with that transition. While I understand and sympathize with the social media purists, I'm also cognizant of the needs of the organizations that adopt these tools.

Your post has caused me to think further about this. I'll be back blogging about it shortly. This topic seems a little like a visit to the dentist -- not always fun, but definitely necessary.
Now I'm off to arm myself with a little laughing gas before the next round of conversation on this topic.

[**Credit goes to Deborah Twigg for pointing out to me the distinctions between a human being and a human doing.]

July 25, 2008

Do You Dare Do This?

Dave Pollard has posted on his blog, How to Save the World, a memorandum that every firm should consider sending.

The question is, how would sending it change the practice of law in your firm?

Take the challenge of this thought experiment. At a minimum, it will help you better understand which communication tools best suit particular types of communication:

- decision-making in real time by employees in a single location
- decision-making in real time by employees in different locations
- arranging appointments
- simple requests for information and quick responses to them
- conveying project status/update information
- FYI communications
- survey requests
- providing training information

For too long, we've been using e-mail and voice mail like overly-large machetes to drive a rough path through the communications jungle. There now appears to be a consensus that while these may be relatively fast tools, they are rarely effective or efficient for the myriad purposes to which they are put. Further, there are now available a much wider range of alternative tools that do the job better. And, savvy folks are reviving some rather retro methods (e.g., talking face-to-face!) to improve the quality and efficacy of their communications.

Read Dave Pollard's memorandum and think about how you personally could improve the way you match communication tools to communication goals. Then think about how to teach this to your law firm colleagues. It would make a world of difference to your knowledge management program and to the quality of life within your firm.

July 24, 2008

Knowledge Management's Secret Sauce: Trust

Fortunes have been made in the food industry through the development and use of "secret" sauces. These are the seemingly-magic ingredients that chefs use to elevate a simple food item into a must have (or must eat).

Knowledge management has a secret sauce -- it's trust. Trust is the magic ingredient that reliably increases user participation. Where there is trust there is a perceptible decrease in anxiety. With that reduction of anxiety comes a willingness to create, contribute and collaborate.

Knowledge managers have always known this. It drove our KM 1.0 efforts to build large databases of vetted content. In a web 2.0 world, trust is even more valuable because we are asking users to create, contribute and collaborate in a more unmediated way. This permits access to a wider range of content more quickly, but it may also be perceived as risky if the content doesn't have the "Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval" that comes from the vetting built into KM 1.0 business processes.

Neil Richards (Knowledge Thoughts) provides an interesting analysis of the critical value of trust with respect to wikis. In his post, How trust & risk affect wiki adoption, he takes the concept of trust one step further and discusses the "trust threshold, " which is the point at which trust and risk intersect. Here's how Neil describes it:
Trust thresholds! It’s not just about trust; it’s also about risk of each task. You need to earn enough trust to overcome the risk. Therefore, wiki use is dependant on how much a user trusts the content. ...when using a wiki to execute a task which involves risk, the trustworthiness of the wiki needs to exceed the risk of it being wrong.
Neil goes on to suggest ways of increasing the level of trust so that lawyers in your firm can get comfortable working with wiki content. If you've got a trust deficit in your law firm, also consider implementing some of the suggestions for increasing trust in the workplace contained in Shawn Callahan's recent post, Trust creating behaviours.

Trust may be the most valuable asset a knowledge manager has. Take the time to develop it in your workplace and then guard with your life!

July 23, 2008

A Knowledge Management Feel Good Story

In case the summer doldrums have hit you and you aren't about to leave on vacation, here's a story that will give you a mental break and, hopefully, encouragement about knowledge management.  Stan Garfield's Weekly Knowledge Management Blog featured a post by Chuck Hollis regarding KM at General Electric.  In his blog, A Journey in Social Media, he tells the impressive story of GE's SupportCentral, which one commenter described as GE's best-kept secret.  This effort, begun in 1999 before most of us were aware of the possibilities of social media, appears to have reached a level of maturity that most knowledge managers can only hope for in their KM efforts.  For example:

- GE employees use SupportCentral more than they use Google and Yahoo (combined) at work.
- The folks that keep SupportCentral fed and watered innovate constantly, dropping new code every two weeks.

Chuck Hollis goes on to describe some of the features SupportCentral offers:

"Yes, they do the blogging, wiki, discussion thing -- that's just for starters.

We debate on ideal SM models occasionally -- people-centric, community-centric, discussion-centric, document-centric, process-centric, etc.

They had support for every one of these models -- seamlessly integrated.  People can engage in any mode that makes sense to them.  As one example, personal workspace content can be part of a community, discussion, process, etc.

Presence?  Just part of the environment, thanks.  They described themselves in a "post-email world".  Nice.

Mashups?  Deployed for quite a while, thanks -- all corporate repositories could easily be accessed.  They'd lost count of the umpteen thousand mashups people had created.

What really blew me away was their integration of process tools.  Business processes can be defined by anyone, refined by anyone, instantiated by anyone, measured by anyone.  As a result, they could count 50,000 different business processes that were captured on the platform in some form or another."

But here's the best part -- the part you should really pay attention to when considering the implications of GE's experience for your organization.  Here is what Chuck Hollis believes SupportCentral proves about KM conventional wisdom:

"First, it clearly isn't a generational thing.  If you're of this view, I now have documented proof that you're dead wrong.  Score one for my generation's ability to adopt new ways of working.

Second, traditional corporate cultures can't change.  If there was any corporate culture more button-downed than GE's, I'd like to see it.  And it now appears to be completely transformed around social computing.

Third, the assumption that this has to be a top-down mandate.  Sure, Mark and his team are pretty senior, but they had to do this the hard way -- by convincing hundreds of thousands of people that this was a better way to work.

Fourth, that business justification is impossible.  GE's culture is all about hard savings, and documented value.  They routinely discredit soft justification.  And they have been convinced in a big way -- and for quite a while.

Fifth, that social media is incompatible with business concerns.  Their environment is pretty much business-oriented.  There's not a lot of "social" going on the platform -- and it works very well, thank you."

This is something to come back to again and again.  What would it take to replicate GE's experience in your law firm's knowledge management program?


July 17, 2008

The Right Stuff

A sidebar e-mail conversation with some thoughtful readers of my earlier post, Is Your Knowledge Management Strategic, raised the following interesting question: How do you find out if you have the necessary content and processes without doing a full-blown knowledge audit, yet how do you avoid the dangers of the knowledge audit?

Dangers, you ask? In the wrong hands, a knowledge audit is a bit like that old definition of a sailboat (i.e., "a hole in the ocean into which you pour buckets of money"). Knowledge audits have a way of absorbing and squandering resources. And they can go on and on.

Perhaps the right approach is more triage than audit. Once you know your business strategy, and have determined with the business folks what knowledge (both internal and external) is necessary to implement that strategy, then do a quick and focused check to see if you have the required content in logical places. Contrast this with a full-blown knowledge audit, which tends to be more like a comprehensive inventory of all your content and processes -- whether or not they are pertinent to your business strategy.

The full-blown organizational knowledge audit is probably best undertaken just before you switch jobs or retire so that you at least will know the scope of the legacy you leave to your organization. At any other time, does it really matter how much content you have in your knowledge management system if you don't have the critical bits of content that are required for operational success?

PS: If you're still tempted to tackle a full-blown comprehensive knowledge audit, start with the interesting resources provided via the ever-helpful Knowledge Flow.

July 15, 2008

Honesty in Advertising

There's precious little honesty in advertising. And, if you think your small corner of the corporate world is immune from this truth, take a look at how people are described on your org chart. Title inflation is rampant. In my view, it is the bane of the corporate world. There was a time when we were either worker bees or craftsmen in guilds and professional associations. Now we are specialists, coordinators, managers, directors and C-Suite dwellers. What comes next?

Similarly, information management morphed into knowledge management and, in so doing, won a new lease on life as a business fad. And now we seem to be stuck. Some clearly are hoping to ride the next wave by telling everyone that web 2.0 is really KM (or KM 2.0). However, the social computing advocates have been doing a good job of defending the barricades, explaining that web 2.0 is not just KM in fancier clothes. Interestingly, in the process of working through that explanation, they are shining more and more light on the skeletons in KM's closet.

Perhaps the biggest skeleton is one that I blogged on recently: the questionable notion that it is even possible to manage "knowledge." Granted, saying that we manage knowledge makes us sound more specialized and wiser than our information management predecessors. After all, surely one must be knowledgeable before one can find and manage knowledge, right? By contrast (or so the argument goes), it doesn't take much talent or expertise to recognize information and dump it in a repository. And, if managing knowledge were not tough enough, some have gone even further and suggested that we're in the business of "wisdom" management!

However, despite our pretensions, all we actually can capture, store and attempt to manage is information. As I wrote earlier, knowledge arises when an individual applies their experience to information within a specific context. Until they perform that alchemy, all you have are discrete bits of information.

It's time for us to be honest about the work we do. We need to find a better way to describe our activities and label our discipline. Given the range of activities within knowledge management, it's most likely that there isn't a single umbrella term we can use. Therefore, perhaps each of us should focus on the essentials of our jobs: information manager, librarian, content creator, collaboration facilitator, information sharing coordinator, etc. While these titles may seem pedestrian, they do have the virtue of being closer to reality. And that's what honesty in advertising is all about.

July 12, 2008

In or Out or Both?

Following up on my post, Good Fences and Good Neighbors, I have a quick question for those of you better versed in Web 2.0 etiquette. What does it mean when someone allows you to be LinkedIn with them, but doesn't share their contacts with you. Is this an appropriate and sensible approach to maintaining a reasonable zone of privacy, or is it a basic violation of web 2.0 principles?

July 10, 2008

Good Fences and Good Neighbors

Good fences make good neighbors. That's what Boomers were taught as children. But does that still hold true in a Web 2.0/Gen Y world where the public and the private seem to be constantly converging?

For example, at a recent meeting of law firm knowledge managers in New York City I asked how people were handling the public/private, professional/personal divide when it came to things like accepting and issuing invitations to LinkedIn. Some said that they accepted all invitations regardless of whether they came from an office colleague, a vendor or their Aunt Millie. Others said that they were confining LinkedIn to business colleagues who really didn't need to know about or be in touch with Aunt Millie.

Doug Cornelius has written about the difficulties of finding the dividing line between personal and professional contacts. (Nonetheless, through his enthusiastic adoption of social media, he seems to be advocating the benefits of fewer fences in order to share information across the various social media systems.) David Mullen, on the other hand, carefully maintains his professional contacts in LinkedIn and his personal contacts via Facebook. Taking this one step further, Paul Blunden's advice is direct and to the point: Don't mix friends, family and business contacts.

And then there is Twitter. Do you Twitter about your personal life, your professional life, both, neither? And, even if you try to maintain fences regarding your contacts, how do you feel about work colleagues seeing your beach photos on Flickr?

But there's more than just contacts, Twitter and Flickr -- there's the rest of your life. And, that's where things get even more complicated. In a post entitled 7 Things to Look Past When Managing Gen Y, Ryan Healy makes the point that for Gen Y there is no divide between the public and the private, the personal and the professional. In fact, you're given the impression that Gen Y actually doesn't see the utility in maintaining good fences between neighbors or between their various spheres of life. Here's what he has to say on this subject:
When you were an entry level worker, maybe you wouldn’t have dreamed of calling your girlfriend to say hello right after lunch or dialing up your mechanic to schedule a time to drop your car off for service. But work and life are no longer two distinct entities and this goes for both the office and at home.

Look past the fact that it’s not business for everyone all the time at the office. Because just as I have no problem making personal calls at the office, I also have no problem making a business call or sending an email during my “personal” hours in front of the TV. Life happens 24 hours a day and now, so does work. So look past the personal phone calls at the office and enjoy how your Gen Y worker will use the whole day to get those results you need for the business.

The implications of this "blended life" are not inconsequential. For example, most lawyers work under the rule of the billable hour. How on earth do you accurately track your billable time if you're drifting in and out of client work 24/7? Given how hard it is to track accurately the work done via Blackberry "after regular office hours," for example, why do we think we'll do a good job of starting the clock when we deal with a client matter or of stopping the clock when we deal with personal business when we no longer have a firm sense of business time and personal time?

So what's right? Fences or convergence? Or is the better question, which approach works best for you?

July 8, 2008

Unsociable Uses of Social Media

There's been lots of negative reaction here and elsewhere in the blogosphere to the notion of mandatory blogging. (See the comments from Patrick Lambe and Doug Cornelius to my earlier posts, Knowledge Management Made Easier and Knowledge Management Made Mandatory. Also see Doug's post, Making Blogging Mandatory for Knowledge Management.) And, I'm not without sympathy. Nonetheless, I feel strangely compelled to play devil's advocate a little longer.

We're already seeing the mandatory use of social media tools within enterprises. For example, project leaders have begun insisting that team members provide project status reports via a wiki. Members of their project team don't have a choice -- they have to use the wiki to record the pertinent information. Similarly, there have been determined efforts to replace most e-mail communication within a group by the mandatory use of a wiki.

This is the thin edge of the wedge. Social media provides useful tools and businesses are going to want to promote the use of these tools for the sake of efficiency within the organization. And, given the nature of bureaucracies within most organizations, if the social media tools are being used for mission critical purposes, that use will be mandatory rather than optional. This is where business use parts company with the extra-curricular use of social media tools.

While it would be lovely to have the use of these tools be perfectly voluntary, how do you get the level of participation you need to meet business goals? What if you're dealing with a mission critical matter? Are you willing to rely solely on the input of volunteers? What if the folks with the relevant information aren't inclined to participate?

Years ago, the Doonesbury cartoon strip portrayed President George H.W. Bush as an ineffectual invisible entity who had an active "evil twin" named Skippy. It may well be that the purely voluntary form of social media also has an "evil twin" (at least as far as social computing purists are concerned), and that twin is the particular form of social media deployed within enterprises. We may not like all the ways that businesses put these tools to work, but at least they are beginning to use the tools. And, if they get anxious enough about their investment in these tools they will make use of the tools mandatory. This is how it ever has been and ever will be.

There, I think I've nearly exhausted my compulsion to play devil's advocate on this topic.

So now, let me end by observing that when this conversation started heating up in the blogosphere, I was under the impression that my major crime was that I had unwittingly gored a sacred cow. What I seemed to be hearing at the outset was that while the mandatory use of wikis within an organization was acceptable, the mandatory use of blogs was not. This puzzled me. Was it just that bloggers were extra protective of their particular social media tool?

As the conversation evolved, however, it became clearer that the better basis for objecting was not the mandatory use of these tools per se, but rather the placement of these tools outside the regular work flow. (For an extremely helpful explanation of this concept, see Mark Gould's post, Going with the flow, and the accompanying comments.) So, to riff on Tim Leberecht's proposal, if blogs were used by a project team to capture written conversations among themselves on a specific theme in an organized fashion, most of the blogging naysayers should concede that this is an acceptable form of mandatory blogging because it is "in-the-flow." However, if blogs were used as diaries to be filled out at the end of each day, for example, this would be an unacceptable form of mandatory blogging because it is "above-the-flow" and is, therefore, an added burden that does violence to social computing principles.

For knowledge managers, the key is to deploy these tools initially so that they are in-the-flow. This should allow a rich repository of information to grow organically without any additional effort on the part of the knowledge workers. However, the contrarian in me says that there is still a place for social media tools above-the-flow. As Mark Gould observed, that's where users step back from their day-to-day tasks to reflect and codify what they have learned. With that reflection comes an even richer source of information that is so valuable within a KM system.

Social media nirvana is one where each of us is free to choose our respective level of engagement. That type of freedom rarely exists within any organized structures. Why did we think it would be different when social media entered the workplace?

July 7, 2008

Knowledge Management Made Mandatory?

In my earlier post, Knowledge Management Made Easier, I reported on Tim Leberecht's proposal that we use widespread blogging within organizations to make tacit knowledge explicit. I was very taken with the idea of providing everyone with an easy way to capture and share their learning, and even imagined, for a moment, what it would be like to have a vibrant organizational culture in which people felt comfortable with this level of transparency.

Since then, others have weighed in on this issue. Take, for example, Dave Snowden whose post, Oh When Will They Ever Learn, trenchantly argues that making blogging mandatory violates the very nature of social computing. For him, social computing is intended to make collaboration and sharing possible for those who wish to participate. Or, as he puts it:
Aside from the perpetuation of the myth of tacit-explicit knowledge conversion ..., the idea of compulsion flies in the face of all theory and practice in social computing. Its a classic; find something which is working, then ruin it by compulsion.
In a similar vein, Patrick Lambe's comment on my prior post directed me to the wisdom of Dr. David Vaine on the subject of Forced Corporate Blogging (a.k.a. "Flogging"). Dr. Vaine clearly does not believe that compulsory blogging is either useful or wise.

While I understand and sympathize with their objections, I'm mindful of another approach. For years, authors such as Julia Cameron have recommended that people who wish to increase their personal creativity engage in the practice of keeping a daily journal. While this isn't mandatory (in that there isn't any external enforcer), making a good faith attempt to meet the challenge actually does improve one's writing and expands creativity. I might say the same for those of us who try to blog regularly. The more we exercise the blogging muscle, the better we get and the more rewarding it is.

Although mandatory blogging may seem like a contradiction in terms or an exercise in futility for proponents of a purely voluntary system, it could also provide an opportunity to participate for people who wouldn't otherwise think of trying this. Given that businesses need access to the learning of all their employees (and not just those who choose to share), there might be merit in finding a middle path between the mandatory approach and the completely voluntary approach.

Is there a better way that achieves higher levels of participation reasonably quickly without doing violence to the nature of social computing? The answer to this question could transform your KM program and your organization.

July 4, 2008

Investing in Knowledge

Today is a national holiday in the United States. And, since it seemed downright unpatriotic to go to the office on Independence Day, I've just spent the afternoon with two remarkable men named Benjamin: Benjamin Franklin and Benjamin Disreali.

While it's never entirely wise to quote out of context, I do think these two have something interesting to say that bears on the practice of knowledge management. First, Ben Franklin:
"An investment in knowledge pays the best interest."
This is just what every knowledge manager in the USA wants to hear -- a founding father who seems to be acting as booster for your line of work. If it's good enough for old Ben Franklin, it's got to be good enough for your firm, right? Well, not quite. He wasn't talking about building repositories of documents or creating firm-wide taxonomies. He was most likely talking about enriching the mind. In fact, he suggests "emptying half a purse" into your mind, as if to say that spending half your fortune on cultivating your mind is the best possible use of that money.

So what about Benjamin Disraeli? Here's what he had to say:
"Knowledge must be gained by ourselves. Mankind may supply us with the facts; but the results, even if they agree with previous ones, must be the work of our mind."
So here, we have an eminent thinker telling us that knowledge really can't be separated from the person. It is an integral part of that person and their experience. Further, knowledge can't be handed to someone like a package. It can only be created by and for that person after applying their experience to the available facts. What can be separated and stored and codified and searched and retrieved and re-used are "facts" or information.

So, can someone explain to me why we call ourselves "knowledge" managers? Who are we kidding? At a minimum we are information managers: we provide easy access to the information our colleagues need to create knowledge. In some cases, we are collaboration facilitators: we provide tools and opportunities that allow colleagues to share information and develop that into something more. In other cases, we are subject matter experts who contribute our own learning to the existing store of information. If we are really fortunate, we're occasionally present at the creation of knowledge. But we almost never can actually "capture" and store that knowledge. We deal in information.

If my two Benjamins are a bit too retro for your taste, spend a little time with Patrick Lambe, Larry Prusak and Dave Snowden. In Patrick Lambe's post, Dead KM Walking, you'll find a podcast he created of a fascinating conversation among these three men regarding the state of "knowledge" management. You'll find that they tend to view knowledge in the same way as my two Benjamins. And, they have some rather disquieting things to say about the current state of our line of work.

It's good to face these questions squarely from time to time. If we aren't honest about what we're trying to do, how on earth can we communicate the nature and value of our work to others?

July 2, 2008

Knowledge Management Made Easier

Tim Leberecht's post, The Writing Organization: Knowledge Management Made Easy, literally took my breath away this morning. I loved the idea. And then wondered if I or any of my KM colleagues in other law firms would have the audacity to propose it to our respective firms.

Here's his suggestion:
Make it mandatory for every employee to keep an internal blog and post at least once per week. Depending on their role, employees can blog about customer experiences, sales tactics, strategy, product improvements, organizational design, competitors, market trends, and even gossip. Potential productivity losses are outweighed by the value of knowledge that is being generated and shared.
For a brief moment I had this vision of lawyers, legal assistants, administrators and support staff blogging away at their desks, capturing the minutiae of their daily lives -- those things that usually reside in the back of your brain and are never needed by the firm until you are on vacation or out sick. And then, I wondered how easy or difficult it would be to obtain firm management support for this proposal.

Those of you who have already had your morning shot of caffeine will note astutely that law firms currently capture a great deal of daily detail in the form of time tickets or fee earner logs. And some firms even search and expose those details as part of their enterprise search capability. However, these daily entries often verge on the cryptic and they only track the work of fee earners, not those who spend their days ensuring the firm is well run. Yet, in terms of the institutional health of the firm, both pools of knowledge are important.

Tim Labrecht is correct when he says that by fostering a writing culture the firm increases the chances of making tacit knowledge explicit. And that once this knowledge is explicit, it can be found and used by people who didn't know it existed or didn't know they didn't to know it. The potential power of this proposal is huge. But, can it work in a law firm?

July 1, 2008

Is Your Knowledge Management Strategic?

In honor of Canada Day, here's a Canadian perspective on developing a knowledge strategy. Courtesy of Knowledge Flow, we have an article published by the Queen's University School of Business entitled Creating a Knowledge Strategy for your Organization: A Special KM Forum Report.

This article provides a useful overview of knowledge management. For example it begins with a helpful explanation of the differences between knowledge management processes, knowledge management enablers and knowledge management drivers. For those of us who do not have a theoretical bent, here's a thumbnail sketch:

KM Processes:

* the methods "an organization uses to create, harvest and refine, store and retrieve, distribute and share, and apply and leverage knowledge"

KM Enablers:

* organizational factors (e.g., structure and culture)
* technology

KM Drivers:

* mission and business strategy
* the firm’s intellectual resources

Michael Zack, a professor who studies how firms use knowledge and knowledge management, suggests that until now most firms have focused on KM Enablers. In other words, they've tried to create the right structure and culture for knowledge sharing and then they've tried to implement the right technologies to facilitate this knowledge sharing. However, in Zack's view, this work has been fundamentally flawed in that it has occurred largely without reference to essential KM Drivers: the overall mission and business strategy of the firm. To explain how fatal this flaw is, Zack gives the example of Polaroid, a company that in his view had great commitment to KM and did a terrific job of fostering a collaborative and sharing culture. However, because that collaboration and sharing was not directed towards the business strategy of mastering digital imaging, the firm lacked the requisite knowledge to compete in this area and, ultimately, went out of business. What a waste.

Zack is unequivocal in advocating a single-minded focus on KM Strategy. As recounted by the authors of this article,
In short, stated Zack, a company can do KM extremely well but not focus it on the right things. In order for it to have an impact on firm performance, KM must be linked to business strategy at all levels in the organization. If an organization has a poor business strategy, KM may not be able to make a difference. However, if it has a good business strategy, KM can support it. Knowledge and learning must support and inform an organization’s competitive position. This is what will give a firm a strategic advantage and this in turn, will add value.
So what is a Knowledge Strategy and how do you formulate it? According to Zack, you begin by determining what a firm needs to know to compete. A firm's ability to compete is directly related to its knowledge.
Managing the gap between what a company needs to know to execute its strategy and what it actually knows is the most strategic role of KM. The more knowledge is tied to strategy, the greater the value of KM will be. The link between strategy and knowledge is a knowledge strategy. This is different from knowledge management, which focuses on the processes whereby knowledge is created, harvested, stored, distributed and applied. KM supports the management of knowledge needed by the firm, which in turn supports the firm’s knowledge and business strategy. A knowledge strategy focuses on knowledge content gaps, while knowledge management emphasizes knowledge process gaps. These two must be aligned if a firm is going to use knowledge competitively.
If you're serious about developing a Knowledge Strategy, you will have to do the following analysis:

Assess knowledge gaps:

* What does the firm need to know?
* What does the firm actually know?
* What do the firm's competitors know?

Assess your knowledge resources:

* What knowledge is worth developing?
* What knowledge is worth acquiring?
* What knowledge is worth capturing to facilitate transfer?
* How will the firm derive value from this knowledge?

Assess your learning cycles:

* How quickly and how well does your firm learn as compared to its industry at large?
* Does this provide a competitive advantage or should your firm pursue learning more aggressively?

The article reminds us that this analysis is not something you do once and then put on the shelf. It is more in the nature of a continuous assessment. Just as the firm is dynamic, the knowledge strategy must be dynamic-- reflecting the changing environment and any shifts in business strategy. Above all, this analysis needs to be done in close cooperation with senior management. This is not an exercise to be undertaken by knowledge managers operating in a vacuum without the deliberate input of the people designing the business strategy.

By focusing on strategy, knowledge managers move from the ranks of knowledge plumbers to the ranks of knowledge architects. Are you ready for this change in status?

And, while you're chewing on that thought, Happy Canada Day!