September 8, 2008

So You Think You Should "Command and Control"?

For too many years, law firm knowledge management has focused on centralized efforts to capture and disseminate "knowledge." Under this approach, knowledge is a thing, an object that must be found and corralled. And once you've found and organized all those knowledge things, you then tackle the daunting task of wresting tacit knowledge out of the heads of your colleagues and into your databases.

David Jabbari at Allen & Overy describes this effort in the following way in a recent issue of Law Practice Today:
"If you see knowledge as an inert ‘thing’ that can be captured, edited and distributed, there is a danger that your KM effort will gravitate to the rather boring, back-office work preoccupied with indexes and IT systems. This will be accompanied by a ritualized nagging of senior lawyers to contribute more knowledge to online systems."
That's the job too many law firms have assigned to their knowledge management team. If you're a practice support lawyer (PSL) in such a firm, how's it working for you? David Jabbari describes this approach as "command and control":
"The command and control approach to law firm KM focuses on the systems and management structures needed to capture and publish knowledge. In this approach, knowledge is often created in a very centralized way, using techniques such as commissioning, or forming ‘project groups’, and then publishing the output in centralized content stores. The fact that no more than 25 per cent of material stored in databases is ever accessed does not seem to deter people from thinking that placing material in a central store constitutes a success of some type."
It sounds like a futile exercise, yet it is standard operating procedure in far too many law firms. In fact, there are regular conversations among many PSLs I know about the difficulties inherent in creating or finding materials for centralized databases, or the struggle involved in getting client-facing lawyers to take the time to create, review or share useful materials for the KM system. For these PSLs and for their law firms, success is measured by the number of documents created and centrally stored. The metrics give a comforting sense of doing something, but don't establish definitively that they are doing something useful.

With the emergence of web 2.0 and social computing, many of us have come to understand both the power of collaborative knowledge creation and sharing, as well as the ultimate futility of trying to capture the explicit and tacit knowledge within the firm. David Jabbari suggests that this move from control to collaboration allows us to focus on more productive goals:
"If, however, you see knowledge as a creative and collaborative activity, your interest will be the way in which distinctive insights can be created and deployed to deepen client relationships. You will tend to be more interested in connecting people than in building perfect knowledge repositories."
Allen & Overy is enjoying tremendous success pursuing collaboration rather than control. How does your firm compare?

[Thanks to Mohamed Amine Chatti for pointing out this article.]

2 comments: said...

I'm always glad to see people talking about this. I am in a large IT organization and we have a pretty military-style control structure so the 'command and control' bit is very familiar to me.

I think I first read about this in Bob Buckman's 2004 book "Building a Knowledge-Driven Organization". I reviewed it on my blog a few months ago if you are curious.

Mary Abraham said...

Daniel -

Thanks for letting me know about the Buckman book. I can understand why the "command and control" approach is so attractive to management, but the reality is that putting limits on knowledge necessarily puts limits on our effectiveness as a team or an organization. And, it betrays a great lack of trust in the rank and file. Web 2.0 is forcing all of us to re-evaluate our trust thresholds and our ways of working together.

- Mary