November 28, 2008

Rothko and KM

Those of you who follow the art scene will know that the Tate Modern in London is hosting a celebrated exhibition of Mark Rothko paintings. Thanks to the BBC, those of us outside London can have a taste of the exhibit via a brief video tour by the sculptor, Anish Kapoor, and Sarah Montague.

The conversation and controversy surrounding this exhibit provide interesting lessons that can be applied to knowledge management. First, consider the description by Anish Kapoor of the "restricted vocabulary" with which Rothko worked. That vocabulary contained only color, a field and a foreground. In Kapoor's view, Rothko worked successfully within the constraints of that limited vocabulary to "draw on deep human emotional realities." For those of us who tend to spend our time protesting our constraints, there is an important lesson here in using our contraints to move ourselves to richer insights and more creative output. For those of us thinking about KM budgets during an economic downturn, it's worth thinking harder about how financial and staffing limitations might provide opportunities for new and innovative work. When you consider what Rothko was able to do with some black paint, you realize that we don't always push ourselves to make the best use of what we have.

The second lesson relates to the dispute as to whether some of these Rothko paintings were hung incorrectly. Critics have charged that two of the paintings in Rothko's Black on Maroon series should have been hung horizontally rather than vertically. Nonetheless, the curator and gallery are sticking by their decision to display the paintings vertically. The discussion about the "right way" to hang the paintings was a salutary reminder to me that sometimes breaking with tradition or convention can provide fresh perspective and insight. As knowledge managers, we can get caught up in the role of librarian or guardian of the canon. In fact, our primary function is not archival; rather it is to provide the resources necessary to facilitate innovation and growth. Key to that function is offering a new perspective on what our organizations know. If that means turning things on their head from time to time, so be it. The purists may protest, but if you've facilitated insight and innovation, it's worth it.

Coming full circle, if you find yourself working with severely limited resources, consider whether trying a different angle on an old KM program or resource might provide the opening you need to achieve something new or useful. Now is not the time to play it safe. Otherwise, you'll find your programs and impact shrinking faster than your budget.

November 27, 2008

Gratitude on Thanksgiving Day

It's good to have a day to remember the good in life. And, it's even better when that day is a public holiday. As usual, we'll be spending the day at the home of some dear friends who happen to be phenomenal cooks and generous hosts. In addition, they have a talent for gathering a congenial group around their table. As a result, we have a great deal to look forward to and be thankful for today.

Before heading downtown to eat, drink and make merry, I wanted to take a moment to thank all of the wonderful folks who read this blog from time to time. For those of you who have left comments or sent me e-mails about my posts -- I give you my heartiest thanks. A big reason for this blog was that I wanted to be part of the larger conversation that's going on about knowledge management, social media, law firms and life. Your comments help move that conversation forward in very interesting and rewarding directions. For those of you who have told me you read my blog, but haven't yet left a comment, please accept my thanks and my invitation to you to join the conversation. Jump right in -- the water is fine.

Have a great Thanksgiving!

November 26, 2008

Behind Every Successful KM Effort

In the November 24 edition of Newsweek there's a humorous quote:
There is no one more surprised than I -- except my husband. You know what they say: "Behind every successful woman, there is an astonished man."
These are the words of Gen. Ann Dunwoody, while speaking at a ceremony held recently in Washington, D.C. to recognize the fact that she is the first woman to achieve the rank of four-star general in the US military. Of course, she's playing with the old adage: "Behind every great man there is a great woman."

Reading her words made me wonder -- what lies behind every successful KM effort? I'd suggest vision, a collaborative firm culture and entrepreneurial knowledge managers. You also need great teamwork with IT. I'm not sure you need a lot of money or a large staff. But, then again, I've always been of the opinion that working within financial or staffing constraints often leads to game-changing innovation.

What would you add to this list?

November 25, 2008

Sending Out an SOS

Help! Woman drowning!

That's increasingly my reaction as I consider the Herculean task that social networking presents to time-strapped people. It started with this blog. Then LinkedIn and a little Twitter action. Now I'm told I've got to invest in both Facebook and FriendFeed, not to mention several social bookmarking sites.

In a recent post, Chris Brogan laid out a personal social media strategy. It's filled with great tips, however, I need something more: clear guidance on how to engage with social media while still holding down a job, spending face-to-face time with family and friends, and taking care of the mundane chores of life.

If you've got some useful advice, I'd love to hear it. Just toss that life preserver in my direction soon, please.

November 24, 2008

You Get What You Measure

You get what you measure. This isn't news -- first you decide what you want to achieve and then you design your metrics to let you know when you've arrived. That's good practice and it's the message of my earlier post, The Metrics Mess. Simple stuff, right? Wrong. You'd be amazed how often folks misunderstand where true success lies and, therefore, collect metrics that drive them in the wrong direction.

Let's take the example of the typical law firm. How does it define success? Profits per partner? Long-term client relationships? Employee attrition? Recruiting rates? The reality is that there are many bases on which to judge success. So, what do firms typically choose to track? Billable hours. When you track hours, you send the unmistakable signal that you are interested in time -- lots of time. After all, time spent equals money. However, where in that equation is the notion that time spent well is worth more than money? At the end of the day, you know the cost of the time spent. But, do you know the value to the firm or, more importantly, to the client?

If we defined success as delivering high-value services to clients, what would we track? If we defined success as building value within the firm as an institution, what would we track?

For law firm knowledge management, the issue of metrics is a persistent problem. We've chased various ways of trying to prove return on investment, but with little success. What should we track to show how our efforts provide value to clients and to the firm itself? Until we've conquered this challenge, we can't expect to achieve any real measure of permanence within a law firm. And, that's a problem when the economy is heading south.

November 21, 2008

Millennials and the Achievement Gap

As we face the onslaught of Gen Y/Millennials in the workplace, it's wise to remember that these new employees present some special management challenges by virtue of the way they have been educated. Tom Wagner has taken a look at how children are raised and educated in the United States and his conclusions are troubling. In his book, The Global Achievement Gap: Why Even Our Best Schools Don't Teach The New Survival Skills Our Children Need — and What We Can Do About It, he identifies 7 key survival skills that they appear to lack:

* Critical thinking and problem solving -- at every level in the organization, people need to be rigorous thinkers who test assumptions and don't rely on preconceived notions.
* Collaboration across networks and leading by influence -- increasingly people need the skills to lead across departmental lines by influence rather than authority.
* Agility and adaptability -- given the rate of change, today's job may not exist tomorrow. So, we need people who can learn and change, rather than relying on static technical skills.
* Initiative and entrepreneurship -- we need self-directed people who can find creative solutions to difficult problems.
* Effective oral and written communication -- without good communication skills, it's hard to collaborate, influence or lead.
* Accessing and analyzing information -- we need to be able to select and process information efficiently and effectively.
* Curiosity and Imagination -- we no longer want drones who merely carry out orders. Instead we need employees who participate creatively by adding value to both the process and the end product.

Unfortunately for the employer, you can't just rely on credentials to ensure that prospective employees have these critical skills. A good transcript from a name brand institution may simply indicate that the person in question has learned how to take tests. In Wagner's view, these new graduates may have an even bigger problem:
A senior associate from a major consulting firm told me that recent hires from Ivy League business schools were constantly asking what the right answer was — in [other] words, how to get an “A” for the job they were doing — and were not always very adept at asking the right questions, which was the single most important skill senior executives whom I interviewed identified.
As we prepare to integrate Millennial new hires, we're going to have to be very deliberate in the way we assess their mastery of the 7 survival skills and the way we coach them to improve that mastery. Equally, it would be wise to take a fresh look at the Boomer and Gen X members of your team to see if they have developed and are using these 7 survival skills. The success of your organization depends on it.

November 20, 2008

The Metrics Mess

I recently saw the perfect illustration of how we can get ourselves completely tangled up in unproductive activity by measuring the wrong thing. In this case, it was someone on Twitter who thought they had hit the jackpot because they had hundreds of followers. Further, this person was offering advice on how to increase the number of followers his readers had. This struck me as misguided at best. To be honest, there are folks I follow whom I'm sure don't realize I exist. Equally, there are folks who follow me, but I'm largely oblivious to them because our paths don't cross very often. So the numbers alone don't tell the whole story and may, in fact, tell a misleading story.

The real issue isn't size of following as much as it is scope of impact. How many of these folks are really paying attention to you? How many do you actually affect? Unless you know this, you don't have a good understanding of your interaction with Twitter. Admittedly, there are Twitter stars whom everyone likes to follow. And, assuming we follow because of their established reputations, we're more likely to pay attention to what those Twitter stars say. For the rest of us in the Twitter mob, however, the number of our followers is a poor (and possibly inaccurate) proxy for our impact.

Coming back to law firm knowledge management, take a moment to consider whether your efforts to measure the wrong thing are leading you into unproductive activity. Don't focus on bulk -- focus on impact. For example, counting how many times a particular document is opened via your portal or document management system may be interesting but not helpful. What you really want to know is how many times was it opened and actually used? And, how often was it exactly the thing the user was searching for? In the latter two cases, you learn much more about the quality of your content and the quality of your search engine.

Consider the following: a document was opened 10 times and used each time, but then opened 20 times and discarded because it was not on point. For someone looking at bulk alone, they'd say, the document was opened 30 times, declare victory and go home. However, someone measuring impact would say it was used 10 times not 3o, and then would ask why. When you ask that question you create the possibility of learning and insight. That's when you know you're on the path to using metrics intelligently.

[permission to use granted under a creative commons license]

November 19, 2008

KM vs Social Media: Give Peace a Chance

A few weeks ago the blogosphere was hopping in response to the KM vs SM generational war piece Venkatesh Rao launched on an unsuspecting world. I responded at the time that declaration of war was first published, as did other thoughtful folks. Now Venkat's piece has been republished in Social Computing Magazine, alongside Jeff Kelly's rebuttal.

Jeff argues that while some resistance to change is inevitable among human beings, it is unfair to characterize all knowledge managers as resistant to change. In Jeff's personal experience, there are "many more eager adopters than resistant dinosaurs." In fact, many knowledge managers I know have been excited and energized by the possibilities for KM offered by social media. To be honest, much of the resistance to social media that I've observed lately has been exhibited by managers who were skeptical about KM in the first place. This isn't so much about age as it is about outlook and experience.

I'm inclined to agree with Jeff that there is much more constructive peace than destructive war between the generations on this issue. His prognosis of the current situation rings true:
Our technology and society will continue to evolve; people will continue to be resistant to (but finally adapt to) change; youth will continue to disdain their elders until they become tempered by wisdom; and the opportunities to learn and prosper will continue to grow for those wise enough to do so.
The more things change, the more they remain the same.

November 18, 2008

Welcoming the Millennials

At some point, most of us realize that fighting the tide is an exercise in futility. The wise among us look for ways to work with and harness the tide. In that spirit, I offer this post on why law firm knowledge management should welcome the Millennials. However, this is NOT about the technological improvements many KM folks have been hoping Millennials will force on our firms. This is about more fundamental improvements in the way we operate.

If reports about Millennials are correct, they are a group of people focused on and motivated by issues and goals that are quite different from those of Gen X and Boomer employees. The latter two groups could be managed by dangling the brass ring in front of them and then reinforcing performance through a strong command and control structure. The boss made the decisions and the Gen X and Boomer employees executed those decisions. Simple and straightforward. By contrast, Millennials are looking for something other than the brass ring. They want opportunities for learning and growth. They want to engage in projects and activities that are personally meaningful. And, they want to maintain a reasonable perspective on work -- as children of workaholics, they want a life with better balance.

What's so crazy about their aspirations? Perhaps the truth is that we're just jealous.

The challenge for Gen X and Boomer knowledge managers is to harness this Millennial energy in a constructive way as Millennial aspirations and methods come up against established ways of doing things. Rather than forcing them into existing rigid structures, consider how a focus on growth and learning might change for the good the types of projects we tackle and the way we carry them out. By giving every member of the staff an opportunity to contribute creatively to the work of your knowledge management department you elevate them from mere worker bees to co-creators and, in one fell swoop, you finally achieve intellectual and creative leverage (which is the basis of any successful law firm).

In making these recommendations, I don't mean to minimize the stress this approach will place on traditional or authoritarian knowledge managers who know what they know and are just looking for employees who will carry out assigned tasks with minimum fuss and maximum efficiency. This is a warning that managers like that will soon be facing a supply problem -- they may find it difficult to find Millennials willing to work on these terms. Then those managers have the choice of either fighting the tide or surfing it. It will be interesting to see what they choose.

November 17, 2008

Just the Way You Are

For those of my readers who were secretly hoping that I'd lose interest over the weekend in my current fascination with popular music and management, I'm sorry to disappoint you. I was getting ready to stop and then I discovered that Billy Joel is not only a philosopher, but a pragmatic one. His song, Just the Way You Are, is viewed by the more romantic among us as an extraordinary statement of the complete acceptance many hope to find in a relationship. For those of us more pragmatically minded, we realize that he is just stating the obvious: it's really hard to get a person to change -- so you might as well get along with what you've got.

While optimism and a deep belief in the perfectibility of humankind are an important part of the culture of the United States, it would be foolish to base a knowledge management department or KM program solely on the hope that folks will change. There are some fundamental elements of human nature that simply can't be undone, although they may be tweaked around the edges. For law firm knowledge managers, understanding the basic personality type of lawyers is an important prerequisite to organizing a law firm knowledge management program that has a prayer of succeeding. For all knowledge managers, understanding the patterns of behavior in your employees and users will allow you to be much more effective.

So, let's return to the prior discussions about the importance of recruiting the right people to your team, really knowing the people who work with you (their values, strengths and weaknesses), and then deploying them strategically so that they achieve their highest and best. If we take Billy Joel's song to heart, getting the recruiting right is critical. By hiring people who have the right values for your team and demonstrate the ability to think critically, work creatively, learn and grow, you free yourself to pursue an ambitious knowledge management program without having to waste precious time in the nearly futile task of trying to change their fundamentals.

Understand early who they are and then take them "just the way they are."

November 14, 2008

Hop off the bus, Gus.

I really didn't intend to write a series on management skills and popular songs but, after yesterday's reference to "Love the One You're With" by Crosby, Stills & Nash, here we are today with staffing issues again and Paul Simon's classic "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover."*

The impetus for the journey from one song to the next came from some thoughtful reactions to yesterday's post that I received in the form of blog comments and some sidebar e-mail conversations. The folks who wrote to me pointed out that sometimes there simply is a mismatch between the employee and the needs of the law firm and, in these instances, you really have to part company with that employee for the firm's sake and theirs. They are right about this. However, before things get to this state it's important to be sure that you've really taken the measure of the person in question.

In his book, Good to Great, Jim Collins makes an interesting observation about the importance of staffing:
We expected that good-to-great leaders would begin by setting a new vision and strategy. We found instead that they first got the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats -- and then they figured out where to drive it. The old adage "People are your most important asset" turns out to be wrong. People are not your most important asset. The right people are.
Why this focus on people? According to Collins,
First, if you begin with "who," rather than "what," you can more easily adapt to a changing world. ...Second, if you have the right people on the bus, the problem of how to motivate and manage people largely goes away. ...Third, if you have the wrong people, it doesn't matter whether you discover the right direction; you still won't have a great company. Great vision without great people is irrelevant.
Interestingly, in separating the right folks from the ones that don't measure up, his research indicated that skills were not necessarily the deciding factor:
...the good-to-great companies placed greater weight on character attributes than on specific educational background, practical skills, specialized knowledge, or work experience. Not that specific knowledge or skills are unimportant, but they viewed these traits as more teachable (or at least learnable), whereas they believed dimensions like character, work ethic, basic intelligence, dedication to fulfilling commitments, and values are more ingrained.
So coming full circle to yesterday's discussion, spend the time you need to be sure that you understand the employee in question -- their character, values, motivations, knowledge and skills -- and then see if they meet the demands of being a part of an A+ team, regardless of the tasks to be tackled. If they have the necessary fundamentals, invest in them. This may mean moving them around the bus a little until you have them in the right seat. If they don't have those fundamentals, get them off the bus.

*For those of you who are really paying attention, let me apologize for misquoting Paul Simon in my title. The actual lyrics of the refrain are as follows:
You just slip out the back, Jack
Make a new plan, Stan
You don’t need to be coy, Roy
Just get yourself free
Hop on the bus, Gus
You don’t need to discuss much
Just drop off the key, Lee
And get yourself free

November 13, 2008

Love the One You're With

Two stories this week from senior managers I know made me think again about the responsibilities of managers with respect to their staff. In the first case, the manager was a senior executive in a financial firm. He said he was struggling with what to do with certain members of his staff who "would never meet their career objectives." The problem was that while he might have fired them in better economic times, secure in the knowledge that they could most likely find work in a less challenging firm, he was equally sure that these folks would not be able to find work easily given current economic conditions. Add to that the fact that his firm has a strong culture that emphasizes the "firm as family" and you have a difficult managerial challenge.

The second story comes from a manager who felt that his staff was stretched, exhausted and needed assistance. However, when he made his request for additional staffing, he was told that his company was in a cost-cutting mode and there could not be any additions to headcount in his department.

What's a manager to do?

When assessing how well your staff members are performing and whether they are able to operate at their highest and best level, consider your role as manager. Two qualities that set an excellent manager apart from the herd are (i) the ability to understand what talents and abilities each member of staff has and (ii) the ability to provide a framework that allows that staff member to utilize those talents and abilities to the utmost degree to the benefit of the firm. Adherents of the strengths-based approach to staffing and management will tell you that encouraging folks to build on their strengths and successes rather than focusing primarily on their shortfalls inevitably results in higher performance for the group overall.

In the case of the manager with the under performing staff member, consider whether they are not meeting expectations because you've set the wrong expectations. In other words, is their under performance because they haven't been given the opportunity to set goals and work in an area in which they have demonstrated talents and abilities? (E.g., I can practice 8 hours each day with all the determination in the world, but because I don't have the necessary innate ability, I will never play baseball as well as Derek Jeter. If recruited to the Yankees, I would never "meet my career goals.") In the case of the second manager with the exhausted staff, consider how much effort your existing staff members must expend to get things done. Are they working in their areas of strength or struggling in areas for which they are ill-equipped. Asking your staff to do things for which they don't have natural talents or abilities requires them to spend additional time and energy to get up to speed and overcome their own hard-wiring. Sure they can do it, but at what cost? Contrast that with the speed and ease with which people are able to do the things for which they are hard-wired. (E.g., with enough training and perseverance, any educated person should be able to read an actuarial formula -- but never as easily as someone who is naturally highly numerate and enjoys that strange language actuaries speak.) With a reasonably diligent staff, they will try hard to get the job done, but it will take longer and be more painful than if they had the necessary talents and abilities. As a result, they will be perpetually over-stretched, unable to complete all the work, and your department as a whole will under perform.

So what's the take away from all of this? In these hard economic times managers have a greater responsibility to ensure that they are deploying their staff in a way that takes the best possible advantage of the unique talents and skills these folks bring to work. This approach maximizes the probability of high performance and high morale. Don't waste time thinking about how you could replace these employees. Except in special circumstances, you won't be allowed to spend the necessary funds to recruit and train someone new -- assuming, of course, you're even allowed to hire.

So, in the words of Crosby, Stills & Nash, "If you can't be with the one you love, love the one you're with."

[Here's a link to hear a recording of the entire song: Love the One You're With, Crosby, Stills & Nash]

November 12, 2008

Aspiring to KM Geekdom

While I don't have a snowball's chance in any place warm of ever achieving geekdom, I couldn't resist testing my abilities against Gizmodo's The 50 Skills Every Geek Should Have. I flunked -- but I'm not too worried. In fact, I suspect that I'm in pretty good company.

That said, I do sometimes wonder what a comparable list for knowledge managers would contain. To do our work well, we need a strange mix of technical and people skills, as well as substantive legal knowledge if you're working in the world of law firms, for example. So here's my first stab at a list for knowledge management -- in no particular order:

1. Superior listening skills
2. Empathy
3. The ability to translate from user speak to "geek speek"
4. Skills in organizing chaos
5. Analytical ability
6. Superior persuasive writing and speaking skills
7. No tendency to technophobia
8. Deep knowledge of human nature
9. Openmindedness
10. A willingness to plan cooperatively via an iterative process rather than imposing solutions
11. Basic kindergarten competence (i.e., plays nicely with others, doesn't run with scissors, etc.)
12. Ability to build strong and productive teams
13. Creativity
14. An understanding of database configuration and functionality
15. An understanding of social computing
16. An understanding of law firm (or your industry's) economics
17. ?

What would you add? What would you omit? Why?

November 11, 2008

Creating a Great KM Department of One

In my earlier post, Is Your KM Department Selling Fish, I asked what a great knowledge management department staffed by only one person would look like. This is not a purely academic exercise. To begin with, every member of your staff has to be willing to step up as if they are the only ones responsible for the productivity of your department. But beyond this, I wanted to encourage us to think in more organic terms about what we are and what we can be.

Every acorn holds the potential of a giant oak. What sort of acorn are you? What sort of oak tree will you produce?

November 10, 2008

Is Your KM Department Serving Fish?

Have you ever heard an administrator say that their department could fulfill its mission without additions to headcount? Yet in this economy, more and more administrators are going to be told that they must meet their institutional obligations with a smaller staff. Before we let panic overtake us, let's spend a moment thinking about the wonderful opportunity this mandate presents. Necessity drives us to think critically about our mission, how we've chosen to tackle it and how we've chosen to staff it. In these last few years of feasting, many have become bloated. Now we have to rethink our approach.

Rather than thinking small, let's blow up the model and start again. What would you do if you could afford only a knowledge management department of one? What would you have that person do? Suddenly, routine chores that consume so much time and effort are much less justifiable. Equally, expending energy on projects that benefit relatively few is short-sighted. So, for example, instead of grinding away at database maintenance chores of marginal value what high-impact project would you tackle? In the context of law firm knowledge management, drafting a model document that might be used occasionally by a relatively small group of lawyers becomes less compelling. So does working on a lawyer's pet technology project, unless the resulting opportunity cost is one the firm is prepared to tolerate. Instead, spending time to train lawyers to filter and organize the flood of information that comes to their computers daily so that they and their colleagues can find this material efficiently makes much more sense. So does giving them centrally-accessible places to store and exchange the tribal lore that sets the great law firms apart from their competitors. In each case, you make individual lawyers self-reliant and leverage the efforts of one to benefit many.

In the language of economic development, this is about teaching people to fish so that they can sustain themselves over the long-term rather than handing them fish for a single meal. In the days of plenty, we could afford a large knowledge management staff to find the fish and serve it to hungry lawyers. Things have changed now and everyone will have to know how to do their own fishing. Are you and your firm prepared for this?

November 7, 2008

Ask and You Shall Receive via Enterprise Microblogging

A lot of electronic ink has been spilled on the possibility of adapting microblogging technology for use behind the firewall. As with other social media tools, the ability of many to imagine enterprise uses for microblogging (or microsharing or microlearning) has been constrained by their encounters with the microblogging tools some of us have learned to love in our leisure hours such as Twitter. A casual visitor to Twitter sees lots of social interchanges and some downright inane ones, and wonders in their skepticism if this is a plague that should be inflicted on their law firm. (Included in the mix is plenty of useful work-related information, as well as recommendations for reading** and for life, but a casual observer may not notice those right away.) Others will say, given the existing worries about of information overload, we should not add to the pressure by exposing law firm employees to loads of trivia.

As with most things, we know what we know and don't know what we don't know.

For those of us in need of having our vision expanded a little on this topic, I'd recommend you take a look at a terrific piece in Fast Company by Marcia Conner entitled Enterprise Micro-Learning. In it she provides lots of examples of how these tools could improve social conditions and business productivity within an enterprise. For knowledge management folks, there is a gem in that article that is worth thinking about a little further:
Too frequently organizational knowledge-sharing mirrors the news-cycle society around us, in which we share the highs and lows, ignoring the ordinary stuff in the middle. It's in that middle ground people make sense of the work done around them, understand how we can play a part to help fulfill the vision, and know where we can turn to find the help we need. It's the middle stuff that's truly interesting and helps us connect with one another.
She is absolutely right. For many, law firm knowledge management is about capturing and sharing the "high value items" such best practices and models. In most cases, we don't have the time or tools to handle the items from any other part of the spectrum and allow requests for those to clutter e-mail or go unfulfilled. Yet, it is those requests for the "ordinary stuff" that actually allow folks within the law firm to work more easily and productively. Enterprise microblogging could fill this need.

And what about the information overload issue? To begin with, unlike e-mail, the user can choose with laser-like precision from whom they would like to hear (or "follow" in Twitter speak). So, you get to put together your own cabinet of advisers: perhaps the partner from the capital markets (or bankruptcy) practice to shed light on current economic conditions + the savvy junior associate who is completely plugged in + the person who makes great recommendations regarding what's good to eat in the law firm cafeteria. In addition, there are technologies emerging (such as TweetDeck) to help you filter what could be a constant stream of inputs. With these tools, you can decide whom you'd like to follow and how you'd like to group those folks. So each user could create, for example, a practice-focused group, a client or matter focused group, an economy alert group, a firms news group (including your cafeteria advisor), a collection of lawyers in your affinity group, etc. With this structure in place, you could then follow at any particular time the group that is most pertinent for your work or life.

Microblogging presents lots of possibilities for productivity and for building community within your law firm. Don't make the mistake of discounting this technology just because you haven't yet had an opportunity to broaden your experience and vision with social media tools.

[**I discovered Marcia Conner's article through a tweet by noted social media industry analyst Jeremiah Owyang.]

Another Reason to Resist Change

In a recent post in the Forrester blog, Tim Walters discusses some of the reasons why IT (and knowledge management) folks cling to their top-down one-size-fits-all approach and resist the drive to enable personalization of their offerings. He clearly finds this frustrating since, in his view, personalization is now a matter of "Thurvival".** Unfortunately, the folks resistant to change have a new compelling excuse to hide behind. Here's how he paraphrases it:
It’s the economy, stupid. The trouble with a trial and error approach to personalization is that it harbors the possibility (and probably guarantees the occurrence) of error – and error is an expense that, at this juncture, we’d best avoid. For now, let’s stick with what we know works, and we’ll indulge in experimentation when our corporate head is back above the surface of the water.
So now it's the state of economy that gives them license to cling to the Pantyhose Fallacy. Yet, in Walters' view, taking the one-size-fits-all approach ensures that your site "will be really relevant and engaging for almost no one. " That's quite an accomplishment.

In light of this, it appears that we have two options. We can either sit tight and hope to weather the economic storm without daring to risk anything in the short-term or we can take a radically different approach in which we permit a few short-term risks in order to gain some significant long-term benefits. Tim Walters definitely favors the latter approach: is the time to make selective, small scale investments in personalization tools and skills. Yes, your experiments will produce errors, and the effect will probably not be as favorable as your “sure bets.” But in addition to whatever financial benefits you achieve, you’re building up a knowledge base, intellectual capital, and competitive advantages that will be extremely valuable later.
So what are you going to do? Make a smart short-term investment (at the price of a few managed errors) or hide behind the economy as a reason to resist change?

** According to Tim Walters, "Survival during the downturn + Ability to thrive afterwards = Thurvival."

November 5, 2008

When People Care...

...they participate.

We've seen extraordinary voter turnout in this election. What caused these voters to break through their apathy and actually participate in record numbers? They cared.

There's a lesson here for knowledge management. You don't need incentives. (Not even the free coffee one vendor offered to all voters... and then all customers.) You just need to give folks a reason to care. We saw that on November 4, 2008 in the United States. How will you do that in your law firm?

The Mysteries of Human Behavior

Let me introduce you to My Little Pony Scootaloo. According to the manufacturer, "SCOOTALOO pony loves to play games and be outside. She’s always on the go to meet and play outdoors with all her pony friends!" The suggested retail price for this toy is US$4.99.

To be honest, My Little Pony is not something I've spent any time thinking about before, but last Saturday night I couldn't avoid thinking about it as I watched a My Little Pony toy just like the one pictured get auctioned to the audience at the current Broadway revival of Equus. After the curtain call, the cast asked the audience to bid on the toy in order to raise money for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. By the time the bidding ended, they had raised US$800. That's impressive considering the prize normally sold for US$4.99.

What accounts for this incredible increase? You can find chapter and verse online about the psychology of auctions. Were the folks who bid on the toy completely irrational? Some (like Seth Godin) would say yes. However, that isn't the complete answer. What I observed that evening was an audience that got caught up in the excitement of the show, the unscripted interaction with the cast, and the perceived value of the prize. It should be noted that the perceived value likely had less to do with the great work Broadway Care/Equity Fights AIDS does and more to do with the fact that members of the cast (including Daniel Radcliffe of Harry Potter fame, Richard Griffiths (History Boys) and Kate Mulgrew (Star Trek: Voyager)) had autographed the toy.

People don't always act rationally. However, people do tend to react predictably -- if you know enough about human nature. When implementing a knowledge management program don't assume that people will always do the right thing or even the sensible thing. People usually just do the thing they've always done. But they can be swayed by powerful countervailing forces. So while you're drawing up your neat, logical plans on paper, make sure you spend a little time thinking about human psychology, documented user behavior, and key elements of your law firm's organizational culture. That way you can plan for the way the very real people in your law firm are most likely to react. And, if a countervailing force is needed, you can dedicate the necessary time and effort to arranging it. To be clear, this is less about offering incentives (which according to many do not work), than it is a warning that perfect paper plans that assume rational user behavior rarely result in flawless implementations. Above all, you need to account for the messy and sometimes mysterious behavior of the users you are trying to help.

November 4, 2008

Go Vote

Unless you've been under a rock these last few months, you'll know that today is Election Day in the United States. Go vote as if your life depended on it. Voter apathy diminishes a country that holds itself out as a defender of democracy.

Given the importance of this election, I suspect very little but the most essential billable work will be completed in law firms across the country. There will be time enough tomorrow to worry about that and about knowledge management. For today, use your web 2.0 tools and your social networks to ensure that the election is free and fair and to encourage your friends and family to exercise their rights as citizens. Do your part. Go vote.

November 3, 2008

Our Social Media Romance

Every so often, the rhetoric gets so heated that you might be forgiven for thinking you were reading a romance novel where the swashbuckling hero is a web 2.0 tool. Far too many consultants, vendors and KM bloggers have become so enthused with the potential of social media that they seem to be viewing it through a vaseline-coated lens.

However, at some point even the biggest romance novel fan has to acknowledge the differences between fictional romances and the gritty reality of a relationship -- dirty socks and all. And now, it appears that we've arrived at that point courtesy of two recent reports on web 2.0. The first is the McKinsey Global Survey on Building the Web 2.0 Enterprise in which we learn that
... after an initial period of promise and trial, companies are coming to understand the difficulty of realizing some of Web 2.0’s benefits. Only 21 percent of the respondents say they are satisfied overall with Web 2.0 tools, while 22 percent voice clear dissatisfaction. Further, some disappointed companies have stopped using certain technologies altogether.
If that isn't a sufficiently shocking piece of reality, take a look at the recent Gartner report on the failure of social software projects:
...many IT organizations fall into the trap of following "worst practice," installing social software in the expectation that productive communities will emerge spontaneously. Gartner's discussions with clients suggest that the "install and they will come" practice rarely succeeds; about 70 percent of the community typically fails to coalesce. Furthermore, of the 30 percent of the communities that do emerge, many revolve around interactions that planners didn't envision, that don't provide business value and that may even be counterproductive.
Now that reality has intruded on romance, what should we do? Gartner suggests that we pay more attention to ensuring that the right social communities exist (or are formed) to support the use of the software. In Gartner's view, the right social community will have a well-defined purpose, which should be front and center when designing the implementation of web 2.0 tools for that community. According to Gartner, there are seven characteristics of a well-defined purpose and, by extension, a successful social software implementation:

- Magnetic -- draws people in, explains "what's in it for me"
- Aligned -- with the business
- Low Risk
- Properly Scoped -- start with minimal scope and then scale up as warranted by the community
- Facilitates Evolution -- the purpose selected must be one that can be built on as scope broadens
- Measurable -- the business and community value should be measurable
- Community Driven -- the value must come from the community

Lest you think all is doom and gloom, the McKinsey report does contain some good news. Notably, the firms that have implemented social media tools successfully are discovering that they are able to increase their use of these tools, and leverage them to change their own management practices and organizational structures in fundamental ways.

So a relationship with Web 2.0 is possible, as long as you keep your feet firmly on the ground.

November 1, 2008

Ask a Simple Question

It all started with some folks in Australia that I haven't yet had the pleasure of meeting: Laurel Papworth, Kate Carruthers and James Dellow. Each of them asked a simple question: How do you decide how/what/when to blog? James tagged Samuel Driessen, John Tropea and Jack Vinson. And then Samuel tagged me.

So how do I decide how/what/when to blog?

The HOW of blogging is relatively easy -- at my iMac with a cup of something caffeinated nearby; multiple drafts until I get the content and tone right; and then a firedrill as I publish, discover the inevitable typo, fix it and republish.

The WHEN of blogging used to be early in the morning. However, as I've discovered more readers in other time zones, I've learned it makes more sense to write and publish at night. This means that by the time I've poured my morning cup of caffeine, my friends and readers elsewhere have left comments on my blog to continue the conversation. It's a great way to start the day.

Closely related to WHEN is HOW OFTEN I blog. Over time, I've steadily built up the pace of my blogging from once or twice each week to once each weekday. Since I don't blog from the office, posting multiple times during the day really isn't practical. To be honest, publishing even once each weekday is pretty demanding and I don't know if it is truly sustainable over the long term. Time will tell.

WHAT I blog about is really the hardest question to answer. I started out with a fairly clear focus: dealing with the non-technology elements of knowledge management that often end up being overlooked, even though they are so critical to KM success. What I soon discovered is that this focus encompasses a fairly wide territory. Deciding which section of that territory to explore on any given day is largely dictated by chance: What did I read or hear that sparked my curiosity? What have I been thinking about that could benefit from the rigor of writing? What issue has been troubling me and won't give me peace until I've wrestled with it in writing? What question would I like to put into the blogosphere in order to have the benefit of the many thoughtful points of view provided by my favorite bloggers?

While I draw on my own experience and the experience of friends and colleagues, I tend not to blog about the personal. And, despite the considerable temptations provided by the US election cycle, I've refrained from discussing politics and religion. Money and gender do come up from time to time, but I'm only human.

And, while I'm doing this, I try to stay true to myself. A dear family friend recently told me that my blog posts sounded so much like me that reading my blog was like having a conversation with me. I was pleased to hear this since it has always seemed to me that authenticity of tone is critical in the blogosphere where so many of our relationships are virtual.

Enough about me. Who is next?

Early in October, I had the great pleasure of serving on a terrific panel on the topic of Blogging as Knowledge Management. Doug Cornelius convened the group and the other panelists were Bill Ives and Jack Vinson. Jack has already participated in this meme, so I'd like to draw in Doug and Bill and ask them to answer the question. In addition, I'd like to tag some bloggers I haven't yet been fortunate enough to meet in person, but whose posts I always read. They never fail to be thoughtful and thought-provoking. So, here are the bloggers to whom I'd like to issue an invitation to participate:

Doug Cornelius (KM Space)
Jordan Furlong (Law21)
Mark Gould (Enlightened Tradition)
Bill Ives (Portals and KM)
Patrick Lambe (Green Chameleon)

Thanks, Samuel, for providing today's blog post topic. All I've been able to do is offer a provisional answer. I expect it's something I'll come back to and answer differently from time to time.