I’ve commented in the past about how I think that Knowledge Management (KM) has become so overwhelmed with technology products that the individuals in KM have become ‘tech support’ rather than knowledge managers. Yesterday, I read two different articles that reinforced my conception of what I think is a major flaw in the idea of “Knowledge Management” within law firms. Michael Maoz of Gartner brought up the issue of why ‘IT lacked the prowess to perceive or advise on the unfolding crisis’ of the financial meltdown. When I was reading this, I kept replacing “IT” with “KM” (as I think what Maoz was talking about fit more of the KM model in the law firm setting.) Questions Maoz raised such as:

  • Where has all of our [KM] investment in data mining, analytics, forecasting, and measurement gotten us?
  • And how, exactly, did [KM] track, identify, perceive, illustrate, communicate, or work to prevent rotten loans and false premises about future growth and profit and shaky forecasts?

These questions show the flaw in how we are looking at KM. Knowledge Management isn’t a software or database issue! These questions seem to take on the idea that by putting your contacts in a database, storing your documents in a central repository, and slapping a search interface on all of these databases is “Knowledge Management”. We seem to think that if we have enough technology it will magically transform into some quasi-artificial intelligence. The second article I read was one of the Penny Edwards’ articles on Social Networking for the Legal Profession. Edwards mentions that the approach we take to capturing “knowledge” is a hold over of the 1990’s IT ‘centralized’, or as she put it in her book “Industrial Technology.” Edwards states it best when she writes that our KM tools are ineffective because: many of the large, centralised, top-down implementations in firms have focused on enforcing information and management processes. It’s no wonder that many of these specialist applications are underused – with their different interfaces and rules for user interactions that require people to spend time figuring out how to use them, compiling information to be approved for inclusion, and then trying to find the information once it has made it into the system. They are not user-friendly, and they don’t reflect the workings of a network where people turn to people to get what they need.

As I’ve said before, the original concept of KM was to “leverage our internal experience and expertise to help us face future challenges”. Knowledge Management was originally an idea that came forth in the library field as a way to catalog internal information in a similar way we where cataloging external information. However, because it would be nearly impossible for a librarian to catalog every piece of internal information, KM slowly moved over to the IT structure by attempting to make the creator of the information (that would be the attorney who wrote the document or made the contact) also be the “cataloger” of the information. Processes were created through the use of technology that were supposed to assist them in identifying the correct classification. In my opinion, this type of self-cataloging and attempt at creating a ultra-structured system creates a process that is:

  1. difficult to use;
  2. doesn’t fit the way that lawyers conduct their day-to-day work;
  3. gives a false sense of believing that the knowledge has been captured and can be easily recovered;
  4. leads to user frustration and “work around” methods; and
  5. results in expensive, underutilized software resources.

Lee Bryant mentions that applying 20th Century ideas of centralizing and applying the industrial model of mass production is the wrong approach for how we capture and apply knowledge in the 21st Century. Both Bryant and Edwards think that the answer to pulling KM out of the 20th Century structure is to get away from the centralization method and begin re-learning the way that lawyers conduct their business. They identify that the source of lawyers’ “ideas, knowledge, leads, business opportunities, support, trust and co-operation” are developed through their social interactions. The suggestion is that KM should stop trying to be a highly structured method of gathering knowledge (Industrial Knowledge Gathering or ‘KM 1.0’), and identify ways that social networking (Social Knowledge Gathering or ‘KM 2.0’) can be leveraged to influence the uptake of ideas and trends.

  • Greg –

    I look at KM 1.0 as being centralized and KM 2.0 as being personalized. The mistake with first generation KM and why it failed was that people don't want to contribute to a centralized system.

    Let's use the document management system as an example. People use it because it is hard wired into the document creation tools. It should take more work to save it onto a local drive than into the DMS. It makes it easier to allow you assistant to help you edit the document. It's built into the workflow.

    What fails is the centralized categorization. Sure, lawyers will add the Client/Matter numbers most of the time. Those make sense most of the time. The rest of the categorization is a mess. Why? most of the other categorization is of little use to most lawyers. They want to organize documents in a way that makes sense to them.

    If you want to gather knowledge within the firm, it has to be easy, in the workflow and focused on the individual.

  • Greg

    Or did KM use IT to kill themselves? 😉

    KM and IT committed the same crime. They focussed on the technology and lost sight of the person.

    In law probably more than most other industries, the knowledge and product is in the people. As Doug says KM and IT should focus on the people with the knowledge, rather than a big database.

    Good blog post!

  • IT has been trying to kill KM for a decade, and it's doing a pretty good job. At the moment, it's being helped to do the dirty work by Content Management.

    The vast majority of knowledge in any firm is tacit, and is held by people, and neither web 1.0 nor web 2.0 is going to address the tacit knowledge.

    Note how Doug says "if want to gather knowledge within the firm …." – why even start from the assumption that knowledge needs to be gathered before it can be used? Some of it does, sure, but a lot of it doesn't. Processes such as Peer Assist are so powerful exactly because no gathering needs to occur (see here for more http://www.nickmilton.com/2009/06/there-is-killer-application-in.html)

  • Nice post Greg. My experience mirrors your comments. Law firms tend to focus on all knowledge and IT infrastructure and call it KM. A focus on high value knowledge and ease-of-access at time-of-need will be a healthier approach.

    Well done.

  • KM is hard to do right, and this is why so many have tried to use IT to solve the problem ("buy a solution").

    However, IT is just a tool, and the difficulty lies in deciding which information should be shared, which format and categorization should it have, how long is it valid, is the information static or dynamic, who is it useful to, how do you find what you need again etc etc. No IT solution can do this automatically for you.

    KM is very useful for some information for some people, but storing "everything" only gives you information overload and makes it harder to actually find any relevant information.

    As both Doug, Jason and Nick says, KM should focus on the individual, as the people hold the majority of knowledge. If you identify information that many people would find useful, THEN you should consider storing this centrally for easy access by all.

  • I agree with all the other posters here.

    IT killed KM years ago and I say this as someone who works at trying to align Business and IT in the KM space. KM never was about IT, but the IT vendors and people looking for a quick-fix/magic-bullet made KM about IT.

    KM is about the people and the process and recognizing the right strategy for the right knowledge artifact. In some cases IT can enable the KM activity but 80% of the time should be on understanding and dealing with people and process.

  • Greg–

    Very interesting post. I agree that traditional KM approaches of centralizing and user-based cataloguing have not been as successful as hoped, for the reasons you accurately identify. Lawyers create the reusable content as part of their workflow but often don't want to do anything more, other than perhaps adding a matter number (because it helps them refind it through search or browse).

    Some of the Enterprise 2.0 tools flip that around to some extent and let groups of users contribute not just content but also structure or metadata. Wikis let users comment on or provide substantial context to a document; blogs allow users to draw attention to sets of documents or forms in a structured way; and perhaps most effectively, tags can let users and searchers alike add context and structure to sets of content. My article in KMPro discusses the ways that users can add content and structure through Enterprise 2.0 in more detail. http://www.kmpro.org/journal/KMPro_Vol_6_No_1.pdf (with semi-apologies for the shameless plug).

    Another way that law firms can add some richer context is to work hard on creating metadata associated not with the document but with the matter. There are typically about two orders of magnitude fewer matters than documents (ratio of matters to docs is ~1:181 at my firm). Different business processes (such as matter opening, business development, and deal closing), that don't have to be as user-friendly, can be leveraged to add matter data. The catch there is really leveraging that matter data in an easy-to-use manner, which I don't think many law firms have successfully done.

    David Hobbie

  • The confusion of KM as just being IT is a real issue in term's of people's perceptions of what KM is. But IT has not killed KM at all but rather raised its profile – at least according to the theory that any publicity is good publicity.

    IT has undoubtedly helped KM make huge strides, and the issue with the IT-KM confusion is that those using the technology have gotten used to the idea from the market (e.g. Google) that what IT provides is the end of the road; whereas we knowledge managers realize that within the enterprise, especially in the case of KM for law firms where there is so much tacit knowledge, IT necessarily only gets you 80% of the way there, and it's the practitioner's job to go after the remaining 20%. The advantages of IT are (a) that the first 80% would take humans 10, 20, even 100 times as long, and (b) the remaining 20% becomes exponentially easier after IT has helped you identify where the tacit knowledge sits.

    In implementing KM, the challenge can often be that those using the IT system jump to the conclusion that if that system isn't giving them the full 100% then it hasn't provided anything useful at all, and therefore they might as well do the full 100% on their own. Web 2.0 is another way of telling users where the tacit knowledge sits, but it only inches towards addressing this IT-KM perception challenge.

  • I think technology can be very helpful to KM. Why not make the technology work for the person, not the other way around?

    We use online discussion forums to spread and store KM. These discussion forums are integrated with an online document management system, which allows for interlinking of files and threads. Our forums are accessible from anywhere, at anytime.
    Greg states the original concept of KM was to "leverage our internal experience and expertise…" What better way than an open forum for colleagues. We simply start threads, create polls, and our colleagues give their 2 cents (some like to give quarters). A simple way to gather knowledge within the firm.

    If anybody is interested, we use an online collaboration suite by HyperOffice. I'm happy with it.

  • This is a very good dialog. It is interesting to see the approach to KM that is taken in different markets. In the UK, for example, KM is more about content and the human approach where in the US, to date, many firms have looked to IT as the solution. I think it's finding the proper balance – you need good search technology, but you also need quality, value-add content that will show up in the search results.

    Part of our job as change agents and KM professionals is to prove how investing the time and resources into "time of need," "high value knowledge" (as Toby puts it) is a smart business decision that actually grows revenues as opposed to being viewed as simply more overhead.

    This is a perfect time to make the case that smart use of and investement in knowledge resources can directly grow the bottom line. An efficient approach to knowledge can, for example, be used to get associates up to speed much more quickly thereby improving realization rates and adding more value to clients. Along these lines, I invite the group to read a recent white paper on this subject written by Bruce MacEwen and published by Practical Law Company. http://us.practicallaw.com/display.do?item=8-386-5514

    I would be delighted to discuss any of these issues further. I can be contacted at ian.nelson@practicallaw.com.