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.