I have to tell you that coming away from the ARK conference on Knowledge Management, I was a little disappointed with the direction that many of the law firms are taking with the idea of Knowledge Management (KM). Some of the presenters were showing products that were very “flashy” and useful, but weren’t really what I would consider “KM” resources.

Many of them were “Client Services” products… or were fancy dashboards attached to accounting or time and billing resources, but not really what I would think of when it came to capturing “knowledge” at a firm. Don’t get me wrong, these projects were very cool, they were very useful for getting information in the hands of clients or attorneys, but to call them knowledge management resources would be stretching the truth a little bit because they didn’t really capture and reuse existing firm knowledge in the traditional meaning of knowledge management.

The biggest problem with KM in a law firm seems to be the fact that those creating the knowledge (aka attorneys) either have to actively participate in the KM process, or allow for some type of automation in the KM process. Unfortunately, the attorneys seem to neither want to actively participate, nor do they want their information/knowledge to be automatically captured. This makes for a tough position for KM to be in.

There were two comments that caught my attention, and made me wonder if KM just needs to be scrapped at law firms altogether.

  1. When asked about “who” creates the documentation behind a firm’s model documents resource, the answer was that this would be a good opportunity for those in KM who were former practicing attorneys. (Translated: “You’ll need to have someone in KM do this, because no one else in the firm will.”)
  2. When discussing how the library can be advocates for KM in promoting the internal resources developed by KM groups in capturing firm knowledge, one of the members of the audience said that if he discussed these products to the partners in his firm, he’d be fired because no one is interested in this type of Knowledge Management resources.

As long as you have a cool dashboard to present information from third-party systems, and can tap internal financial or time and billing software, then you have a successful KM tool. If your dashboard requires anyone to actively participate, or give permission to automatically capture information being created by individuals within your firm, then abandon that project immediately. You’re only setting yourself up to fail.

The entire conference seemed to be about keeping KM relevant, by expanding the definition of KM and taking it in the direction of Law Practice Management, or Alternative Fees, Accounting and Financial Interfaces, or Client Development Resources. All noble things for a law firm to do… but again, completely outside the scope of what KM was meant to bring to the firm. As Mary Abraham put it in a tweet:

“Why is #KM obsessed with PM? Because desperate knowledge managers are searching for a raison d’être.”

As you can probably tell, I am a little depressed after hearing everyone basically say that in order to stay relevant, you need to abandon most of your objectives and principles and turn KM into something else. I’m hoping that I’m wrong.

  • Greg, this is a brave post. And sadly, too accurate.

  • Actually I find not much new about the "fancy interface" definition of KM. I have been at conferences 12 years ago, where the message was: Buy our cool interface and everybody will share happy ever after. But some haven't moved much on that, unfortunately. I strongly believe you can't even manage knowledge, what you should do is manage the flow, and look at things a lot more holistically (most of all focusing on the participating people). My book on Knowledge Flow Management discusses the factors outside of the flashy interfaces in case you are interested in a fresher view.

  • Very good post Greg. Although I'm not sure you will have wanted responses from the legal arena saying "yes, exactly, you've summed it up perfectly!"

  • Yeah… that's probably not going to happen.

    I was hoping someone would come in and say "Greg, you ignorant ****. You don't know what you're talking about and here's why. _____"

    Perhaps someone with a KM blog is drafting that right now.

  • Ah. The age-old question:" What is Knowledge Management? " Who dares go there?

  • Greg, I have started a response on my blog, but I have work to do so its completion will have to wait until this evening. I have some sympathy with your challenge (and your conference disappointment), but there are a couple of things I want to pick you up on.

  • Greg: I agree it's pointless to create KM systems whose success turns on whether lawyers will contribute to them altruistically. But I think you're selling "KM through automation" short. Tools like enterprise search, aimed at a firm's historical work product, can be a highly effective way to share legal information. I'm sure there are firms that resist making their client work product shareable in that way, but I suspect they're in the minority.
    – Jeff Rovner

  • Ooh, nice post. Always fascinated by the #definingthedamnthing discussions (something us information architects are also Very Good At) and wish there'd've been more time at the conference for one. Requires beers, magic chart and sharpies me thinks – back and forth b/t blogs is never quite so effective, but looking fwd to reading more of the comments you spark with this.

  • Holly

    I wanted to chime in and say something related to the second comment that caught your attention – the comment about the library being (unsuccessful) advocates for KM. I think, if done in a more subtle way, librarians can be very effective here. I agree with the audience member's comment, but only in that the approach he described would not work. I think the power of librarians lis in their strengths as what Malcolm Gladwell describes in The Tipping Point as "Mavens" and "Connectors." I think all librarians are pretty much Mavens (the information brokers – need I say more?) and quite a few librarians are also Connectors (those that link us up with the world). These two attributes, when combined with an established trust factor amongst attorneys that librarians provide comprehensive and reliable work product on a consistent basis, are the trifecta or hat trick, if you will. It is these kinds of folks that I think can be great links in between KM and "everyone else" and help to get the buy in and trust that is essential to the long term success of KM in the law firm environment. I think the combination of these kinds of librarians and KM folks (especially those that used to be practicing attorneys) can very effectively make the connections, gain the trust and turn information into knowledge. I think in many ways, we get bogged down or boxed in by out titles, departments or job descriptions. If we focused more on our ideas, strengths and skills, both of our departments (KM and library) – and all other departments in the law firm environment – could be the team to beat. (Sorry for all of the sports references. It's Giants Fever here in SF!)

  • Tom Baldwin

    Aside from how you define it, or what you call it, KM is changing and should change. That doesn't mean that the fundamentals of KM have changed, rather what we deliver and how we deliver it do need to change.

    Products alone don't make KM, but with the amount of information our lawyers want, people can't do it alone either.

    I do stand by the notion that the economy taking a tank was the best thing to happen to KM. There's more interest than ever in being more efficient and at the heart of it that's what KM should deliver. That efficiency can manifest itself in all the current trends we're hearing about, whether it be LPM, AFAs, or better client service.

    You need not abandon your objectives and principles and turn KM into something else, rather repackage your KM skills to take advantage of what the market is becoming. This should not be viewed as a move of desperation, rather one aligned with changes in what is driving many law firm business models.

  • Greg, you ignorant ****. Being sad about KM practitioners using new tools to implement old ideas is like being sad about the advent of the web because we used to sit by the radio to listen to the news. Preparing forms might have been an appropriate first step for KM, but the KM industry should not be limited to form maintenance any more than information distribution should be limited to the radio. Identifying, centralizing, and re-purposing knowledge is what KM is about, and that extends to all information needed for the business and practice of law: documents, clients, matters, finances, expertise, budgets, trainings, wins, losses, successes, failures, relationships, behaviors, memberships, projects, teams, overhead, tools, processes……..

    And KM is certainly not defined by its audience. If knowledge is being re-used to make a process more efficient, that's KM, whether it's an attorney at your firm re-using the knowledge or a client doing so.

    Are there law firms who still perceive KM as only forms creation, or who misunderstand how librarians can help promote KM? I'm sure there are. But KM has grown far beyond its infancy, and we should be looking at the teenagers to get a sense of where we're going, not the toddlers.

    As a side note, I noticed the various Ark tweets asking/suggesting/pondering whether PM should be/is/will be part of KM, and I have to admit I was confused by those. The boundaries between a variety of departments gets fuzzier every day (marketing, library, km, competitive intelligence), but PM and KM – while absolutely complementary – seem quite distinct: the former manages behavior, and the latter manages knowledge. Yes, there are moments when they dovetail, but their fundamental missions are fundamentally different.

  • Greg –

    They say you never can tell what goes on in someone else's marriage. Similarly, it's a little hard to know what's happening in someone else's knowledge management department or law firm. An activity that might not constitute KM for you, might be exactly what another law firm needs from its KM department. In the spirit of this big tent approach, I've written a gentle rebuttal to your post: http://aboveandbeyondkm.com/2010/11/flat-km.html. I'd welcome your comments.

    – Mary