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Tom Baldwin and I will be “debating” the issue of Knowledge Management and its strategic reach… or is it “overreach” at the ARK KM Conference this week. As I’ve been going back through my previous discussions and presentations, one thing kept coming back into my head that made me wonder whether KM and Library are flip-sides of the same coin when it comes to balancing the mission of the department against the projects we take on and support on behalf of the law firm.

There have been many times where I’ve talked about what I’ve perceived as a “desire” by many law librarians to go back to a standard definition of what a law library does, and spin off any activities that are outside that narrow definition. New ideas that have sprouted out of the library – Knowledge Management, Competitive Intelligence, etc. – tend to evolve to a point in the library, then are pushed out into other departments, or even into their own individual departments. The library is then brought back into line with the mission of collection and research of external resources that support the needs of the firm.

Now, let’s think about what Knowledge Management has been doing over the past three or so years. There have been many great ideas, products, procedures, and processes that the KM groups have implemented. Unlike the law library, however, there really isn’t a “standard” in the Knowledge Management domain that discusses the boundaries of what KM’s core duties are. In fact, give me 30 different law firm KM departments, and we can probably come up with 30 different mission statements. Yes, many will come up with the old generic statement of “providing the right information, at the right time, to the right people” definition. Unfortunately, if you really boil that language down, it is so generic, that the Library could use it… IT could use it… Biz Dev could use it… heck, an attorney could use it in describing what he or she does for a client… so on and so forth. So this got me wondering – could a basic problem with such a diverse KM world be that it doesn’t know what to keep and what to spin off? In other words, the Library tends to have its projects moved to more appropriate departments, while KM is stuck supporting all of its projects and has to take on more and more.

I poked fun last year after attending the ARK Conference on KM when I wrote a post called “You Can Call it Knowledge Management if that Makes You Feel Better About Yourself.” In that post, I asked what happened to KM? When did it become a resource for placing an interface over financial applications, and creating dashboards for third-party products? Knowledge Management suddenly became the resource for law firms to use to make “cool and useful interfaces” and had ditched the more traditional process of creating the traditional “Collective Knowledge” through either automation and participation. A year on, it seems to me that KM has a bigger problem in that it now is expected to actually produce the “cool and useful interfaces” and at the same time, figure out a way to maintain collective knowledge through automation and participation. To make matters worse, the automation and participation part of their mission has to be accomplished in a way that doesn’t affect the way lawyers perform their day to day work flows.

So, how does KM decide on what projects it needs to take on and develop? How does KM decide what projects need to be killed off? What can KM do to spin off projects that need to be maintained, but no longer needs the specific skills of the KM team? If those questions can’t be answered, then KM will find itself over-extended and buried under its own weight of project upon project, interface upon interface, and process upon process.

One of my KM friends talked about walking this fine line between obvious projects of KM and necessary projects for KM. I’m afraid that I’m paraphrasing this a bit, but basically there are two reasons to have KM projects:

  1. There is a need within the firm that keeps Partners up at night and KM can solve this issue.
  2. There is a need within the firm that KM can solve, even though the issue may not be one that Partners are asking to be fixed. (AKA – Sticking Your Neck Out Projects)
If the project/process/procedures don’t fit one of these two reasons, then KM shouldn’t be supporting them. 
Of course, it is easy for me to sit at a keyboard and type out that last sentence. It is another thing altogether to step up and either kill an existing project, or position the project so that another department can take it on, or announce that there are projects that should be outsourced to third-parties outside of the firm. If none of those options can be made, then you have to start talking about increasing personnel to support them (and we all know how those conversations go.)
These aren’t easy issues to solve… but solve them you must. To borrow from Toby’s post on Friday – It’s either that, or pick an easier profession.