A metal bucket
By Jon Pallbo (Jon.Pallbo@gmail.com)
(Own work) [Public domain],
via Wikimedia Commons

I recently watched a TED talk by Michael Idinopulos, called Mr. Manager, tear down these (digital) walls!  It’s a great talk and is well worth your while to view the entire 17 minute presentation.  The story he tells beginning at the 2 minute mark has been haunting me since I first watched it.

He tells of visiting his grandfather’s stock brokerage firm when he was a child and seeing all of the desks lined up in the open office space. Then he tells of returning when he was in high school and seeing his grandfather’s brand new big private office. He assumed his grandfather would be happier with the office, but the grandfather longed for the old office layout. The grandfather tells of how new information traveled in the old space.

“You could almost watch… that information as it traveled from one end of that floor to another.  One broker would tell another broker, it was overheard by a third broker, and within 2 minutes flat that information could go from the first broker to the last and we all knew what was going on as soon as any of us knew anything.  Now, we sit in our private offices. We call our clients on the phone, but really, we have no idea what’s going on.”

Idinopulos uses this story as a launching point to tout the benefits of a social workplace and while I wholehearted agree with his point of view (go watch the video), I’m going to use his story to make a slightly different point.  Given the right conditions human beings are pretty good at instinctively managing knowledge within an organization.

Unfortunately, our modern firms do not conform to those conditions. To compensate we have created large KM infrastructures and systems designed to deliver institutional knowledge to employees across the world at the flip of a switch or the push of a button.  We imagine these tools to be delivery mechanisms akin to plumbing or electrical wiring, but knowledge is not a utility like water or electricity.  It can not be generated at a single spot, or efficiently gathered into a reservoir before being pumped down system.  Sadly, there is no fount of ultimate wisdom from which we can siphon gallons of knowledge to be distributed to the great masses of thirsty thinkers. Instead we ask people to help us capture knowledge “for everyone’s benefit”.  Like asking each person to carry one bucket of water up to the rooftop tower so that we can all benefit from running water for the day. And we wonder why it doesn’t always function as we would like it to.

The ultimate key to designing systems that can facilitate knowledge transfer and flow across a global enterprise is not to better incorporate our utility-like systems into existing workflows, or to make them easier to use, or to improve the quality of knowledge they capture (all perfectly fine goals), but to change the metaphors around which we design them.  KM is not a utility, it’s a big open room.  We need to focus on building systems that replicate the open office layout of Michael’s grandfather’s brokerage on a global scale.  We need geographical representations of who is working with whom on what, updated in near real time with a point-to-click and pinch-to-zoom interface that an infant could use.  And that should be our intranet home page!  The user drills down into this slowly spinning globe to get details on individual projects, matters, groups, practice areas, attorneys bios, experience, etc. With a quick tap you can see the public profile and e-social history of each, and then send a message, email, telephone, or instantly collaborate with any individual or group across the world.  The presence and availability of all firm employees are readily visible for all to see, and those with appropriate rights can see graphical representations of Toby’s profit drivers for each matter.  Another simple gesture inverts the globe to show our clients and our contacts in much the same configuration.  Drilling down on this map gets you to client history, financials, news, etc.  All relationships are graphically represented and previously hidden connections become obvious at a glance.

All of this technology and the data backing it up already exists, but it’s in a hundred different unrelated, utility-like systems, each of which requires extensive training and the occasional bucket to be carried to the roof.  THE knowledge system, the KM holy grail, is the system that gives Michael’s grandpa the feeling he had in the open floor plan while he’s sitting at his desk behind his closed door in one regional office of his multinational firm.  Just imagine…

“You can almost watch the information as it travels from one continent to another. One lawyer tells another lawyer, it’s noticed by a third lawyer, and within 20 minutes flat it goes from the first to the last. We all know exactly what is going on as soon as any of us knows anything.”

Photo of Ryan McClead Ryan McClead

Ryan is Principal at Sente Advisors, a legal technology consultancy specializing in innovation strategy and cross-platform solutions and support.  He has been an evangelist, advocate, consultant, and creative thinker in Legal Technology for more than 15 years. In 2015, he was named a FastCase 50 recipient, and in 2018, he was elected a Fellow in the College of Law Practice Management. In past lives, he was an Innovation Architect, Knowledge Manager, a Systems Analyst, a Fashion Merchandiser, and Theater Composer, among other things.