It only took us 31 episodes, but Marlene decided that what the show lacked was a phone number for listeners to call in. So, we now have one, and we have a question for you to vote on.
“Should The Geek In Review create a video promo for upcoming episodes?” (Greg says he has the face for radio, so vote no… Marlene says it’s a great idea, so vote yes.
Call 713-487-7270 and leave your voicemail of “YES” or “NO” and what other ideas you may have for the show.

This week we have a great guest, Vishal Agnihotri, who recently returned from a world wide Legal Hackathon session, and she and her team (called the Femme LeGALs) created over 180 ideas and concepts. Besides idea generation at a phenomenal pace, Vishal is also the Chief Knowledge Officer at Hinshaw Culbertson in New York. She walks us through her journey through Knowledge Management and where she sees opportunities in law firm KM through data security.

Greg is spending the week in Austin at SXSW, and is live-blogging as much as he can here. Wish him luck, as he has taken to riding those electric scooters through the streets of Austin.

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Continue Reading Episode 31: Vishal Agnihotri on Legal Hackathons and her ‘Femme LeGALs’ team

On this mini-episode of The Geek In Review, Greg talks about three eerie/interesting/scary instances where the technology seems to be ahead of us humans. Can Amazon be tracking us in a craft store? Are automated computer game players AI? Should guidance apps like WAZE, create a dangerous situation? Well, all three happened. Is it purely happenstance, or is it the technology going beyond our understanding. Probably happenstance… but still eerie.

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Marlene explored a number of unique holiday drinks, music, and customs. So, if you’re still in the holiday mood… check out ¿Donde Esta Santa Claus? by the Gusters, Bloodshot Records 13 Days of XMas, particularly, The Pagans Had it Right, by Devil in a Woodpile, and How to Make Gravy by All Our Exes Live in Texas. If you need a drink, try the Puerto Rican holiday drink of Coquito. Continue Reading Episode 23: The Technology Twilight Zone

[Ed. Note: Please welcome back guest blogger, Keith Lipman, President at Prosperoware. Keith is a long-time friend of the Geeks, and well-known leader in the information management field of the legal industry. –GL]

Double-edged Sword: Protect & Deliver
2016 was a banner year for cyber incidents as records breaches increased by 556% with more than four billion records leaked. The regulatory and client response has been significant. The regulatory side brought the introduction of the New York State Department of Financial Services (NYS DFS) cybersecurity regulation, in addition to pending other regulations such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) which also mandate security requirements. From the clients, the Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC) released their Model Information Protection and Security Controls for Outside Counsel Possessing Company Confidential Information. The provisions of all these effectively create a standard of care for handling and protecting client data; that standard is fairly clear that firms must lock down access to only those who require it. This means that only those who clients authorize to have access to their matters can have it; this is commonly referred to as ‘need to know’ access.

Historically, firms have operated open access environments under the guise of knowledge sharing and collaboration. They must now fundamentally change an entrenched practice that has generally allowed everyone inside the firm access to clients’ sensitive documents. The challenge is that lawyers rely upon prior work product as the basis for new work product.

As firms scramble to comply with these new mandates, they’re concerned that locking down and limiting access to data repositories will impede knowledge sharing. They fear that cutting-off access to valuable work product will diminish operational efficiency, and that need to know access will destroy knowledge management. For those firms already thinking about the bigger picture and finding other ways to leverage their valuable data, need to know security may be an opportunity, not a hindrance.

Need to Know Access May Limit the Value of Prior Work
According to most indicators, electronic information is doubling every two years and will exceed 44 zettabytes by 2020.  The amount of data firms manage has been growing, exponentially. Disappointingly, firms seem to have struggled to properly collect, maintain, and harness the vast array of data they process, or even make use of that which they already manage.

To enable their professionals to benefit from the wealth of experience learned from prior matters, firms allow lawyers to search for prior work product. It makes little sense to reinvent the wheel for every new, yet similar matter when lawyers can rather improve service delivery in terms of time and quality by re-using others’ prior work.

Logic dictates that implementing need to know access will throw a wrench in the works by limiting the pool of prior work product any one lawyer can search or access; specifically, it would limit them to re-using only the work product for certain clients from other lawyers who provide services as a team.
Many law firms’ document repositories already exceed tens of millions of documents; contrary to what some might assume, this actually may improve efficiency. This is because the more limited dataset being searched could ensure a greater relevance of results, making it easier to locate specific items that lawyers need, especially when searches are being conducted on such a regular basis. Nevertheless, this alone is not the answer.

The Solution for Efficiently Locating Prior Work: Matter Profiles and Experiential Data
The problem that needs to be solved is how to enable lawyers to find work product they don’t know exists and for which the firm does not yet have any published template. Firms need to enable their lawyers to find others’ work product. Thankfully, there is a solution.

If firms properly tracked and organized the correct metadata around their engagements and used it to create matter profiles, this challenge would be solved – and the firm would be positioned to improve numerous other aspects of its operation. Matter profiles are also beneficial to business development, marketing, and knowledge management. Having robust matter profiles makes searching far more powerful.

Matter profile search can readily drive key knowledge sharing needs. Profiles deliver a more holistic method for readily identifying the most appropriate work product, even when the lawyer already has access to the documents. Matter profiles provide better context as to the purpose of each document.

Some examples of the data that should be tracked in such profiles include:

  • Matter type, sub-type
  • Area of law
  • Qualifiers or tags
  • Deal / Demand / settlement amount
  • Court / Location
  • Industry

Lawyers can track and easily find an appropriate matter and then request access to the data, without falling foul of maintaining need to know security. This ability to ‘pierce the veil’ allows a combination of need to know security while offering a method to enable awareness of the wealth of experience and prior work that exists within a firm.

These same matter profiles would also empower business development and resourcing decisions. Firms can make more intelligent decisions about where to invest and focus resources and marketing programs to improve pitch success rates. In this regard, that same metadata can drive:

  • Opportunity Management for firms to track and forecast pipelines
  • Proposal Generation to streamline and reduce costs and improve results
  • Matter, Client, Lawyer, Staff, Vendor, and Other Profiles for better search capability; and,
  • Comprehensive Firm Directory with integrated Experience Scoring to more quickly locate and identify appropriate personnel

Need to Know Security Doesn’t Apply to Public Data
The requirement to apply need to know security is not applicable to public data. As such, that data is easier to handle from a knowledge management standpoint. A significant portion of the data that law firms work with is or eventually becomes public. Examples of this type of data include pleadings filed in court (except for matters under seal, which are rare) and documents filed with most government agencies such as the SEC or UK Companies House. This data is still important to and plays and integral part of the broader firm knowledge management initiative. Although today it can be readily automated, prior to everything being made available in electronic format, lawyers manually created indexes to track this type of data; this included pleading indexes, closing indexes, bundles, and other various indexes.

Streamlining the creation of pleading and closing indexes is ‘low hanging fruit’ for process re-engineering. Ensuring the data is ordered in an optimal format is valuable to clients and lawyers for sharing and future re-use; almost all the valuable matter profile information is contained in these documents. Information such as closing dates or key court dates and transaction amounts are typically included in the closing index. A trained person can easily extract and capture such valuable metadata during preparation of an index.

Better Investments in Templates 

In today’s competitive market for legal services, firms must be able to demonstrate expertise, understand cost structure, price competitively, manage a pipeline of work, and recognize opportunitites for cross-selling. Core to all of these processes is leveraging the firm’s data, and it goes well beyond knowledge sharing.

In the age of need to know security, the argument asserting the inherent value of sharing prior work product without any limitations can no longer eclipse the security needs and demands of clients. Rather, firm leaders should take the opportunity to invest in the right technology to complement the new processes. This includes better data collection and management as well as automation of processes such as creation of forms for volume practices. This is an opportunity to improve data practices overall. Everything firms do today is related and can be tied-together with the same core data—and the mandates of need to know security just provide another opportunity for improvement.

Perhaps I’m one of the lucky few that has always had a good relationship with the Marketing Department. Although I am the incoming President of the American Association of Law Libraries, I am also a member of the Legal Marketing Association, and I find value in both. I have leveraged the relationships built by the Marketing teams to advance my own ideas and projects, and have partnered with Marketing when they need resources and research to advance their own processes and projects. It just makes sense, and there is a mutual benefit for all when there is a trust and partnership between the two groups. After all, we are on the same team, and we can do more together than we can individually.

This is why I am amazed when I see dysfunction between these two departments. And when I have run across firms where the relationships between the two groups exist, it usually comes from the following issues:

  1. Money
  2. Credit
  3. People
When I was still a newbie in the law firm environment, I made an effort to determine how the individual components of a large law firm administration functioned. I saw the power of interaction with the Partners that the Marketing team had versus the Library’s operation which tended to be more service oriented and low-keyed. Both serve important functions, but the “attitude” of each group was different. Although Marketing had influence and the ear of the partners, the Library held the power of the purse strings, products, and relationships with the vendors that provide those products. Marketing had their MBAs, and the Library had their JDs/MLIS’. Marketing was a three-year revolving door of talent, and the Library had members that did orientation when the Managing Partner was a first-year Associate. The two departments have their different structures, but again, played for the same team.
Where I’ve seen the divisions between the two come to a head when it comes to money, is typically the Marketing Department needs a resource, and wants the Library to pay for it. In a good environment, this means that the two heads of the departments meet and work out a plan to evaluate, test, and determine what the correct product is that solves the problems faced by the Marketing team (and by proxy, the firm.) In a bad situation, the Library determines that they will not work with Marketing because the library staff will not be the ones using the product. Or, Marketing goes out and buys the product without working with the Library, and then sends the Library the invoice. These two latter situations are more common than they should be, and completely unnecessary if there is a good relationship between the groups. When it comes to money, I have a very over-simplistic approach that I take. First – It’s not my money, it’s the partnership’s. As long as the powers-that-be approve this, it’s fine. It doesn’t affect the money I take home at the end or the month, it affects the money that the partners take home at the end of the month. Second, I make sure that these types of increases to my budget are made apparent to those that monitor my budget, and I show where it was approved by those powers-that-be. If the money hawks are concerned…  I point them to those that approved it, but also point out that the expense was something that will help leverage our firm for the future and (hopefully) bring in new clients and revenue. We’re all on the same team, so don’t throw your team-mate under the bus.
When it comes to credit, this is where feelings tend to get hurt, and power trumps cooperation. The typical story is that the Library conducts research and analysis for a Marketing Business Development or Client Development project. The work is compiled and sent to Marketing, and then it is restructured (sometimes) and sent to the Partner for action. When the project is successful, Marketing gets the credit, and the library gets ignored. Again, when the two groups work cooperatively, this happens less. However, I have learned, sometimes the hard way, that when it comes to credit, the last person to handle it, tends to get the credit. This happens when reports are turned over to Accounting to add in “the numbers,” or IT to add in the tech specifications, and with Marketing when it comes to analysis and action items. The best way to solve this situation is to have a conversation with the other department to make sure that the value your team put in is made clear to the other department, and when appropriate, to the partners that use the final product. It is also important to have a thick skin and sometimes understand that, while what you did was very important, credit doesn’t always come back as you would like. It’s okay. Put it down for your “wins” list in your annual evaluation and take credit for it then. If you’re running Marketing, make an effort to credit the Library when appropriate. 
This brings me to the people part of the process. Leaders that deem their value by the size of their departments are not leaders at all. (Insert [in]appropriate joke here.) 
Librarians are visionaries. We tend to see trends before others and position ourselves to handle those trends. I’ve written many posts before where I argued that giving the “Information” title to the computer networking department was probably the biggest defeat in the Library world. We were the leaders when it came to information technology, we were the leaders when it came to knowledge management, we were the leaders when it came to competitive intelligence. We’ve been in the forefront of artificial intelligence and analytics. Unfortunately, we also tend to start these programs, and watch them be pulled out of our departments and sent to others, or spun off and created in a different department altogether. I am perfectly okay with that (well… mostly okay with that.) What I don’t appreciate is when the Library creates a successful group, typically these days, a Competitive or Business Intelligence group, and then the Marketing department comes along and snags it away from us with the perception that this should have never been in the Library in the first place, and that it belongs in Marketing. If that is true, then why did it have to originate in the Library to begin with? Why didn’t it begin in Marketing? The biggest reason is that the Library has the external relationships with the vendors and industry to build these departments. If there comes a time when it makes sense to spin them off and move them, then it’s a blessing for the department that takes it over. Unfortunately, it tends to become a turf war where the acquiring department somehow belittles the Library for taking this on in the first place. That is such a silly concept an doesn’t have to happen when there is a good relationship between the departments. I mentioned earlier that Librarians should not throw their team-mates under the bus. That also goes for other department leaders that leverage the Library’s work to make themselves look better, or increase the size of their departments. Quite frankly, if you grab a group from within the Library to make your own, you should increase the Library Director’s bonus to include a recruitment stipend.
I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again:

If you work for the same law firm, you are on the same team. You don’t have to like each other, but you cannot be successful as a firm if you are undermining each other, or you are so sensitive that you think other leaders are out to get you. Administrative departments of law firms are the grease that makes the organization run smoothly. Find ways to talk to one another. Understand the strategic goals of the firm. Fix problems that the firm is facing (the firm’s problems, not your department’s problems.) And, realize that when you look good, we all look good. We are all allies here. Let’s act like it.

I read Nick Milton’s Must you fail in order to learn? post on Friday with trepidation.  I have written of the importance of failure a few times (In praise of failureRyan’s rules for projects) and I talk about it all the time.  I often say my philosophy is ‘to fail quickly’ and after reading Milton’s post, I stand by that.

It’s not that I strongly disagree with anything he says, I don’t really.  He’s right about nearly everything. Personal failure is absolutely NOT necessary in order to learn, but he tacitly concedes that knowledge itself always comes from failure; either your’s or someone else’s.  

As Milton says:

Learn from the failures of others, not your own failures.

Now, I could be pedantic and argue that learning from the failure of others constitutes true opinion rather than knowledge. But that’s silly. There is a very good argument to be made that in everyday life, true opinion or belief is just as valuable as personal experiential knowledge.

Milton continues:

Learn, try, succeed (then learn again) is a far better approach than try, fail, learn (then try again).

Again, I generally agree, however this approach presupposes that others have failed before you in a similar task and have published or recorded their failure so that you may learn from it.  One should always begin a new task with research to determine if others have attempted what you are trying.  There is no sense reinventing the wheel if it’s already been done, and there is no sense in recreating other’s failures, unless you are looking to confirm their findings.

Milton closes:

Let’s sever this implied link between learning and failing. Let’s embrace “learning to avoid failure”. Let’s not punish failure if it is the result of informed risk taking, but lets not expect it either.

It’s the second sentence that bothers me most.  Embrace “learning to avoid failure”.  In my experience, most people already do this instinctively. They take the route they believe is least likely to fail and avoid the one with the highest potential reward. This is risk aversion causing sameness, stagnation, and a near total lack of innovation. Or, in other words, the legal industry for a long time now.  If you only build on the failure of others, then you will only go so far as they have already gone.  Worse yet, and more relevant to the legal industry, if you only attempt to replicate the success of others, you will undoubtedly fail. Situations are always unique and success is rarely replicable in different environments.

When I say my philosophy is ‘to fail quickly’ it doesn’t mean I am actively trying to fail so that I can learn something, it means I recognize that any project looking to do more than simply maintain the status quo, will have the odds stacked against it.  People will actively try to kill it, unknown unknowns will rear their ugly heads, and sometimes I’ll just screw it up. If that is going to happen, I would rather that happen as quickly as possible, so that I can learn from what went wrong, try to fix it, and go again. To that end, yes, I will try to stress my projects, push them harder than I should, break them if I can, because if I can’t break them, then the partner in the corner office won’t be able to either.

People who are concerned with avoiding failure, do not think this way.  They sweep inconsistencies under the proverbial rug.  They ignore new information that doesn’t fit their current hypothesis.  They rarely admit when they fail, let alone learn anything from it.

Let’s sever this implied link between failing and incompetence. Let’s embrace the ‘learning opportunities that failing can offer’.  Let’s not expect failure, but let’s not fear it either.

Let’s do our research, plan our path, and go confidently into the unknown to learn new things.


We can “embrace ‘learning to avoid failure'”.

I have spent the last two days at the ARK Knowledge Management in the Legal Profession conference in Midtown Manhattan.  It was a very good conference, as usual.  I very much enjoyed listening to and meeting with many brilliant and fascinating people to talk about KM in legal.  However, after this conference I have come to one inescapable conclusion.  Knowledge Management does not exist in the Legal Profession.

Now, before everyone I met tears up my business card, un-invites me from their LinkedIn network, and crosses me off their holiday party lists, let me clarify.  KM clearly exists, but I am no longer sure that it is A thing. The sessions were all over the map, touching on nearly every aspect of the practice of law.  We had a couple of master classes on the “new normal” business environment, we had an introduction to Lean, a CIO roundtable, discussions about change management and practice innovation, and a talk about what’s happening in law schools and how what we do affects them and vice versa.  There were a couple of people yammering on about Social Networking, some freak was showing slides of dissected brains, and this one guy was completely obsessed with pricing.  (It was like, ALL he could talk about. Leverage this. Utilization that. I was like, “Dude, enough already, go get your own conference!”)

I am pretty sure the words “forms and precedents” were only uttered once, in passing, on the first day, but I’m a little deaf and they may have actually said “worms for presidents”. (Although, that makes even less sense now that I’ve actually written it down, than it did in my head.) My point is, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find anything in the legal profession that you can point to and say with any certainty, “THAT is NOT, in any way, shape, or form, KM related.”

I was reminded of the old story/myth/parable of a philosophy professor standing in front of his class with a large glass jar.  He fills the jar with golf balls and asks the class if the jar is full.  When they all agree it is, he pulls out a bag of pebbles or marbles and dumps them in the jar too.  He asks again, the students again agree it is now full, and he pulls out a bag of sand and repeats the process. After the students declare the jar finally, absolutely, 100% full, he opens a couple of beers and pours them in the jar. His point is something about filling up your life in the right order.  Maybe you should focus on golf balls, before beer?  (Questionable philosophy at best.)   But if we imagine the jar is a law firm and the golf balls are all of the people in the firm and the things that they do, then KM is the marbles, the sand, and the beer.  KM is expanding, branching out, and filling up all of the empty spaces in firms.  I think my new definition for Legal KM might be, “All of the things for which responsibility is not otherwise immediately clear, plus all the things that marketing doesn’t want to do.”

Which brings me to an open question for my fellow KMers: If you were building a taxonomy for your firm, would you put Marbles, Sand, and Beer beneath Knowledge Management, or would they each be their own top level categories?

Image [cc] Alistar McDermott

Ryan McClead’s post on THE Knowledge System has made me think of the way we ask others to work, and how effective, or ineffective that process is. In watching the TEDx video, there was a different part that stood out to me as Michael Idinopulos discussed the Disembodied Work process and how most of our work is now a series of “one-off” requests rather than a structure process. Idinopulos discussed the idea of putting Wikipedia-style knowledge system in place and encouraging people to transfer their knowledge from inside their heads onto a discussion board. The process started out fine, then dwindled, then incentives were offered (iPods, champagne) to promote sharing, but as the incentives went away, so did the effort to add information into the knowledge system.

The basic problem to these types of processes are actually very simple to explain, but difficult to fix. The overall problem is that these processes are viewed as “outside the normal” flow of work. If a person has to stop what he or she is doing (practicing law, answering reference questions, responding to RFPs, etc.) and go do some data entry so that someday in the future the results will make it easier for someone else to do their job, then these processes are doomed to fail. We try to make adjustments for this outside-of-the-normal-work-pattern by giving incentives for data input (back to the iPod, champagne ideas) or, even worse, by hiring people to be data stewards to do the work for them because we simply know the person that should be adding in the knowledge, won’t do it.

Now, this brings me to a story that I heard at lunch last week with a vendor. He said he was talking with his boss about a new product launch and they wanted to define what they would consider to be a “success.” Do they look at dollars as a benchmark? Do they look at usage? Do they look at market share? All of those are pretty definable goals and easy to track. Or, do they look at ease of use? Do they look at how the product helps attorneys do their jobs better? Do they look at whether current customers tell others about how great the product is? Not as definable, but probably a better indicator of how good their product really is. At the time, we didn’t really come up with which of these questions would actually help identify what would be a success. Then he mentioned another story, and that’s when I realized what the answer should really be.

While in the UK, he mentioned that he surveyed a number of attorneys about a product and what is would take to get them to move off of that product and on to his alternative platform. One of the responses he got went something like this:

If you take this away from me, I will quit my job. I cannot effectively do my job without it.

That, my friends, is what everyone wants to hear. That is the definition of success.

Now, this answer related directly to a product, but the same concept can be applied to almost any type of process that should be included in the normal flow of how we conduct our work. Take for example, the library:

If you take the library support away from me, I will quit and go somewhere that has it. I cannot effectively do my job without the resources and support the library provides.


If you take the knowledge base that KM (or IT or __) provides to this practice, I will quit and go somewhere that has it. I cannot effectively serve my clients without it.

The key is that the product or service has become so ingrained into the normal work flow of the person, that they would be less effective without it. The PC, email, and ‘the network’ have already become success stories in the modern work flow. Can you say the same about the Client Relationship Management system? The Document Management System? The Firm Wiki? The After-Matter Review process? Probably not.

As long as those systems are viewed by the worker as processes that require them to stop doing their normal job, and input data into something that they may, or may not see any return on their investment of time and effort, then those systems will never be successful.




A metal bucket
By Jon Pallbo (
(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.”

“Email is Where Knowledge Goes to Die”

I first saw this phrase on someone’s email signature, but sadly I can’t find the original email so I don’t know who said it.  I Googled the phrase and found this guy.  His origin story is pretty good, so I’ll go with it.  At the end of his post he sums up the problem nicely:

“… email is a knowledge cul-de-sac – a dead end for valuable ideas – a graveyard of potential. Email is where corporate IQ kicks back and has a brewski. Email also contributes to corporate amnesia; forgetfulness that costs businesses millions – perhaps billions in repeated mistakes every year.

“Email is also wasteful; threads grow with unending off-topic discussions and CC lists expand, eroding productivity in all corners of the enterprise. Indeed, email is a problem but imagine trying to do business without it. Even with the massive heat-loss from this antiquated and weak communications model, two things are clear; (i) no one has come up with a better approach that has challenged or displaced email, and (ii) it works pretty well in spite of its shortcomings.”
A fundamental problem with email is that it has made communication so cheap and easy, that we use it habitually for all types of communications that are not really appropriate to the medium.

For example, if I need you to review the attached document by the end of business tomorrow, then an email is an appropriate method of communicating that information to you.  If however, I need you to review the attached document immediately, then I should probably track you down and make sure you got the message.  Emails get lost and get caught by spam filters.  Recipients aren’t always at their desk or looking at their computer screen.  A phone call and a shared computer screen, or visit to your office with the document in hand would be more appropriate.
Similarly, if I have made lunch reservations and I want to notify you of the time and place, then an email is perfect. I don’t expect an immediate response, it’s not mission critical information. If you don’t receive it, then you’ll probably contact me to find out when and where we’re having lunch. If, however, I send you a message saying, “Where should we go to eat?” and you respond, “I don’t know.  Where do you want to go?”, then that conversation would be better had in another forum. Real-time conversations work better on the phone, in a desktop video conference, or in an instant messaging application.
Office newsletters or reminders of the upcoming Holiday Party work well in email.  Email is very good at handling “one to many” communications as long as a response is not necessary. But email breaks down when used for “many to many” communications such as a message sent to a large group of people asking, “Does anyone know how to…?”  Invariably, someone will reply and CC: another party saying, “No. But I think so-and-so does.”  At that point there are at least two different threads passing each other on the server and not every participant has access to all information. Even if you eventually find the answer, there will be a lot of emails in a lot of inboxes. How will you find the correct answer again in six months? Will those emails still be there? And how will the next person to come across that same question benefit from your previous inquiry?  They will probably need to go through the whole exercise again. “Many to many” communications belong in social networks, or on bulletin boards, or group workspaces where that kind of information can be more easily shared with a large group and stored for future reference.  

So, how can you get people to use other methods of communication when email is not the most appropriate?  

Delay delivery of all outgoing emails by 5 minutes.  

A five minute delay is long enough to be a nuisance when email is inappropriate, but not so long as to make a difference when email is the best choice.  

Looking again at our examples above, a request to review a document by the end of tomorrow would weather a 5 minute delay easily.  As would a notification for a lunchtime meeting in a couple of hours. If the invitee couldn’t make that time, then he would be be likely to pick up the phone or send an instant message, rather than try to communicate in real time with the email delay. Finally, the office newsletters and notifications would not be affected by the delay, but a group of people trying to solve a problem would quickly move that conversation to another medium like a social network or a conference call.
I believe this simple change would drastically cut down on the volume of emails, which would in turn make the emails that do end up in the inbox more visible. More importantly, this five minute delay would also make employees more conscious of their use of email.  Before habitually firing off an email, a sender would think to themselves, can the recipient survive without this information for the next 5 minutes? Can I wait 10 minutes for a reply?  If either answer is no, then email is probably not the most appropriate way to send the message.

Of course, a simple email delay alone will not solve the “Knowledge Death” problem. Alternative communication tools, like I’ve described above, would have to be made available. Information shared using all communication tools would still have to be captured, stored, and made accessible for future use and reuse. This is a huge undertaking, but getting people to use the right tool for the job is the first step to getting a handle on the problem.

Now, how to convince the powers that be to “break” email in the name of productivity?
Image [cc] AsGood

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.