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KM in law firms: rising to a challenge

Spurred on by a disappointing conference experience, Greg Lambert has challenged law firm KMers to justify their existence.

He starts:

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.

And finishes:

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.

There is a lot bundled into Greg’s succinct post, and I want to try and unpack and deal with as much of it as I can here. (I’ll probably fail, but that’s what the comments are for, no?)

The first thing to note is that Greg is absolutely right to crtiticise the use of the ‘knowledge management’ label for activities that are properly the province of other management disciplines. I have always taken the view that there is a place for KM to improve business support functions in law firms (as well as the work of the lawyers themselves). However, if firms’ BD, HR or finance functions find better ways of presenting the information that people need to operate properly, that doesn’t feel to me like a KM project — it feels like an improvement in HR or finance.

The test for ‘KM-ness’ is, I think, similar to a piece of advice for CEOs that I read in one of the HBR blogs a couple of weeks ago.

Top executives usually say they set their priorities and then figure out how to implement them. But in this process many executives make a critical mistake. I’ve noticed this when I’ve mentored new CEOs. They say, “Here are the top five priorities for the company. Who would be the best at carrying out each priority?” Then they come up with themselves as the answer in all five areas. It might be the correct answer, but it’s the wrong question.

The question is not who’s best at performing high-priority functions, but which things can you and only you as the CEO get done? If you don’t ask yourself that question, your time allocations are bound to be wrong. …

…[Y]ou really have to hold yourself back from taking on other functions or tasks even if you might excel at performing them.

The same is true for non-CEOs. So what is it that KM (and only KM) can do? That is the proper focus. So if KMers (from law firms or elsewhere) find themselves presenting at conferences, their material must, I think, be something that could not reasonably fit at a BD, HR, finance, or IT conference.

On the other hand, Greg’s perspective on KM may be a little limited. It isn’t clear from this posting exactly what his definition of proper law firm KM is, but there is a hint in the statement,

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.

This isn’t the place for a debate about the definition of KM, but I think it is important to recognise that ‘capture and re-use of existing knowledge’ doesn’t do justice to the breadth of possible (and justifiable) KM activities. For me, Dave Snowden’s draft definition captures this fairly well:

The purpose of knowledge management is to provide support for improved decision making and innovation throughout the organization. This is achieved through the effective management of human intuition and experience augmented by the provision of information, processes and technology together with training and mentoring programmes.

(As an aside, the comments on Dave’s definition repay close study and reflection, as does the blog post that precedes it.)

However, Greg’s approach to KM is not an unusual one (especially in law firms), and I think there is something to explore here. The conference he attended, “Knowledge Management in the Legal Profession” is a regular event in the Ark Group calendar (as is the equivalent in the UK). Whilst there are similar events that concentrate on KM in specific sectors (notably the public sector), it appears that legal KMers (deliberately or accidentally) tend to dissociate themselves from KM developments in other types of organisation. When I have attended general KM conferences, I have often been noted as a rare legal delegate. If my impression is correct, it is a great shame — I have learned much from my colleagues in law firms, but even more from those in government, industry, commerce and banking. (Sometimes this is a process of learning by distinction — industrial KM is necessarily very different from that in professional services. It is still valuable though.) I think another consequence of a narrow focus could be that conferences on legal KM may run out of clearly KM-related topics so that they start to rely on presentations such as the ones disappointed Greg.

Interestingly, Richard Susskind has a parallel complaint to Greg’s complaint in The End of Lawyers? Susskind remarks at one point in the book (unfortunately, one of my colleagues is reading my copy, so I can’t give a proper quote or reference) that lawyers often talk about the work they do as a form of project management or similar non-legal skill. Susskind finds this odd — why do some lawyers apparently lack confidence in the value of their legal skills? Why, equally, do they think that clients might be interested in paying over the odds for a gifted amateur project manager (albeit with legal skills) rather than a professional project manager who would do a better job (and allow lawyers to focus on their own professional specialisms). Just as some practising lawyers feel they can turn their hands to many different activities, so do many legal KMers. The result is a lack of clarity about what they should actually be specialising in.

A final point. Greg refers to a specific comment that “caught my attention, and made me wonder if KM just needs to be scrapped at law firms altogether.”

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.”)

I am not sure whether this is a reflection of the lack of value placed on KM, rather than the choices firms make. (And possibly a difference of approach on either side of the Atlantic.) In the UK, at least, law firms have long relied on model documents (otherwise known as precedents or standards). Before we had dedicated KM lawyers, those precedents were drafted by the most experienced (and expert) lawyers in the relevant field. In some teams that is still the case, but now many firms depend on their Professional Support Lawyers to create at least the first draft of the key documents. That is not because the firm values those documents less, but because they have found a more cost-effective way of producing a key resource. I am not sure that US firms have the same dependence on precedents, so they have yet to prove their worth. If that is the case, I imagine that it is probably right for the KM team to take the lead and show the practising lawyers why there is value in model documents. (There is, however, a good case for saying that everyone has a responsibility for KM, just as Larry Hawes recently argued for collaboration and Enterprise 2.0.)

Overall, then I am sympathetic to Greg’s challenge (and we should never be complacent that what we do is unassailable), but I think things may be more complex than he asserts.

Storing our future knowledge?

Over the summer, I read a couple of blog posts about knowledge storage that I marked to come back and comment on. Separately, Mary Abraham and Greg Lambert have suggested a fairly traditional approach to selection of key knowledge for storage and later access.

Dover Castle

First, Greg issued a clarion call for selectivity in information storage:

Knowledge Management should not be based on a “cast a wide net” approach to the information that flows in and out of our firms. In fact, most information should be ephemeral in nature; addressing only the specific need of the moment and not be thought of as a permanent addition to the knowledge of the firm. When we try to capture everything, we end up capturing nothing. In the end we end up losing the important pieces of knowledge because they are buried in a mountain of useless data filed under the topic of “CYA”.

I had to Google “CYA”. And thereby hangs a lesson. How can we know when we make a decision about recording the present for posterity that the things we choose will be (a) comprehensible to those who come after us and (b) meet their as yet unknowable needs?

For centuries, the study of history relied on official records and was therefore a story of kings and queens, emperors and presidents, politicians and popes. The things that were left behind — castles, cathedrals, palaces and monuments as well as documents — actually provided us with only slender insight into the real lives of the majority of people who lived at any given point in time. Only when archaeologists and social historians started to untangle more trivial artefacts like potsherds, clay pipes, bone pits and everyday documents like manorial rolls, diaries, or graffiti were we given a more rounded picture of the world of our predecessors. At the time, those things were ephemeral — not created for posterity. The lesson we always forget to learn is that we don’t get to write our history — the future does.

Because Google has access to a vast mass of ephemera, I was able to learn what “CYA” means. In Greg’s context, it is the stuff we think we might need to keep to protect ourselves — it is an information security blanket.

Mary Abraham picked up the thread by addressing the Google question:

Folks who drink the super search kool-aid will say that the cost of saving and searching data is becoming increasingly trivial, so why spend any time at all trying to weed the collection?  Rather, save it all and then try Filtering on the Way Out.  On the other hand, look at the search engine so many of us envy — Google.  It indexes and searches enormous amounts of data, but even Google doesn’t try to do it all.  Google doesn’t tackle the Deep Web.

So why are we trying to do it all?

That’s a good question, and one that Greg challenged as well. I want to come to that, but first the Deep Web issue needs to be dealt with.

As I understand it, the problem for Google is that many useful web resources are stored in ways that exclude it — in databases, behind paywalls, or by using robots.txt files. That may be a problem on the public web, but it shouldn’t be in the enterprise context. By definition, an properly set up enterprise search engine is able to get access to anything that the user can see. If there is material in a subscription service like Westlaw or Lexis Nexis, then searches can be federated so that the result set includes links into those services as well as a firm’s own know-how. Alternatively, a firm or search provider can make special arrangements to index content through a paywall. There simply should not be a Deep Web problem in the enterprise context.

But what of the main issue — by storing too much, we lose our ability to find what is important? I think Greg and Mary are right to challenge the “store everything” model. There is much that is truly ephemeral — the e-mail that simply says “Thanks” or the doodles from that boring meeting. The problem with those, though is not that keep them, but that we created them in the first place. If the meeting was that boring, should the doodler not have gone and done something else instead? Isn’t there a better way of showing appreciation than sending an e-mail (especially if it was a reply-to-all)? I think that is the bit that is broken. Some other things are ephemeral even though they do need to be captured formally. Once an expenses claim has been paid, and the taxman is satisfied, there is little need to keep the claim forms available for searching. (Although there may be other reasons why they should not be discarded completely.)

However, I am still concerned that we cannot know what will be useful in the future, or why it might have a use. At the heart of an organisation like a law firm there are two strands of information/knowledge. The first is a body of technical material. Some of this is universally available (even if not comprehensible) — statutes, cases, codes, textbooks, journal articles: documents created externally that we all have to understand. Some is specific to the firm — standard documents, briefing notes, drafting guides: our internal know-how. I think this is the material that Greg and Mary are concerned with. And they are right that we should be critical about the potential immensity of these resources. Does that new journal article say anything new? Is that textbook worth the space that it takes on our shelves? Is our know-how really unique to us, or is it just a reflection of market practice? These are all crucial questions. However, almost by definition, as soon as we fix this material in some form it is of mainly historical interest — it is dying information. The older it gets, the less value it will have for our practice and our clients.

The other strand is intangible, amorphous, constantly shifting. It is the living knowledge embodied in our people, their relationships with each other and our clients, and their reactions to formal information. That changing body is not just responsible for the knowledge of the firm, but its direction and focus. At any time, it is the people and their connections that actually define the firm and its strategic preoccupations. In particular, what our clients want will drive our future knowledge needs. If we can predict what our future clients commercial concerns and drivers will be, then we can confidently know what we should store, and what to discard. I don’t think I can do that. As a result, we need to retain access to more than might seem useful today.

Patrick Lambe catches this tension neatly in his post “The War Between Awareness and Memory.” I looked at that in my last post (five weeks ago — August really isn’t conducive to blogging). As I was writing this one, I recalled words I last read thirty years ago. This is how John Dos Passos caught the same mood in the closing words of the eponymous prose poem that opens the single volume edition of his great novel U.S.A.

It was not in the long walks through jostling crowds at night that he was less alone, or in the training camp at Allentown, …

but in his mother’s words telling about longago, in his father’s telling about when I was a boy, in the kidding stories of uncles, …

it was in the speech that clung to the ears, the link that tingled in the blood; U.S.A.

U.S.A. is the slice of a continent. U.S.A. is a group of holding companies, some aggregations of trade unions, a set of laws bound in calf, a radio network, a chain of moving picture theatres, a column of stock quotations rubbed out and written in by a Western Union boy on a blackboard, a publiclibrary full of old newspapers and dogeared historybooks with protests scrawled on the margins in pencil. U.S.A. is the world’s greatest rivervalley finged with mountains and hills. U.S.A. is a set of bigmouthed officials with too many bankaccounts. U.S.A. is a lot of men buried in their uniforms at Arlington Cemetery. U.S.A. is the letters at the end of an address when you are away from home.But mostly U.S.A. is the speech of the people.

Sometimes questions about the “laws bound in calf” or “dogeared historybooks” are less important, maybe even a distraction. The real life and future knowledge of the firm is the speech of the people. That cannot be reconstructed. We need to be aware of all the ways in which we can preserve and retain access to it, for use when a client comes up with a new conundrum for us to help them resolve.

Book review: Made to Stick

This has been a Summer of story for me. Back in June, I attended a workshop run by Shawn Callahan on “Storytelling for Business Leaders”. I was vaguely aware (from reading Shawn’s blog if nothing else) of the power of narrative, but he drew out the key elements really well. Now I realise that a lot of what I thought were stories were in fact limp examples. Even a good example can have some persuasive power, but a story with the right elements is by its nature indisputable.

Do not sit -- Haddon Hall

Towards the end of the workshop, Shawn referred positively to Made to Stick, which prompted me to move it from my wishlist and actually buy it. Written by two brothers, Chip Heath and Dan Heath, it draws out six characteristics of ideas that stick in people’s minds. (The archetype for sticky ideas is provided by a wealth of urban legends, which prove staggeringly resistant to rebuttal.) Pleasingly, the Heaths have made sure the initial letters of these characteristics form a neat mnemonic SUCCESs.

  • S: Simple
  • U: Unexpected
  • C: Concrete
  • C: Credible
  • E: Emotional
  • S: Stories

There is a bit of circularity here: the Heaths advocate the story form both as a container for the other characteristics and as a characteristic in itself.

The book is an easy read, because it is well constructed (naturally, it is suffused with stories and examples) not because it is simplistic. The authors make sure that we understand that there is some real analysis underpinning this work. In some respects, therefore, this can be read as a companion, practical, volume to Predictably Irrational. There is a close relationship between our human respect for stories and the behavioural economics of Dan Ariely. (And Ariely himself uses a lot of story-based examples.)

For me, the key message of the book (and of Shawn’s workshop) is that you can’t argue against a story — that is someone’s experience, not a carefully constructed debating point. That’s why we can’t make horses drink — all we have available to us is blunt persuasion — if we could tell them stories, we could engage more usefully with them.

Recently Mary Abraham highlighted a real issue we often face in convincing people that something is good for them in her post “The Four Chickens Problem.” She likens the problems we have persuading people of the merits of Enterprise 2.0 (although any “jam tomorrow” solution is likely to raise similar issues) to the challenges faced by organisations trying to eradicate malaria.

The most effective way to prevent death by malaria is by using long-lasting insecticide-treated bed nets. Yet organizations that distribute these nets have discovered that the folks who receive the nets sometimes choose to trade them for four chickens rather than use the nets.

Why do they want chickens rather than nets? Because the immediate concrete need for food is more obvious than the future abstract goal of eliminating disease. Mary’s solution to similar problems in the business context centres on persuasion.

In order to achieve changed behavior (or adoption of a new tool) we must:

  • Educate people as to the actual cause of the problem.
  • Educate people as to the theoretical benefits of the proposed solution.
  • Prove the solution in such an obvious way so that you make the theoretical real.
  • Include monitoring and evaluation to keep proving your case as you implement the solution in their community.

Don’t just throw your nets (or E2.0 solution) at the nearest group of people. You can’t solve problems they don’t realize exist.

In a comment on Mary’s post, Jack Vinson proposes another approach, using a coaching model:

Even better than educating people is to lead them through a discussion of the core problems and mechanisms for their solution. It is so much more effective to have them come up with the solution, even if it is the same one you would have presented 30 minutes ago. Then you have a much better chance of challenging the solution and presenting its benefits / drawbacks, as you will have their general agreement that it is the right thing to do.

These answers are fine, but they depend on ensuring that the message you are selling actually resonates with the audience. If there is a powerful story to tell, the education piece will follow.

You may have noticed that I have been including images in my posts recently. In part this is just to please myself — apart from one (attributed) example, they are all pictures that I have taken. Largely, however, it is a distraction from my usually wordy posts. Selecting the image can be a bit of a challenge — I like to see a link between the image and the text.  This one was easy.

Earlier this month, we took advantage of the sun to visit a bit of local history, Haddon Hall (famous for being the backdrop to a number of period dramas). Like many such places, they need persuade visitors to be careful with the historic furnishings. The normal approach to this problem is to rope things off or to put notices on chairs telling people not to sit on them. Instead, what they have done at Haddon Hall is simply to place a dried teasel on the chairs and benches. Nobody would sit on a teasel, would they? Without an unsightly rope or notice, they have communicated an important message to visitors. A message made to stick.

So, if you have ideas you need to communicate, Made to Stick will help immensely — it is certainly a worthwhile purchase for people in a range of roles. For those interested in storytelling as a leadership tool, Shawn is running a webinar “Three Questions We Usually Get from Leaders About Storytelling: Reflections, Discussion & Tools” with Terrence Gargiulo next month. (The webinar is running twice, to make the most of timezones.)

Are your leaders great storytellers? And, why should you care anyway?

With over forty years of combined experience, two of the world’s leading narrative consultants divulge some of what they have learned. Join Shawn Callahan of Anecdote and Terrence Gargiulo of for a 45-minute rousing interactive discussion rich with examples and practical tools.

I will be attending the webinar to continue my Summer of story; I’m looking forward to it.

It’s mine and I will choose what to do with it

This isn’t a political blog, and it is a coincidence that I came across a couple of things that chime with each other on the same day that the UK government has started to reverse from its enthusiastic promotion of ID cards for all.

The first juicy nugget came from Anne Marie McEwan. In writing about social networking tools and KM, she linked some of the requirements for successful social software adoption (especially the need for open trusting cultures) to the use of technology for monitoring.

And therein lies a huge problem, in my strong view. Open, trusting, transparent cultures? How many of them have you experienced? That level of monitoring could be seen as a version of Bentham’s Panopticon. Although the research is now quite old, there was a little publicised (in my view) ESRC-funded research project in the UK, The Future of Work, involving 22 universities and carried out over six years. One of the publications from that research was a book, Managing to Change?. The authors note that:

“One area where ICT is rapidly expanding management choices is in monitoring and control systems … monitoring information could connect with other parts of the HRM agenda, if it is made accessible and entrusted to employees for personal feedback and learning. This has certainly not happened yet and the trend towards control without participation is deeply disquieting.

If ICT-based control continues to be seen as a management prerogative, and the monitoring information is not shared with employees, then this is likely to become a divisive and damaging issue.”

On the other hand, the technology in the right hands and cultures creates amazing potential for nurturing knowledge and innovation.

What struck me about this was that (pace Mary Abraham’s concerns about information disclosure), people quite freely disclose all sorts of information about themselves on public social networking sites, such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and so on. The fact is that some of this sharing is excessive and ill-advised, but even people who have serious reservations about corporate or governmental use of personal information lose some of their inhibition.

Why do they do this? In part it may be naïveté, but I think sometimes this sharing is much more knowing than that. What do they know, then? The difference between this voluntary sharing and forced disclosure is the identification of the recipients and (as Anne Marie recognises) trust. Basically, we share with people, not with organisations.

The second thing I found today was much more worrying. The UK Government is developing a new strategy for sharing people’s personal information between different government departments. It starts from a reasonable position:

We have a simple aim. We want everyone who interacts with Government to be able to establish and use their identity in ways which protect them and make their lives easier. Our strategy seeks to deliver five fundamental benefits. In future, everyone should expect to be able to:

  • register their identity once and use it many times to make access to public services safe, easy and convenient;
  • know that public services will only ask them for the minimum necessary information and will do whatever is necessary to keep their identity information safe;
  • see the personal identity information held about them – and correct it if it is wrong;
  • give informed consent to public services using their personal identity information to provide services tailored to their needs; and
  • know that there is effective oversight of how their personal identity information is used.

All well and good so far, but then buried in the strategy document is this statement (on p.11):

When accessing services, individuals should need to provide only a small amount of information to prove that they are who they say they are. In some situations, an individual may only need to use their fingerprint (avoiding the need to provide information such as their address).

But I can change my address (albeit with difficulty). I can never change my fingerprints. And fingerprints are trivially easy to forge. Today alone, I must have left prints on thousands of surfaces. All it takes is for someone to lift one of those, and they would have immediate access to all sorts of services in my name. (An early scene in this video shows it being done.

What I really want to be able to do is something like creating single-use public keys where the private key is in my control. And I want to be able to know and control where my information is being used and shared.

Going back to KM, this identity crisis is what often concerns people about organisationally forced (or incentivised) knowledge sharing. Once they share, they lose control of the information they provided. They also run the risk that the information will be misused without reference back to them. It isn’t surprising that people react to this kind of KM in the same way that concerned citizens have reacted to identity cards in the UK: rather than No2ID, we have No2KM (stop the database organisation).

The conundrum focus

A discussion is currently taking place on the ActKM mailing list about the theoretical underpinnings of knowledge management. Joe Firestone, reaching into the language of philosophy, has consistently taken the view that KM only makes sense when related to the need to improve underlying knowledge processes:

I see [knowledge management] more as a field defined by a problem, with people entering it because they’re interested in some aspect of the problem that their specific knowledge seems to connect with.

Unfortunately, in more quotidian language, the word ‘problem’ suggests difficulties that need to be overcome, but sometimes KM is actually not dedicated to overcoming difficulties but to taking maximum advantage of opportunities. When Joe refers to a ‘problem’ I think he means it as a puzzle or conundrum: “how do we fill this knowledge gap?” Stated thus, I think this is a less objectionable aim for KM.

What about the nature of the conundrums that face organisations? Rightly, in linking to an earlier post of mine, Naysan Firoozmand at the Don’t Compromise blog suggested that there was a risk of vagueness in my suggestion (channelling David Weinberger) that KM might be about improving conversations in organisations.

Which is all true and good and inspiring, except I want to wave my arm about frantically like the child at the back of class and shout ‘But Sir, there’s more … !’. There’s a difference between smarter and wise that’s the same difference as the one between data and information: the former is a raw ingredient of the latter. And – when it comes to organisational performance and leadership (which is our focus here, rather than KM itself) – simply being smarter isn’t the whole story. Clever people still do stupid things, often on a regular (or worse, repeated) basis. Wise people, on the other hand, change their ways.

This is a fair challenge. Just improving the conditions for exchange of knowledge is not enough on its own. (Although I would argue that it is still an improvement on an organisation where conversations across established boundaries are rare.) There are additional tasks on top of enabling conversation or other knowledge interactions, such as selecting the participants (as Mary Abraham made clear in the post that started all this off), guiding the interaction and advising on possible outcomes.

Those additional tasks all help to bring some focus to knowledge-related interactions. The next issue relates to my last blog post. In doing what we do, we always need to ask where the most value can be generated. The answer to that question, in part, is driven by the needs expressed by others in the organisation — their problems or conundrums. However, not all problems can be resolved to generate equal value to the organisation.

The question, “what value?” is an important one, and reminds us that focus on outcomes is as important as avoiding vagueness in approach. How can we gauge how well our KM activities will turn out? Some help is provided, together with some scientific rigour, by Stephen Bounds (another ActKM regular) who has created a statistical model for KM interventions using a Monte Carlo analysis. His work produces an interesting outcome. It suggests that on average, the more general a KM programme, the less likely it is to succeed. In fact, that lack of success kicks in quite quickly.

To maximise the chance of a course of action that will lead to measurable success, knowledge managers should intervene in areas where one or more of the following conditions hold:

  • occurrences of knowledge failures are frequent
  • risks of compound knowledge failure are negligible or non-existent
  • substantial reductions in risk can be achieved through a KM intervention (typically by 50% or more)

Where possible, the costs of the intervention should be measured against the expected savings to determine the likelihood of benefits exceeding KM costs.

So: simple, narrowly defined KM activities are more likely to succeed, all other things being equal. Success here is defined as it should be, as making a contribution to reductions in organisational costs (or, potentially, improving revenue). Stephen’s analysis is really instructive, and could be very useful in encouraging people away from a “one size fits all” organisation-wide KM programmes.

In sum, then, our work requires us to identify the conundrums that need to be solved, together with the means by which they should be addressed, and to define the outcomes as clearly as possible for the individuals involved and for the organisation. We cannot hope to resolve all organisational conundrums by improving knowledge sharing. So how do we choose which ones to attack, and how do we conduct that attack? Those are questions we always need to keep in mind.

What do we talk about when we talk about work?

For too long, I have had Theodore Zeldin’s little book, Conversation, on my wish-list. Prompted by a colleague’s comment I finally tracked a copy down. (It is out of print, but extremely easy to find on Amazon or Abebooks.) I wish I had done so sooner.

The word ‘conversation’ is scattered throughout this blog. Like many others, I have made the assumption that people at work converse readily with each other and that one of our challenges in making knowledge use at work better is to capture those conversations or their product in as simple a way as possible. Zeldin’s argument is that in fact we do not know how to converse.

[T]he more we talk, the less there is that we can talk about with confidence. We have nearly all of us become experts, specialised in one activity. A professor of inorganic chemistry tells me that he can’t understand what the professor of organic chemistry says. An economist openly admits that “Learning to be an economist is like learning a foreign language, in which you talk about a rational world which exists only in theory.” The Princeton Institute of Advanced Studies [sic], established to bring all the world’s great minds together, was disappointed to find that they did not converse much: Einstein, a colleague said, “didn’t need anybody to talk to because nobody was interested in his stuff, and he wasn’t interested in what anybody else was doing.”

No wonder many young people hesitate to embark on highly specialised careers which make them almost feel they are entering prison cells. … Even a BBC producer I met in the corridors of Broadcasting House, when I asked how his job was affecting his brain, said, “The job is narrowing my mind.”

Poor quality conversations don’t just happen at work — Zeldin sees the problem manifested (in different ways) in the family, in love and generally across our social interactions. Our focus, however, is work. What is Zeldin’s prescription?

Almost everyone says that the more varied the people they meet at work, the more fun it is, though often they exchange only a few words. But creativity usually needs to be fuelled by more than polite chat. At the frontiers of knowledge, adventurous researchers have to be almost professional eavesdroppers, picking up ideas from the most unobvious sources.

Zeldin’s book was published in 1998. A year later, David Weinberger made the link between good conversation and KM.

The promise of KM is that it’ll make your organization smarter. That’s not an asset. It’s not a thing of any sort. Suppose for the moment that knowledge is a conversation. Suppose making your organization smarter means raising the level of conversation. After all, the aim of KM was never to take knowledge from the brain of a smart person and bury it inside some other container like a document or a database. The aim was to share it, and that means getting it talked about.

This view puts KM at the heart of business since business is a conversation. … It’s not just that good managers manage by having lots of conversations… All the work that moves the company forward is accomplished through conversations —oral, written, and expressed in body language.

So, here’s a definition of that pesky and borderline elitist phrase, “knowledge worker”: A knowledge worker is someone whose job entails having really interesting conversations at work.

The characteristics of conversations map to the conditions for genuine knowledge generation and sharing: They’re unpredictable interactions among people speaking in their own voice about something they’re interested in. The conversants implicitly acknowledge that they don’t have all the answers (or else the conversation is really a lecture) and risk being wrong in front of someone else. And conversations overcome the class structure of business, suspending the org chart at least for a little while.

If you think about the aim of KM as enabling better conversations rather than lassoing stray knowledge doggies, you end up focusing on breaking down the physical and class barriers to conversation. And if that’s not what KM is really about, then you ought to be doing it anyway.

One of the ways that we can encourage good conversations is to expose people to a wider variety of experiences and inputs than they would expect for themselves. I mentioned in a previous post how important this is for designers. It is important for all professionals. Likewise, one of the key factors improving people’s collaboration and knowledge sharing through better conversations is familiarity with other people. In most workplaces, it is obvious that different groups engage with each other in different ways depending on how their physical proximity and familiarity. We can influence these factors architecturally.

Brad Bird (director of The Incredibles and Ratatouille) makes this point in an interview in The McKinsey Quarterly. Talking about the Pixar studio building, he said:

Steve Jobs basically designed this building. In the center, he created this big atrium area, which seems initially like a waste of space. The reason he did it was that everybody goes off and works in their individual areas. People who work on software code are here, people who animate are there, and people who do designs are over there. Steve put all the mailboxes, the meeting rooms, the cafeteria, and, most insidiously and brilliantly, the bathrooms in the center — which initially drove us crazy — so that you run into everybody during the course of a day. He realized that when people run into each other, when they make eye contact, things happen. So he made it impossible not to run into the rest of the company.

That’s great if one has the opportunity to influence architecture. What can we do otherwise? Zeldin might be able to come to the rescue. He has created The Oxford Muse: “A foundation to stimulate courage and invention in personal, professional and cultural life.” One of their projects is Muse Conversations:

At the invitation of the World Economic Forum held in Davos, we organised a Muse Conversation Dinner. The participants sat at tables laid for two, each with a partner they had never met before. A Muse Conversation Menu listed 24 topics through which they could discover what sort of person they were meeting, their ideas on many different aspects of life, such as ambition, curiosity, fear, friendship, the relations of the sexes and of civilisations. One eminent participant said he would never again give a dinner party without this Muse Menu, because he hated superficial chat. Another said he had in just two hours made a friend who was closer than many he had known much longer. A third said he had never revealed so much about himself to anybody except his wife. Self-revelation is the foundation on which mutual trust is built.

Even short of this, there are all sorts of small things that we can do. I think the important thing is to be aware (and to spread the awareness) that there are always more interesting things to know than what we already know, and that the people who know them are interesting in their own right. We just need to seek them out.

[A credit and an apology. The latter is due to Raymond Carver for corrupting a title of his. Mary Abraham is owed the former: colleague mentioned Conversation after I referred him to Mary's post, "Confessions of a Corporate Matchmaker", which underlines the point that those responsible for KM have an essential part to play in generating good connections from which good conversations should flow.]


Yet again, Mary Abraham has hit the target. In a blog post earlier in the week, “Off-Route, Recalculate”, she uses satellite navigation as a metaphor for planning KM activities.

As we plan and carry out our knowledge management efforts, it can be difficult to identify the correct route.  And, it can be unpleasant to be informed that we’re off-route and need to recalculate.  Many of us have taken the current economic situation as a call to recalculate our routes.  Unfortunately, given the extent of the economic turmoil, it can be hard to identify our alternatives and most of us are all too conscious of the pressure on us to get the route right.  Further, few of us have knowledge management GPS.  So what should we do?

I was intrigued by the GPS system that Mary described at the beginning of her post. It sounded very bossy, and not at all like the one in my own car. As I put it in a comment on Mary’s blog (the “she” described is the voice of the satnav system):

For me, she is very good at applying all the information that she has (and I don’t) about the road network (and some other points of interest) to help me get to the destination I specify. Occasionally I make a detour along the agreed route, but she is very amenable to finding a new way to get to the final destination. She also has an array of different ways to show the key information that I need, but she doesn’t force me to choose any particular one of them (I can even see two different views at once if I want). Ultimately, her goal and mine are the same — to reach the specified destination. Otherwise, she is happy to respect the decisions I make about the position of the steering wheel.

Sometimes, I need to change the intended destination. That is easily done, and all previous instructions are put aside without rancour. Her role, after all, is to support me in achieving my objectives.

Mary responded, “It sounds like your GPS ‘person’ is a bit more competent than the one I met in my friend’s car last weekend. After being presented with several unattractive route alternatives during the trip, my friend actually turned her GPS off in frustration.”

This conversation made me think about extending the metaphor in a slightly different direction. As lawyers, we can be compared to navigation assistance for clients. They are the ones who specify the ultimate destination, and lawyers (together with other advisors) suggest different routes to get there, and keep things on track if diversions are made (whether those diversions are necessary or frivolous). Within law firms, those supporting KM and other internal activities need to adopt a similar role. Admittedly, our advisory role can be very different from that of a GPS system — we can influence the decision about the destination itself as well as the route taken to get there — but ultimately we have to respect the client’s choice of destination. This means that our advice should not be tainted by regret that a different destination was not chosen or that the business prefers to use back-roads rather than pay the tolls on the autostrade.

Like all metaphors, this one shouldn’t be pushed too far, but at its heart I think there is an element of truth. It is also worth remembering when you find yourself in the position of being a client. To what extent are you being led to a destination that isn’t quite where you wanted to be, or taken along a route that is not really the way you wanted to go?

Knowing how to be disruptive

If nothing else, the state of the economy must make us wonder what things are going to be like when it is all over. At a personal level, there are people whose careers have been forced in a direction they neither expected or wanted. Some household names (such as Woolworths in the UK) have already disappeared, and there will doubtless be others.

Mary Abraham has taken a look at what firms may need to do to see a clear way through the current economic crisis.

Rather than focusing on what doesn’t seem to be working, focus on your organization’s strengths. Ask yourself, what are we doing right? How can we do more of that? How can we do it better? Then, look at your mission. Is it the right mission for your organization? Does it line up with your organization’s core strengths? Are your colleagues and their activities aligned with that mission? Is all of this supported by your organizational culture?

In the midst of all this upheaval is a golden opportunity to reinvent ourselves, to create something new. The “Clean Sheet of Paper” exercise is just a tool to help you get started. Don’t let this opportunity pass you by.

I commented on Mary’s post, but I want to develop some of those thoughts a bit further. My initial reaction to the post was to refer to something else I had read recently on a similar point.

The questions you suggest as part of the “Clean Sheet…” exercise leave out an important part of the equation. What do our clients want? What are people buying?

At the end of his recent long article (“The Great De-Leveraging“) Bruce MacEwen reminds us of Andy Grove of Intel’s reaction to a similar crisis:

Better yet, or more realistically yet, perform Andy Grove’s famous thought (and reality) experiment when Intel was a low-end maker of commodity DRAM chips, having their lunch eaten in the late 1970′s by the voracious and talented Japanese, threatening Intel’s very existence.

I paraphrase: Grove said to his top management team, “If we don’t turn things around in a very serious way, the Board will fire us. So why don’t we ‘fire’ ourselves. Let’s march out of this conference room and march back in assuming we’re the new team the Board has hired. What would we do then?”

They performed the exercise, decided to abandon DRAM’s and invest in microprocessors. The rest is history, and it’s history residing under your desk or in your lap.

I think the Andy Grove approach is an essential part of the clean sheet exercise.

There is a real problem for businesses that want to innovate their way out of the crisis. We are used to working with clients to identify what products and services they need. This symbiosis requires a degree of stability. Even if someone doesn’t know what they need until they see it (and who knew they needed an MP3 player with such minimal controls and so few features before Apple created the iPod?), disruptive innovation depends on people realising when they see it that the new product or service does actually fill a hole. The need, niche or desire is created in the same moment as it is fulfilled. At the moment, it is extremely difficult to know how the market will react to novelty. We can’t rely on understanding our clients’ needs to get us through this — we need to walk with them and discover together what is required. We cannot know what the outcome of this perambulation will be. In particular, I don’t think we can assume that the status quo ante will be any part of the future. As Seth Godin puts it:

It’s amazing that people have so much time to fret about today’s emergency but almost no time at all to avoid tomorrow’s.

A glimpse at the TV and internets shows one talking head after another angsting about today’s economy. These are the same people who needed to devote entire hours to mindless trivia nine months ago when they could have done an enormous amount of education about avoiding this mess in the first place.

His point is that we need to concentrate on what is coming, not what is happening now. In a business that depends heavily on the brain-power of its people, like a law firm, that means that we need to focus a significant part of our knowledge efforts on working our what we and our clients need in that future. Tending to our past knowledge needs will not get us safely out of this crisis.

There is another strand to this. Whose knowledge are we talking about? To what extent will the stresses and strains of the current economy affect firms themselves, especially when coupled with tools that could facilitate very different organisational forms. Consider John Roberts’s view of the firm, couched as an objection to a hypothesis that “the firm is simply ‘a nexus of contracts’ — a particularly dense collection of the sort of arrangements that characterise markets.”

While there are several objections to this argument, we focus on one. It is that, when a customer “fires” a butcher, the butcher keeps the inventory, tools, shop, and other customers she had previously. When an employee leaves a firm, in contrast, she is typically denied access to the firm’s resources. The employee cannot conduct business using the firm’s name; she cannot use its machinery or patents; and she probably has limited access to the people and networks in the firm, certainly for commercial purposes and perhaps even socially. (The Modern Firm (Oxford, 2004): 104) 

What does this mean for knowledge-intensive firms? The resources that Roberts refers to are less relevant — the machinery is either freely available (Google has a few useful tools on offer) or is located in the heads of the knowledge workers. The networks that he highlights as important are increasingly located outside the firm — in Facebook, LinkedIn or twitter, for example. One consequence of this may be that firms which fail to reinvent themselves or provide other compelling reasons for their existence could end up as empty shells — with their people relocated to other firms or new forms of self-organisation.

The brick building in the centre-right of the picture above was one of Manchester’s Victorian railway termini, opened in 1880 and closed in 1969. As the railways were rationalised and nationalised, and as passenger numbers fell, there was clearly no need for a city the size of Manchester to have six major railway stations. There are now just two. Of the others, one is at the heart of a museum, one is a car park, the one pictured is an exhibition hall, and one is derelict. The building on the left of the picture is the Bridgewater Hall, home of the Hallé Orchestra (Britain’s oldest symphony orchestra). The Hallé’s previous home, the Free Trade Hall, is now just a facade for a hotel. Rising above the old station is Manchester’s tallest building, the Beetham Tower. The solidity and apparent permanence of all these buildings was (is) no guarantee that they would always fulfil the same purpose. In fact, the longest-lasting thing in this tale is the orchestra — an excellent example of a group whose purpose cannot be separated from its form. A symphony needs to be played by a symphony orchestra: individual musicians cannot replicate the sound by playing on their own. As long as people are willing to pay to hear symphonies, the Hallé and orchestras like it will continue to exist.

Is your firm an orchestra or a collection of soloists? Is there still an audience for its repertoire?

Settling accounts

It is an old English tradition that Christmas Day, as one of the quarter days, is a day for settling accounts. Over the past eleven months I have unexpectedly and gratifyingly incurred a number of debts.

The most significant is owed to Mary Abraham, who posed a question to a few of us back in November: how do you decide how/what/when to blog?  Finally, here are my thoughts.

The how is easily dealt with. I use whatever comes to hand when I have an idea. I have started blog posts from my Blackberry, using the mobile tool; I have worked directly in the full WordPress dashboard; I have recently started using BlogDesk as an offline editor — very useful when on the train without connectivity; and I have sometimes written the bulk of a blog post in long-hand (for which, read “scrawl”) in my notebook. Essentially, I use whatever works at the time.

What I blog is linked inextricably to why I blog. I have come to rely on this as my place for crystallising thoughts. More than anything else, I am continually learning about things that are at least tangentially related to my work. I find I learn best by reading, cogitating and discussing (which can extend to formal presentations or writing). The blog is therefore my place to do this — primarily for my own benefit. I do something similar at work, but that is only a limited solution. I have found that two significant things characterise people who do KM. They are firstly extremely willing to discuss ideas, even with total strangers. This makes KM conferences especially useful for the mingling time, even if the official content is of marginal utility. The second thing is that they tend to be rare or isolated within their own organisations. This makes it (a) difficult to find local kindred spirits with whom to discuss KM topics, but (b) easy to created mutually rewarding realtionships with KM people in other organisations. As a result, I think sharing my thoughts here results in a greater benefit to me and to the firm I work in because of the way that people in the wider world engage with it.

So the things I blog about are the things that pique my interest and which I think can usefully form the basis of this wider engagement. When I started out, I thought I would be able to use the blog to challenge accepted KM truths and traditions. This hasn’t worked out quite as I expected, but I may yet get there with time.

Finally, when do I blog? Practically speaking, it tends to be in the gaps of the day — on trains, while the children watch TV, and so on. Taking a different perspective on the question, I tend to write when I have been free to ponder for a while. At times when work requires more action than thought, it is harder to get round to blogging. That explains some of the gaps in transmission during the past year.

One of the reasons I eventually took the plunge to start blogging publicly was that I found conversations via comments on other people’s blogs valuable. In particular, Doug Cornelius’s KM Space and Neil Richards’s Knowledge Thoughts provided places where I developed some of the thinking that started me on this track. Having started by commenting, I particularly appreciate those who have commented on or linked to my posts during the year:

Many thanks to you all, and I hope the festive season brings you all you hoped for, with an exciting new year in prospect!

(For completeness, you might be interested in the answers provided to Mary’s question by Jordan FurlongPatrick Lambe and Doug Cornelius.)

Do you know where you’re going to?

Via James Mullan, here are “35 tips for getting started with social media.” The list is positioned thus:

If you are going to start using social media, you should at least have an understanding of what it’s about. Social media is not about the tools, the tools are only a facilitator.

Up to a point, Lord Copper. Actually, this is an interesting list, but it is not particularly coherent. Anyone facing the world of social media needs to answer a simple question for themselves: “why am I doing this?” There are many possible answers:

  • To find out more about the world of Web 2.0
  • To connect with people I already know
  • To connect with people I don’t yet know who have a common interest
  • To position myself or my business in this new market
  • To make money
  • To contribute information and knowledge

…and so on.

Some of these aims are honourable, some less so. That’s fine — the whole gamut of relationships can be facilitated by these tools. But you need to know what you want from them. Before working through this list of 35 tips, you need to be able to judge whether any one of them will help you serve your vision of what you want from social media. You also need to be aware that the authors of lists like these may have a different vision from yours.

The same is true for shorter lists. Kevin O’Keefe has named his top three social media tools for law firms. They are blogs, Twitter and LinkedIn. That may be true for those firms (and their clients and potential clients) that are comfortable with those tools. If they are just a me-too choice, that will be glaringly obvious to others. That is because the main goal of these tools is connection. If you or your firm feels more comfortable connecting in a different way (whether that is Web 2.0 or not), do that instead. Those you connect with will respect you for it.

And if you do follow Kevin’s advice, connect properly. Clients find it irritating enough when law firms stop producing traditional briefings. Imagine their discontent when you are no longer connecting with them via a blog that they have come to know and respect.

So what do you want from your social media? What will success look like? Can you sustain your interest in it for the long term? Once you have answered those questions, you are ready to think about the tools you need and a strategy for deploying them.

Yes — you do need a strategy. Think about e-mail. That is just a tool. It facilitates connections. But it has become a monster for many people because we didn’t think properly about how we intended to use it and the limits we should put on it. All the social media tools that look today like fluffy kittens also have the potential to become monsters as scary as e-mail. If we bear that in mind when giving them house-room, we might be able to cope better when they start to grow.

(Hat tips to Mary Abraham and Doug Cornelius for the link to Kevin’s post.)

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