My mate, not yours

In my last post, I said that I wanted to refer constructively to something that Doug Cornelius wrote in his series of blog posts on Household KM. Here it is.

Doug’s posts are an interesting review of the tools available to manage domestic calendars, contacts, libraries and information. I found his take on contact management particularly insightful. As Doug puts it, “the contacts issue is still a knowledge management failure.” I don’t think this is unique to household contact management, and Doug pinpoints the problem:

the line between personal and business contacts is very gray. With the calendar it was easier to develop the taxonomy between personal time and business time based on the time of the appointment. With contacts I have not found a meaningful way to distinguish between contacts. Some contacts are clearly personal. My mother for instance. But what about my college roommates? After many nights of [drunken fraternity parties] serious studying, many of them have become respectable and should be part of my professional contacts. The same is true for my law school classmates.

There is also a big overlap of contacts with The Wife. There is not a clear distinction of who “owns” some of the contacts and therefore who has the better information.

I think there are some tricky underlying issues here that resonate with contact management within a business too.

In professional services firms, the client relationship must necessarily be at the heart of the business. This is not always well-managed, but CRM technology is a side-issue. These are personal relationships as much as commercial ones. There is immediately a tension between what the firm needs — as much accurate information about its clients as possible — and what people are prepared to share.  When lawyers, architects or accountants share knowledge about their work, they can be reasonably confident that someone else’s use of that knowledge will not adversely affect either the object shared or the sharer. For example, a lawyer who writes a briefing note about issues arising out of a novel transaction will not find when that note is used by one of their colleagues that their status is diminished as a consequence, or that the transaction itself is affected. However, the same is not true when information about people and relationships is shared.

When I tell the firm about the people I know, I run the risk that this information may be used in ways that could reflect badly on me, harm the relationship that I have with those people, or even cause the relationship to cease. Given this risk, it is not surprising that people are often reluctant to engage fully with their firm’s CRM systems. Paradoxically, the better a relationship that someone has with their client, the less likely it may be that detailed information about that client is provided to the firm. Imagine someone in Doug’s position — some of his law school friends may have become senior in-house counsel. Potentially, those relationships could generate real benefits for the firm. However, allowing the firm access to the information that could produce those benefits may also jeopardise the personal relationship. Which would you put first?

When firms were smaller, and technology was not a driving force, client relationships could be managed with much more respect to the personal relationship. People within the firm could have more confidence that they could control the use made of their contact information, because they could monitor either the people using the information, or the use itself. As firms grow, the distances between the owner of contact information and the user become too great to allow that monitoring. When technology is introduced to the equation — making it easier for contact information to be used without seeking the consent of, or even notifying, the person with the original relationship — people’s fear that their client or personal relationships might be misused increases significantly.

For those reasons, I think effective firmwide (rather than personal) client relationship management is the hardest KM nut of all to crack in a professional services firm. It may be easier in other sectors; I am not familiar with them.

1 thought on “My mate, not yours”

  1. Mark –

    Thanks for picking up on the undercurrent of my Household Knowledge Management series of post. I was trying to put some of the business contexts of KM into a different light.

    The sharing of information and knowledge is one of the foundations of knowledge management. The impediments to sharing are a combination of personal, cultural and technological issues. The issues exist in a variety of flavors in any organization, whether it be my daytime job at a law firm or my (once again) nighttime job at home.

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