KMers can do anything: is that wise?

Ron Friedmann has spotted a trend for law firm KM people to branch into new activities, such as legal project management, alternative fee arrangements, and so on. He also offers a hypothesis for this:

So why does KM continue to expand beyond its core remit today? My theory is that KM professionals span multiple disciplines and think laterally. They can handle complex problems that fall outside the boundaries of other support functions. Moreover, successful KM professionals have gained the confidence of lawyers; many come from the practice; others have worked closely with lawyers for a long time. Whatever their background, they develop excellent rapport with partners and practice groups. Of course, many are lawyers and in the caste system that defines BigLaw, that is a big plus.

A number of people have supported his observations in comments on the post, which Ron has extracted into a separate post. For example, Patrick DiDomenico (CKO at Gibbons PC and blogger at LawyerKM) says:

I’m head KM (CKO) at my firm, but I also manage the library and litigation support department, have an active role in our E-Discovery Task Force, and am the social media evangelist (among other things). My role as a former practicing litigator at my firm has a lot to do with what I now do for the firm. The fact that I do these things does not make them “KM activities.” Rather, these are some of the things that the head of KM happens to do.

And Meredith Williams of Baker Donelson agrees:

These days CKOs and KM professionals are being asked to expand their roles further and further in addition to continuing many traditional KM tasks. As Patrick referenced, I too aid in multiple projects that are not traditional KM such as Social Media, Competitive Intelligence, E-Discovery, Legal Project Management, Alternative Fee Arrangements and Mobility.

In part, I think what Ron describes is in fact a change in what we understand to be part of KM (in any organisation). Social media is an example — one of the things that traditional document- and repository-based KM spectacularly failed to do was to draw people together to share their knowledge. Various forms of social media now allow us to address that challenge. From that perspective, law firms are just the same as other organisations.

However, there are a couple of other interpretations which I find more troubling.

In The End of Lawyers? Richard Susskind bemoans the tendency lawyers have to describe their jobs by reference to anything other than advising clients on the law. He talks of lawyers referring to themselves more as project managers or commercial advisors. (I still need to retrieve my copy, so I’m afraid I can’t provide a better quotation or reference.) Putting aside the question whether they are actually any good at those roles, it is odd that many lawyers would prefer to be thought of as gifted amateurs turning their hands to any odd job that comes along, rather than talented and focused professionals — masters of their own specialisms. That tendency really comes to the fore in knowledge roles. Amongst all the functions that modern law firms need to support their core fee-earning function (take your pick from HR, finance, marketing, IT, office services, sales, building and facilities management, training, library, etc.) the knowledge team is often alone in recruiting predominantly from the ranks of practising lawyers. In all those other areas, firms are willing to accept the advice and insight provided by functional specialists, but it appears that the non-legal KMer has yet to make an appreciable impact. 

One consequence of this ‘lawyers can do anything’ attitude is that the firm is less likely to get the benefits that come from the wider perspective and expertise of the knowledge professional. The benefit is that the knowledge support the firm gets reflects what lawyers need. I think there is merit on both sides, but there is a risk that a firm using lawyers in these roles may find that they learn little from the interesting approaches to knowledge development and use in other organisations and contexts. They may just get the usual precedents and know-how.

(By coincidence, Tim Bratton opens a similar can of worms when he suggests that firms could use lawyers in a dedicated client relationship role:

Is there a role in large City law firms for a lawyer who has no billing targets but whose role is to act effectively as an account manager for a small number of major clients?  I think there is.  But this would only work if it is a real role, it cannot be farmed out to business development or marketing.  To succeed from a client perspective it has to be a role undertaken by a lawyer.

As a general counsel, Tim may favour lawyers. However, not all law firm clients are lawyers — many are finance directors, bankers, commercial managers, company secretaries. Should firms employ relationship managers that match those roles too? And are clients prepared to accept the greater (albeit hidden) cost of employing lawyers as relationship managers? In fact, client relationship management is widely practised in other professional services firms (especially advertising, for example). Why should firms turn their back on that expertise or develop it themselves at huge cost?)

My other concern is that when firms take the view that their knowledge people can be directed to any new project (possibly with only a tenuous link to their core knowledge focus) they aren’t really demonstrating respect for those people or their activities. If your role is valued by the organisation, it will project you in it. The procurement manager who monitors the firm’s supplier relationships and negotiates hard to keep the costs of contracts down is unlikely to find themselves diverted into managing working capital, even if that role uses very similar skills. When a firm asks their knowledge leader to take on consideration of the firm’s billing structures and alternative fee arrangements, I wonder why it was felt that (a) the knowledge work could be scaled down and (b) the expertise of the firm’s own accountants and business managers could be ignored in favour of the gifted amateur. A callous interpretation might be that in fact the firm does not value the knowledge function at all, and so its senior people are fair game for diversion to other (probably equally unvalued) projects.

On the other hand, the response might be that these new activities are actually highly valued and so it is important for a senior, respected person to lead them. This is a compelling argument, but it calls to mind the advice to CEOs that I found in an HBR blog last year. In the fourth of a series of conversations on personal productivity with Bob Pozen, chairman emeritus of MFS Investment Management and senior lecturer at Harvard Business School, he was asked “How do you decide what to spend your time on when you’re the boss?” His response was interesting:

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.

For Pozen, then, senior people should stick to the things that truly need their attention. To do otherwise dilutes their attention and limits the opportunities for development of others in the organisation. He actually extends this principle further down the business:

What about those of us who aren’t CEOs?

The key, I’ve found, is to become messianic about the principle that everybody owns their own space. This is the human resources analogy to bottom-up investing.

Under this approach, every employee is viewed as the owner of a small business — his or her division, or subdivision or working group; the performance of this unit is his or her responsibility. As the boss, my role is to provide my reports with resources, give them guidance and help them do battle with other people in the broader organization. But they own their own unit.

If law firms’ knowledge leaders are really to be respected and to ‘own their own unit’ they need to be protected from distractions that take them away from that core responsibility. They and the firm get the best results that way.

Another response might be that some of these new projects are experimental, and may not persist. That is fair: why invest in something if it may be temporary? But look at this from a different angle: if you aren’t investing in it, might you be guaranteeing that it will be temporary? Here’s an alternative approach: given that (as ever) law firms are facing many of these issues some time after other organisations, why not buy in expertise on a fixed (but renewable) contract? If you want to explore how matters might be managed or billed differently, why not take on people from the major consulting businesses or accountancy firms to see if their experiences in non-legal professional services firms might be transferable? If you are, in Pozen’s terms, messianic about people owning their own space, and you are exploring a new space, get a new person to lead the exploration.

Knowledge leaders should, by all means, explore new ways of developing and using knowledge in the firm (and they may be able to contribute that expertise to the new activities), but (a) that should not be seen as a change in KM itself and (b) respect for the knowledge function is best expressed by not drawing its people into unrelated new projects.

Thinking about the future

Blogging here has had to take a bit of a backseat while some other things take priority. Occasionally, I do manage to post some links to Twitter, or some longer quotes and notes to Posterous (and I am always adding interesting stuff to Delicious). Today, there was a bit of a theme in the things I saved to Delicious, which I wanted to capture here.

Canal boats, Pontcysyllte

First, the always insightful Jordan Furlong, writing at Slaw:

For many … firms, though, the challenges are extremely serious. The prospect that emerges from all this is a legal services marketplace in which many law firms are simply irrelevant — they’re not structured in ways that deliver maximum value to clients and they can’t compete with rivals that are. There was a lot of talk at the Georgetown event about whether “BigLaw is dead,” and I have to agree with those managing partners who dismissed the notion: these firms are obviously up and about and making a great deal of money, and it’s absurd to pretend they’re dead men walking.

The worry, for me, is that many firms, of all sizes, aren’t ready for the radical ways in which the playing field is about to change. Their focus is either straight ahead, on their clients, or internal, on their own condition and competitiveness. They’re like a quarterback whose gaze is either locked downfield on his receivers or focused dead ahead on the defenders in his path. As a result, he never sees the hit coming, from his blind side, that flattens him and turns the ball over to the other team. It’s not just lawyers and clients who matter anymore. New players, with an unprecedented combination of size and speed, are charging onto the playing field like a storm and rewriting the rules of the game as they come.

This new post reminds me of another of Jordan’s that I have linked to previously: “The Market Doesn’t Care.” As the new post makes clear, the market for legal services in the UK (and elsewhere as well) has changed irrevocably. Even without the impact on ownership structures and legal practice brought by the Legal Services Act 2007, the legal profession has not been immune from the effects of the economic crisis. More importantly, clients have not been immune, and they have also had their eyes opened to new ways of delivering legal services (Richard Susskind lists 12 of these in The End of Lawyers, so don’t assume it is all about legal process outsourcing). Likewise both sides of the relationship need to be aware of the potential for disruptive legal technologies (again, Susskind identifies ten of these). In the face of these pressures, no individual firm and no business model can take the view that it has a market-defying right to continue unchanged.

Another quote, this time (via Jack Vinson) an encapsulation of a thought of Clay Shirky’s by Kevin Kelly:

“Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution.” — Clay Shirky

I think this observation is brilliant. It reminds me of the clarity of the Peter Principle, which says that a person in an organization will be promoted to the level of their incompetence. At which point their past achievements will prevent them from being fired, but their incompetence at this new level will prevent them from being promoted again, so they stagnate in their incompetence.

The Shirky Principle declares that complex solutions (like a company, or an industry) can become so dedicated to the problem they are the solution to, that often they inadvertently perpetuate the problem.

The Shirky Principle offers one explanation as to why law firms have managed to get as far as they have without encountering serious disruption to their basic business models. Athough some practice areas have had to fight off competition from management and HR consultancies or tax accountants, the core business has been protected by an assumption of a symbiotic relationship by lawyers and their clients. As new entrants with challenging business models have set their sights on the legal market and as businesses look much more carefully at their legal costs, this assumption can no longer hold.

So where do law firms go from here? I offer no advice — the question needs an answer rooted in each firm’s culture, traditions, client needs and market. However, a summary of the Theory of Constraints to which Jack Vinson points is instructive:

Think of your system — your organization — in terms of a chain . . .

If you care about the capacity and capability of the chain, strengthening any link other than the weakest is a waste of time and effort. Identifying and strengthening the weakest link — the system’s constraint — is the only way to strengthen the chain itself.

In a similar vein, John Tropea alerted me to a series of guest posts by Boudewijn Bertsch on the Cognitive Edge site (published two years ago, but still insightful). One of those posts draws together a thought of Russell Ackoff’s (“Improvement must be focused on what you want, not on what you don’t want.”) and the Cynefin approach to complexity.

Another sin I often see in companies, is that executives focus improvements on what they don’t want, rather than what they do want. There are two reasons why this is wrong. First, if you eliminate what you don’t want, you don’t necessarily get what you do want. Second, by focusing on what you don’t want, your solution space is much smaller compared to when you focus on what you do want.

Many companies that are engaged in formal improvement initiatives like lean six sigma or operational excellence, are focused on elimination of defects and waste. Their executives mistakenly believe that if they remove defects and waste they improve the performance of their company. Not true. A case in point is Motorola who tried to apply six sigma to improving customer satisfaction by focusing on reducing defects in the late 1980s. While they succeeded in improving their manufacturing through six sigma, a much more ordered and stable environment than the market place for products – they failed when they tried to apply six sigma to improving customer satisfaction. Their assumption was that as long as you would reduce defects (“something we don’t want”) it would improve customer satisfaction. However, no matter how hard they tried, their own customer research proved them wrong. We can explain their failure using the Cynefin framework.

At some point I want to pick up the Cynefin point (especially as I became a Cognitive Edge practitioner in February), but for now the challenge for law firms is to work out where their weaknesses are, what kind of inertia prevents them from fixing those weaknesses, and what they want instead.

That thought process alone must take account of actors as varied as employees, partners, clients, other external agents, the regulatory environment, and so on. Even without considering the variations within those groupings (which may be immense) that feels like a complex system to me.