Legal KM: slow burn, low impact?

2014-11-16 14.41.19Last week, I suggested that KMers in law might aim for greater impact by challenging their firms. Today, Nick Milton has published more insights from his global knowledge management survey that may support a similar conclusion.

Nick’s post provides some statistics on the penetration of KM across a number of sectors, compared with the length of time it has been a focus. Each survey respondent reported on their organisation’s maturity by choosing one of five options:

  • We are investigating KM but not yet started
  • We are in the early stages of introducing KM
  • We are well in progress with KM
  • KM is embedded in the way we work
  • We have tried KM and given up

The results highlight some striking differences between different sectors, as shown in the diagram below. The disparity between the construction/engineering sector and education/training is particularly intriguing.

In terms of KM maturity, the legal services sector is in the mid-table. Nearly 40% of firms have yet to start with KM or are only in the early stages, whilst over 20% report that KM is embedded. However, this has been a long journey. In the table showing how long KM has been part of the organisation, the legal sector is significantly ahead of the others.

As Nick points out, this makes the legal sector the “most noteworthy outlier”, especially when compared with construction and engineering, where KM has been present on average more than two years less, but has achieved a significantly more mature state in that time — nearly 40% embedded in working practices.

I suspect that there are many factors at play here — including some systemic issues such as the partnership nature of law firms, time-based billing, and the complexity of the law itself. Whatever the causes, Nick’s data suggests that there is still much for legal KMers to do to really make a difference for their firms.

Generating value through unavoidable irritation

Thames foreshore

Having worked in both, I can say that one thing that law firms and universities have in common (and there are more than you might think) is that they have a clear purpose built into their fabric. Universities are supposed to further knowledge by teaching and research. Law firms advise their clients on the law to guide their future actions. Diversification would change the organisation in unpredictable ways. (Both may have commercial interests on the side — publishers and conference businesses for universities; consulting arms or resourcing agencies for law firms — but those tend to be arms-length subsidiaries.) As a result of this clarity of purpose, there is a tendency to treat those who are not directly involved in the core activity as ‘other’: non-lawyers (or non-fee-earners) and non-academics. There are many articles and blog posts decrying this terminology, but few have found an easy way round it. This post won’t change that state of affairs — please take as read the decrying and absence of solution.

Thames foreshoreInstead, the past few months observing, and reflecting on, this state of affairs from the outside have led me to a curious conclusion. I suspect knowledge teams in law firms are not ‘other’ enough.

In a previous post, I drew attention to the respect that law firms generally have for their PSLs. This is partly a reflection of professional comity, but it has another aspect — comfort. By contrast, my observation of interactions between lawyers and their colleagues in IT, HR or Finance was that they were a lot less comfortable. The partner who wants to dismiss their PA or the associate who can’t be bothered to complete their timesheet accurately will find that their preferences conflict uncomfortably with those of the firm’s HR specialists and accountants. The outcome is tension between irritation about being unable to do something that seems reasonable and an understanding that there must be standards that apply to everyone. Successful IT, HR and Finance teams manage that tension carefully. They work out how far they can push their professional preferences for locked-down systems, carefully managed grievance processes, or perfect time recording and then they back off. In return they provide something that the lawyers cannot do for themselves: well-functioning systems, effective graduate recruitment, or efficient cashflow. In this ideal scenario, the lawyer’s casual dismissal of the IT geek, fluffy HR person or bean-counter hides a grudging respect for the value that those specialists generate for the firm. There is respect for the profession even if the individual is disrespectfully branded a ‘non-lawyer’.

I think something slightly different happens to BD/Marketing and Risk & Compliance teams. Lawyers are much more likely to consider that they are capable of doing the work done in these areas. In some cases (especially in Risk) the ‘non-lawyers’ have been practising lawyers in the past. Also, there is an expectation that lawyers engage closely with the activities that are notionally the responsibility of these teams. As a result, BD/Marketing and Risk professionals have to work much harder to generate and show the value that their functions deliver for the firm. Where they fail to do this, they are much more likely to be seen as an unnecessary irritant when times are hard.

I was thinking about an analogy for the relationship between these essential services and the firms they work in, but I could only find a cliché. They are like the grit in an oyster that is essential for the development of a pearl. By lodging themselves unavoidably within the fabric of a firm, something better is produced than would exist without their presence.

It is hard to imagine a modern business of any type, even a law firm, surviving without the services of good HR, IT, Finance or BD/Marketing folk. As a regulated business, a Risk & Compliance function is essential for firms (and would be wise even without the regulatory pressure). By contrast, many firms manage without a significant knowledge function. (This conclusion is drawn from observation and the research of the Legal Support Network.) Why is this? I think the answer is a combination of proximity to the lawyer role (even closer than BD/Marketing and Risk), not being irritating enough, and failing to demonstrate or communicate value.

Whilst lawyers love their PSL colleagues, they don’t always understand how their work is different enough from their own to generate value that can be distinguished from normal legal work. Some PSLs and knowledge teams are complicit in this because they want to be seen to be helpful, so they work to an agenda set by the practitioners they work with.

That is why knowledge teams in law firms are not ‘other’ enough. They and their work are respected because they are not irritating or threatening. That is not to say that they should be deliberately obstructive. Like their colleagues elsewhere in business services, greater clarity about the purpose of knowledge management as a professional discipline would generate sufficient unavoidable irritation to create valuable pearls that could not otherwise come into being. Firms that continue to believe that their knowledge teams merely work as extensions of ordinary lawyering will continue to undervalue what those people actually do whilst treasuring their existence — the opposite of their feelings about the rest of business services.

This conclusion demands consideration of the purpose of knowledge management in law firms. That is a topic for another day.

Knowledge management as a generative practice?

A serendipitous tweet today brought me to a new concept: generative business practices.

This appears to be a crystallisation of various strands of good working practice, juxtaposed with traditional notions of productivity. I hadn’t come across the author, CV Harquail, before, but she has an impressive CV.

The shadows we castThe clearest expression of the idea of a generative practice is provided in a post from last December: “actions, ways of doing, and ways of thinking, that don’t execute a plan but instead create unpredictable opportunities for everyone”

As I read more, this idea resonated with many of my thoughts about good knowledge management. Whilst we sometimes know from the start what impact our work will have on our organisations, sometimes the results are necessarily less tangible.

Broadly speaking, there is also a spirit of generosity amongst those who work in knowledge management — both internally (sharing ideas and insights and encouraging those habits within the organisation) and externally (working with others to deepen understanding about the field).

The more detailed explanation confirmed my thoughts:

Something is “generative” when it’s able to originate or produce something, or to give rise to new possibilities.

  • Generative ideas produce new ideas,
  • Generative process produces new ways of doing things or new outcomes,
  • Generative learning enhances our ability to create,
  • Generative relationships build new capabilities in both partners, and
  • Generative leadership helps others see opportunity in their actions.

Generative practices are important because they make new things possible. They have the capacity for ‘more’ built right in.

Generative practices make new opportunities possible, but not inevitable. We don’t know and can’t predict specifically what a generative behavior will trigger. We can only expect these practices to create openings and invite new outcomes to emerge.

I need to reflect a little more on this idea and how it might help people assess the impact of knowledge management. I have already part-drafted a post on measuring the value of KM, and it may pop up in that.

Knowledge what (management or capability)?

Earlier this week, David Griffiths published a thought-provoking post summarising the current state of organisational knowledge management. He highlighted some real concerns, but his conclusion is a positive one.

The past needs to be forgiven, treated as a learning experience. The future is about Knowledge Capability. This requires a change in mind set. Knowledge Capability is not about managing a resource. Knowledge Capability is about embedding, developing, sharing and, most importantly, activating a resource by better coordinating emergent conditions.

This means expanding understanding, influence and integration in such a way so as to enable people to develop as sense makers, problem solvers, decision-makers, collaborators, managers and leaders.
People can choose to ignore the inevitable, but, to remain relevant, this is the future. Knowledge Management maybe dying a slow death, but Knowledge Capability is alive and kicking!

The history of KM is littered with the dreary battles about nomenclature. I have no intention of starting another one. (And nor has David, I think.) I am, however, torn between redefining an existing term and inventing a new one. In the end, both demand a similar effort.

Embed from Getty Images

I think the best one-line definition of ‘knowledge management’ is Nick Milton’s:

“Knowledge Management” is “Management with a focus on Knowledge”.

Management is what we do to make organisations work; to make them prosper and succeed. And if we don’t manage with knowledge in mind, then they won’t prosper and succeed to the same extent.

This gives a clear message to be delivered when discussing ‘KM’ or ‘knowledge management’. Often, however, people hearing that term bring their own (mis)understanding to it. Typically, they start with an analogy to information, document or records management, where the phrase refers to a thing (which is often understood as being close to knowledge) that needs to be managed. As a result, those arguing for a more nuanced meaning must first wrestle it away from often basic conceptions of classifying, storing, retrieving and organising. Worse: those activities tend not to be highly valued by organisations, and that affects the perception of value that might flow from intelligent knowledge management.

By contrast, organisations also manage with people in mind, or money, or customers/clients. Those functions (HR, Finance, and Sales/Marketing) tend not to use the term ‘management’ at all. People also understand better the value that they provide for the business — often to the point that they are represented directly at the most senior level.

The other business disciplines are better developed and understood than knowledge management. This is an ideal opportunity to reframe people’s understanding of our work. Referring to ‘knowledge capability’ can help to do this — it is much clearer about what will change as a result. It also refocuses away from the possibility of managing knowledge towards making changes in organisational practices and people’s behaviour.

In its early days, knowledge management grew out of information management and technology. It is not surprising that those fields still affect the way people still perceive the discipline. Newer influences — such as psychology and other behavioural sciences, organisational design, strategic management — have given KM a role that should place it much closer to the heart of the organisation and the way people work.

This video by Patrick Lambe illustrates this journey. He describes a project to create a set of competencies that is clearly distinct from historic descriptions that were rooted in information management.

[vimeo 86395864 w=508]

The focus in Patrick’s work was on people and how they worked, whereas the TFPL material he describes is rooted in the way knowledge and information might be treated. (That material appears no longer to be available from TFPL.)

For me, that is the heart of the way modern knowledge activities should be appreciated. They prioritise how people work towards improving the success of their organisation — using knowledge. The older approach (which can still be seen in some places) thinks first about knowledge and what might be done with it, rather than organisations or people.

 If you want to move your firm towards better use of knowledge, please get in touch.

Presentation: evaluating knowledge activities

Yesterday I attended and spoke at the London Law Expo. It was a very good event — I will be touching on some of the other presentations in future blog posts.

My presentation provided a very quick overview of issues for law firms to consider when assessing the value of their knowledge management activities. The slide deck is embedded below.

I will flesh out the content in a series of blog posts over the next couple of weeks, and link to them in this post.

Triangulating knowledge: value and purpose

In an earlier post, I mentioned Nick Milton’s useful model for positioning KM. However, I did note that I had reservations as to his assessment of where law firms might sit in the model. This post expands on that thought.

As a reminder, Nick suggests that the primary focus of an organisation should dictate the type of knowledge management that is used — process-based, product-based or customer-based. His view was that law firms would tend towards being product-based, as this diagram indicates.

Locating KM — diagram by Nick Milton

I think this is a really useful way of thinking about knowledge activities at a range of levels. It might apply across the whole organisation, or within specific parts. The key then, is to start with a basic understanding of what the relevant people should be achieving and then match the knowledge activities to achieve the desired outcome.

I have slightly revised the triangle in my diagram below.

Photo 12-09-2014 10 46 52

For me, the points of the triangle are characterised by three questions. What do we do, how do we do it, and why do we do it? These questions may contain a number of additional questions too — knowing why something is done will encompass a need to know for whom it is being done, for example. At each extreme, there will be a very different focus. A law firm that is most interested in providing legal solutions (which I think is the example that Nick Milton has in mind) will need to be completely on top of all the changes in the law that affect the creation of those solutions (know-what). On the other hand, a firm that is looking hard at improving the way advice is provided will need to concentrate on know-how — ‘how we do things here’. Firms with a strong client focus will be interested in developing deep understanding of the businesses and people they work with — the legal solution will be presented more as a business solution tailored for that client.

Many law firms struggle with anything other than managing legal knowledge (know-what). I think this is a real challenge for the sector as a whole. Unlike many other professionals, lawyers need to work with a constantly changing stream of legal change — new cases, statutes, regulations, court and administrative practices and so on. New law doesn’t just change the range of possible solutions that could be offered, but it can also render previously good advice dangerously bad. Naturally, all law firms take their obligations to stay up to date with the law very seriously. But this is costly. Maintaining access to all the relevant sources of information about and commentary on the law is a significant financial burden. In addition, individuals (whether practising lawyers themselves or the firm’s Professional Support Lawyers) need to take time to understand the impact of legal change on their own work. It is not surprising, therefore, that many firms exhaust their KM efforts at this point — keeping on top of the law is all they can manage.

Knowledge management delivers real value to organisations when it enables people to draw on the knowledge of those around them so that they can improve their own work. By contrast, facilitating the flow of information and analysis from outside the organisation can only prevent failure. Because all similar organisations have access to the same external material, and the same imperative to make use of it, being good at understanding this material cannot be a differentiating factor (apart from improving speed to market). This means that if legal KM continues to focus on legal knowledge alone, it will become increasingly irrelevant to firms that want to improve their market position. The real differentiators are in the other points of the triangle.

In order to get the best value from its knowledge activities, a firm needs to know with confidence exactly where its sweet spot is. This is not an easy task, and it is important in doing so to avoid entrained patterns of thought and behaviour. I intend to write more about this in a later blog post.

Once the sweet spot is known, then the right activities can be developed, to combine different components to produce interesting alternatives:

  • coupling know-what with know-how to enable
    • more efficient and consistent advice for all types of work and any client
    • a basis for clear pricing models
    • allocation of tasks to the right level
    • improvements in quality control
  • combining know-what and know-why to improve
    • bespoke advice to match client needs
    • strategic legal advice promoting client business goals
  • linking know-how and know-why to allow
    • collaboration involving a range of providers alongside the client to produce better value
    • reciprocal improvements in working practices between the firm, the client and other professionals

And there are probably many more possibilities — these are just off the top of my head. I am developing these ideas for use with clients. If your firm is interested, please get in touch. I will also be talking about these issues at the London Law Expo next month — come and say hello.

Positioning — what is this thing called KM?

One of the most fruitless recurring activities in the knowledge management world is the irregular call to ‘define KM.’ I have touched on this here before, but today is slightly different.

Study at Calke AbbeyMatt Moore has produced an intriguing list of things people call knowledge management. It includes an eclectic mixture of things that don’t always sit well together. However, there are some themes. The descriptions in the predominant group refer to knowledge in some way (typically attached to verbs like transfer, sharing, retention, exchange, development or enablement). The next largest group is ‘social’, closely followed by ‘information’ and ‘learning’, then ‘collaboration’ ‘best practice’ and ‘innovation’.

Overall, the list strikes me as being very dependent on organisational context — a business that depends heavily on marketing products to customers is more likely to react well to “Multi-channel, digital information sharing strategy and customer intelligence capability” rather than “Knowledge and Process Management.” And KM teams may change their focus over time — either as a reaction to changes in the wider business or to take advantage of new tools and technologies that might be seen to further the cause. This would explain the proliferation of ‘social’ titles, for example.

Coincidentally, last week Nick Milton provided an interesting template to help organisations thinking about their approach to knowledge management. His blog post, “Knowledge of process, knowledge of product, knowledge of customer” suggests that organisations locate themselves between three extremes of a triad — process, product, customer — depending on where their efforts are (or should be) focussed.

I like Nick’s approach (even though he underplays the extent to which law firms need to be aware of client needs), but it proceeds on an assumption that organisations are self-aware enough to say honestly where they are. In my experience, few have that awareness. Instead they hoodwink themselves with aspirational assertions about their goals and the value they provide. One of the things that Cognitive Edge techniques can do for a firm is to help them avoid entrained patterns of thinking and unlock the real business culture and aspirations driving knowledge needs.

Once it is understood what (and who) the business is for, and where it is heading, the choice of knowledge activities (and perhaps their name) will flow from that.

If you are interested in exploring these techniques, I can help — get in touch.

What do clients need? Relationships and story-listening

It is difficult to imagine that anyone in law firm management is not yet aware of Bruce MacEwen’s masterful review of the current state of the legal market, entitled “Growth is Dead.” The series is now up to its tenth instalment and the focus has turned to clients. Whilst the whole series is required reading, this part resonated particularly for me for a number of reasons. It contains some truths that KM folk should reflect on, and one of the comments raises a common issue where a traditional approach often fails.

As all good discussion of clients should, Bruce starts with Peter Drucker. Drucker’s observation that all firms must have clients leads to a brief analysis of the evolution of client service in the law. Bruce identifies three phases:

Phase I: Sell what you make

Firms in Phase I find a comfort zone of things they (as proud and unbending autonomous individuals) enjoy doing, and they assume without, I imagine, really giving it much conscious thought, that since they enjoy it clients will appreciate it, or because they find it interesting clients will too.

Phase II: Make what sells

Phase II is a bit more mature and purposeful. In this phase, lawyers and firms try to analyze what services clients are seeking and purchasing, and then attempt to mold their offerings to client demand.

Phase III: Solve the client’s problem

This phase has several characteristics to commend it:

  • It goes straight to the heart of what the client needs professional counsel for;
  • It’s agnostic as to exactly which practice area or practitioner, if any, is best suited to the matter at hand;
  • And most important by far, it postures the entire offering and engagement around what the client needs, not what you can do.

Bruce is not convinced that many firms have made it to Phase III. (Indeed, he goes as far as to say that he believes “very few firms indeed” understand it, or even the fundamental shift in the market.)

I think the same phases apply to KM (certainly in law firms, and probably elsewhere as well).

The equivalent to “sell what you make” in Phase I is the repository-building approach to knowledge. It depends on a conception of knowledge as stuff that can be gathered, traded and measured. The knowledge or information professional is a gatekeeper for material that is held “just in case” it might prove useful in future.

The usual counterpart to “just in case” is “just in time” — this is the KM equivalent of Bruce’s Phase II “make what sells:”

The distilled pitch is something like this:

“Just tell us what legal services you need, and we’ll get right on it.”

While this takes the lawyer out of the very center of the picture, and gives the client a bit of breathing room alongside, it’s still passive and reactive. To begin with, what if the client doesn’t know or can’t articulate what they need? Worse, what if your firm really isn’t ideal for what the client wants? In that case “making it” for them might not be doing them any favors.

Bruce is talking here about lawyers dealing with clients, but it applies just as well to knowledge professionals working within businesses. This passive, reactive, transactional approach to KM will get you a bit further than the repository-building approach, but there is still no guarantee that your work will really make a difference. And making a difference is essential, otherwise the business can do without it.

Phase III gets to the heart of things:

It’s not about what the lawyers prefer to do or are in the mood to work on; nor how brilliant, experienced, and highly credentialed they are (though I’m confident they are exceptionally so); nor about how much other clients adore them and sing their praises; nor, finally, is it about the law firm at all. It’s entirely about making the clients life easier, less worrisome, and letting them focus on their business and not this potential legal landmine.

A very wise managing partner, who had studied at the feet of one of the builders of a great New York law firm, once told me that his primary job was making the client look good: “The wins are theirs; the losses are mine.”

Good KMers should also focus on making people look good. What does the firm need? That is what should be done.

This is where we get to the question in the comments to Bruce’s post: Bob Jessup asks how to get meaningful feedback from clients. This is also a problem for knowledge professionals. Just as clients may ask for something when really they need a completely different approach, so our colleagues may have preconceived ideas about their knowledge needs (they might want a repository, but never use it when it is provided, for example). How to get round this problem.

I think there are two very different approaches available. The first is to emulate Apple or the early BBC — don’t ask people what they want, but just give them something that you know to be high quality in the knowledge that they will come to love it. That might work if (a) you are absolutely clear about your purpose and never divert from it (something that only people of Steve Jobs’s or Lord Reith’s calibre can guarantee), and (b) your market is still in its infancy.

The second approach is to concentrate on relationships and on natural, authentic communication. In his comment, Bob Jessup says:

Clients, like anyone, don’t like to give bad news, and often find it hard to “put their finger” on what might be wrong. Those in-house counsel giving C’s to the outsiders probably aren’t giving those C’s when presented with an inquiry or a written evaluation form.

That isn’t a surprise — anyone familiar with the work of Dan Ariely and other behavioural economists will know that people often say very different things from what they do. But how do we find out what clients really feel, or what they really need. There is a clue elsewhere in Bruce’s post.

After describing how law firms approach client service, Bruce turns to the client perspective. Drawing on an Inside Counsel survey, he lists the law firm offerings that clients like but law firms don’t deliver. Here are the top three:

  • Secondments
  • Seminars at the client’s office
  • Regular service review meetings

Coincidentally, these are all the best ways to build genuine relationships with clients and learn about their business needs. (As a slight diversion, it is essential to understand that the real needs are business needs, not legal ones: Tom Kilroy has recently provided some useful insight into what in-house legal should be thinking about in terms of their internal relationships.) Having a lawyer embedded in a client’s business or legal team will always ensure that they have a much better understanding of the issues the client faces — no amount of direct questioning (whether by a lawyer or a third-party) will generate that level of knowledge. (Of course, the same is also true for knowledge programmes — as Dave Snowden famously says, “We always know more than we can say, and we will always say more than we can write down.”)

Like secondments, holding seminars on the client’s premises will often uncover issues that might not come to light through a questionnaire. The comfort of being on home ground will encourage people to say things that they would not express in more public situations. This might also be an opportunity to involve people other than the direct in-house client: do you know what your client’s contract managers, procurement teams or sales staff think of the contracts you draft? Again, this has resonances for knowledge people. Whilst we might think we can identify what is needed by talking to our colleagues, and building relationships with them, it is also valuable to find out what clients think of the work that our colleagues do. Armed with that insight, we can ensure that they have what they need to look good in front of the client next time.

When we get to service review meetings, I think we are close to the heart of Bob Jessup’s question. If those meetings feel like mechanical exercises (maybe using a set script or a written evaluation form), then they won’t build relationships and clients will persist in hiding what they feel. What is needed is genuine conversation. The insight we need is tacit knowledge (for want of a better term), and “tacit knowledge needs to be shared through conversation.”

Conversations need time to develop, but they generate narrative — anecdotes or stories — that are essential to make sense of things. Another way of generative narrative, which might be useful when there is no single client view, might be to use anecdote circles. Shawn Callahan and his colleagues at Anecdote have created the “Ultimate Guide to Anecdote Circles” — an excellent introduction to and explanation of the method.

In the end, then, the challenge that law firms face in really getting to the heart of what clients need from them has an exact counterpart for knowledge professionals. More than that, the tools for achieving this insight are actually knowledge tools, but only if we situate ourselves squarely in the Phase III approach to understanding and helping people.

Key KM attributes

At today’s KM Legal conference, Ruth Ward started us off with a good overview of the challenges facing KMers in law firms following the end of the legal boom (or the great reset  as Bruce MacEwen puts it). Better than that though, she also provided a list of key features that KM needs to demonstrate in the future.

  • Client centred
  • Focused
  • Relevant
  • Open
  • Interested/curious
  • Flexible
  • Resilient
  • Progressive
  • Communicative
  • Collaborative
  • Culturally attentive

These are all great, and I would argue we should have been demonstrating them in the past as well. Ruth was pressed to pick one attribute that was the most important. She chose relevance because it underpinned or enhanced all of the others. Absolutely the right choice, I agree.

…when we talk about knowledge

I can’t now find an online reference to it, so my memory will have to suffice. I recall reading many years ago about a study which suggested that waiting staff in restaurants tended to break more crockery when they were reminded to take care than when there was no such reminder. As I once washed dishes and made coffee in a wine bar, this made sense to me. There is a lack of trust implicit in a reminder, which might make one doubt one’s abilities and therefore lead to more breakages. An alternative explanation might be that the reminder causes people to concentrate on the wrong thing — a broken plate, rather than a plate conveyed safely to its destination.

I was reminded of this insight when reading Peter Bregman’s latest contribution to the HBR blog. His topic is diversity training.

Diversity training doesn’t extinguish prejudice. It promotes it.

At first glance, the first training — the one that outlined what people could and couldn’t say — didn’t seem to hurt. But on further inspection, it turns out it did.

The scenarios quickly became the butt of participant jokes. And, while the information was sound, it gave people a false sense of confidence since it couldn’t possibly cover every single situation.

The second training — the one that categorized people — was worse. Just like the first training, it was ridiculed, ironically in ways that clearly violated the recommendations from the first training. And rather than changing attitudes of prejudice and bias, it solidified them.

This organization’s experience is not an exception. It’s the norm.

A study of 829 companies over 31 years showed that diversity training had “no positive effects in the average workplace.” Millions of dollars a year were spent on the training resulting in, well, nothing. Attitudes — and the diversity of the organizations — remained the same.

Reflecting on this, and the psychology of broken crockery, I wonder if we have a similar problem in knowledge management.

At the heart of what we do is a desire to make sure people can work to the best of their abilities, making the most of what is around them — their colleagues, documented know-how, internal and external resources. We want people to be able to find answers to the questions that arise in the course of their work as easily as possible so that they can concentrate on the important stuff — making a difference for clients, customers, communities.

But that is what they want as well.

When we talk about knowledge sharing, are we hinting that we don’t trust people to do their jobs properly? Even if that is unintended, might it depress performance anyway? (“If they don’t trust me to do the work properly, i’ll just do the bare minimum…”)

When we turn the focus on knowledge activities, do we run the risk of distracting people from their primary task — getting the job done. By concentrating people’s attention on not breaking plates, are more likely to get broken?

Or will our efforts just be ignored? Last week, David Griffiths drew our attention to an audit report on Nasa’s lessons learned system (LLIS). Despite investing $750,000 every year in adding material to that system, the audit found that it did not appear to be making a difference.

We found that NASA project managers do not routinely use LLIS to search for lessons identified by other programs and projects or contribute information to LLIS. Project managers we surveyed said the system is not user friendly and that the information it contains is outdated and generally unhelpful. We also found that Agency policy requirements regarding when and how to input information into LLIS have been relaxed over time, policy direction has been inconsistent, LLIS-related funding was disparate across the Centers, and monitoring of the essential Center-level LLIS process was lacking.

Essentially, NASA was getting on with its work without reference to the system. Underlying the audit, though, there appears to be an unspoken concern that nothing equivalent is being done. That is where knowledge management (or diversity training) is different from advice not to break plates. Everyone knows not to break plates. Not everyone understands how to find and use the knowledge around them or the organisational implications of failing to treat people with respect.

When things get more complicated than not breaking plates, we still need to help people find the right way to work. Peter Bregman’s suggested alternative to diversity training is an interesting one.

We decided to put all managers through communication training. It still fulfilled the requirement of the lawsuit. But it did something more. People learned to listen and speak with each other — no matter the difference — which is the key to creating a vibrant and inclusive environment.

As it turns out, it’s also the key to preventing lawsuits. The communication trainings I led for Bedia were ten years ago and they haven’t been sued since.

A similar approach would improve knowledge work — find something that people need to do, and which they know they find difficult because it is different in the work context than elsewhere in life — defining and scoping work projects, for example. Work on improving that, and see what difference it makes to knowledge development and use.

(Apologies to the late Raymond Carver for bastardising his work in creating the title for this post. As a penance I will re-read “Cathedral”, which is one of the greatest things ever written.)