Knowledge and information are different (no doubt about that)

In one of those internet coincidences, I have encountered (or re-encountered in some instances) a number of assertions today that we need to distinguish knowledge management and information management. Largely for my own benefit I have synthesised these in the following post.

David Gurteen’s regular newsletter contained the first pointer, to a blog post by Stephen Bounds.

I don’t agree that Information Management should be primarily backwards looking. The use of BI tools like Cognos et al are squarely IM but they are just as useful for forecasting as analysis. More generally, effective IM should always be done with a view to enabling KM process improvements.

I define the difference in this way: Knowledge Management is practised through activities that support better decision-making. IM is practised by improving the systems that store, capture, transmit etc information.

In this sense, a librarian neatly captures both sides of the coin. The act of building and making a library catalogue available is covered by IM. But the transaction by which a person can approach a librarian and leave with a relevant set of data to make a better decision is covered by KM.

Stephen’s post builds on a comment he made to a blog post of Nick Milton’s, in which Nick gives vent to a self-confessed rant:

If, as many people claim, Knowledge Management is “getting the right information to the right people at the right time” then what on earth do they think Information Management is?

Management of X is not concerned with delivery of Y.

Interestingly, although I have had similar experiences to Nick’s of people muddling knowledge and information, many of the links from the linked Google search use the quoted phrase to highlight the same error. One of the clearest of those rejections is that provided by Joe Firestone in one of a series of posts exploring US Governmental Knowledge Management.

If to do KM, we must understand problem seeking, recognition, and formulation, and knowledge production (problem solving), in order to know what is “knowledge,” and what is “just information,” then why not simply recognize that a First generation KM program based on “Getting the right knowledge . . . “ is not a clean alternative that allows one to forget about problems, problem solving, and innovation, but that since it also requires knowledge of these things, we may as well pursue a version of Second Generation KM that seeks to enhance not only “Getting the right knowledge . . . “, but also how we make that “right knowledge,” in the first place.

And as long as we’re at it, let’s also make that distinction between “doing” and “managing” that is at the very basis of the field of Management, and say KM is not primarily about Knowledge Managers “making knowledge” or “Getting the right knowledge to the right person at the right time,” but rather is primarily about enhancing the ways in which knowledge workers do these things. If we do that, we in KM won’t be stepping all over the turf of other managers, who, from a point of view distinguishing managing “knowledge processing,” from “doing knowledge processing,” are some of the primary knowledge workers part of whose job it is to actually make and integrate knowledge into organizations.

Independently, and most freshly, John Bordeaux has revisited an aspect of his critique of KM in the US Department of Defense. Specifically, what is the difference between Information Management and Knowledge Management. His answer:

The difference between IM and KM is the difference between a recipe and a chef, a map of London and a London cabbie, a book and its author.  Information is in technology domain, and I include books (themselves a technology) in that description.  Digitizing, subjecting to semantic analysis, etc., are things we do to information.  It is folly to ever call it knowledge, because that is the domain of the brain.  And knowledge is an emergent property of a decision maker – experiential, emotional framing of our mental patterns applied to circumstance and events. It propels us through decision and action, and is utterly individual, intimate and impossible to decompose because of the nature of cognitive processing.  Of course, I speak here of individual knowledge.

John’s position is especially interesting for his assertion that knowledge is distinct from information in part because of its location. If I understand him correctly, once knowledge is captured, stored, or manipulated outside the brain, it ceases to be knowledge — it is information.

This makes sense to me, but it is at odds (I think) with Joe Firestone’s position, as expressed in a paper elsewhere: “My Road to Knowledge Management through Data Warehousing” (pdf).

[T]he desire to get beyond “arid IT-based” concerns and to take the human-side of decision support into account, is about a view of KM that sees knowledge as subjective and personal in character, largely “tacit” or “implicit”, and as distinct from codified expressions, which are really not knowledge, but only information. Knowledge is frequently viewed as “justified true belief” in this approach, a definition that has been the dominant one in philosophy since Plato, but which has been under vigorous attack since at least the 1930s. People who take this road to KM, view it as primarily an applied social science discipline, whose role is to “enable” better knowledge creation and sharing by facilitating the “conversion” of tacit and implicit knowledge to codified expressions.

The problem with this road to KM is that (a) in viewing knowledge as “justified true belief” it makes it dependent on the “knower” and therefore basically subjective. And (b) in restricting knowledge to beliefs in the mind, it neglects the role of management in providing a framework of rules and technology for testing and evaluating codified expressions or knowledge claims and thereby creating a basis for producing objective knowledge. In a number of other places, I’ve specified two types of knowledge found in organizations: surviving beliefs and surviving knowledge claims. In restricting attention to facilitating expressing surviving beliefs alone, this road to KM misses one of its major objectives: to enhance Knowledge Production and, in this way, indirectly improve the quality of surviving knowledge claims used in future decisions.

I am not sure that I understand Joe’s position completely, especially as his comprehension of the philosophical foundations far exceeds mine. However, the final sentence of the first paragraph above appears not to fit John Bordeaux’s position, although I think the first part of the paragraph does fit. I also struggle with the second paragraph. Even if one can separate knowledge from the ‘knower’, there remains the possibility that what is known depends on the context. As Nick Milton puts it in a comment on his original post:

I could give you a whole stack of information about the rocks below the North Sea – seismic sections, maps, core samples – but could you make an effective decision about where to site an oil well?

I think this comes to a practical problem. Capturing what is known in an objective sense would require a correlative capture of enough context to make it comprehensible by anyone at any point in the future. How much effort would that take, and at what point would it be more economical just to ask the relevant person (or even to start again from scratch)?

Reflecting on the PSL role

A passing comment in Ron Friedmann’s latest blog post has prompted me to recycle some material here that I originally put together for our own Professional Support Lawyers. In the context of a commentary on an interesting report by OMC Partners (commissioned by PLC), Ron notes:

Few large US firms, at least in their US offices, have PSL ratios even approaching those commonly found in the UK. (Some large US firms are now increasing the number of PSLs though in my view, it is premature to call this a trend.)

I think Ron is right to play down the trend. What would interest me more is to know what the US PSL community is being tasked with. That is because I think the role of PSLs in many UK law firms has changed significantly over the past three years or so, and that pace of change is not likely to slacken.

First, some history.

Harriet Creamer was Freshfields’ first PSL (and therefore one of the first in the City) in the late 1980s. She then became a partner with responsibility for knowledge management, and is now a consultant.  Over the past couple of years she has presented at a number of conferences and workshops on the changing role of the PSL. (Reports of those presentations can easily be found on the web, if you are interested.) In November 2009, Harriet summarised her thinking in an article in The Lawyer, entitled “Knowledge management needs serious consideration.” In it, she provides a potted history of the PSL and KM function in law firms, and finishes with a rallying call for change:

At many firms, the basic organisational tasks took longer than expected, and ­eventually became so time-consuming that many KM lawyers remained almost wholly focused on them. In some cases management of the KM function was poor and priorities were commonly set by client partners who misunderstood the ultimate goal or who had particular axes to grind. The vision of the KM function as the ­efficiency engine of the firm, constantly streamlining working practices and driving forward proprietary knowhow, became blurred. Now is the time to clarify it.

To do this it is critical that KM lawyers engage proactively with the business. Their central focus should be on ­profitability. They will need a clear ­understanding, at both the financial and technical levels, of the work undertaken and the systems adopted in the different practice areas.

The comments on Harriet’s piece are intriguing. They don’t display much insight or awareness, and some of them are unnecessarily vituperative. If they are typical of lawyers’ attitudes to KM and PSLs, we have a very steep hill to climb.

One of the firms whose PSLs have taken a lead in the strategic reaction to market change is Berwin Leighton Paisner. Lucy Dillon, Director of KM at BLP (and formerly a litigation PSL at Linklaters), wrote a short note for Law Business Review (“PSLs – Gatekeepers of Excellence”) summarising the ways in which she has seen the PSL role change over the last 20 years.

PSLs, with their experience of practice, are in an excellent position to help review internal processes to identify areas of inefficiency and offer solutions for improving service delivery. Standard forms, document automation, checklists, work flow systems, and FAQs are all areas where a PSL’s experience can be invaluable. They can apply their practical experience and their holistic approach to transactional work to “unbundle” the traditional deal model and identify smarter ways of delivering on clients’ objectives. Such solutions are a pre-requisite to faster turn-around times, while operating in a risk managed environment.

Some of the initiatives that Lucy describes are unique to BLP, and different firms will have different needs. The general theme — that PSLs can take part in driving change is, however, a universal one. I wonder how many firms can say that their PSLs are empowered to do this.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am fond of drawing parallels with other areas of work to try and illuminate the challenges facing law firms (especially in their knowledge-related activities). I think a good comparison here is to consider the ways in which traditional media are dealing with changes in technology and reader behaviours.

In some (limited) respects, the role of a journalist parallels that of PSLs. Journalists are skilled at taking undifferentiated chunks of data and information and packaging them into useful chunks of knowledge. Historically this distillation and delivery has defined their role. Over the past decade, this traditional approach has become inadequate in the face of (a) rolling 24-hour TV news, (b) contribution to news channels by non-journalists (so-called ‘user-generated content’) and (c) commentary away from the news channels (on Wikipedia, blogs, Twitter, etc.). One result has been a huge decline in advertising revenues (exacerbated by the recession) and closures of many long-established newspapers. 

If you are interested in some reactions to the challenge facing journalism, I have a number of relevant bookmarks stored online. However, I think a couple are worth singling out.

Jason Fry is a freelance writer, editor, and consultant in New York. Writing about the challenge facing sports journalism in November 2009 (“This Is Broken: From Game Stories to, Well, Everything”), he poses a key question.

The question to ask about game stories is the same question to ask about everything we do in journalism: If we were starting today, would we do this? That’s the question. Not whether we’ve spent a lot of money on the infrastructure of producing something a certain way, or whether a journalistic form is a cherished tradition, or whether it still works for a niche audience, or whether it can still be done very well by the best practitioners of the craft. All of those questions are distractions from the real business at hand.

If we were starting today, would we do this?

So: If I were starting a sports site (or a sports section on a general-news Web site), would I pay a reporter or some third-party source for a summary of yesterday’s game, knowing that today my audience is much more likely to have watched the game, can get a recap on SportsCenter once an hour during the morning, can see the highlights on demand from a team or league site, and can watch a condensed game on the iPhone?

Absolutely not.

The problem as he sees it is that the medium for which traditional journalism is designed (the daily newspaper of record) has been overtaken by other sources. People get more value from those other sources, but journalists have failed to see that:

Why didn’t we change? Journalists are masters at filtering, synthesizing and presenting information, yet we’ve spent more than a decade repurposing a 19th-century form of specialized storytelling instead of starting fresh with the possibilities of a new medium. Newspapers could have been Wikipedia, instead of being left to try and learn from it. And what are we learning? The news article is in some fundamental ways just as broken as the game story — if it weren’t, Jimmy Wales wouldn’t see a surge of traffic to Wikipedia in the wake of any big news event. We need to rethink the basics: If we were starting today, would we do this? But when will we unshackle ourselves from print and really ask the question? And at what point will the answer come too late to matter?

That question “If we were starting today, would we do this?” is one that I think all firms need to ask themselves about a whole range of issues. In this context, I am curious to know whether US firms that have adopted the PSL role have started to define that role from scratch or whether they have adopted the historic UK model without significantly adapting it for changed circumstances.

(If you are interested in reading further into the journalism debate, I would also recommend Jonathan Stray’s article, “Does Journalism Work?”, which examines the ‘why’ of journalism, rather than the ‘how’ that is Jason Fry’s focus. Stray’s piece still has parallels with knowledge support in law firms, but they are much more strained. However, his hypothesis is an interesting one, and I may return to consider the ‘why’ of law firm KM at some point.)

Knowledge ‘what’? And why?

One of the great things about using wordpress.com to host this blog is that Akismet, the tool they use to block spam comments, is really effective. A result of this is that I have never shut off comments on my older posts. If I had, I would never have seen a thought-provoking comment on a post of mine from 2008 by Madhukar Kalsapura:

I simply use this ; “Knowledge management is about what to DO when you don’t Know”.

Over the past few weeks, I have been contemplating this comment. I think it has much to commend it, but it also raises a slight terminological problem.

What do we do when our knowledge runs out? I don’t think we do ‘knowledge management’ as individuals. We certainly aim to develop, deepen, extend, broaden or redirect our knowledge — this is learning. Also, we don’t necessarily go to the same places for that learning every time. Organisations might aim to do things to facilitate that learning process, and we might call this ‘knowledge management’, but I am less and less certain that this is a sensible phrase.

Separately, I was reading Knoco’s recent newsletter (pdf), and found an article which builds on Yasmin Fodil’s experiences observing knowledge and learning at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, which she reported on her blog (and cross-posted). In the blog post there are some useful diagrams summarising the people-centric approach used at Goddard; the whole piece is well-worth reading (and following the links to the Goddard material itself). Knoco took one of those diagrams and embellished it. I have embedded that one below (click to see the original).

This table made me reflect on my own knowledge and learning behaviours, as well as those I see around me. In the column headed “How can I learn it?” there are certainly some tools and techniques that benefit from external (call it ‘KM’) input, but the starting point (learning from one’s own experiences) depends on individual commitment.

I found it a bit more useful to show these tiers of learning as concentric circles:

I think this makes two things clearer.

Firstly, what I myself know contributes to the knowledge of my network, which in turn is part of the wider firm’s knowledge (although people’s personal networks usually include participants from outside their own organisation, or their immediate working group, I am ignoring that for simplicity here). When individuals have good personal knowledge practices (even if it is just making good notes that can be easily accessed and used in one-to-one conversations), their wider contribution is almost inevitably higher quality — to the benefit of those around them.

The second thing is that the further sources of knowledge and learning are from the individual, the more help they will need to make the most of them. I think that’s what we mean when we talk about knowledge management. But it isn’t so much ‘management’ as facilitation of knowledge. (And I am not crazy about ‘facilitation’ either. Alternative suggestions welcome.)

As a result of this cogitation, I have amended the description of KM in the comment I quoted above.

  • For everyone, knowledge development is about what to do when you don’t know.
    • When you don’t know, you need to ask: from whom can I learn? When you see people around you who appear not to know, you need to ask: how can we learn together? or what can they learn from me?
  • For the firm, facilitating knowledge development is about creating the best environment to encourage effective learning and knowledge sharing.
    • This virtuous circle of knowledge exchange and learning helps to create a more agile organisation primed to respond creatively and innovatively to client demand, legal change, and market shifts.

That last justification of our knowledge activities is one that often crops up. Better use of knowledge promotes innovation goes without saying, doesn’t it? But if that was the only reason organisations did ‘KM’ then why do all that traditional stuff around ‘best practices’, standard documents, house style and taxonomies and so on?

The commonly-stated problem with all that boring stuff (and I have been as guilty as anyone else of such comments) is that it just crystallises past practices, that if we do what we have always done, we will just get the results we always got. But sometimes that consistency and predictability is really what we (and our clients) actually want.

We (and of course, I really mean ‘I’) need to be careful not to jettison the baby with the dirty bathwater. Organisational knowledge activities (building on good individual behaviours) do contribute to innovation and creativity, but they also ensure consistency, improved quality and risk-avoidance in the boring old stuff as well. The challenge is to steer a sensible course between the two — to do the things that will achieve both aims, even when they appear to conflict.

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.

Valuing KM: some hard figures

In general, I am not keen to get bogged down in debates about the financial value of knowledge management, or the RoI of particular activities. To an extent this is because I am not well-versed in financial management, and I suspect that those who are sometimes use their expertise as a black art in a way that constrains experimentation and innovation. Also, for knowledge-intensive businesses (like law firms) it should actually be difficult to argue against effective management of knowledge activities — they are a basic health requirement, not a luxury. However, a couple of recent blog posts (together with an old memory and a conference presentation) have brought the value question to the fore for me.

Some time ago, I attended a two-day workshop on knowledge management in law firms (probably the only formal KM training I have had). One of the principles that stuck with me was that KM value can be judged by how well it supports the core elements of law firm profitability. Memorably, this comes with an acronym: RULES.

  • Realization of billing rates;
  • Utilization of attorneys;
  • Leverage of lawyers;
  • Expense control; and
  • Speed of billings and collections.

KM can help improve all of these in one way or another, and it is always useful to take time to contemplate whether we are doing our best in each of these areas. As usual, it is also important to distinguish the knowledge component from other areas of management. KM is not about improvements in time recording, for example — that may be a joint effort between IT (building a system to automate timesheets), HR (designing processes to help partners recognise good practice and manage poor time-keepers), Finance (communicating the impact of good time-keeping, billing, etc), and BD (collating feedback from clients on good and bad practice). However, along with these functions, KM people will have a part to play — perhaps by unpacking what lawyers actually do when they work and exposing where the pinch-points are, or developing clear checklists and guidance to ensure that there are as few obstacles as possible to doing all the important elements of the job.

One of the interesting points in profitability is leverage. As Toby Brown makes clear in his 3 Geeks… post today, many partners fail to understand the financial importance of driving work down to the lowest effective level.

Yet most firms don’t get this. Primarily because comp systems reward a different behavior. They’re not designed to reward profits – they reward hours and revenue. This is the case since these compensation systems were designed under a different model. This was a cost-plus business model, where profit was built into prices (a.k.a. rates). So partners have not focused on the metric of profitability in this fashion.

Once partners understand this, then it becomes quite natural to shift work to its lowest cost, effective labor source. Ron Baker will likely appreciate this statement: Tasks should be performed at their cheapest, most effective, level of timekeeper. This behavior will lead to improved profitability for law firms. But more importantly, this same behavior will lead to lower costs of service for clients. On a simple, illustrative level this means partners should not be performing tasks associates or paralegals can perform sufficiently well. Doing so undermines profits and raises costs for clients.

That point about clients is important. One of the discredited arguments against law firm KM was to claim that “KM is about saving time, and we don’t need to do that because we charge our clients for our time and so saving it undermines our income stream.”

That was always a poor argument (and to be honest is a bit of a straw man), but now we know how much the economy has affected our clients and most firms, if not all, profess to understand their clients. However much lawyers try to empathise, many of them will miss the impact of overruns on legal fees. For me it was brought home by Tony Williams in the keynote I referred to in my last post. He pointed out that in addition to delivering commercial legal solutions for their companies, General Counsel will be under pressure from their Finance Directors to manage costs to a pre-determined budget. Any overrun on that budget will require a many-fold increase in turnover to cover the cost.

For example, take Tesco, which appears to have a net profit margin of about 4% at present. (I know nothing of that business, apart from being an occasional user of its retail services (usually under duress). All information replicated here is taken at face value from public sources.) In rough terms, this means for every £100,000 of revenue, Tesco spends £96,000, and only makes £4,000 profit. Any cost overrun eats directly into the profit (it can’t come from anywhere else), and so has to be matched with a significantly greater increase in sales. A law firm acting for Tesco that allows costs on a given transaction to increase by just £12,000 (maybe three associates taking a day and a half longer than they should have done on the job) will require the supermarket to make £300,000 more in sales just to maintain its margin. Which partner wants to tell their client that because of the firm’s shoddy KM, the client needs to find an additional £300,000 revenue? Maybe the RoI on KM needs to be measured by reference to a reduction in the number of difficult conversations partners have with clients?

The other point about valuing KM was made very forcefully by Nick Milton, developing a point made by Larry Prusak.

When I was at the KMRussia conference with Larry last week, he asked a question which made me really think hard, and its an interesting question for anyone concerned with KM metrics.

He asked “What percentage of a company’s non-capital spend, is spent on knowledge”?

Now I would be thinking in terms of 3% maybe – perhaps the training budget, or perhaps the budget spent on conferences, but Larry suggested that would be quite wrong.

His answer was – 60%

60% of an organisations non-capital spend, is spent on knowledge.

The 60% figure is difficult to pin down — it depends on what other non-capital costs a business has. (For a law firm, rent may be a higher cost than for many other businesses.) The basic equation is simple enough, though:

Take the company wages bill, take away what this bill would be if everyone was paid as a new graduate, and that’s the investment in knowledge. After all, if knowledge was not valuable, you could staff the company with smart young graduates at a fraction of the cost. The only reason you don’t, is because knowledge is valuable.

Nick’s post got me thinking. How much do law firms value knowledge and, more interestingly, what return do they get on it? That latter point was not part of Nick’s argument, but it is one that can be explored quite easily for a business (like a law firm) that charges directly for the use of its knowledge. Just as one can get a figure for the value of knowledge by totting up a notional wages bill as if everyone was a raw recruit, one can do the same for the return on this value by calculating notional fee income for these raw recruits and comparing that figure with the actual fee income.

I have postulated an imaginary law firm: with 1060 staff and partners, a total of 120 partners in three grades, 500 other qualified fee-earners (in four bands), plus 75 trainees. The 365 support staff are grouped into five bands. Unfortunately, it is not possible to embed Google spreadsheets here, but this link will go to the full set of data.

Using some rough data for salaries (I have given the partners a salary for the purposes of the calculation, even though they would usually see a share of profit), fee rates, and so on, I have arrived at the following figures.

  • Actual salary bill: £56,350,000
  • Actual revenue: £178,887,500
  • Notional salaries: £25,750,000
  • Notional revenue: £93,200,000

Please take a look at the figures in the spreadsheet and suggest amendments n the comments — I don’t claim that this is a perfect model. However, it does suggest that this firm pays its people a knowledge premium of £30,600,000 annually, in return for which it recoups additional income of £85,687,500. This looks like a pretty spectacular return on investment to me.

If I Only Had a Brain — how to become the wisest in Oz

Last week, a random tweet by James Grandage prompted a chain of thought. He tweeted:

My response was to suggest that he had it already: a brain.

On reflection, however, it appears that James was seeking what many firms want — a brain for the whole organisation. To be able to create and recall institutional memories, to process sensations gathered by ears and eyes and to use those sensations to engage with other organisations (or people) and their brains.

In the name of knowledge management, many organisations have created databases and repositories that are intended to operate as brains as far as the technology will allow. Unfortunately, their actual performance often falls somewhat short of this promise. Why might this be?

One answer is suggested by the experience of the Scarecrow in Frank L. Baum’s Wizard of Oz. You will recall that he accompanied Dorothy on her journey to Oz in order to ask the Wizard for a brain, because that is what he wants above all else. As they travel down the Yellow Brick Road, the Scarecrow’s shows by his actions that in fact he has a brain, and can use it. When they get to Oz, he is recognised as the wisest man there.

Many law firms are on a similar journey. They labour in the belief that all they need to complete themselves is a know-how system, or database, or whatever terminology they use to describe their brain. In reality, they have one — distributed amongst their people — which they often use to spectacular effect. (For examples, see the FT’s report on Innovative Lawyers, which highlights a range of activities — very few (if any) of which depend on the existence of a KM system.)

Often, however, brains (whether individual or organisational) are used spectacularly poorly. I suspect that this is partly why KM databases fail so well: people just use them badly — they don’t use them, or they don’t volunteer their insights to them. (There are other, better, reasons, but I want to concentrate on this one for now.)

How actively do people use their own brains to reflect and learn from their experiences? Or to seek information or insight that challenges what they think they know? I must confess that I see little of this. (I try to do it myself, but I am sure I have blind spots where I accept a partial view of reality, rather than continuing to seek a better truth.) I am sure this critique and creativity happens, but for most people it is concentrated in areas where they are already experts. For lawyers, that is their area of legal expertise — not the work that goes on around them to support the firm in other ways.

As an example of this, consider the know-how system. Whilst the research I linked to above (and again here), dates from 2007, I still see people advocating such repositories as the cure-all for law firms’ knowledge ailments. At the very least, they ought surely to recognise that there is a contrary view and argue against it?

Another example that comes up repeatedly is the assertion that creative thought depends on using one’s right brain, rather than the analytical left brain. However, this depends on an understanding of neuroscience that was undermined twelve years ago. The origin of the left-right brain model was the research of Roger Sperry, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1981. Despite the attractiveness of this model (especially to a range of management authors), neuroscience, like all the sciences, does not stand still — all theories are challengeable.

The watershed year is 1998, when Brenda Milner, Larry Squire, and Eric Kandel published a breakthrough article in the journal Neuron, “Cognitive Neuroscience and the Study of Memory.” Kandel won the Nobel Prize two years later for his contribution to this work. Since then, neuroscientists have ceased to accept Sperry’s two-sided brain. The new model of the brain is “intelligent memory,” in which analysis and intuition work together in the mind in all modes of thought. There is no left brain; there is no right. There is only learning and recall, in various combinations, throughout the entire brain.

Despite the fact that this new model is just as easy to understand, people still fall back on the discredited left-right brain model. Part of the reason, I think, is that they don’t see it as their responsibility to keep up with developments in neuroscience. But surely using 30-year-old ideas about how the brain works brings a responsibility to check every now and then that those ideas are still current.

Something similar happens with urban legends. Here’s a classic KM legend: Stewart Brand on the New College roof beams.

It’s a good story, but not strictly true. In fact the beams had been replaced with pitch pine during the 18th century, the plantation from which the oak came was not planted until a date after the hall was originally built, and forestry practice is such that oak is often available for such a use.

It is not the case that these oaks were kept for the express purpose of replacing the Hall ceiling. It is standard woodland management to grow stands of mixed broadleaf trees e.g., oaks, interplanted with hazel and ash. The hazel and ash are coppiced approximately every 20-25 years to yield poles. The oaks, however, are left to grow on and eventally, after 150 years or more, they yield large pieces for major construction work such as beams, knees etc.

If we rely too heavily on documents and ideas that are familiar (and comfortable), we run the risk of selling ourselves short. As Simon Bostock has recently pointed out, there is almost invariably more interesting stuff in what we have not written down than in what we have captured (or identified as ‘lost knowledge’). Referring to another KM story (NASA have lost the knowledge that would be necessary to get to the moon again), he points out that what was really lost was not the documentation, but the less tangible stuff.

This means, basically, that even if NASA had managed to keep track of the ‘critical blueprints’, they would have been stuffed. Design trade-offs are the stuff of tacit knowledge. Which usually lives inside stories, networks, snippets of shoptalk, chance sneaky peeks at a colleague’s notes, bitter disputes and rivalries…

In knowledge terms, we’re about to live through another Black Death, another NASA-sized readjustment.

Smart organisations will recognise this in advance and avoid the archaeological dig at the junkyard, the museum and the old-folk’s home.

Archaeology is interesting, and can shed light on past and present activities, but we don’t use Grecian urns to keep food in any more. We use new stuff. The new stuff (whatever it might be) should be our continuing focus. That’s how we should use our brains, and how those supporting effective knowledge use should encourage brain-use in their organisations.

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.

KM conferences: KM Legal and KMUK 2010

Last week, I attended Knowledge Management UK — the Ark Group’s flagship KM conference. Last month I attended and presented at their equivalent for the legal community — KM Legal. There is probably a blog post to be written about the need for both, but this is not it. I just wanted to bring together a few thoughts.

(Rather than one of my own pictures, as usual, I was going to add one of someone else’s. But it isn’t available for embedding, so you can see it on Flickr instead. The whole set is worth a look too — it captures the spirit of KMUK pretty well, I think.)

A key difference between the two conferences was in the approach to social media. The chair of KM Legal suggested that tweeting should be kept to a minimum in order to prevent distractions, but at KMUK it was positively encouraged. (There is another post to be written about the pros and cons of conference tweeting…) In fact, KM Legal conformed to the stereotype of lawyers, in that there were very few screens evident in the audience — most people were taking notes the old-fashioned way, using pen and paper.

So I didn’t send more than a couple of tweets about KM Legal, but I tweeted quite a bit during KMUK (which seems to have been appreciated by some of those who couldn’t be at the conference). I also used Posterous to share longer thoughts about some of the sessions:

(I have also added a feed from my posterous site, where I am writing more frequently these days, to the menu at the right here.)

If I had to pick out a theme common to both conferences, I think it is probably a realisation that the old approaches are not enough. At KM Legal there was virtually no reference to know-how databases or knowledge repositories. Instead, people were talking about the way that KM was (or should be) embedded in the strategic processes of their firms — making a real contribution to debates about legal process outsourcing, practice management, and strategy. At KMUK, we were encouraged by Dave Snowden to reposition KM as sensemaking and by Dillon Dhanecha to avoid doing things that would not demonstrably add value to the organisation. I hope Dillon writes up some of his thoughts because I sensed a bit of a tension between what he said about ensuring that people only did what they knew would add value (which appeared to suggest an approach that exclude experimentation, serendipity and emergence) and his exhortation to follow Richard Branson and “screw it, let’s do it.”

However, the best thing about both conferences was the annual renewing of acquaintances and meeting new people. Nick Davies reprised his award-winning contribution to KCUK 2009 in a couple of sessions that really brought home the importance of personal contact. These conferences (and others, I am sure) prove his point.

The corporate-professional spectrum: law firms, KM and the future

Last week, I was at a meeting discussing an aspect of learning and development in law firms. One of the speaker’s slides referred to a dichotomy between attitudes within law firms (and some other professional service firms) and big corporations. This probably isn’t particularly insightful for others, but I hadn’t thought about it in the terms he used before, and something clicked for me.

Bear in the Bärengraben, Bern

The essence of the distinction is that the corporation is founded on a stable aim, whereas the professional service firm is more opportunistic, and that this is reflected in the way people work. Within an organisation like Boeing, for example, everyone knows that the company’s aim is to make planes. Everything they do is focused on that aim. In a law firm, by contrast, the nature of the work done (beyond the vague aim of helping clients) depends on the opportunities presented by those clients, the capabilities and interests of the lawyers (in combination with the support available).

As a result, the law firm tends to be more individualistic and pragmatic, where the corporation is hierarchical. People within law firms perceive themselves to be entitled to more autonomy than in the corporation. (As an outsider coming to the firm from a university background, I was completely at home within an environment where everyone considered themselves to be self-employed, whereas a colleague of mine who came from a retail business was quite shocked.)

These are, of course, extreme characterisations, but there is still an element of truth in them. They explain why KM and L&D people (as well as HR people) in law firms find a different set of challenges from their counterparts in commerce and industry. If the purpose of a law firm is emergent rather than pre-ordained, and contingent on the lawyers present in the firm at any given time, where is the value in knowledge continuity or succession planning?

That said, as I suggested in my last blog post, things are going to change in the next few years (and that change will make some of the freer souls feel like the relative of Mary Plain pictured above, in the now-closed bearpits at Bern). Any law firm that hasn’t already got a strategy is going to need one, and adherence to that strategy will become more important than ever — success will depend more on people doing what they are told than it does currently.

That is not to say that the essential nature of law firms will be lost. Law is still a more agile business than the building of aeroplanes — innovation will depend on people successfully following their own creative instincts. They will just have to do that within a more corporate framework. Two blog posts I picked up on today reinforce that quite well.

The first is a note by the always thoughtful Scott Berkun on a long interview with Tim O’Reilly. Scott picks up and re-tells a story Tim tells about an early encounter with an investment banker (Bob):

Bob made a statement that really struck me, and the more I thought about it, the more I saw in it, both to agree and disagree with.

The statement was this: “You don’t fish with strawberries. Even if that’s what you like, fish like worms, so that’s what you use.”

Bob was referring specifically to finding out what the real needs of the potential strategic partners might be, since they might be focussing on something other than what we think is most important about what we have to offer.

That’s really good advice for any sales situation: understand the customer and his or her needs, and make sure that you’re answering those needs. No one could argue with such sound, commonsense advice.

At the same time, a small voice within me said with a mixture of dismay, wonder and dawning delight: “But that’s just what we’ve always done: gone fishing with strawberries. We’ve made a business by offering our customers what we ourselves want. And it’s worked!”

Until now, most law firms have been in the fortunate position of being able to fish with strawberries. Even when they pay lip service to understanding the client, many of them are more interested in comparing themselves with other law firms. As a result, the shape of the legal market has not changed significantly over the past twenty years or so. There is still scope for strawberries, but we need to be better at considering the worms our clients relish (and that requires a discipline that has not often been seen amongst lawyers. A balance is possible, as Scott makes clear:

To only make strawberries makes you an artist. And to only make worms makes you a capitalist. To make both at the same time, or some of one now and then some of the other later, perhaps makes a successful artist. Or an artistic capitalist. Or in Tim’s case, it means you’re having a successful life that has helped people like me make successful lives, and perhaps that’s the best kind of fishing of all: fishing that helps other people learn to fish.

The other blog post is more clearly relevant to law firms. Bruce MacEwen has turned his laser-sight on the competing conceptions of ‘quality’ held by lawyers and their clients.

Clients on Quality Firms on Quality
Often “good enough” is good enough We need to run down every conceivable contingency no matter how remote-and extinguish it with a string cite
80/20 rule 99.99%
Financial metrics, cost-benefit, ROI Professional ethics and intellectual tradition
Business judgment The traditions of excellence in our firm

This is an excellent characterisation of the strawberries/worms dichotomy applied to service delivery. But whilst Bruce is generally keen to support the client perspective, he raises a valid concern.

Here’s my worry:

  • You and your firm agree to a client’s request/demand that a certain matter is only worth “good enough.”
  • You give it good enough-plus 10%, let’s say, just because you can’t help yourself.
  • Case closed.
  • Tick….tick….tick
  • Sometime later, things go seriously south with the matter formerly deemed closed.

Is good enough good enough any more?

And who’s to blame-your firm or the client-for the fact that merely sufficient legal advice has come back to bite?

Actually, you might not want to let your malpractice carrier think about this too long.

So doing things the lawyerly way could be beneficial to the client in the long run. The challenge must surely be to find a way to explain this to clients and to deliver it to a cost that increasingly price-sensitive businesses will tolerate. This is an excellent example of the difficult decisions that will need to be taken by firms, rather than individual lawyers, and where leadership and discipline will need to be exemplary for success.

And, needless to say, there is a role for knowledge management to play — how else will the firm learn from its mistakes and successes?

What do we do with knowledge?

Every now and then, I discover a new way in which my assumptions about things are challenged. Today’s challenge comes in part from the excellent commentary on my last post (which has been so popular that yesterday quickly became the busiest day ever here). I am used to discussions about the definition or usage of ‘knowledge management’, but I thought ‘knowledge sharing’ was less controversial. How wrong can one be?

Table at Plas Mawr, Conwy

The first challenge comes from Richard Veryard. His comment pointed to a more expansive blog post, “When does Communication count as Knowledge Sharing?” Richard is concerned that the baggage carried by the word ‘sharing’ can be counter-productive in the knowledge context.

In many contexts, the word “sharing” has become an annoying and patronizing synonym for “disclosure”. In nursery school we are encouraged to share the biscuits and the paints; in therapy groups we are encouraged to “share our pain”, and in the touchy-feely enterprise we are supposed to “share” our expertise by registering our knowledge on some stupid knowledge management system.

But it’s not sharing (defined by Wikipedia as “the joint use of a resource or space”). It’s just communication.

I agree that if people construe sharing as a one-way process, it is communication. (Or, more accurately, ‘telling’, since effective communication requires a listener to do more than hear what is said.) In a discussion in the comments to Richard’s post, Patrick Lambe defends his use of ‘sharing’ and Richard suggests that knowledge ‘transfer’ more accurately describes what is happening. I also commented on the post, along the following lines.

I can see a distinction between ‘sharing’ and ‘transfer’, which might be relevant. To talk of transferring knowledge suggest to me (a) that there is a knower and an inquirer and that those roles are rarely swapped, and (b) that there needs to be a knowledge object to be transferred. (As Richard puts it, “a stupid knowledge management system” is probably the receptacle for that object.)

As Patrick’s blog post and longer article make clear, the idea of the knowledge object is seriously flawed. Equally, the direction in which knowledge flows probably varies from time to time. For me, this fluidity (combined with the intangible nature of what is conveyed in these knowledge generation processes) makes me comfortable with the notion of ‘sharing’ (even given Richard’s playgroup example).

In fact, I might put it more strongly. The kind of sharing and complex knowledge generation that Patrick describes should be an organisational aspiration (not at all like ‘sharing pain’), while exchange or transfer of knowledge objects into a largely lifeless repository should be deprecated.

I think Richard’s response to that comment suggests that we are on the point of reaching agreement:

I am very happy with the notion of shared knowledge generation – for example, sitting down and sharing the analysis and interpretation of something or other. I am also happy with the idea of some collaborative process in which each participant contributes some knowledge – like everyone bringing some food to a shared picnic. But that’s not the prevailing use of the word “sharing” in the KM world.

This was a really interesting conversation, and I felt that between us we reached some kind of consensus — if what is happening with knowledge is genuinely collaborative, jointly creating an outcome that advances the organisation, then some kind of sharing must be going on. If not, we probably have some kind of unequal transfer: producing little of lasting value.

Coincidentally, I was pointed to a really interesting discussion on LinkedIn today. (Generally, I have been deeply unimpressed with LinkedIn discussions, so this was a bit of a surprise.) The question at the start of the discussion was “If the term “KM” could get a do-over what would you call the discipline?” There are currently 218 responses, some of which range into other interesting areas. One of those areas was an exchange between Nick Milton and John Tropea.

Nick responded to another participant who mentioned that her organisation had started talking about ‘knowledge sharing’ rather than ‘knowledge management’.

Many people do this, but I would just like to point out that there is a real risk here – that sharing (“push”) is done at the expense of seeking (“pull”). The risk is you create supply, with no demand.

See here for more detail: http://www.nickmilton.com/2009/03/knowledge-sharing-and-knowledge-seeking.html

The blog post at the end of that link is probably even more emphatic (I will come back to it later on). John had a different view:

Nick you say “sharing (“push”) is done at the expense of seeking (“pull”). The risk is you create supply, with no demand.”

This is true if sharing is based on conscription, or not within an ecosystem (sorry can’t think of a more appropriate word)…this is the non-interactive document-centric warehousing approach.

But what about blogging experiences and asking questions in a social network, this is more on demand rather than just-in-case…I think this has more of an equilibrium or yin and yang of share and seek.

People blog an experience as it happens which has good content recall, and has no agenda but just sharing the raw experience. Others may learn, converse, share context, etc…and unintentionally new information can be created. This is a knowledge creation system, it’s alive and is more effective than a supply-side approach of shelving information objects…and then saying we are doing KM…to me KM is in the interactions. We must create an online environment that mimics how we naturally behave offline, and I think social computing is close to this.

Nick’s response was interesting:

John – “But what about blogging experiences and asking questions in a social network, this is more on demand rather than just-in-case”

Asking questions in a network, yes (though if I were after business answers, i would ask in a business network rather than a social network). Thats a clear example of Pull.

Blogging, no, I have to disagree with you here. I am sorry – blogging is classic Push. Its classic “just in case” someone should want to read it. Nobody “demands” that you blog about something. You are not writing your blog because you know there is someone out there who is waiting to hear from you – you write your firstly blog for yourself, and secondly “just in case” others will be interested.

Blogging is supply-side, and it’s creating stuff to be stored. OK, it is stored somewhere it can be interacted with, and there is a motivation with blogging which is absent with (say) populating an Intranet, but it is stll classic supply-side Push. Also it is voluntary push. The people who blog (and I include myself in this) are the ones who want to be heard, and that’s not always the same as “the ones who need to be heard”. Knowledge often resides in the quietest people.

This exchange puts me in a quandary. I respect both Nick and John, but they appear to be at loggerheads here. Can they both be right? On the one hand, Nick’s characterisation of supply-side knowledge pushing as something to be avoided is, I think correct. However, as I have written before, in many organisations (such as law firms), it is not always possible to know what might be useful in the future. My experience with formal knowledge capture suggests that when they set out to think about it many people (and firms) actually rate the wrong things as important for the future. They tend to concentrate on things that are already being stored by other people (copies of journal articles or case reports), or things that are intimately linked to a context that is ephemeral. Often the information stored is fairly sketchy. One of the justifications for these failings is the the avoidance of ‘information overload’. This is the worst kind of just-in-case knowledge, as Nick puts it.

I think there is a difference though when one looks at social tools like blogging. As Nick and John probably agree, keeping a blog is an excellent tool for personal development. The question is whether it is more than that. I think it is. I don’t blog here, nor do I encourage the same kind of activity at work because someone might find the content useful in the future. I do it, and encourage it, because the activity itself is useful in this moment. It is neither just-in-case nor just-in-time: it just is.

In the last couple of paragraphs, I was pretty careless with my use of the words ‘information’ and ‘knowledge’. That was deliberate. The fact is that much of what we call KM is, in fact, merely manipulation of information. What social tools bring us (along with a more faceted view of their users) are really interesting ways of exposing people’s working processes. As we learnt from Nonaka all those years ago, there is little better for learning and development of knowledge than close observation of people at work. (Joining in is certainly better, but not always possible.) What we may not know is where those observations might lead, or when they might become useful. Which brings me to Nick’s blog post.

We hear a lot about “knowledge sharing”. Many of the knowledge management strategies I am asked to review, for example, talk about “creating a culture of knowledge sharing”.

I think this misses the point. As I said in my post about Push and Pull, there is no point in creating a culture of sharing, if you have no culture of re-use. Pull is a far more powerful driver for Knowledge Management than Push, and I would always look to create a culture of knowledge seeking before creating a culture of knowledge sharing.

Nick’s point about knowledge seeking is well made, and chimes with Patrick Lambe’s words that I quoted last time:

We do have an evolved mechanism for achieving such deep knowledge results: this is the performance you can expect from a well-networked person who can sustain relatively close relationships with friends, colleagues and peers, and can perform as well as request deep knowledge services of this kind.

Requesting, seeking, performing: all these are aspects of sharing. Like Richard Veryard’s “traditional KM” Nick characterises sharing as a one-way process, but that is not right — that is the way it has come to be interpreted. Sharing must be a two-way process: it needs someone to ask as well as someone who answers, and those roles might change from day to day. However, Nick’s point about re-use is a really interesting one.

I suggested above that some firms’ KM systems might contain material that was ultimately useless. More precisely, I think uselessness arises at the point where re-use becomes impossible because the material we need to use is more flawed than not. These flaws might arise because of the age of the material, combined with its precise linkage with a specific person, client, subject and so on. Lawyers understand this perfectly — it is the same process we use to decide whether a case is a useful precedent or not. Proximity in time, matter or context contributes significantly to this assessment. However, an old case on a very different question of law in a very different commercial context is not necessarily useless.

One of the areas of law I spent some time researching was the question of Crown privilege. A key case in that area involved the deportation of a Zairean national in 1990. In the arguments before the House of Lords, the law dating back to the English Civil War was challenged by reference to cases on subjects as varied as EC regulation of fisheries and potato marketing. That those cases might have been re-used in such a way could not have been predicted when they were decided or reported.

In many contexts, then, re-use is not as clear-cut an issue as it may appear at first. My suspicion is that organisations that rely especially highly on personal, unique, knowledge (or intellectual capital) should be a lot more relaxed about this than Nick suggests. His view may be more relevant in organisations where repetitive processes generate much more value.

On the just-in-case problem, I think social tools are significantly different from vast information repositories. As Clay Shirky has said, what we think is information overload is actually filter failure. Where we rely solely on controlled vocabularies and classification systems, our capability to filter and search effectively runs out much sooner than it does when we can add personalised tags, comments, trackbacks, knowledge about the author from other sources, and so on. Whereas repositories usually strip context from the information they contain, blogs and other social tools bring their context with them. And, crucially, that context keeps growing.

Which brings me, finally, back to my last post. One of the other trackbacks was from another blog asking the question “What is knowledge sharing?” It also picks up on Patrick’s article, and highlights the humanity of knowledge generation.

…we need to think laterally about what we consider to constitute knowledge sharing. This morning I met some friends in an art gallery and, over coffee, we swapped anecdotes, experiences, gripes, ideas and several instances of ‘did you hear about?’ or ‘have you seen?’… I’m not sure any of us would have described the encounter as knowledge exchange but I came away with answers to work-related questions, a personal introduction to a new contact and the germ of a new idea. The meet up was organised informally through several social networks.

The key thing in all of this, for me, is that whether we talk of knowledge sharing, transfer, or management, it only has value if it can result in action: new knowledge generation; new products; ideas; thoughts. But I think that action is more likely if we are open-minded about where it might arise. If we try and predict where it may be, and from which interactions it might come, I think it is most probable that no useful action and value will result in the long term.