July 12, 2004

Refining Personal KM

Ron Friedmann has this rebuttal to my Personal KM post today. In it, he mentions, "If we concede Jeff’s point, however, I fear that we will confirm that large law firms are nothing but a collection of solo practitioners sharing some overhead. "

First off, I have a very healthy amount of respect for Ron's observations and opinions (his blog should be required reading by any firm's managing partner or committee). However, while I'm definitely leaning on the "personal" side regarding focus, I don't think my point went quite that far. Obviously there is or can be a large amount of shared organizational data (e.g., which attorneys have handled a particular type of matter, which experts were used in which cases, what's the process for prosecuting a patent, where are the prior documents for a similar type of transaction, etc.) that can be collected and leveraged at the organization level. Thus the information necessary for personal KM often comes from organizational information stores. So there needs to be a method in place for "wrangling" that organizational information.

Thanks to Ron's comments, it's made me refine the concept somewhat: My thought was that the use of such organizational information is often personalized -- while fully recognizing that being able to track and generate usable information for various management uses is also a valid need. After working in a number of large firms/companies, I'll go on the record and state that there are indeed many silos with which to contend. Thus formally recognizing their existence should be taken into account in coming up with a KM approach that might actually do a better job of meeting its participants' expectations and workflow needs/styles.

While neither approach is easy by any means, I'm thinking that a KM system designed to meet individual knowledge workers' needs/styles is more likely to bear fruit than one which requires those same people to change how they natively work best. One inherent conflict is that many current software systems require that information be entered rigidly into controlled database fields for data conformity and consistency. Conversely, the need is more fluid and dynamic. That's why I'd love to see something different in the marketplace. Also, KM's nuances are unique not only to each individual, but each organization and culture as well. That's why the same KM approach might work well in some organizations and fail miserably in others.

Thus I really like how Tom Collins summed it up in a comment to Ron's post above, and more elegantly than my humble musings:

"In my view, we definitely need to keep working on organizational KM, but it can only work if we start all KM initiatives from the individual knowledge worker (lawyer) and work outward from there. As I suggest in my blog post, it’s just a matter of the direction of the arrow pointing outward FROM the individual, rather than inward AT the individual.

The work gets done by individuals. Helping them work better as individuals, as small teams, and as large firms, we must start with the individuals. This includes re-inventing the U.S. law firm in terms of reward structures, practice areas (read: silos), and culture values."

I wouldn't suggest a chaos theory, but rather, how can we go from more rigid, rules-based organizational systems and procedures to something that is a more dynamic fit for the person trying to use it, while maintaining data integrity? That's a tall order -- very tall. It's in this regard that I like Tom's analogy of looking at the direction of the arrow. I certainly don't have the answers, but I like asking the tough questions in the hopes that someone more enlightened might just help us build the better mouse trap.

[Update: Just after I posted the above, I saw a new trackback on Ron's post to IT Manager.Net. Indeed, as you can see here, I have many of the same questions. Perhaps it's pie in the sky, but I'd still love to see such a system.]

Topic(s):   Law Practice Management
Posted by Jeff Beard

The "simple" problem of efficiently organizating, storing, and disseminating information still proves to be elusive.

As a trained indexer and cataloger, I think the Holy Grail of KM ultimately rests on a personal level. This is due to the individual differences in learning styles and information needs.

While knowledge workers should be able to organize information in "free form," (i.e. forget about structured indexing and taxonomies - a radical thought even in my book), knowledge seekers need to be able to retrieve information the way they think and work.

When both spectrums meet (organization and retrieval), we have a personal KM system.

Now the trick is to design a deliverable system that fits the bill. Perhaps a cross between Google and TheBrain (http://www.thebrain.com) would provide some surprising results.

Posted by: Tony Chan at July 15, 2004 04:37 PM

In a recent article on organisation "stars" in BOSS (reprinted from Harvard Business Review/New York Times) at http://www.afrboss.com.au/magarticle.asp?doc_id=23577&rgid=2&listed_months=0
the following observations were made:

"Most of us have an instinctive faith in talent and genius, but it isn’t just that people make organisations perform better – the organisation also makes people perform better. ...

Most companies underestimate the degree to which stars’ success depends on the following company specific factors:

Resources and capabilities. Only after a star quits do they realise the company’s
reputation, as well as its financial and human resources, allowed them to do the things that really mattered. A star analyst who left Merrill Lynch for a smaller investment bank told us: “I spent three days trying to get the investment relations people at a company to give me some information that would have taken my assistant at Merrill less than an hour to obtain."

Systems and processes. Although stars often complain about them, corporate procedures and routines contribute in many ways to individual success. When Lehman Brothers’ research department was ranked No. 1 in 1990, its star analysts had nothing but praise for a team-based research process that allowed them to work across sectors and an investment committee process that helped them evaluate research rigorously.

They also made special mention of the information technology systems, which allowed analysts to deliver reports ahead of rivals, and an evaluation system that kept analysts up-to-date on how they were performing. "

So, yes KM must focus on helping the individual perform, but it requires an organisation wide effort and understanding.

Posted by: David Jacobson at July 12, 2004 04:41 PM