Knowledge management is for firms of all sizes

Legal Practice Intelligence has just published a piece I wrote on knowledge management in law firms, titled: ‘Knowledge Management is for Firms of All Sizes‘.

The article:

  • provides a brief introduction to knowledge management generally;
  • argues that it would be hard to imagine a law practice where a business case could not be built to support the formal establishment of a KM system or at least some types of KM practice by evaluating the time and costs that can be saved by capturing, collating and making available the firms intellectual property to be utilised in a daily business context; and
  • offers insights on how such a system can be implemented and the main factors that need to be considered.

Knowledge Management is for firms of all sizes
By Stephen Sander, Knowledge Management Professional

Knowledge Management (KM) is a growing discipline in corporations and professional services firms around the world, including law firms. Larger and medium-sized firms have embraced KM with enthusiasm, but size, even sole practice, should not be a determinative factor whether you engage KM to grow your business and increase productivity.

What is KM?

To put simply, KM refers to a range of business practices designed to:

  • create, capture, collate, organise, distribute and promote the adoption and use of organisational knowledge, learning and experiences; and
  • identify, collate and distribute relevant external information.

A law firm, whether small or large, is the sum of the people who work there and their collective knowledge, expertise and experiences. The knowledge, expertise and experience of those people are the intellectual capital of the firm.

For a law firm it would be unthinkable to waste money or other tangible property, yet in many firms the intellectual capital in the form of knowledge and experience is overlooked or under utilised.

Some firms have sophisticated KM practices in place, others may have some rudimentary aspects of a KM system in place, while some others have completely failed to capture this intellectual capital.

An informative slide show titled Knowledge Management 101 is available at The Vue Post.

Why implement a KM system?

Capturing the knowledge, expertise and experience of lawyers (and even support staff), collating and organising that knowledge, expertise and experience and then making that resource available to the firm at large contributes to efficiency, productivity and innovation and creates a platform for continuous learning, improvement and competitive advantage.

A KM system will benefit any organisation, especially law firms that rely on the intellectual output of their lawyers, regardless of their size or scope of practice.

A KM system can also be utilised to identify, collate and distribute external information relevant to the firm which can include business, legal, regulatory and competitive information among other things.

It would be hard to imagine a law firm where a business case could not be built to support the formal establishment of a KM system or at least some types of KM practice by evaluating the time and costs that can be saved by capturing, collating and making available the firms intellectual property to be utilised in a daily business context.

If as a lawyer you have ever used an existing court document or an advice as the basis for a new, similar document, you have already unconsciously engaged the basic concept underlying KM of utilising existing knowledge and expertise to create a competitive advantage by being able to prepare your next document faster and at a lower cost than previously.

In today’s competitive and costs sensitive business environment a KM system is not a luxury to aspire to but rather a necessity to ensure productivity and a competitive edge.

How to implement a KM system?

The level of sophistication, technology and resources which would require to establish and support a KM system is something to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. The system needs to be a fit with the resources and needs of the relevant firm.

The best KM system is tailor-made to suit the needs of the relevant firm by taking into account:

  • the size and the nature of the practice;
  • the knowledge, learning and experience that needs to be captured;
  • theappropriate method of:
    • capturing, collating, organising and storing the information; and
    • making that information available; and
  • the resourcing requirements for the establishment and ongoing management of a KM function.

Technology and KM

Technological developments have increased the possibilities in managing organisational knowledge. Semantic web and Web 2.0 (even 3.0 now) technologies, such as tablet devices, mobile computing, social networking, wikies, RSS feeds and web-based applications have revolutionised not just communication and the world at large, but also our ability to create, collate, organise and distribute professional information and resources.

Any modern KM system is doomed to failure if it fails to embrace the new frontiers in technology because such technologies have the capability to improve communication and collaboration and therefore are essential building blocks of any KM system.

Also with the increasing number of tech-savvy employees a KM system which does not adapt and integrate new technologies will fail to engage and will surely wither un- or under-utilised.

Other matters to consider

The human factor

To create and maintain an effective and useful KM system, visibility of the KM professional or the person responsible for maintaining the KM function within a firm is a key attribute.

State of the art technology to back your KM system is desirable. But at the end of the day a KM system will only be as useful as the quality of its content.

Maintaining a KM system is much like tending to a garden – it requires hard work and dedication. You must:
provide it with sufficient ‘fresh nutrients’ on a regular basis in the form of quality and up-to-date materials and information;
‘weed’ it diligently by removing (or updating if appropriate) old, outdated materials and information; and
from time-to-time ‘replant’ and redesign old and ‘tired’ components to ensure that the way materials and information are categorised continues to be appropriate for the needs of the business and to ensure that access is straight-forward and intuitive (the implementation and use appropriate emerging technologies from time-to-time can be of great assistance in this respect).

Further, the best KM technology will be useless without people contributing their existing knowledge and using the technology to create and develop new knowledge.

The technological factor

As emphasised above, technology plays a significant role in any successful KM system and utilising the right technology can make the difference between failure, mediocrity or success. On the other hand, it’s important to keep in mind that technology merely provides a platform for the collation and distribution of existing knowledge and for the collaboration that creates and develops new knowledge.

To get the technology right, it must have a ‘people focus’ and it must be a tailored solution to the needs of your firm, by considering your firm’s document, information and knowledge management needs and the budget available for implementing your new ,or upgrading your old, system.

If you would like to find out more about the technological factor, please read my blog entry titled KM and technology.

The evolution of KM

KM is not static, it is evolving and adapting to keep pace with the growing pressures and challenges facing businesses and this means that the role and scope of KM is continuously undergoing a transformation.

As the global and national economic environment is changing the way businesses operate, law firms and legal practices face new challenges, pressures and priorities. These new challenges, pressures and priorities unavoidably filter through to the KM function.

This evolution of KM manifests itself in exploring new areas where KM can create significant value add contributions to a practice or firm’s business. For more information of this evolution, please read my blog entry titled ‘The evolution of Knowledge Management in law firms‘.

Stephen Sander is a practising Lawyer and Knowledge Management Professional. For more information on knowledge management generally visit his website.

Q & A

Legal Practice Intelligence: What are some of the typical activities that small firms are likely to be already doing that could be described as KM?

Stephen Sander: At the most basic level, if a lawyer reuses/modifies say an advice or a court form from a previous transaction they worked on or which was provided by a fellow practitioner to them, they are using an internal ‘precedent’. This is typical practice, often done by lawyers and it is an aspect of KM on an individual level.

Many small firms may already have a library of previous advices given on particular aspects of the law made available internally as a research tool, whether in hard copy or electronically.

Some smaller firms may also prescribe to court form or other precedent services provided by a third-party service provider, which is one component of a KM system.

I think a lost of small firms may already engage in ad hoc practices which are components of what we would describe as KM, but perhaps lack the formal structure and the connections between the various activities to create a systematic KM function.

Legal Practice Intelligence: Where can you go to learn KM?

Stephen Sander: There are online resources suitable for informal learning (for some examples see: KM Resources) and there are also knowledge management professional groups on social media such as LinkedIn that offer support and information.

Of course, there are also formal university courses that deal with information management and knowledge management.

Legal Practice Intelligence: What type of software can a small firm buy/use to start a basic KM system? Can mind mapping software with hyperlinks fit this use?

Stephen Sander: I am not sure that mind mapping software would be ideal from a KM perspective. Perhaps it would assist in designing the right approach, but not the implementation of the system itself.

Frankly, there may not be a need to expand significant amounts on specific KM software as existing resources may often be utilised and tailored, including an existing document management software and intranet infrastructure. This may be particularly attractive to smaller practices as it avoids significant capital expenditure.

Of course, there are vendors who develop specific KM software, but such specialised software may not quite be necessary unless the intention is to create a state-of-the-art KM system or where you need to support a significant amount of employees or professional staff. Such a system is unlikely to be able to be justified from a cost-benefit perspective for most legal practices. Such an approach would generally be better suited to a larger organisation with employees numbering in the hundreds.

Nevertheless, add-on components such as wiki or corporate social media plug-ins may assist the collaborative exchange and learning components of a systemic KM function. There are various off-the-shelf versions of such software available in the market which can plug into and complement an existing intranet setup and can provide the basis of a ‘social firm’ as one component of a KM function.

Legal Practice Intelligence: Is there usually a natural friction between lawyers who privately hoard information and the firm who wants everyone to share with others?

Stephen Sander: Indeed, culture is a significant underlying component. To be more exact, the culture of sharing, mentoring and assisting each other and working towards a common vision is essential.

This approach to collaboration needs to come from the very top of every practice and there needs to be an ongoing focus to ensure that the culture of sharing and cooperation becomes an entrenched part of the practice.

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