Nobody has time to read, process, or manage the information contained in 174 newspapers every single day—but that’s exactly the amount of data we’re bombarded with in a 24 hour period, according to a study by Dr. Martin Hilbert of the University of Southern California. There’s no need to tell you about the incessant stream of data you’re grappling with on a daily basis. However, there is a simple definition and approach to getting a grip on what knowledge is, and how managing it better will increase your ability to do what you do best—practice law.
As an attorney or legal professional, you provide a service, not a product. The service is simply delivering your clients value through your expertise, professionalism, organization, and of course your knowledge of the law. As a service provider, you have an underlying product or ingredient that allows you to deliver top-notch service to your clients—it’s your firm’s knowledge, and the processes and organization you have in place to manage it.
Knowledge Management (KM) has been around for decades, but there is no shortage of varying definitions, ranging from the academically nebulous, to the business strategists’ over-analysis, to the philosophically numbing. Let’s try to put semantics aside, and focus on simplicity and practicality. After all, time is money, so let’s not waste it.
In 1994, Thomas H. Davenport offered a simple and concise definition of KM, “Knowledge management is the process of capturing, distributing, and effectively using knowledge.” It’s simple and to the point. So what would qualify as “knowledge” in the legal profession? In order to define knowledge as it relates to your practice, ask yourself a few simple questions to get the wheels turning:
What information is important to me? What information is important to the firm?
By looking at the individual and the firm as separate layers of KM, you can begin to see how knowledge encompasses individual needs and business needs, and the fact that what is deemed “important” information may vary when looking through these separate filters.
For example, maybe one of your needs is to continue naming documents the way you’ve been doing it for a decade, but the firm’s need is for others to be able to find your documents to reference another case. Or maybe you have the individual need to have constant mobile access to your information, so you place everything on your laptop, while the firm needs to have the data protected behind firewalls for liability and compliance reasons. Or how about the need to not spend so much of your time training a new hire versus the firm’s need to get a newly hired person up to speed and productive as quickly as possible?
Another productive way to wrap your head around all of the relevant knowledge that relates to you and the firm is to go through a typical day and identify all of the areas in which you interact with knowledge and information. Here is a list to jog your memory—and while you may not deem some of these as areas of “important information,” consider why they’re on he list:
- Email correspondence
- Email with attachments (documents, pictures, etc.)
- Documents on your computer
- Documents on the server
- Documents in the Document Management System (DMS)
- Data in the Practice Management System
- Time and billing
- Client information
- Matter information
- Internal firm information
- Firm’s public-facing information
- Phone calls
- Text messages
- Instant messages
- News and media articles (both print and digital)
- Social Media posts (Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Google+, etc.)
- Social Media conversations
- Forum conversations
- Events, tradeshows and roundtable discussions
- Associations and state bar organizations
- Conversations with staff and co-workers
- Library content
- Case research
- Policies and procedures
- Employee and staff feedback and formal reviews
- Meeting notes
- Agendas and calendars
- Previous firm cases
- Individual specialization within the firm
- Competing firms profiles and specializations
The list of course could go on, but the aim is not to overwhelm but to get you thinking comprehensively about all of the potential bits of data and “stuff” that is important to you and the firm, and what state it’s in (tangible or non). Once the important information has been identified, the job of KM is to efficiently collect the information and connect it to the right people for the purpose of learning and using it. Connection and accessibility by the right individual and at the right time is the apex of KM. If the right individual is bombarded with relevant information but at the wrong time, KM has failed. Similarly, the wrong information arriving at the right time fails in the same way. For KM to be working effectively, the process should be focused on syncing the three variables of what, when, and to whom.
Technology and supporting processes are the key components to effectively collecting and connecting information to people.
Innovation in recent years has leveled the technological playing field, allowing even the smallest of firms to gain access to the powerful tools the global firms have had in their toolboxes for decades. Technology should be a critical component to any KM strategy and initiative. As you consider the many sources and types of valuable information at your firm, you’ll find that the vast majority of critical data is found in documents, emails, and the information contained in your practice management repository (client and matter data). Focusing initial KM efforts on these areas will yield the greatest benefit in the shortest amount of time.
While technology is a key ingredient, not all technology is created equal. Many firms stumble as they select individual systems that don’t communicate with each other. As a law firm, you need to consider the big picture of having the technology integrated and working together towards the greater goal of unifying the collection, distribution, and utilization of data. The evaluation and selection of supporting technology should be taken seriously. Talk to peers, trial the products, engage a legal technology consultant, or take to the web for forums, associations and social media channels available. The underlying message is: ‘don’t walk the technology path alone.’ When selected and deployed correctly, technology does the heavy lifting in your KM strategy, moving tech systems out of a back office and onto the front stage as a major player and differentiator for your firm’s overall brand and objectives.
Get started by taking a good hard look
The first step is to take stock of how you’re running your practice and if the supporting technology is managing information, or simply getting in the way. Where does a newly scanned, authored or emailed document currently go? Is there any logic behind how and where it is filed? Is it different for you than it is for somebody else in the firm? If it is relatively the same for everyone, do they have the ability to deviate from that process if they wanted to? Does everyone in your firm communicate and collaborate with clients in the exact same way? And how are relevant details and data related to a matter communicated to other individuals working on the case?
By identifying potential areas of information leakage and lack of knowledge transfer across the organization, you’ll begin to quickly see the gaping holes that can be remedied with the right technology and supporting processes. To some degree, we all deal with the negative effects of knowledge mismanagement; the goal is to minimize it. From lost documents, to aimlessly searching for something you had referenced in the past, to poor policy management, to wasted energy re-writing, re-training, or simply re-doing, knowledge loss costs time, money, and mindshare.
Start somewhere and start now. KM is an ongoing cycle of evaluation and implementation of technology; processes that will help your firm run more efficiently and service your clients better. And remember that information is just dots—knowledge is how you connect them.