I am skeptical of supposed 'paradigm shifts' or 'revolutions' in knowledge management (KM). Some of these claimed revolutions – such as the shift from knowledge capture to knowledge creation – have endured. The majority have been proven to be fads.
With that warning, I do think we may currently be seeing one quite important development in law firm KM. It could be labeled as the demise of 'command and control' approaches to KM. This is sometimes referred to as the rise of 'emergent collaboration', which is linked to so-called 'Enterprise 2.0' web technologies.
This trend is closely related to the shift from knowledge capture to knowledge creation. If you see knowledge as an inert ‘thing’ that can be captured, edited and distributed, there is a danger that your KM effort will gravitate to the rather boring, back-office work preoccupied with indexes and IT systems. This will be accompanied by a ritualized nagging of senior lawyers to contribute more knowledge to online systems.
If, however, you see knowledge as a creative and collaborative activity, your interest will be the way in which distinctive insights can be created and deployed to deepen client relationships. You will tend to be more interested in connecting people than in building perfect knowledge repositories.
The command and control approach to law firm KM focuses on the systems and management structures needed to capture and publish knowledge. In this approach, knowledge is often created in a very centralized way, using techniques such as commissioning, or forming ‘project groups’, and then publishing the output in centralized content stores. The fact that no more than 25 per cent of material stored in databases is ever accessed does not seem to deter people from thinking that placing material in a central store constitutes a success of some type.
My own revelation about the limits of command and control approaches came a few years ago, while I was attending a KM conference in Seville, Spain. I was in a seminar on what was then an emerging technology – the wiki – looking at the way wiki software was being used to develop a (then) new online encylopedia, Wikipedia. It occurred to me that if we could use this form of collaborative technology to de-centralize the process of content authoring, we might be able to get more lawyer involvement in know-how, particularly in those areas where we did not have professional support lawyer teams. Cutting a long story short, Allen & Overy LLP have been experimenting with wikis – and blogs – for over eighteen months now and the results are very encouraging.
For the KM purist attached to the command and control ethos, the idea of unregulated proliferation of content sounds like chaos. However, the success of Wikipedia, in creating one of the world's leading reference tools, shows how much trust around content can be established even on the internet. We should be confident that even greater levels of trust could be established within law firms. Perhaps we should go further and collaborate between firms to build online, legal equivalents of Wikipedia: such a development would have the legal publishers shaking in their boots as they watch their pricing model go the same way as traditional encyclopedias.
This focus on collaboration, which is greatly facilitated by blogs and wikis, is only one part of a trinity, which shapes our thinking on the development of our know-how systems. That trinity is locate, navigate, and collaborate.
This is all about the importance of enterprise-wide search. A rapid search of a wide range of data sources to find anything that may be relevant to a particular query, when the fee earner does not have a well-defined starting point (the trawling requirement). Google is a cultural phenomenon, the extent of which is shown in its transition to a verb: to google. I believe that enterprise-wide searching is needed across all know-how and wider documentation. It enables lawyers to quickly assess whether there is any generally relevant know-how relating to a specific issue. It is also important as a means of consolidating access to the vast proliferation of unregulated content types – for example, blogs, wikis and webcasts – without a series of cumbersome portal views. But importantly, I believe that lawyers are likely only to want to perform a Google-style search when they don't know exactly what it is they are looking for. So, for example, they might want to know if there are any standard documents in this area, or if anyone has done a note on a particular area.
Alongside search it is vital to have a direct route to core documents and guidance that lawyers know exist on our system, and to separate it from the non-core material that is found distributed across practice-group intranet pages and so on. This requires relatively easy navigation to a specific document or class of documents (e.g. a share sale and purchase SFP, or a note on a particular topic by a particular author), when the fee earner has a well-defined starting point (the drill down requirement). When a lawyer knows that a particular document exists the last thing they want is to trawl through a Google-style list of results or a variety of different portals.
Of course, it's a developing picture and search engines are getting better and better at predicting users' needs, but I'm pretty sure that this division between looking generally to find out what's there and going directly to critical documents that you know exist is always going to be with us. Search will not provide an overview of the essential knowledge resources in a practice group or jurisdiction, nor any supporting guidance on their use. Neither does it allow lawyers to quickly and easily look at the knowledge resources in practices or jurisdictions other than their own. We can call these various requirements the overview requirement.
The good thing about getting your house in order on critical know-how is that you can then live with a high level of 'fuzziness' – akin to the internet experience – on your enterprise-wide searching.
To conclude, the mistake that the 'command and control' people make is thinking that a perfect navigation system displaces the need for a broader, more flexible search. Navigational systems, particularly when they are linked to a matter-centric view, support the more standardized work streams in a law firm. They are vital. But mistakes are often made by: taking know-how commoditization into areas where it is not appropriate; failing to understand the way that lawyers use search engines to produce personalized syntheses of disparate material (for example, they often create an 'answer' from disparate material – instead of actually "finding" it); and, lastly, committing to excessive investment in human effort in the maintenance of navigational systems, which is unlikely to meet any defensible return-on-investment criteria.