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If Only Law Firms Knew What Law Firms Know…

I was recently honoured with an invitation from Dave Bilinsky and Tom Spraggs to present at the Law Firm Knowledge Management webcast as part of the recent CLE TV Solo and Small Firm Seminar Series hosted by CLEBC. Having moved from running the Knowledge Management program at one of BC’s largest firms to practising law at an IP boutique this year, I possibly had a unique perspective to bring to the table.

I started the webcast with Lew Platt’s famous lament while CEO of Hewlett Packard, which is a kind of touchstone in Knowledge Management, and one I often hear around law firms:

“If only HP knew what HP knows, we’d be three times as productive”

Platt of course was well known in the business world for his progressive management style, embodying the “HP way” of managing talent and pioneering the “management by walking around” leadership style.

It’s instructive to note that while law firms are still lamenting the lack of Knowledge Management in similar terms, Platt’s quote stretched back as far back as 1992. Fast forward a couple of decades and Knowledge Management has since become entrenched as an integral part of the HP way, while many law firms have yet to get underway.

While most solo and small firm participants of the webcast recognized the value of Knowledge Management, the question they wanted answered is how to start a Knowledge Management program with limited time and expertize.

A Knowledge Management program must begin with a vision. Since I started with HP, it is to HP that I will now return to for further inspiration. At HP Consulting, the Knowledge Management vision is articulated as follows:

“Our consultants feel and act as if they have the entire organization at their fingertips when they consult with customers. They know exactly where to go to find information. They are eager to share knowledge as well as leverage other’s experience in order to deliver more value to customers. We will recognize those consultants that share and those that leverage other’s knowledge and experience as the most valuable members of the HP consulting team.”

Let’s consider the lessons that can be drawn out of that vision statement in the context of a small law firm starting a Knowledge Management project:

  • Start with a vision that everyone can share.
  • Consider what success will look like. In HP Consulting the goal is to put the knowledge of the entire organization at the consultants’ fingertips. The goal in law firms could be to avoid constant “reinvention of the wheel” by organizing all the firm’s materials into a toolkit, including research, checklists, project plans, exemplar documents, and precedents.
  • The HP Consulting vision refers to sharing and leveraging experience as well as knowledge. In many ways, having access to others’ experience can be as powerful as access to knowledge.
  • If the firm’s critical knowledge is to be at legal professionals’ fingertips, there must be a single repository which is available (possibly on a network) and easily accessible by everyone. To start with, the firm need not buy fancy, expensive software: the repository could be a filing cabinet drawer or a binder, so long as it is accessible.
  • Finding information within the Knowledge Management system must be intuitive so that professionals know exactly where to go to find knowledge and information. A search engine is of course a powerful feature, but do not underestimate the value of organizing materials according to an agreed taxonomy. Being able to search the actual content of documents electronically is a helpful feature.
  • Professionals must be eager to share knowledge, which I have found to be one of the biggest challenges in legal Knowledge Management, particularly while the billable hour predominates. Remember that Knowledge Management is only part technology focused; the remaining two components in Knowledge Management theory and practice are people and processes. In my experience, most of Knowledge Management implementation revolves around change management by persuading professionals to change their habits by contributing their knowledge and experience to the Knowledge Management program. Change management is one of the hardest programs to accomplish.
  • Define the end goal. In the HP Consulting vision, the end goal is defined as sharing knowledge and leveraging experience to deliver more value to the customers.
  • Finally, recognize those who share and leverage the most knowledge and experience. This can take many different forms, depending on your office culture. It can include kudos in a regular bulletin, a coffee card, MVP award or trophy, billable hour credits, or even a cash bonus or time off.

Essentially the key to successful Knowledge Management is to get started by defining the vision, then incentivize professionals to share their knowledge within an easily accessible repository.

We operate in the knowledge economy where knowledge is one of your firm’s principal assets and key differentiators. When managed effectively, that knowledge will power your firm to become more successful and productive.

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