The Changing Face of Knowledge Management

Back in 2009 Ted Tjaden put together what I consider a seminal paper called “The 7 Faces of Legal Knowledge Management.” [PDF] Knowledge Management is still a young discipline, with thinking and the areas it encompasses in flux. At a couple of recent meetings, including Knowledge Workers Toronto (a KM-related meetup group I help to organize), we explored how KM is changing, how it is varying from these “7 Faces”. Here are a few of my notes co-mingled from those discussions.

KM as a place to develop new frameworks and models

As the place to develop new thinking, new ways to address workflows, communication across the organization, and business models, KM can incorporate an agile approach. Use a specific approach to development of ideas can allow people across the organization–with different areas of concern and approaches–to come together and have a meaningful interaction.

Examples of types of frameworks and models that may be developed:

  • frameworks for working with clients/customers
  • innovation frameworks
  • idea management – allowing us to categorize new ideas, help them find the right homes (knowledge brokerage of a sort)
  • new business models, such as for legal work

KM as Research & Development

Related to the idea above, KM may be the place where the innovation is actually taking place, so the KM department is not only facilitating other departments, but also driving innovation inside the organization.

Models for KM as R&D:

  • Continuous improvement
  • Models and prototyping
  • Collecting data (statistics) to support activity
  • Tapping into areas of interest to clients/customers

KM as efficiency and productivity

The strengths behind KM departments allow for work on things like workflow and processes, ideally to improve efficiency and productivity. “Doing more with less” is the catch-phrase here. Some of the strengths of the KM department:

  • ability to work with technology
  • design thinking
  • document management
  • practice management

For anyone working with lawyers, KM can help to reduce the non-billable time lawyers spend on risk management by:

  • creating standardized retainer letters
  • developing specific methods for creating and maintaining ethical walls
  • creating standardized conflict of interest waiver letters
  • creating an intranet page with risk management solutions all in one place

KM as developing the “modern lawyer”

Given this work on innovation and development of models and frameworks, and developing more efficient workflows, KM is seen as helping lawyers to practice law in a new way. This is supported by Mitch Kowalski’s writings.

Social Knowledge Management (SKM)

Knowledge Management has always been an area hinged on interaction of people, but with the rise of social media inside the firewall, KM is becoming increasingly social. There is now even more attention being paid to relationships.

We are also seeing increasing turn over in our organizations, whether from down-sizing or retirements. The knowledge workers left inside the organization may no longer know each other, so it becomes even more important to help them build trust and working relationships.

We are seeing that KM is increasingly becoming a Human Resources and Professional Development issue.

KM as Professional Development and Training

Because of large turnover in staff, new processes are being put into place to on-board new staff and help them learn from the new knowledge. As well, PD and training are ways for knowledge to be passed from one to another inside the organization.

KM Director as Director of “Everything Else”

We are seeing that all the new thinking and processes that don’t otherwise have a home inside the organization are coming in through the KM department. For example:

  • legal project management
  • design thinking
  • user experience
  • taxonomy building and maintenance
  • anything of interest to clients

The KM Director can find opportunities in any number of places, taking on what others don’t feel is part of their jobs, and making it work for the organization. The key–as Joan Rataic-Lang here on Slaw might say–is being intrapreneurial.

How is KM Changing?

So this all raises the question: is the nature of KM changing? My thinking is that the basic ideas behind KM are still the same, but the work being taken on by KM departments is changing. And that is not necessarily a bad thing.

What do you think?


  1. Great post Connie. I think you now have the seminal word on the evolving nature of knowledge management. Your take is much more nuanced than mine was and I like the examples you give. Since my paper in 2009, the biggest change I have felt personally is seeing knowledge management evolve into project management with a little bit of risk management thrown in. I have also been thinking about the notion of “research and development,” something that tends not to be formalized or budgeted for in most (if not all) law firms.

  2. I agree with your assessment of the new and expanded role of KM. I’m not sure though, that “basic ideas behind KM are still the same.” Many KM professionals seem to have evolved to ‘practice support’, ‘strategic initiatives’, ‘business analyst’, or some other broader role. Of course, traditional KM is still on the plate but I wonder what percent of time it now occupies.

  3. Hi Connie. I’d like to contribute to this discussion by first stating that KM has not semantically changed: KM is the discipline that seeks to manage knowledge (can’t really argue with circular definitions!), and for me, it was (and still is) useful to stop, step back and think what this discipline ought to be, in my own mind, and what distinguished it from other disciplines (such as information management).

    The best thought leader on KM I have had the privilege of listening to is Dave Snowden. If you ever have a chance of hearing him live on topic… what a treat!

    My two cents worth on KM and its practice nowadays: KM, perhaps more than other fields of practice, requires clarity of purpose (why are we doing this KM project / program? what problems are we trying to solve and/or opportunities are we trying to seize?). KM also require an equally clear logic model. That clarity is often sidestepped by assumptions that do not hold in the longer run, which is why, I think, the work taken on by some KM departments is changing… as I said, my two cents worth. ;)

  4. Great article that summarizes almost all of the uses of a Knowledge Management and the reason I am using the word “almost” is because I believe it should have also been included the fact that KM is very useful in acquiring and servicing prospect clients. Not only are Knowledge Management databases useful internally, but if placed on a website it will help answer all of your potential client’s questions. This is however a totally different topic perhaps.

  5. I come from a non-legal background but find it interesting to read these thoughts on the role of KM in your discipline. A lot of what passes for KM in other spheres could probably be better classified as information management or even simply data management. There obviously are real gains that come from that approach but to plagiarise Verna Allee somewhat, the high end delivery bit on KM comes from gaining understanding and actions that result.

    In, an admittedly limited experience in practice based enterprises, I would have thought talent development would almost need to be integrated to the core of KM approach, but true development not just training.

    Difficulty in other industries is that shifting beyond a systems approach under the leadership of a KM department is very hard. Given some unique organisational nuances of practice based enterprises would think this may be even more difficult but also probably more important in the legal environment?

    So is an alternate way of looking at your question as being that KM departments migrate to what is possible, and that the apparent change in KM is more reflective of that? If so would the question then become become how they can further influence that direction assuming the belief that a “systems” type approach is only a partial solution?

  6. Thank you for all the great, thought-provoking comments. I should point out a few things:

    – These are selected notes from longer discussions with others and not meant to be comprehensive, nor does this thinking belong to me alone. Legal project management has been on the radar since last year, for example, so I did not include it. Also there has been discussion about client-facing services. I incorporated a bit of that into the discussion above but did not address it specifically. Certainly this is a driver in the legal industry.

    – Not all this discussion was from the legal industry, although given that this is a law blog I did bias it towards this. Some of the feedback such as Social Knowledge Management and KM as a Place to Develop New Frameworks and Models was not from the legal industry.

    Ted, thank you for your follow-up notes, and for validating some of the thinking.

    Ron, the conclusion that seems to be making the rounds is that we have largely mastered the original activities of KM, and are moving on to more advanced/encompassing activities. But you are right, it could be that it is moving on. Some kind of survey would be interesting I think.

    Patrick, thank you for mentioning Dave Snowden. Certainly his work in cognitive science has been a huge contribution, and I have been fortunate to see him speak a couple of times. Moreover, I have had facilitation training through his company Cognitive Edge and gotten a lot out of that.

    Eamon, thank you for your additional thoughts. Legal KM does indeed have a tendency towards working with documented knowledge and therefore a lot of the activities have been Information Management-related. There are, however, strong tacit knowledge transfer activities such as mentoring (in Canada, called articling) and communities of practice (in law, known as practice groups) that do exist. I do believe the expanding roles described above are taking KM departments into more advanced activities. I like your suggestion of how it all is changing.