Some Musings on Knowledge Management

Lately I have been thinking about knowledge management (KM) and how difficult it seems to be to implement effectively. From my perspective looking in (unless you count CanLII Connects as a national KM initiative), it seems there are many issues with the way KM is conceptualized that make it more difficult to implement successfully than it has to be. Generally in legal settings the main goal is to improve practice, which can be achieved in many ways, some of which involve knowledge. Starting with framing practice issues generally as knowledge problems can put too much emphasis on certain activities and not enough on desired outcomes.

Many of the issues affecting organizations’ ability to successfully implement KM plans have to do with confusion about the myriad of potential initiatives that are often grouped together under the term. Instead of pure KM, other related concepts are included in job descriptions and departments, which can lead to confusion over who is the best choice to do the work. For the purposes of this article, I am defining KM as the discipline of organizing systems that make information assets more effective. Related initiatives would fall under different terms like practice management.

KM systems can be in any medium, including print, digital, or social, and the information assets can be in any format including but not limited to documents and people’s knowledge and memories. I am not suggesting KM professionals turn away opportunities to do projects outside this area if they make sense for the organization, but “knowledge management” is a smaller area of discussion. It may be appropriate for KM teams to explore opportunities like the implementation of organized project management of client matters, but that would be more focussed on practice improvement than KM.

If we limit our discussion to KM as KM there are also the subsets of work that need to be done to implement a successful KM program. Many KM programs involve IT systems that need to be set up. These IT systems then need to be populated. And decisions need to be made about what knowledge is sufficiently valuable to be worth the trouble and is amenable to being stored in an IT system. There is also intellectual work required to ensure that the project organizes information in useful way that balances the value of the information and the time of those adding it to the system.

These tasks are significantly different from each other and suit quite different skill sets. There is a combination of high concept and clerical work in developing and maintaining effective systems which can lead to a mismatch between who is best to fill these roles in small teams. This mix of tasks is paired with an applicant pool that includes many lawyers looking for alternative legal careers, and the persistent idea that technical work requires IT professionals to manage it.

This leads to a lack of clarity about what professional background is best to equip people to be knowledge managers. Lawyers understand practice the best. Librarians understand the informational aspects of the projects the best. IT staff can implement the systems the best. And clerical staff are best at much of the work that populates and keeps the systems up to date.

So where does that leave KM? KM is important, especially for some kinds of needs. Many KM projects are ways to improve access to explicit information in the form of written documents, which have the biggest payoff when there are high costs to recreating the information contained in them or where there are clearly right and wrong answers and the risks associated with imperfect answers are high. It’s also important when there is diversity in what people know, for example after firms merge, when there have been or will be several retirements, or if an organization becomes large or geographically dispersed enough that it isn’t feasible for them all to talk to each other anymore.

KM, as the coordinated effort to better manage knowledge assets, has always struggled with explicit knowledge – things we know we know, and implicit knowledge – the things we don’t know we know. It is easier to control explicit knowledge in the form of documents, but even that is difficult because there is often little organization from document creators, and it’s difficult to navigate large bodies of unorganized textual information.

It can be even more difficult to manage implicit information. Implicit knowledge is knowledge we may not be conscious of knowing. This information is often best shared through the encouragement of social interaction, but there are efforts to record this information using techniques like job shadowing. This is a relatively new problem in legal practice because many practices used to be more stable and smaller. The KM issues of small or solo practices are different from those in a large firm.

Lawyers may resist investing in KM, which I believe derives in part from their perception of a lack of respect for the legal profession’s traditional ways of transferring knowledge. I am not prepared to say that this isn’t a valid concern, and I believe that many KM plans would have more success if more attention was paid to how good many lawyers are at transferring knowledge already. I have discussed the model of articling with library studies students over the years, and many would be quite grateful for a period of formal mentorship as they start their careers.

There are many alternatives to an organized KM program, especially if one further narrows KM to improving IT systems to access internally generated documents, which are often the first KM projects implemented. A full evaluation of all alternatives should include the option of figuring things out as one goes – this may work, but I suspect this possibility may make many nervous, and it decreases the value of doing business with a large organization, because the group doesn’t know more than the individuals.

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