10 Steps to Building a Knowledge Sharing Organisation

January 1, 2001

Cultural change – it sounds wonderful – the notion that by waving a magic wand you can transform your law firm into a glorious nirvana where individuals happily share their knowledge with others, spend their days standing around by the coffee machine pondering ideas and initiatives, enjoying earnest discussion with colleagues, then phone their clients only to amaze them with original solutions to long-standing legal problems. Unfortunately, there is no magic wand available to create such a scenario. The reality is that engendering cultural change in the law firm environment is akin to turning an oil tanker. It is a long-term project and not easy to do. It involves addressing some difficult questions such as ‘what is wrong with our culture now’, finding ways of dealing with individuals who are not interested in sharing knowledge and altering a number of internal business processes and systems.

Lawyers are bright, articulate people but they are also generally risk averse, can be very detail minded and are also generally averse to the grand corporate initiative unless there are worthwhile objectives clearly enunciated. But cultural change can be achieved – the reality is that it has to be if lawyers wish to compete in the 21st century.

What is ‘the culture of the firm’?

Organisational cultures are made up of shared meanings, official and informal rules that make up the personality of the organisation. The models developed in Charles Handy’s book, Gods of Management are valuable. Handy classifies organisations and individuals into four types, based on the Gods of ancient Greece. He explains: ‘To the Greeks, religion was more a matter of custom than a formal theology. Their gods stood for certain things and, to a degree, you chose your god because you shared the values and interests which they represented.’

  • Zeus – the supreme God. A Zeus organisation is based on a single leader ‘demonstrated by high levels of trust, personal commitment, quick decision making, an absence of bureaucracy and office politics.’ This model might apply in smaller law firms where a charismatic individual has created a strong firm out of nothing. But such cultures are rarely present in larger law firms except perhaps in certain departments which have a well known authority as their departmental head.
  • Apollo – the god of order and rules. This represents a bureaucratic ‘role’ culture such as the Civil Service. Such cultures are extremely rare in law firms which are personality based, highly focussed on informal networking between lawyers and fluid in nature as lawyers join and leave.
  • Athena – the warrior goddess. This represents a task-oriented and problem-solving approach. Such organisations are non-hierarchical, encourage creativity, imagination and a team-based approach to problems. Many law firms may aspire to be Athena-like. However, few achieve it – law firms are hierarchical in nature with strong lines of authority.
  • Dionysus – in Greek mythology, Dionysus was the God of the vine but was also known as the God of wine and song. This model describes individuals or organisations that are unorthodox, individualistic or even anarchic in their approach to their work. In an organisation it is used to describe a firm that is characterised by informality, a de-centralised power structure, and in some cases incompetence.

It can be very hard to discern the overall culture of a law firm, because the firm is the sum of its individual partners and the partners may each have their own Gods. Most firms are likely to be a combination of Zeus and Athena with the odd smattering of Dionysus, just for good measure. But if we cannot discern a single God for the firm as a whole, we may be able to discern the Gods at work within particular departments. It should also be clear what the goal ought to be for every firm – namely developing a team-based, problem-solving culture which is far more conducive to the sharing of knowledge – the Athenian organisation should be the goal.

10 Practical Steps For Developing The ‘Right’ Culture

The goal then is the transformation of the firm from a mixture of different cultures to a single culture that empowers individuals, encourages team-based approaches and communities of practice and expertise. But how can this be achieved? There are a number of practical measures that should be considered:

    1. Develop and document the business case

      The business case should have been documented already. If it isn’t, document it. This document is critical – it is the means by which the whole concept of knowledge management is sold to the firm at large. Take the key points from this document and produce a set of presentation slides. Present the business benefits to the firm management in order to justify the investment and to the firm generally both before the system goes live and during roll-out. Recognise that part of the success of the project will depend on your own abilities to sell the benefits. Consequently you will be referring to this document a lot. Don’t shirk on your homework.

    2. Get ‘buy-in’ from senior management

      Having successfully made the business case, make sure that knowledge management is included as one of the key strategic aims for the firms both in its business strategy and its IT strategy. Then find a sponsor who believes in the concept – this person should ideally be a partner with an enthusiasm for the initiative, some ‘clout’ within the partnership and some understanding of the strengths (and weaknesses) of technology. The project sponsor should probably not be the IT Director – it is important that knowledge management is not perceived as simply another IT project.

    3. Get ‘buy-in’ from the Human Resources Department

      This department is critical to cultural change as it has both sticks and carrots at its disposal. In terms of the sticks, the more successful knowledge management projects to date have involved the re-examination of internal policies and procedures. In particular, an examination of the firm’s appraisal forms will be required – users should be assessed on their ability to use the KM system, their frequency of contribution and the quality of such contributions. However, sticks should be matched with carrots. Job descriptions should also be amended so that they explicitly include reference to the need for all employees to contribute to the Intellectual Capital of the firm.

    4. Prevent user opt-out from technology

      Human nature is such that most people tend towards the line of least resistance. If you give users a choice as to whether or not they may or may not use a new knowledge management system, many users will choose not to use it. Their logic will be that they coped without the system before so why do they need it now? The trick is not just to create a knowledge management system with its own icon on the PC Desktop but to embed aspects of the knowledge management functionality into the firm’s core IT systems such as the Document Management System and thee-mail system. This is knowledge management by stealth, but it works. However, this embedding of knowledge management functionality must be done in an intelligent way so that it does not add several more steps to every action. The benefits must also be apparent quickly – users must be able to see that they can get more out of the system if they put more in.

      Another vital step in preventing user opt-out is a strong demonstration by the project sponsor and the firm’s management generally that knowledge management is a key strategic goal for the firm. This is likely to make more impact if it is announced publicly. Again human nature being what it is, internal users more easily ignore the internal memo or lunchtime seminar. They are less likely to ignore external conference presentations or clear statements within the firm’s brochure or on the firm’s Web site.

    5. Deal with individual resistance

      The implementation of new systems has taught us that change for most people is unsettling, can be disruptive and can also be threatening to existing roles. Resistance will usually take one of two forms – active or passive. The active resister is more easily managed – they can be identified (as their opposition to the project is likely to be well known within the firm). The business benefits can be re-iterated and demonstrated to them. Users can be re-trained in the use of the system. Most users can see the overall benefits even if they don’t like the system. In the face of strong resistance however, make it clear, via senior management if necessary, that use of the system is not an option.

      The passive resister is more tricky to deal with. Passive resistance can take a number of forms – passive resisters can undermine the project by quietly talking down the benefits to anyone who will listen. They can seek the ear of senior management and feed misleading or even factually incorrect information. In other words they use the classic negative marketing techniques of engendering fear, uncertainty and doubt. In such circumstances it is important to understand the motivation behind such resistance. When confronted with change, most users will go through a four-phase cycle of denial, resistance, exploration and confidence. It is important to get as many users as possible through the denial and resistance phases as quickly as possible.

    6. Provides users with incentives

      Incentives are critical in changing individual behaviour. Incentives can take a number of forms – financial or recognition. Firms should offer bonuses to employees who contribute documents to the know-how system. However, the bonus should depend on the quality not the quantity of the documents. Quality can usually be determined by how often the document is used internally. Awards, whether monthly or annual, can provide similar incentives. Whether a bottle of champagne or a weekend in Paris, they can have a significant effect on users’ behaviour.

      In terms of recognition, some management consultancies have come up with novel solutions such as promoting the importance of White Papers – documents which condense and describe an area of the firm’s expertise, the business benefits to potential clients and some of the knowhow that has been gleaned from previous client engagements or alternatively which may describe a new area of client work. The White Paper publishing culture can be used to great effect. Far from being perceived as a second-class task, White Papers are written by young aspiring consultants and if circulated, are a clear indication that the paper has made a significant contribution to the knowhow of the firm. The author is rewarded with significant peer-recognition and respect – having a White Paper published is an indication that the author is on the way up!

    7. Give users the ‘right’ technology tools

      It is impossible to prescribe what the right knowledge management solution might look like for every firm. It depends to a large extent on what legacy systems the firm has. It also depends on the quality and extent of your analysis of the problems currently faced by users.

      For example, document management systems and e-mail systems are key base-line knowledge repositories. If these are already in existence, they can be customised and built upon. If they are not in existence (as is the case in many small to medium-sized firms), some form of database for the storing of knowhow documents will be necessary. It may also be necessary for the firm to implement information gathering tools such as search engines or agents (software that goes out onto the network or the Web to search for documents that match pre-determined keywords or concepts.) The firm may also need to consider knowledge visualisation tools – tools that allow users to visualise a particular domain of knowledge or the links between certain concepts. Finally the solution should not only link users with information but also link users with other users. This may mean the implementation of some form of groupware solution or Web-based discussion forums.

    8. Build up a critical mass of know-how before launch

      Knowledge management initiatives can suffer from what might be described as the ’empty room’ syndrome. If you go to a Christmas party, walk into a room and see that there is no-one there, you will soon leave. The same applies to knowledge management systems. The last thing you want is for users to be telling one another ‘well it looks very nice but there’s nothing there for us.’ The rule can also be applied to discussion forums – make sure you have a number of users who are ready to ‘own’ a particular forum, willing to contribute and keep the conversations fresh.

    9. Recognise the importance of physical as well as virtual space

      The informal sharing of knowledge can be improved greatly by giving users physical space in which to share ideas and experiences. Single occupancy offices laid out next to one another are not necessarily conducive to this. Instead, a ‘club’ environment laid out with a variety of different user spaces can mean that users have more opportunities to converse with one another and share information on leads, proposals, expertise and ‘war stories’. However, a total refit may not be feasible. Instead modify existing spaces around the coffee machine or the water cooler.

    10. Maintain the momentum

      After the initial rush of enthusiasm and the hard work involved in rolling out a new system, it can be hard to keep the momentum and the interest high. However, if the initiative is successful, you should begin to see new autonomous communities of practice begin to develop as people connect with information and with one another. Foster and encourage these pockets of enthusiasm as far as possible. Keep the initiative high in the minds of users through a rolling schedule of internal presentations and capture the enthusiasm of new joiners. Don’t be discouraged if old habits take a long time to change.


KM is an initiative, not a project. It has two aspects – technology implementation and cultural change. The two aspects are tightly integrated and feed off one another; technology can assist in cultural change and cultural change can enhance the use of technology. Never focus on one at the expense of the other. Build your internal alliances and don’t shirk on your preparations of a business case. Recognise and address individual resistance by understanding individual motivations, embedding KM technologies in the day-to-day work of lawyers and creating incentives. Finally pick the right technologies – remember that the obvious technologies may not be the right ones. In the second part of this article, I will address some of these ‘right’ technologies.

Andrew Terrett is a consultant with Baker Robbins and Company in their London office. He is also a qualified solicitor and is the author of The Internet – Business Strategies for Law Firms published in December 1999.