November 1, 2003

IT has many fashions. It seems only yesterday that KM (knowledge management) was the new little black number – pure technology suitable for firms of all types and sizes.

Of course there were always agnostics if not atheists. See for example my own ‘Knowledge Management Primer’ (vol11, issue 3) where I suggested that the key to successful KM was likely to reside as much in managing people as in managing knowledge itself.

Nowadays, the reliance on heuristic search engines (designed to learn what users need to know through analysis of their patterns of use) is arguably in decline. Instead we see a rising interest in taxonomic searching: broadly searching against a tree-like organisation of relevant concepts. A tree often designed by an expert in that legal sector. A document will be attached to one or more of the branches (or concepts) in the taxonomic tree. Therefore, even in ‘mainstream’ KM, we are seeing a pragmatic move towards what real people do with real information in the real world.

So far so good. But how does that relate to the CM of the title? I would suggest that one of the principal roles of a lawyer is to:

  • capture information
  • process it(ie add value to it) to make knowledge
  • pass a version of it (applied to particular facts) to a client as information;

all at a profit.

Here’s a perhaps novel view of the legal office. The input/output view:

It shows the means of capturing information (input), the tools used to help turn it into knowledge (processing) and then to re-release it as information (output).

Two terms may need explanation: ‘a priori’ information or knowledge (at the input stage) and ‘shrinkage’ (at the output stage). A priori knowledge is what we get as a side effect when a new member joins our knowledge working team. It represents their store of value added information from previous roles with previous organisations. Shrinkage is the other side of the coin – the loss of knowledge (gained at least partly at our expense) when a knowledge worker leaves and our stock of ‘wetware’ shrinks.

Clearly a significant element of knowledge management must be aimed at maximising the capture of a priori information and minimising the effects of shrinkage. Not, of course, ignoring the ongoing need to keep processing the day-to-day inputs and outputs. Which leads us to CM and what we might call ‘mundane’ KM (in contradistinction to mainstream KM).

Originally CM was an acronym for Case Management (a strain of software that has suffered a bad press principally because of poor implementation and change management). Now it is wider ranging and what I prefer to call Contact activity and file Management software. As such it does (or should) encompass tools to assist with all the elements shown in the input/output view of the law firm.

Changing acronyms apart, there is I would suggest a compelling argument starting to be made that CM can represent a substantial core of KM.

Question – how can CM assist in maximising the capture of a priori information and minimising the effects of shrinkage? And day-to-day inputs, processing and outputs?

Answer – by assisting in investigating, documenting and replicating the processes, documents and tasks involved in legal activities.

So, to take a very simple example, a change of name by enrolled deed poll could be reduced to the following (in Agenda format):

That reduction of knowledge could then be installed in a CM system and used to help run the relevant file processes. The process of reduction would be:

So, a significant element of the knowledge, or intellectual capital, involved in an individual or firm’s unique way of carrying out a particular legal process will be captured, retained and made available for use. This applies even after an individual’s departure. All as a consequence of a successful implementation of a CM system.

Not all the knowledge of course (which is why this article isn’t entitled KM=CM OK?). There will always be Factor X. But be assured – Factor X is much rarer than is often thought. Perhaps even rarer than rocking horse manure.

I can feel the outrage already at such a suggestion. But I spend a great deal of my time working with firms helping design workflows. I am always told by Partner A that, whilst Partner B’s work type can be ‘reduced’ in this way, Partner A’s is special and involves some differentiator – Factor X. Oddly, when I visit Partner B, I am told that precisely the reverse is true.

Of course, it may be that each of them is right about their own work type but wrong about the work type of the other. That little or no legal work can (as Byron put it in the Dedication to his Don Juan) be ’emasculated to the marrow’.

Yet each of them struggles to deny that the parties, fee earners, other relevant participants, letterhead, e-mails, letters, documents, official forms, time periods and most if not all of the details and order of each of the foregoing (when relevant) can be predicted or are in fact prescribed. And they cannot deny that the tips and tricks we all learn from experience are capable (to some extent at least) of being encapsulated in some or all of those items.

In short, it cannot be denied that CM can assist, as mundane KM, in maximising a priori knowledge, ensuring efficient day-to-day information processing and value adding and minimising wetware shrinkage.

Leaving you (and perhaps mainstream KM) to worry about Factor X. OK?

Chris Spencer is Solicitor & Development Director with emis intellectual technology and can be contacted through