Corridor Chatter – Information and Knowledge Management on a Shoestring?

April 30, 2001

A paucity of resources isn’t the only obstacle in undertaking this sort ofstrategy. Introducing information management and then knowledge management intoa firm’s culture will be disruptive and resistance will be probable if notinevitable. The internal management costs of the implementation process, whichwill be considered further below, could be significant.

On the up side, the capital costs of a project like this shouldn’t be greatfor a small firm – because it can’t reap the economies of scale a large firmcould in buying in expensive systems. Small firms don’t necessarily needinformation technology to achieve knowledge management because naturalinformation systems like ‘corridor chatter’ are efficient enough.

Chaos or Order?

There is a key difference between the small firm and the large firm. A largeinternational firm must (due to the numbers of personnel involved) havestructured information systems in place otherwise minor flaws in informationmanagement would be amplified out of all proportion. Corridor chatter cannotfunction across continents!

Introducing order into a small firm can be difficult. Lawyers in small firmstend to function as individuals with their own case load, practising discreteareas of the law. This is reflected in larger firms where dedicated teams anddepartments function as independent units under the same roof. Imposing afirm-wide strategy is therefore politically sensitive regardless of the size ofthe firm.

Cultural resistance to change should not be underestimated. Although youngerlawyers may find it easy to change their habits, partners with 20 years’experience may not be so amenable to change. Add to this the potential forsubcultures in different departments; these cultural factors must be carefullyconsidered if any information or knowledge management strategy is to be acceptedand become successful.

Costs – Tugging at the Purse Strings

The issue of costs will fuel resistance in a small firm. Although I’vepromised information and knowledge management on a shoestring budget, there willbe expenditure involved in pursuing either option. Although informationmanagement can be handled in part by secretarial staff, knowledge managementrequires the contribution of as many fee earners as possible.

Knowledge management is not a straightforward proposition. Without a tool suchas Autonomy to infer knowledge from information stored electronically, you willneed to identify the knowledge held by the firm which needs to be captured. Thisleads to the most time intensive phase of the project; creating or modifyingmaterial to capture knowledge.

Once developed, a quality control system will need to be put in place to reviewthe material produced for relevancy and accuracy over time. All of these taskswill require significant ‘buy in’ from the more experienced fee earners inthe firm, as they will be the most significant contributors. This buy in may beachieved by pointing out that, if the brainstorming sessions are appropriatelystructured (with junior fee earners present), they will generate CPD points.

It is virtually impossible to pin a figure on this internal cost as the scope ofeach project would be unique to each firm. v-lex’s anticipated internal spendon knowledge management is about £150,000 in 2001. This is a major upfront costfor the firm in terms of lost fee-earning time, but the purpose of this spend isto enhance fee earning across the firm in the longer term.

The Business Case: Why Invest at All?

A small firm may survive without a structured approach to informationmanagement; but it probably won’t thrive. Unfortunately, there is no standardmeasure for the benefits which might be derived from information management. Itis a means to an end, rather than an end in itself.

If you intend to champion the cause of information management in your firm,there is a certain leap of faith to be made in terms of the potential benefits.It may help to consider the following questions:

  • Are you able to find information quickly and efficiently?
  • Are you reliant on others to find information?
  • If you were out of the office, would another fee earner be able to access your information?
  • Are you aware of what other fee earners are working on?
  • To what extent are you able to re-use existing material?

These issues have bearings on efficiency, but quantifying the amount of‘lost time’ involved is difficult. Tightening up information management, andintroducing new information systems to address problematic areas, could reducethe amount of lost time, increasing the amount of fee earning time availableacross the firm.

Consider the £150,000 v-lex is investing in its knowledge management project.Assuming an average charge out rate of £150 this equates to 1,000 hours ofchargeable time spent. Applying a simple cost-benefit analysis, to recoup thisexpenditure v-lex needs to gain at least 1,000 hours of time which wouldotherwise be lost to the firm. Assuming a 50 week year, and 10 fee earners, eachfee earner would have to save just 2 hours of time a week to make the projectbreak even after just one year. This is a very simple analysis and you may feelthat you’re already operating at maximum efficiency. However, if the questionsabove made you pause for thought, it may well be that your firm cannot rely oncorridor chatter alone to manage its knowledge effectively.

Aside from the potential financial savings, there is another good reason forinvesting in this area – competitive advantage. Information and knowledgemanagement should allow you to respond more effectively to client demands andkeep people ‘in the loop’ to a greater degree, allowing easier internalhandovers of work to maximise the use of limited human resources. If you ignorethese issues while your firm is small, they will probably come back to haunt youas the business grows.

Getting Started – Information Management

v-lex has committed itself to a knowledge management approach with two mainareas of focus – promoting the understanding of professional skills throughthe production of How2 Guides and capturing practical knowledge by producingchecklists and precedents based on past experience to create Knowledge Pools.These are underpinned by our General Know How section which forms part of theinformation management aspect of the project.

There is a very simple reason for beginning with information management, even ifyou intend to progress to knowledge management:

If people can’t find the material they need, the firm can’t derive any valuefrom it.

For example, if a book of precedents is propping up someone’s desk instead ofbeing on a shelf in the firm’s library, there’s clearly an informationmanagement issue to be addressed. If you’re the sort of person who doesn’tpass on journals, then you are the weakest link in the firm’s informationmanagement chain – goodbye!

These sorts of problems don’t require any technology to solve. You simply needto convince your fee earners that hard copy information should be storedcentrally with a system in place for signing items in and out. Although itemsmay stay signed out for long periods, you will at least have a good idea whichdesk the book you’re after is propping up!

Obviously, libraries aren’t a novel concept. However, in building a libraryyou should develop a feel for how information is used in the firm. At v-lex,I’ve developed my own taxonomy in consultation with the other fee earners.Dewey probably wouldn’t approve, but in conjunction with a home grown Accessdatabase for cataloguing I can pin down articles in our library very quickly.This saves perhaps a quarter of an hour of manual searching.

Information Management and Technology

Paper-based material can be dealt with relatively easily. Once catalogued, itis effectively static and is unlikely to grow rapidly in a small firm. The realdifficulty is digital material. Assuming your firm has a reasonably welldeveloped network, and that most articles, research notes, presentations andsimilar are stored on it, you will probably generate thousands of digital filesin a year.

At v-lex, we share files across the network. Although each fee earner has theirown private drive, our client, knowledge and office management drives are allshared. The discussions which follow assume that you have a network which is, orcan be, configured in this way. I also assume that everyone has access to thebasic Windows 95 or NT functionality for managing files. If this isn’t thecase at the moment, you may want to skip to the next section.

Various human decisions will influence how information is stored on a system.You might have just a couple of folders labelled ‘Clients’ and ‘EverythingElse’. You might have a complex nomenclature for naming files. Someone,somewhere in the firm won’t understand the approach being used. Some feeearners will save material onto their local machine’s hard drive rather thanthe network. You know who you are!

The obvious solution to this problem is to bring in a document managementsystem, or even a full-blown knowledge management system. In doing so you couldincur software, hardware and human resource costs – and then you have to traineveryone in the firm, with varying levels of computer literacy and tolerance tochange, to use the new system. The question has to be asked – do you reallyneed such an expensive, potentially disruptive solution?

The short answer is: probably not. v-lex hasn’t, to date, invested in anysoftware beyond what you’d expect to find on a Microsoft Office equippedmachine running on a Windows NT network. You can go a long way towardsinformation management using what you have to hand – and I did promise toprovide information and knowledge on a shoestring budget after all …

It has been established that the human mind can deal with 7, plus or minus 2,items in individual groups. If your directory structures include more than 7folders at a given level, consider whether you can juggle the structure toreduce the number, particularly as you drill down through a hierarchy. v-lex’soffice management drive is currently an example of why you should try and keepto this ideal – the number of directories can make it hard to remember wheredocuments are stored. I’ll identify another way to avoid this difficultybelow.

As I mentioned above, v-lex has three main drives, the knowledge or K drivebeing the most recent addition. Using distinct drive letters is astraightforward way of making it clear to users what should go where at thehighest possible level of your directory structure. The taxonomy we developedfor our paper library is used in the General Know How section of the K drivewhich is effectively our electronic library. This keeps things consistent, againwith a view to aiding recall.

Windows shortcuts are used to link to files which need to appear in more thanone place. This reduces problems with version control. However, Windowsshortcuts are not ‘intelligent’ – they will not know that a file they werepointing at has been moved so it is important that files stay put. At v-lex,only I can actually add or remove items on the K drive because of this issue,but this also ensures that only quality controlled material can be saved ontothe drive.

You may find that some frequently used files are buried deeper than you mightlike in the hierarchy, and users who are not comfortable with drilling downthrough directories may lose sight of them. To get around this, establish whichfiles are most commonly used and create a high-level folder which holdsshortcuts to all of them – a ‘one stop shop’ if you like. It may also besensible to make those files read only, so that any attempt to alter theoriginals is prevented.

Even with a taxonomy in place and frequently used files identified, it is likelythat it will still be difficult to track down some files. On the Internetyou’d use a search engine if you didn’t know the exact address of the pageyou were looking for. On a Windows system, you can use Start > Find >Files or Folders to locate files. Although not as smart or fast as professionalsearch engines, the Find menu options will, for example, allow you to search forrecently created files, and more usefully, files containing keywords.

You can take these ideas a step further if you have a reasonable Internetconnection. Modern versions of Word can create hyperlinks to Web sites quiteeasily. Consider creating a file which stores links to all the most frequentlyvisited sites in your firm. This could be extended to include a link through tothe local frequently used files folder. Congratulations – you’ve justcreated your very own ‘information portal’!

Getting Started – Knowledge Management

When v-lex’s K drive was created there were several empty folders. TheGeneral Know How section was in place as the material was already on the system,but the How2 Guides for professional skills and the various Knowledge Pools hadto be created from the ground up. The first step in the process was to identifywho was to take responsibility for the project internally.

The next stage, project scope, is very important as it will dictate thetimetable and resources needed to progress the project. Professional skills canbe readily identified as they underpin all aspects of the work the firm does,but Knowledge Pool topics may require a broader discussion between fee earnersof what the firm’s priorities are. You should also determine what the outputwill be – v-lex’s How2 Guides are typically straightforward PowerPointslides, but Knowledge Pools can generate a range of documents includingprecedents and checklists.

Create a timetable for workshops to create the material you need and stick toit. Involve as many people as you can in each workshop. This achieves two goals– harvesting as much knowledge as possible from those present and identifyingany gaps there may be in your fee earners’ knowledge. Assign a fee earner tobe responsible for each workshop, who will then ensure that notes are taken andthe appropriate material produced.

It is also important that this material should not exist in isolation. Using theshortcuts technique described above, I link Knowledge Pools with General KnowHow and examples of actual documents. These links can be tricky to maintainwithout more specialised software, so you should include link checks within amaintenance process for your Guides and Knowledge Pools. This process shouldinclude checks for the relevancy of material.

Training, Training, Training

Information management and knowledge management are in no way sexy. Theyreally aren’t even slightly thrilling. Fee earners will not beat down yourdoor demanding to know how the library system works. They will, however, expectyou to be able to find them the article or the Web site they want in under 30seconds. Trust me on this. This is beneficial because my time as a trainee ischeaper than most other fee earners. The difficulty is that only I have a strongunderstanding of the system.

It is therefore important that there isn’t just a single ‘informationofficer’ in the firm – everyone in the firm should be competent to trackdown information resources using whatever system is in place. When you firststart at university you are given an induction course in how to use the library.The same principle applies here. We’ll be promoting this approach in v-lexvery shortly, with the aim of incorporating it into the firm’s overallculture.

This doesn’t mean that partners should look up everything themselves – butif they’re delegating then their personal assistant or a trainee needs to knowwhere to look and that will require a certain understanding of what’savailable on the system, where to find it and perhaps more importantly how touse it. Computer literacy alone isn’t enough – there has to be a culturalawareness of the value of the system to the firm.

This doesn’t detract from the fact that there will need to be an individual orgroup of individuals in charge of information, if only to monitor what’s beingproduced and do the necessary housekeeping. Having a band of anarchicinformation officers running around would probably do more harm than good!


Information and knowledge management are achievable on a shoestring budget ifyou are prepared to challenge the way in which your firm operates. The smallerand younger your firm is, the easier this is likely to be. v-lex is both smalland young, so its culture is well suited to this approach. Every firm’sinformation ecology will be different; a combination of culture, behaviour,politics, processes and most importantly people. Resources and externalpressures will vary. In some areas, such as finance, you may well haveinformation management imposed upon you.

In trying to assess what you need to do to improve information management andmove towards knowledge management, try and identify the obvious breakdowns. Whenyou’ve done that, take a step back. Walk around your offices and try and pickup on less obvious problems like cluttered desks or scattered post-it notes. Ifyou can identify why you need to institute information and knowledge management,you can throw money at a more sophisticated how further down the line onceyou’ve addressed what you’re going to manage and who’s going toparticipate. There is little point in buying a knowledge management solution ifthere’s nothing for it to manage.

Finally, if you don’t have the time to investigate personally the issues thenconsider having a student in an appropriate subject come in to analyse your useof information. They’ll probably need time for interviews, but theirobservations may be more objective than those of someone with a politicalinterest in the project.

Andrew Thomas is a trainee solicitor with v-lex limited. Before joining the firmin September 2000, he completed a Masters in Information Systems at SheffieldUniversity, his dissertation title being A Practical Application of InformationManagement Theories to a Small Commercial Law Firm. For further reading, hesuggests Davenport, Thomas H (1997) Information Ecology, Oxford UniversityPress.