Will the Real Knowledge Management Please Step Forward?

June 30, 2004

I often find myself in a group of lawyers where someone asks: ‘What is the definition of Knowledge Management?’; my associates take a rapid step backwards and I remain as the resultant volunteer to answer the question. My response is initially, and politely, to decline to answer the question, and then explain that for any organisation the meaning of KM would depend on that organisation’s business goals and strategy. Given time, and interest, I would identify some potential areas of benefit that might lead to a definition for a particular organisation.

The reason for my relatively evasive answer is that a ‘stock’ response to a request for a definition of KM – such as: ‘it is getting the right information to the right people at the right time at the right place and at the right cost’ – is so general as to be useless when selling the concept of KM to a sceptical audience. Communicating the meaning of KM is, therefore, often the first hurdle to get over in trying to sell its benefits, and this communication is not helped by the words ‘knowledge’ and ‘management’ themselves. Almost all KM evangelists (those who believe in KM are typically evangelical in that belief) are frustrated with the term “Knowledge Management”; however no-one has a better option given that this term is already recognised as an area of interest for management – and alternatives such as ‘Knowledge Mobilisation’, or ‘Intellectual Capital Management’ sound even more ‘consultant-like’ than Knowledge Management.

The SCL has recently set up a Knowledge Management group, bringing together members interested in KM. An initial objective of this group is to develop a ‘communication guide’ for KM in law firms to be used as a tool to explain the benefits, and through this the definition, of KM to management in their firm. This article aims to introduce some of the benefits KM could bring to a law firm – a comprehensive list being impossible – as well as to introduce the SCL KM group and provide details on how to join the Group or find out more.

As we examine the potential benefits of KM, it is best to take a wide view of what ‘knowledge’ is. One of the essential elements to communicate when talking about KM is how to ‘un-shackle’ Knowledge Management from more traditional law firm ‘Know-How management’ – expanding beyond precedent materials and model documents into cataloguing lawyer expertise and recognising the check-list, or processes involved in a legal transaction, as a knowledge object. Examples of the benefits a law firm might look to KM to provide include:

Matter and client profitability – A key dynamic of law firm profitability is partner leverage. The more work a firm can delegate to more junior staff, the greater its profitability potential. Making available the firm’s knowledge in a legal transaction- focused KM system can help less experienced fee earners understand better ‘what to do’, ‘when to do it’, ‘how to do it’, and possibly most importantly ‘why to do it’. This supports increased delegation, increasing partner leverage and matter profitability.

Risk management – The disadvantage of greater delegation is the increase in business risk since such delegation shifts work to less experienced, less well qualified fee earners. A legal transaction contextual KM system described above reduces (or mitigates the increase in) business risk caused by extended delegation. Similarly, knowledge support systems can improve firmwide consistency, another driver of business risk – particularly for more distributed firms where ‘brand quality’ can be diluted by legal services of varying quality.

Professional development – Collating the knowledge and experience gathered by a legal matter team – including the documents created and also the check lists or processes followed – to create a legal transaction template within the firm’s knowledge system provides a powerful learning tool for both junior associates and lateral hires. Such collections of knowledge focused around a legal matter type provide a model of how the firm executes that type of transaction.

Recruitment – The race to hire the best law school graduates is hot and graduates look for firms that can offer the most to them. Law school graduates have an expectation that firms offer knowledge systems that will support them and help them take on greater responsibility and gain autonomy earlier in their career than would otherwise be the case. These candidates also have higher expectations of the technology systems that will be available to them in their new jobs. The best candidates build these measures into their decision criteria for which firm to join.

Client collaboration – Prior to engaging legal advisors, clients will have gathered a substantial volume of knowledge and experience on their legal issue, which they may want to share with the firm as their advisors; similarly as an engagement progresses, clients may wish to participate in the development or review of work product. Additionally, as a client relationship development tool, the firm may wish to share sections of its knowledge resources with its clients. These KM capabilities are evolving as common requests in law firm selection evaluations, especially for clients looking to establish a small panel of legal service providers.

Business transformation agent – For law firms evolving their business strategy, implementing a new one, or for firms emerging from a merger, KM can be a positive tool for change. KM can drive the changes required for the implementation of new processes, methods and standards; the establishment and assessment of new ways of working as a team and the communication of firm goals and developments.

There are many other benefits of KM. Different benefits will be applicable to different firms depending on their goals, aspirations and starting points. The SCL has established a Knowledge Management Group to examine these benefits and create a communication guide, or ‘tool-kit’, for use when describing KM to a law firm[BRCo1] management. This KM group is open to all members of the SCL and will be driven by an Advisory Group, made up of SCL members. Baker Robbins & Company will be facilitating the KM group. For further information or to join the group please contact Simon Levene of Baker Robbins & Company (slevene@brco.com).

Simon Levene is a consultant with Baker Robbins & Company based in London, he has held positions as Chief Knowledge Officer of a large global law firm, as well as knowledge and technology leadership roles at a Big 4 consulting firm.

[BRCo1]Does this sound a little patronizing?