The Knowledge Management Intranet

November 1, 2000

At Bevan Ashford Solicitors we are constantly looking to improve the use and leverage of our IT systems. Some years ago the partners recognised that one of the ways to do this was to implement and exploit Knowledge Management. Behind the hype and the talk of heuristics, taxonomies and oligarchy, Knowledge Management is simply the use of systems, PC-based or otherwise, to assist with problem solving. Solicitors make a living from problem solving – clients seldom call when things are going well. The appropriate use of Knowledge Management initiatives to organise and deliver information, at the right time to the right person, is the key to continuing business success.

To improve storage, manipulation and access to information on the system, Bevan Ashford decided to develop an intranet. This has been extremely successful and popular with the fee-earners, clients and staff. The decision was based on cost and the relative ease with which our in-house IT team could support both development and expansion. The software used to develop and populate the intranet is relatively straightforward and was picked up quickly by the Information Services team (consisting of the librarians and professional support lawyers who are responsible for the content of the system). The open systems nature of the intranet gives us greater flexibility, but this does require control and consistency if anarchy is to be avoided.

Content and Knowledge Management

The main focus of the Intranet is to deliver legal information and knowhow. As in most firms, resources are finite and the Information Services team cannot provide for both social and legal information. Resources must be focused where they can have best effect. Efforts have paid off and the system already contains best practice procedural guides, advice and opinions, precedent collections, catalogues and directories. Images can be attached to documents when necessary and hypertext links take the user to additional and related information, which expands or updates the original document.

Through the Intranet fee-earners have access to other information services, held on the Web – these include law reports from Context and value added services such as CCH New Law and Current Legal Information. For fee earners there is the attraction that the Intranet’s various internal and external databases can be searched through one common interface – this helps maximize the usage of expensive information resources. For the future, we are already developing a portal which will enable our search engine to access selected Internet sites, this will facilitate the seamless integration of published information with our own.

Some clients are already able to access selected information through our extranet and we are now working with our clients to expand this facility. Obviously these developments carry an additional responsibility – it is now even more imperative that the information within the system is accurate as there are no chances to double check our information before the client receives it.

A major management problem for any firm is keeping such a system up to date. As Head of Information Services, Heather Robinson is responsible for the day-to-day development of the intranet. Her team of professional support lawyers is involved in the development and updating of relevant sections of the intranet and for the background legal research that this requires. Quality checks are built into the process, and fee-earning staff are not allowed to remain passive, they are given ownership of relevant sections and are responsible for checking or reviewing new information within these sections. Knowledge Management must be a two-way process – fee-earners are responsible for sharing knowledge and for providing feedback and criticism regarding the system, in return the professional support lawyers can select the best information and make it available to everyone.

The professional librarians, who form the other half of the Information Services team, manage the legal resources on CD, Internet links, law reports, library catalogue and legal bulletins. They project manage the collation and management of specialist collections within the system and provide training and support to everyone using or updating the system.

The linking of the two halves of the Information Services team is important. The Professional Support Lawyers bring valuable legal experience and knowhow to the role, but this alone is not enough to develop an effective and workable system. It is important that the information is presented in a way that makes it possible for anyone to locate it without assistance. Most staff want the autonomy to carry out their research for themselves so ease of use, transparency and consistency are the key to long-term efficiency. Librarians are professional information managers – they must be involved in the system if it is to have ongoing viability.

The updating of the management sections of the intranet has been delegated to the relevant support departments. The information they produce ranges from a searchable telephone list to interactive software training and management reports from the accounts server. Where possible we link databases into the intranet and write background report templates to generate the necessary information. We also link databases together to share common information, such as addresses. This creates a lot of work at the development phase, but the benefit of having one record to update several sources helps us to improve accuracy, currency and efficiency.

Search Engines

As the intranet develops it is increasingly important to maintain the visibility and availability of the information it contains. The more documents we add, the more difficult they become to retrieve. To address this we use a search engine called Fulcrum, which gives us the flexibility to search the network, the Intranet, databases, and also selected Internet sites. The search engine also allows the individual to set up agents to alert them to new developments in their selected area.

Technical specifications

We currently have approximately 500 people using the Intranet in four offices, geographically spread between Cardiff and Plymouth. To cope with these demands and our expansion plans, the intranet is running on a reasonable server, a Compaq 2500 with RAID 5, 256MB Ram and 27 GB disk drive, running NT4 and IIS4.

We use Microsoft Internet Explorer I.E.5.0 as our browser and we have a permanent leased line to connect all PC-users to the Internet. The size of this connection is under annual review, as the firm is continuing to grow and more and more client communication is carried out by e-mail or via the extranet.

Security is provided by Novell’s BorderManager software, which forms part of our firewall and also acts as a proxy cache. The proxy cache enables us to store locally any frequently accessed Web page – this speeds up the access time for users. BorderManager has proven to be much more powerful and efficient than any previous proxy servers we have looked at. We can also restrict individual user, or group, access to certain protocols or sites. Novell’s BorderManager is integrated into Novell’s NDS.

Partners, senior managers and fee-earners are given full access to the network from their home PCs. GroupWise e-mail has already been set-up to allow access to the e-mail system via a Web browser from anywhere in the world, providing access to diary appointments, tasks, mail and documents for any PC user who requires it.

Trouble Shooting

Anyone setting out to create an intranet needs to be aware of some of the potential problem areas which will affect the system. It is important to understand the various licensing agreements and copyright issues that affect the holding of digital information. The specification of the equipment available should also be considered as the system will need to be utilised by the lowest and slowest PC. There are a host of security issues to consider in such an open system. With care, sensitive information can be restricted to those who need it with password protection and external access can be limited by a correctly configured firewall system.

It is stating the obvious, but – only put onto the Intranet information that you would find useful, information that you need and would have difficulty finding. There is then the ongoing responsibility of keeping the contents up-to-date and informing people when new information is available. If users are to have confidence in the system it is essential that active steps be taken to manage the currency and reliability of the information held.

The culture of the organisation is another important factor; buy-in from the partners may not be enough to guarantee success. Fee-earning staff need to have the ability and the confidence to share their knowhow with their colleagues. They may also have to commit time to specific projects and this has to be assessed when considering the cost of the system and any anticipated return on investment.

The implementation of a Knowledge Management intranet is a firm-wide initiative and involves everyone. Do not underestimate the need for good communication and for strong synergies between the leading parties. It is no coincidence that the Head of IT and the Head of IS are a husband and wife team, a good understanding of the motivation and priorities of each department contribute to the success of the system and benefit of the firm.

In Conclusion

There has been an information explosion in the last few years, fuelled by increasing use of the Web. We want to ensure that our Intranet is an appropriate solution to this, not part of the problem. The overall success of the intranet at Bevan Ashford lies in the fact that our lawyers have access to information that was previously unavailable to them, new information is quickly disseminated and the system is easy to use. We have aimed to make the intranet simple and fun, but also built up a trust in the system through quality control and content management. The successful law firm of the future needs to harness the Web now – a comprehensive intranet is a key part of this process.

Mike Robinson is Head of IT at Bevan Ashford Solicitors. Heather Robinson is Head of Information Services there.