Knowledge Management Primer

August 31, 2000

As Chris Spencer points out, Knowledge Management (or KM) is aphrase (or acronym) that has recently been elevated to the level of a HolyGrail. Some attempts to reveal the path have served only to further conceal it.So, the first SCL Knowledge Management Group meeting resolved as its first aimto present a plain(er) English guide to KM.

Some Attempts at Definition
Any attempt to define Knowledge is complex, controversial, andcapable of being interpreted in many different ways. Certainly in the context ofa business it is likely to cover the structured data, intellectual propertyrights, programs and procedures, the more intangible knowledge and capabilitiesof the people, the way the organisation functions, communicates, analysessituations, comes up with novel solutions to problems and develops new ways ofdoing business, issues of culture, custom, values and skills.

If that were notenough it is also suggested that knowledge can be split into two forms: tacit(or implicit) knowledge and explicit knowledge.

  • Implicit knowledge: that which is inside people’s heads (eg expertise, experience, and relationships with customers, suppliers, and fellow employees).

  • Explicit knowledge: written down in documents (eg policies and procedures that can be used without reference to the people who developed them).

Of course it is possible to drill deeper and consider thedistinctions between data, information, knowledge and wisdom. Possible – but,it is suggested, not likely to be profitable in a commercial context.

So much forknowledge, what of Management? Given that Peter Drucker (in The Age ofSocial Transformation) said that ‘The essence of management is to makeknowledge productive’ knowledge management is, in essence, almost a tautology.

Nonetheless KnowledgeManagement can be broadly defined (IM Checkpoint 2000) as: ‘theidentifying, developing, managing and sharing of an organisation’sintellectual assets to benefit overall performance. These intangible assetsconsist of human capital (employees’ competence), structural capital (theinternal structure of the organisation) and customer capital (relationships withcustomers, suppliers, partners or other external bodies).’

Finally, Knowledgeworkers can be defined as people who apply their theoretical and practicalunderstanding of a particular area of knowledge to produce results for anorganisation.

Why Do We Need KM?
Given the definition of Knowledge workers we only briefly debate whatmight otherwise be an issue – whether the Holy Grail of knowledge managementis one that lawyers need to seek.

Surely, lawyersare quintessential knowledge workers? One might even go so far as to say thatlaw firms have no product beyond the (benevolent) exploitation of theirknowledge workers. The advantages of managing knowledge include:

  • faster reflexes (because the firm can retrieve knowledge it already has within it)

  • happier clients (via the identification and use of best practices)

  • happier partners (eg increased profit from market leading or better client services)

  • happier employees (through strategies which promote the individual’s development and contribution)

  • fewer repetitions of failure or reinventions of the wheel (through knowledge and understanding of past decisions)

Contrast with (IT) Enablers
Having tried to describe what knowledge management is (and why we need it),perhaps we might briefly suggest what it is not.
KM is not IT any more than a spade is a hole. A spade is a toolfor digging a hole. IT is a tool for knowledge management. Having said that itis much easier to use a spade (or even a JCB) to dig a hole than bare hands.Alongside the need to better organise and exploit knowledge there has been adevelopment of enabling technologies.

Given that the ITindustry is as prone to jargon and TLAs (three letter acronyms) as the legalprofession, some explanation of the current IT KM enablers might assist.

A firm may decideto establish a Data Warehouse, i.e. a database that can access all of itsinformation. The warehouse can be distributed over several computers and maycontain several databases and information from numerous sources in a variety offormats. The data warehouse may be stocked by the conscious gathering of data(say by support lawyers), by crystallising workflow using Case Managementsoftware or, more automatically, by using a Document Management system (apiece of software that facilitates electronic management of documents in onlineand hard-copy formats – these systems often include an optical scanningprogram to convert paper documents into electronic form, a database system toorganise documents and a search tool to locate documents).
Once data is captured in the Data Warehouse it can be used. So, DataMining can be employed to identify commercially useful patterns orrelationships in the databases, the damage caused by the loss of a significantemployee or partner can be minimised by use of the captured knowledge they leftbehind and so on.

Of coursesearching within data could be against every single word. However, that wouldreturn many (often irrelevant) results (called hits), occupy a great dealof computer processing time and a great deal of storage space. Instead, thecrucial words (akin to the catchwords in a traditional law report heading) areidentified (sometimes semi-automatically) to give Meta Data or Metadata.Metadata is literally data about data. After many, many documents areanalysed in this way, patterns of metadata emerge. These clumps of dataconstitute a hierarchy or classification system sometimes called a Taxonomy.

Further, toachieve any results in a real world, the data in the warehouse must beaccessible to users through simple commands. A currently fashionable means ofaccess is an Intranet, ie a network designed to organise and shareinformation within the firm. An Intranet uses software associated with theInternet (e.g. Web pages, browsers, e-mail, newsgroups and mailing lists).However, as the prefix intra suggests, the information is (or should be)accessible only to those within the organisation.

Of course this canbe extended to give controlled access to chosen third parties using an Extranet.This is an extension (or extrusion) of the Intranet. Protection of the data fromunauthorised use or tampering is given in a variety of ways usually including aFirewall, ie a wall of software that keeps unauthorised users outside a network.

Despite all the available tools, humanconsiderations of managing knowledge are far more important than technologicalones.

Barriers to KM Initiatives
Although KM is in its infancy, many teething problems have already beenidentified. These include:

  • Hoarding – there are strong cultural influences to overcome to ensure that knowledge is not hoarded and that sharing is encouraged. For example, as a lawyer my job is to create knowledge. Why then should I put my job at risk by using your knowledge instead of mine? Similarly, what impetus is there for a two to three years qualified assistant to give up their intellectual capital. Often that is their bargaining chip – if not at this firm then at the next.

  • Expense – KM is costly in terms of computer resources, staff time or communication methods. The contribution of intangible assets to the bottom line is difficult to measure. So, ‘savings’ are often achieved by a lack of investment in staff training and development.

  • Politics – On the one hand there may be a lack of commitment on the part of (some of) the management. On the other ‘knowledge is power,’ and will inevitably be associated with lobbying, intrigue, and back-room deals.

How Do We Overcome the Barriers and Manage Knowledge?

A practice must know where it wants to be and what it wants to achieve. This isas true for a KM initiative as for any other. Otherwise the KM ‘strategy’will be like a computerised route planner with no start and no destination –no good.

Lead from the top
The partners must choose an appropriate strategy, then they (and seniorsolicitors and other key fee-earning and other staff) must support itsimplementation and overcoming any resistance to change.

Change the culture
As we have seen, a culture change is vital but often slow and difficult toachieve. Persuade people to make documents available to others and not to hoardthem. Some may never achieve it but newcomers must be required to do so.Consideration should be given to linking recruitment, performance appraisal andrewards to each individual’s role in, and responsibility for, sharingknowledge.

Seize the knowledge
Explicit knowledge (see above) can be codified and stored in databases.Implicit knowledge cannot. Some writers even go so far as to suggest it shouldnot be put in writing (because subtle details and shifts in opinion would belost). In any event ‘Know Who’ systems should be used to help peopleidentify and contact colleagues with the right expertise for the project inhand. Perhaps full-time or part-time legal information engineers should beemployed to ‘sanitise’ documents and add the ensuing ‘knowledge’ to adatabase. They could also train and assist others in searching databases andre-using information to save time and increase response rates.

Increase the knowledge
In the words of management guru Tom Peters, ‘employ freaks’, ie bring inoutside knowledge through flexible recruitment policies. This should deliver thewidest range of skills, consultancy expertise, outsourcing and subcontracting.Rely also on:

  • employee training, job rotation and work shadowing within the company.

  • organisational learning using both explicit and implicit knowledge.

  • creativity and innovation.

  • cross-departmental, cross-site or even cross-organisational teams.

Keep the knowledge
Methods for achieving this include:

  • developing lawyers as trainers (so their knowledge can be passed on to others)

  • holding ‘real’ exit interviews or using garden leave (so some of the experience of those leaving or retiring from the company is made available to successors)

  • maintaining links with retired staff

  • auditing and protecting intellectual property

  • minimise the informal sharing of information between the firm’s employees and others (using codes of conduct and operational policies).

Whether or not KM represents the IT Holy Grail – the legal killer app –remains to be seen. However, it is hoped that this article will, at least, letthe reader follow the trials of other explorers with informed interest and, atbest, encourage her or him to set out on the path themselves.

Chris Spencer is Solicitor and Development Director at EMISLegal ( He acknowledges the help of the SCL KM WorkingGroup and Tim Travers in particular.

KM Reading List

Knowledge management: research report 1998
London: KPMG Management Consulting, 1998

Working knowledge: how organizations manage what they know
Thomas H Davenport and Laurence Prusak
Boston Mass: Harvard Business School Press, 1998

Corporate amnesia: keeping know-how in the company
Arnold Kransdorff
Oxford: Butterworth Heinemann, 1998

Creating a knowledge management business strategy: delivering bottom line results
Rory L Chase
Lavendon: Management Trends International, 1998

Intellectual capital: the new wealth of organizations
Thomas A Stewart
London: Nicholas Brealey, 1997

Wellsprings of knowledge: building and sustaining the sources of innovation
Dorothy Leonard-Barton
Boston Mass: Harvard Business School Press, 1995