The Practicalities of Running IT Projects from a KM Perspective

November 5, 2006

Two trends developing in law firms are causing increased convergence between knowledge management and IT projects.  These are:

·         KM in law firms has become more holistic and has expanded from the delivery of legal information and know-how to also include the packaging and delivery of information from other sources within the law firm

·         IT projects now involve complex products, many of which can offer subsidiary use for various KM purposes.

These trends have thrown the relationship between IT departments and KM teams into the spotlight and involved them both in the practicalities of running IT projects.


This article covers four areas:

·         non-KM specific IT projects – the issues and practicalities

·         KM-specific IT projects – the issues and practicalities

·         what KM disciplines can be applied to IT departments and their projects

·         how the KM/IT relationship can be developed.


1 Non-KM specific IT projects


1.1                    The issues


In widening its arena, KM has taken on the role of identifying information already available within the firm, often gathered for internal and administrative purposes, and delivering this information in a usable form to a wider audience. The KM team[1] has thus become a link between the knowledge the firm already has in its ‘engine room’ and gaps which it identifies in the knowledge lawyers require to provide a service to their clients.  As a result, many IT applications in law firms have developed KM potential. Here are some examples.

·                                       Human resources databases can be used to locate expertise or language skills within the firm (who has done this before?)

·                                       Practice management systems can be used for estimates and pricing reviews (how much should the firm be charging?)

·                                       Client relationship management (CRM) systems can be used to find information on clients (have we done this type of work for before?), and identify lawyers who have particular client or industry knowledge.

            KM should be able to deliver all of this information to lawyers at point of need.  The challenge is to identify the right IT for the task and determine if it can be applied with a KM perspective.


1.2                    The practicalities


Exploiting non-KM specific IT projects for KM purposes successfully gives rise to a number of practical issues.


Opportunities for KM to exploit non-legal knowledge need to be identified: this often requires lateral thinking on the part of the KM team.  The KM team needs to keep close to both the practice and the IT department so that it can spot opportunities for exploiting existing internal knowledge.


            A KM angle can help to make a business case for an existing IT project: KM can add an additional dimension and thus make the IT budget go further.  However, it can also change the dynamics of the purchase – if KM becomes one of the drivers, the KM team must ensure that the product is the best of what is available for their purposes too.


            When seeking to promote an application for KM purposes, the KM team should not underestimate the impact on the user. Users may find a tool used for one purpose confusing if presented for another.  It is vital to keep things simple and to create interfaces which avoid confusion.


2 KM-specific IT projects


2.1                    The issues


When the KM team require a new tool for a KM purpose, they also face new challenges.  When looking for the right product, how do they decide what is a ‘KM tool’? How do they ensure that it fits with the firm’s existing and future IT infrastructure?


In the current IT marketplace, virtually every product is sold with a ‘KM tag’:  every search engine and document management system claims it has a KM angle. You soon learn in KM that there is no ‘killer application’:  no one tool does everything you want it to.


The KM team must make sure it has a clear understanding of exactly what the key priorities are and what it wants the new tool to achieve. If it doesn’t, it will not be able to decide between the numerous products available nor will it end up with the best one for the job.


2.2                    The Practicalities


            When making the business case, be explicit about what the potential benefits are.  As always, the KM team should consider the consequences of doing nothing.  This will enable a distinction to be drawn between an essential element of the KM toolkit and the ‘nice to have’ enhancement.


            Make sure you have understood what is included in the price. There are many things which you may think are covered, but are not:  customisation, annual licence fees, training, help desks, upgrades.


Learn to see what’s ‘under the hood’. The KM team needs to understand exactly what the products on offer can do so that it can challenge the vendors, and even the IT department, on what it can’t and why.  If the KM team has no IT expertise it is important that it learns from the IT department. This will facilitate getting the vendors to understand what is needed, not what they think is needed.


Plan well and manage expectations. As with any project, the keys to success are detailed scoping and continuous communication.  Inevitably, timetables will slip and these slippages are easier to manage if those who will suffer the impact are kept well informed.


            Pilot, pilot, pilot. To make sure that they have made the right choice, the KM team should pilot everything from an early stage and involve users in this to get their buy-in to the project.


            Establish the product’s shelf life. How long before obsolescence?  As soon as you have rolled out, look at what is on the market and keep abreast of developments.


3 What KM can offer IT projects


KM disciplines such as knowledge sharing, post project reviews and client-facing initiatives have a lot to contribute to improve the value of IT projects.


Knowledge sharing

IT departments, like lawyers, need to share their knowledge.  KM tools can help make sure the useful material, once shared, can be recorded, stored and accessed by others, for example in a database.


            Post project reviews

            IT professionals are generally experienced in project management on a project-by-project basis. Post project reviews can help, not only to look at what was good and bad about a particular project but also to extend that learning so that it can be re-applied to future projects.


            Extension of projects to clients

            Sharing expertise with clients is increasingly a part of the KM and IT remit.  With each IT project, something will have been learnt that can be shared with clients in the same way that KM teams share their knowledge with clients:  IT audits and sharing of expertise on a particular IT product, for example.


4 The IT/KM relationship


4.1                    Introduction


            Historically there have been communication and expectation gaps between IT and KM teams:  both have used their own ‘special’ language, which the other team had difficulty understanding.  IT are seen as technofreaks and KM professionals, who are often lawyers, can use impenetrable legal jargon.  A real desire to understand each other will enable a firm to get the best value out of its KM and IT projects.


4.2                    So how do you get it right?


The obvious answer is better communication, but how is this achieved?


To get some wider views on this we held a workshop for the SCL KM Group to discuss the issue. The participants in the workshop included lawyers, IT and KM professionals and IT vendors.  A summary of some of the views obtained appears in the table.  Not all of these ideas will work in every firm, but selecting those that fit into the structure of your firm will improve the IT/KM relationship.


Views from the SCL KM Group workshop

Build good personal relationships between IT and KM teams at all levels – not just between relevant directors.

Get the IT department to give presentations to the KM team about current and future IT projects on a regular basis.

Arrange for IT and KM staff to be seconded to each other’s teams to gain an understanding of what goes on.

Develop hybrid roles within the KM and IT departments which combine the two professions – each team will then have someone sympathetic to their views in the other.

Set common objectives for IT and KM – they will then work closely together to ensure they are both in line with business objectives and budgets.

Create an IT/KM steering group tasked with looking at all IT projects which cross or might cross the IT/KM boundaries.

Create one department for IT and KM, or at least give each team common reporting lines.

Bring IT and KM teams together at an early stage on projects and get them to work together on project scope, definition and cost.

Get buy-in from both the IT and KM teams on the business objective and scope of the project before you start.

Ensure the purpose of project and the roles of the IT and KM teams are clear before you start – make sure who does what and when is agreed.

Get IT and KM teams to produce the business case jointly.

Involve clients wherever possible – doing so can help to drive projects forward.


4.3                    What can be gained from a better relationship?


Convergence and better communication between the IT and KM teams can give each a much better understanding of the complexity of the other team’s role and task: in short – mutual respect.


            This will result in substantial benefits for each team and the firm.  All those involved in IT projects will have a better understanding of the needs of the business and will be able to deliver maximum business advantage from those projects.        


4.4                    Where to from here?


In working together proactively, the KM and IT departments can learn from one another and provide a more joined-up business service to the practice, creating a win-win situation for all.


Thus far law firms have seen the client relationship as one between clients and their lawyers. However, in a climate where clients are seeking greater involvement in law firms’ own IT and KM, the convergence between IT and KM teams can have added benefits in terms of firms’ client relationships. By working together, these teams can offer new avenues of client support and we may even find IT and KM teams pitching to clients together, taking the client relationship to a new dimension.


Lucy Dillon is Director of Knowledge Management at Berwin Leighton Paisner. Shelagh Taylor is Knowledge Manager at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom (UK) LLP. This article represents the personal views of the authors rather than the views of their respective firms.

[1] By KM team we are referring to whoever within a law firm is responsible for KM.  This can range from one individual with an interest in KM to a whole team of professional support lawyers and others headed by a KM partner.