posted 18 Apr 2005 in Volume 8 Issue 7
Baker & McKenzie: A question of culture
Embedding knowledge sharing within the organisational culture of an international law firm. By Jason Marty
It is well established that the culture of an organisation substantially impacts the success of its knowledge-management programme. Practitioners know that developing KM within the culture of a firm is essential if the knowledge programme is to succeed. Yet it is often the case that the work of addressing cultural issues ends up toward the bottom of our busy to-do lists. Focusing on these elements of a KM programme is not as glamorous as concentrating on innovation, nor as exciting as implementing new technologies or as direct as distributing tangible, valuable content. Worse, measuring the impact of time spent on culture development is extremely difficult.
Baker & McKenzie is a leading global law firm, which has been providing sophisticated legal advice and services to many of the world’s most dynamic and global organisations for more than 50 years. With a network of more than 3,000 locally qualified, internationally experienced lawyers in 68 offices and across 38 countries, no other law firm in the world comes close to our unique global footprint, or has a culture and value set that has developed over 50 years of organic growth. The combination of these factors has provided a challenging context in which to develop a successful knowledge programme.
As is typical in any global organisation, the goals for our KM programme are designed to support our international business strategy. The primary goal, in the language of our overarching knowledge strategy, is ‘to methodically and efficiently create, identify, capture, access and apply knowledge to improve our competitive edge in our chosen markets’. The key driver behind our programme is to continuously improve our delivery of legal services to our clients. We also aim to improve our practice management, and to provide our lawyers with the know-how and expertise that enables them to deliver consistently better-quality results.
In tangible terms, this means that when our lawyers begin drafting a legal agreement for a given type of deal, our aim is to be able to provide a best-practice precedent document from which to work, in order to avoid the inefficiency of re-inventing the wheel and to ensure that our best expertise is utilised. In the event that such a precedent is not available, we seek to deliver the best possible know-how and example product for our lawyers to leverage. Further, we want the finding, saving and sharing of this legal content to be simple and straightforward. We want our lawyers to have the use of industry-standard productivity systems to enable collaboration with clients and with each other. In essence, we aim to help our lawyers practice more effectively and efficiently by providing the best content and tools available.
While our goals are clearly articulated and the appropriate resources have been put in place to support them, we have naturally experienced certain challenges in turning our stated objectives into tangible results. KM is not new to Baker & McKenzie; a number of our offices have had successful programmes in place for a number of years. In spite of these local-office successes, in the period following the launch of our global programme in 2001, we did not meet some of our goals. With hindsight, we see that we made a number of miscalculations and, more significantly, we undertook projects that were either too ambitious in their scope or too limited in their impact. By late 2003, we had not fully demonstrated to the firm that our investment in KM at the global level was yielding positive results. Simply put, our lawyers did not, on the whole, feel that their work was being directly supported by our knowledge initiatives.
At this point we took a step back to analyse our approach and arrived at a number of conclusions. We realised that we were overly reliant on leveraging new technology projects to achieve our goals. We learnt that, when we talked about our programme internally, we were placing too much emphasis on the theoretical aspects of knowledge management. Most importantly, we discovered that we had done a less than successful job of dealing with the cultural elements of implementing a broad knowledge programme. We had not effectively addressed the matter of embedding KM into the culture of the firm; rather, it remained a bolt-on, global function rather than an ongoing concern of the business at all levels.
The firm’s culture
The culture of Baker & McKenzie is unique among law firms: democratic, accountable, respectful of diversity and, above all, collaborative. The governance structure of the firm places great value in the expressed views of partners from every locale. There is a strong emphasis on decision making and detailed consideration of the impact of projects undertaken at every level. The success of any global initiative is as much dependent on its communication and co-ordination across the firm as it is on the innovations or improvements it provides. To the extent that we can build our global knowledge programme around the strengths of our firm’s culture, we are likely to accomplish our objectives.
Alongside the opportunities that the culture of the firm provides, however, there are predictable barriers to establishing a successful KM initiative, many of them based on our history of organic global growth. Most obviously, the jurisdictional and multi-cultural complexities of the firm create challenges for co-ordinated knowledge management. For instance, establishing a global taxonomy that is relevant across the firm requires not just careful consideration of language and terminology, but also accommo-dations for different legal systems. Although the similarities outweigh the variances, there are inevitable differences in practice, as influenced by the laws and traditions of each jurisdiction.
Additionally, for most of the 55-year history of the firm, geography and technology limitations dictated that developing and servicing clients was a locally led activity. This fostered strong local relationships with our clients, which continue today. Internationally, our lawyers have traditionally collaborated well, but this collaboration was primarily initiated in circumstances in which effective service for a client required it. As the global nature of the business has evolved, the firm has likewise evolved, and our international business strategy reflects the international needs of our clients. However, a global KM programme at Baker & McKenzie still has to support both the continued development of our global business (more and better collaboration) along with the unique strengths of our local lawyers.
We did not learn these things about our culture anew in our review of our global KM programme. We did begin to pay them closer attention, however. We recognised that we needed to find ways to work within the culture of the firm and, over time, to make the sharing and use of our firm’s knowledge part of the fabric of the culture. In order to do this, we first needed to establish the fundamental expectations of our knowledge efforts.
Baseline: making KM tangible
When we asked our lawyers for their views on our global knowledge programme, two areas of concern surfaced: first, they perceived a lack of clarity as to the scope of what the global group was trying to address. Were we a systems group – an adjunct (or, worse, competitor) to our technology department? Or were we a client-facing group, working on business-development activities that benefited only the practitioners lucky or savvy enough to acquire our time? These and other concerns about our responsibilities needed to be addressed directly. We had not clearly articulated the scope of our programme.
Second, although the firm’s documented knowledge strategy was broadly supported, there was a lack of understanding about how this strategy converted into concrete actions against which we could be measured and evaluated. At the end of each year, how could the typical lawyer in any one of our offices around the world understand whether we had accomplished what we had set out to do? In a firm the size of Baker & McKenzie, most lawyers do not expect every investment to benefit them immediately and directly, but they do expect to have a clear means to evaluate the wisdom of that investment.
We addressed the first concern by working to refine our roles and responsibilities, and by having these agreed to by the leadership of the firm. This process brought a new and necessary focus to our programme and helped clarify how we would use our resources. It was decided, for example, that:
The programme is to concentrate on harvesting, developing and distributing content, but only content with applicability beyond a single jurisdiction;
The global KM team should not control local know-how projects, which are more effectively led by the relevant office;
The role of the KM team is to support our Global Practice Groups, and we should take our primary guidance from the steering committees of these groups within specific, agreed guidelines;
The KM team should not provide business-development support for unique client opportunities, such as RFPs and proposals, which are best supported by our specialist business-development team;
We should provide support for developing innovative service offerings to our clients.
Addressing the second concern – accountability – required the development of a simple and concrete action plan. We developed a simple annual plan for the group that established a basis for the success of our programme. This plan is our contract with the firm’s partners, and provides us with the opportunity to focus on a set of objectives against which we can be measured. The basis of the knowledge action plan is that, for our global efforts, we will focus, in order of priority, on:
Collecting, organising, standardising and (where needed) creating legal precedents that have global or regional use or applicability, including collections of know-how related to a specific capability of the firm;
Working with practice groups to help them leverage knowledge systems more effectively and identify opportunities for using technology to improve their practices;
Connecting lawyers to know-how or to other people (lawyers or staff) at the firm who have the knowledge they require, or know where that knowledge resides. This includes capturing and distributing training opportunities and helping communicate cross-selling opportunities;
Providing support for practice-group projects, such as performance metrics, after-action reviews and fee-estimation templates;
Providing standards, co-ordinating local and regional knowledge efforts, and providing support for overall knowledge-management development.
This combination of deliberate boundary setting (and removing), a straightforward and transparent planning process, and practice-driven prioritisation has provided a realistic set of annual objectives for the global knowledge programme and, more importantly, has helped us to manage expectations. Eighteen months into our revised approach, we are not at a point to claim overall success, but we are seeing some very real indicators that our efforts are making a difference. Making our KM efforts more tangible was the first step in aligning our global knowledge programme to the culture of the firm and establishing knowledge management as a part of the firm culture generally.
Signs of cultural change
Analysing the culture of Baker & McKenzie and paying attention to our progress in embedding knowledge management into that culture is now an important part of our global knowledge programme. There are some standard industry measures for understanding the evolution towards a culture in which knowledge sharing is truly embedded. These include alignment of KM objectives with compensation structures, board-level leadership, and the establishment of appropriate processes and policies. We consider all these factors when analysing our knowledge programme.
There are, though, a number of less obvious indicators that can help reveal how much progress is being made. At Baker & McKenzie, now that we have moved past the issues of clarifying roles and accountability, we have begun to notice changes in the attitudes within the firm towards KM. These changes are encouraging, as we understand that only when knowledge management becomes the work of the whole organisation rather than just that of a specific group does it begin to yield lasting results. A number of trends in particular stand out.
Leadership designation – As a matrix organisation, implementing a knowledge programme in a strictly top-down fashion is not an option. Of course, visible and genuine support from the leadership of the firm is critically important, and we are fortunate that we receive such support. However, in our work on global projects we have found that local and practice-group leadership is equally critical to success. Recently, the firm adopted a set of ‘knowledge standards’, which require that every local office appoint a partner to lead knowledge efforts in that office. These people do not have to be KM visionaries or project taskmasters, but they do have accountability for the local success of knowledge management and for the co-ordination of local efforts with those of global and regional groups. Our offices are responding actively to this development, asking us to provide resources and guidance to support their efforts. The creation of this type of accountability across the firm is an encouraging sign that the culture of the firm is evolving.
More sharing – It is easy to plan and develop a system that requires knowledge sharing across groups; the difficult part is finding ways to overcome the inevitable concerns about whether and how to share that knowledge. This is particularly challenging in the legal industry, which historically has been characterised by an individualistic and rather competitive approach to work. Other issues, notably client confidentiality, mean that we cannot simply mandate that all knowledge should be available throughout the firm.
So when lawyers share their precedents with a local practice group, we view it as a step forwards. When a regional practice group opens its content to its global colleagues (as is happening across the firm), it is a sign of cultural evolution. In deliberate, if incremental, ways, the concerns about sharing are being addressed at all levels. It is not happening in one single measure – the complexities of client relationships, professional responsibility, jurisdiction requirements and other factors are not easily overcome. But the process is happening with increasing momentum, and as our ability and willingness to share knowledge increases, our KM goals come into reach.
Systems consolidation – As technology has improved and different groups have sought to make best use of it, a variety of systems have been purchased or developed to meet the needs of these groups. To some degree, this type of organic growth of practice support and KM tools is healthy. At some point, though, the systems need to either integrate or migrate to a central system, if cost savings and common work processes are the desired result. At Baker & McKenzie, the consolidation of our knowledge systems is underway. We are well into the deployment of a global legal best-practices library, with a common global taxonomy. Local intranets are migrating to local areas of the global intranet. Centralisation is not the answer to all systems issues, of course, but the tangible steps we are taking towards systems consolidation will create opportunities for advancing our knowledge programme further throughout the firm.
Lawyers delivering the message – At meetings of practice groups in our firm, the tradition has been that the professional-support lawyers or other KM staff present KM-based projects and objectives to the attendees. On the surface this is a positive thing, as opportunities to develop understanding and support for KM initiatives are always welcome. Increasingly, however, the practice-group leader or the practice-group knowledge partner has included the knowledge portion of the agenda in his own presentation. This development is a positive sign of cultural evolution, as it means that KM is becoming part of the business of the whole group, rather than just an adjunct.
‘KM people’ working together – Ironically, it’s often the case that knowledge managers are so focused on their own internal customers, that they neglect to share their knowledge with each other. At Baker & McKenzie, certain offices have particularly strong knowledge programmes. Our global group, local groups and other support staff from around the world are working to share lessons learnt and exploit opportunities to collaborate. It seems like an obvious step, but connecting our dedicated knowledge workers around the world is having a big impact on our ability to deliver effective knowledge-management solutions.
The move beyond sales – Hardest to track, but most encouraging of all, is a subtle shift that is occurring within communications with our lawyers around the world – a shift away from our knowledge team ‘selling’ solutions and towards our lawyers requesting our participation in their practices. We have moved beyond worrying about whether anyone will show up to the party, and towards making sure that those who do participate are well attended to. For nearly all of our ongoing projects, the lawyers participating in working teams or steering committees outnumber the knowledge-team participants. We carefully avoid the tendency to think of ourselves as the experts, and we take all the advice and input we can gather. This shift has allowed us to work as part of the firm, integrating ourselves in the same manner in which we aim to integrate KM with the culture of the firm.
We still have some progress to make before we can confidently say we have achieved all of the goals for our global knowledge programme. However, we have incorporated some key lessons from our early KM efforts, and are regularly meeting shorter-term goals and seeing tangible signs that we are making real progress. We continue to focus energies on providing effective tools for our lawyers, but we don’t believe that technology alone is enough. We have clarified our roles and responsibilities and now operate from a straightforward action plan, allowing our lawyers to hold us accountable for our annual progress. Most importantly, we are aligning our KM programme with the culture of the firm and, in doing so, are seeing knowledge management become a part of that culture rather than just an industry trend that we feel obligated to say we are addressing.
Jason Marty is global director of knowledge management at Baker & McKenzie. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
Baker & McKenzie’s Global Tax Practice Group
Baker & McKenzie’s Global Tax Practice Group incorporates 500 of the 3,000 locally qualified lawyers in the firm. The group has been a leader among practice groups in adopting knowledge management; the nature of our clients’ needs and the competitive market in which we operate require it. Nevertheless, we are working through the same cultural issues that face the entire firm. Using a number of approaches, we have been successful accelerating the implementation of a knowledge mindset as we move towards solidly embedding KM in our culture.
Work directly with the lawyers – When we work directly with practising lawyers, they come to accept that KM is part of the business of the firm, not a back-office operation that no-one fully understands.
In addition, when lawyers are given influence in how a KM programme unfolds, they accept ownership and are more eager to participate.
For our key initiative – the Global Tax Library – our lawyers have determined everything from system design, to policy development, to content-collection prioritisation.
Face concerns about sharing straight on – When we work with our lawyers, we ask for their concerns about sharing knowledge and openly discuss them. The Global Tax group has a set of eight simple policies governing knowledge sharing that have been debated and accepted by all four of our regional practices. As lawyers are trained about the Global Tax Library, they are also trained on these policies. The policies are based on values that already exist in the firm’s culture. For example, the firm stresses the value of one’s personal network around the world. This value underpins one of Global Tax’s policies, which requires that personal contact be made before using know-how contributed by a colleague. Not only does this contact address one of the concerns lawyers have expressed to us about sharing – how do I know the piece of know-how is still applicable? – it also helps to build the lawyer’s personal network.
Collect and use success stories about sharing knowledge – Storytelling is a powerful way to change behaviour. Though we are early in our KM programme, we are documenting how those already participating are benefiting – both personally and for their clients. We use these stories to illustrate to our lawyers how they can further their career by participating in the KM programme. The idea is that we extend a ‘carrot’ to those who have yet to be convinced of the value of sharing knowledge.
Hold the lawyers accountable for KM participation – We also emphasise accountability, however. KM has been included as one element of our firm’s approach to personal and professional development, upon which a lawyer’s performance is evaluated. In Global Tax, we have established specific objectives at the associate level for expected participation in the KM programme.
Communicate, communicate, communicate – We rely upon a steady stream of messages to help embed the value of our KM programme in the minds of Global Tax lawyers. We take advantage of established group meetings and take 5-10 minutes of agenda time, rather than scheduling special KM-focused sessions. Communication also tends to come directly from group leadership rather than KM staff, which helps KM establish itself as a vital aspect of doing business.