posted 5 Mar 2010 in Volume 13 Issue 5
KM on a shoestring
Effective KM strategy can be achieved in a downturn by adopting a back-to-basics approach, and communicating with your 'customers' is key to this, as Paul Byfield reports.
One could be forgiven for approaching this subject with a degree of pessimism. However, it should not be seen in such a negative light. The current financial crisis has undoubtedly posed problems for the legal profession and those involved in devising knowledge management (KM) strategies for the short and medium term.
It has been argued in the past that KM has been too dependent upon technology; this approach has changed but in the current climate an organisation’s restrictions on spending money on IT will no doubt affect the ability of KM professionals to implement KM solutions.
The support functions within law firms and other organisations (IT, KM, business development and library services) are often seen as an overhead – a useful luxury. The existence of these services can be affected when budgets are being questioned.
It is therefore vital that KM is perceived as being business critical and its worth to the business should be viewed as being particularly vital in difficult times. It can and should offer firms a commercial advantage, and successful firms should be those which take KM seriously.
KM has to be a continuous process. The adoption of a good IT structure and regular contributions and input from the lawyers is not enough to support KM within a firm. In difficult times it is imperative that KM professionals demonstrate their value to the business. This can be achieved without resorting to the adoption of an IT focused project – a ‘back to basics’ approach can be implemented to conduct reviews of the current service, and this can achieve significant improvements and raise the profile of KM within the firm without additional expenditure.
The KM strategy
The KM strategy should provide an overview of the organisation’s KM work. This should describe in some detail what the aim of KM is within an organisation and should set out how this can be achieved. It should have been agreed by all departments and adopted for use. The objectives can be relatively straightforward once identified; they may be different dependant upon the type of organisation (and particularly how mature the knowledge sharing culture is within that organisation). However, in theory they should all aim to achieve at least two of the three points set out below:
Leveraging the organisation’s knowledge;
Creating new knowledge or promoting innovation; and,
Increasing collaboration and hence enhancing the skill level of employees.
The second point could be instrumental in giving firms the competitive edge. If an innovative approach can be adopted it could give a firm a unique selling point, which in this environment is crucial.
View lawyers as customers
In order to achieve this, KM professionals should obtain feedback from those most affected by the KM strategy: the users of the systems. They should be treated as customers (of the KM service); and interviews should be held with these customers to find out if the strategy has been successful. The strategy is a central component of the KM process, which shapes the focus of KM for the organisation and ensures that it is viewed as a project with some definable goals and possible solutions. With this in mind the KM professional should approach the interview process with an open mind. A template questionnaire is not the right course of action – the questions will depend upon the culture of the firm and the type of service(s) offered. What should follow from these interviews is a set of actions points for implementation.
It is unlikely that these sets of actions will have previously been identified and agreed upon in their entirety (for example, when the previous KM strategy was produced), so in the current climate these ‘manual’ tasks are ideal as they are visible, tangible projects with achievable outcomes. And, at this stage, it does not actually cost any money to achieve an end result.
Law firms (and those corporates with in-house legal departments) are ideal knowledge sharing environments, so KM processes as instruments to enhance knowledge sharing should be ‘easy’ to put in place.
The prospect of conducting an audit often results in some negativity from knowledge and information workers. However this process should be seen as an ideal opportunity to assess what you have put in place, what is working well and what is not. If you do not have a KM strategy in place, conducting knowledge audits does not necessarily mean that you will delete or even archive what you have. It may be that there is an obvious need to further enhance access to some information. This requires a great deal of work on behalf of the KM professional(s) but can highlight the value of your work even further.
Dependant upon when the last knowledge audit was conducted (if ever) the scope can be broad (i.e. a review of the whole organisation) or have a narrower focus (i.e. looking at one or a few related departments).
When conducting an audit the consultation process is vital. Cooperation with the ‘customers’ is central to this task. As a mechanical process it can be easy as most document management systems have an automated audit function, but these statistics only provide half the picture. An audit cannot be conducted solely on the basis of quantitative analysis, such as how many times a document has been accessed. It must be approached as a qualitative exercise – for example, how useful is the note or memo? With this in mind, it is therefore vital to engage with the customers to get the answers to this question. Key individuals from all levels and departments should be consulted. Workshops can be conducted and questionnaires and individual feedback sessions can also be used. In fact, having a multi-faceted approach should ensure that feedback is obtained from all relevant users. Once this approach has been taken it should give a clearer picture about the tools that are heavily used or relied upon and what needs further improvement.
Achieving ‘quick/easy wins’
The corporate intranet
When looking for ways to implement KM projects without spending money or by using limited funds, one should be looking at how existing resources can be enhanced to share knowledge. The corporate intranet is the ideal platform to publicise and share information as most departments within a firm have a presence on the intranet.
The benefit of having a corporate intranet is to help establish communication between employees who will normally have no reason to meet or work on projects together. Intranets enable knowledge sharing while also providing one reliable and secure way to access the organisation’s information. A well organised intranet improves an organisation’s ability to manage its information. It also streamlines and accelerates the distribution of documents. Productivity is higher because access to important information is improved and a cost reduction in printing and distributing information is a likely and usually welcome outcome.
Most firms or organisations have intranets that are largely underused for sharing information of any real value; sites can become overpopulated with too much information – they become ‘document dumps’ – due to the nature of how it is filed (without a credible architecture or taxonomy). Information can become difficult or sometimes impossible to find. In these environments it is the perfect opportunity to look at the content on the intranet, use this as a resource to market what you do, make the information easily accessible and ensure that the information that is used most regularly is the easiest to find. This is an obvious and ‘easy’ KM win.
Creating ‘signposts’ between systems – solving jigsaw puzzles
Most organisations have numerous systems and databases that they use in order to store and manage documentation, statistics, reports, project memos, and so on. These systems can cause navigational problems for the user. The information architecture may have become a jigsaw puzzle at this point, so in order to make sense of it you have to fit the puzzle together. Creating meaningful links between these systems will enable the users to find the information that they need but will also minimise queries for the administrators. Ideally some of these problems could be resolved by implementing one database that has many related functions and merging the various databases into it – for example, document, project, web and content management. However this would be an expensive undertaking, so alternative methods can be introduced to address these issues, such as:
Merging existing (related) databases together – this will help to streamline processes;
Creating hyperlinks between various databases – this is another quick and easy win that reminds users about the existence of different systems and their content;
Conducting refresher training on how to use systems – this is always a useful tool. Information literacy is one of the main reasons for the under utilisation of know-how systems and databases. In multi-jurisdictional environments, use conference call and web-based training tools and facilities to contact and train your colleagues overseas.
Tracking KM, profitability and budgets
In Figure 1, the red line indicates spending on KM, IT and information resources over a defined period of time – the dip representing the recent economic decline. The corresponding green line represents an increase in productivity rates. The blue line represents an increase in profitability over the same time span. This is a fictitious chart and is not based on any actual published figures.
It is idealistic but demonstrates what most KM professionals would like to achieve. KM is about reversing the process of reinventing the wheel and making it as easy as possible for staff to do their jobs, without having to spend too much time looking for information; to have clearly defined information being pushed to them and to be able to recognise what is of value to the business. By achieving these goals the organisation should become more productive, thus creating more profit. These results can even be achieved in a downturn with minimised resources, but with a lot of effort.
Paul Byfield is a legal information specialist at EBRD. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org