posted 30 Nov 2009 in Volume 13 Issue 3
Case study: Clifford Chance LLP
Challenging preconceptions: 'Wiki gardeners'
Sam Dimond and Cora Newell on the role of the KM professional in successfully deploying Web 2.0 tools.
In this first instalment of the ‘Challenging preconceptions’ series, Sam Dimond, director of Knowledge Systems at Clifford Chance, makes the case for knowledge management (KM) professionals shunning traditional gatekeeper roles in favour of more dynamic positions as knowledge brokers and community facilitators by exploiting social media technologies, especially wikis. This account of the firm’s experiences in introducing wikis to grow and capture knowledge, is an honest and illuminating account of the practical pitfalls and benefits encountered by Clifford Chance along the way.
Wikis and other social media technologies, otherwise known as Web 2.0, are arguably the perfect tools for the KM practitioner struggling to deliver value in the current economic downturn. Forced to do more with less, KM teams are having to move away from their traditional KM role, that of gatekeeper and organiser, to that of knowledge broker and community facilitator – a new skill set but one well within the DNA of most knowledge professionals. While generally recognised to be relatively inexpensive, wikis offer many of the same benefits of more costly KM technologies by making it easier for business users to directly contribute to a firm’s knowledge base – resulting in more efficient organisations.
Examples of wikis in use at Clifford Chance
Virtual team collaboration
The Clifford Chance Foundation is made up of staff of all levels of seniority from across the whole firm, who come together to review applications for funding for charitable causes. As a virtual group tasked with making recommendations to the board, they have an operational challenge – they can only have so many conference calls, each of which must be focused on reaching decisions quickly. If each application were e-mailed to every member, the number of interactions and disjointed discussions would be considerable and inefficient.
The introduction of wikis into this environment means that group members can now post each new application to their designated wiki, along with meeting agendas, minutes, decisions and management communications. With everyone’s contributions organised by topic, the wiki makes it easy for members to comment on submissions or help draft communications. A daily e-mail alert with links to the most recent additions means that members can see who changed what and when, on each page. Using the wiki is a much more efficient way of collaborating than relying on Microsoft Word and e-mail, as fewer interactions means less chance of missing something. Foundation members claim that their meetings are far more focused because most of the discussion takes place beforehand.
Formal knowledge communities
At Clifford Chance, wikis are also used to collaboratively create bodies of knowledge. Each year a few trainees would be asked to create an ‘unofficial guide to groups and offices’ to help trainees choose their next seats. But the introduction of a wiki into this process means that the guide is now created in days by many, as opposed to weeks by a few. Most recently we have burst a wiki space into separate pages for each sub-chapter – for example, what type of work you will get as a trainee lawyer working in the
This technique has worked so well that we have begun to use the same approach for areas of legal know-how – inviting lawyers, for example, to use a wiki to create and update a guide to the
Clifford Chance is also adopting wikis to support communities of knowledge, as in our new sector-focused lawyer groups. Ideal for helping tacit knowledge to flow across the boundaries of practice and geography, wikis are essential to the global implementation of our sector strategy. In the future they are likely to replace Outlook bulletin boards as ways of sharing notes about client opportunities and questions of the ‘has anyone come across an agreement with a clause like this…?’ variety. Lawyers like the fact that the answers are organised by topic and searchable, rather than being lost forever in e-mail folders.
Blogs for communication
Although less relevant as knowledge tools, blogs are another example of how KM staff can aid the successful implementation of Web 2.0 technology. Unlike wikis, which work by enabling collaboration to create a topic, blogs enable people to respond or react to the information shared by others without allowing them to modify it themselves (that said, blogs are often used to draw attention to new wiki pages or to seed the initial topic for discussion).
The IT department had a monthly newsletter it wanted to replace as it was tiresome to put together and too formal – by the time an article had been authored and approved it was often out of date. The creation of an IT management group blog means that, by taking it in turns to post, group members have developed a more informal yet opinionated voice, which has itself strengthened the IT community and led to more timely, frequent and interactive communications. For example, the chief information officer has commented on the firm’s strategy (explaining the role to be played by technology) and project sponsors have used the blog to invite questions about their projects and then created frequently asked questions based on these.
The right initiative at the right time
Clifford Chance introduced wikis as a guerilla initiative because we were already committed to several big ticket projects and could not realistically embark on another project requiring significant financial investment without a water-tight business case. Such an approach also felt right because, while the technology itself was inexpensive, we didn’t really know what to expect or exactly what we were setting out to build. We decided to focus on three pilot scenarios:
A project team organising a conference;
A cross-practice policy-making group; and,
A legal know-how group.
The wiki software was refreshingly simple to implement.
We integrated the software with our Active Directory so users weren’t required to log-in with a password and every content change was clearly attributed to a person. Although we made the mistake early on of creating page templates that were too rigidly defined by the pilot group’s processes (for example, a particular project methodology), we quickly realised these weren’t going to be flexible enough, so we focused instead on a generic page template. This enabled us non-technologists to build different business applications by mixing components and macros. This was important as it meant that we could respond quickly and easily to unexpected business requests as it soon became apparent that we couldn’t anticipate or dictate exactly how a wiki’s users would develop and use their wiki.
An example of this was one human resources (HR) manager’s need to report on different IT security policies across the whole firm. She set up a simple wiki table asking each office HR manager to fill in their row – each manager could see what others had written and what was expected and this helped to identify and fill gaps in their knowledge. The use of a wiki in this innovative way enabled a greater distribution of effort, a much faster turnaround time and yet still achieved the required consistency.
This led to the central KM team developing a high level of expertise with wikis by working with the more advanced macros and wiki mark-up language to build different applications. There was also the advantage of a generally remarkably high degree of learning among all users with many users contributing to the knowledge bank of tips on how to use the wiki and how to avoid pitfalls – which was itself wiki-based – which left us more time to focus on the considerable change management issues.
Challenges and the role of the KM professional
Wikis definitely aren’t a case of ‘build it and they will come’. If an existing community really doesn’t communicate or share knowledge at all, a wiki isn’t going to change that overnight. It helps to start with existing or new communities that have an acknowledged need – and desire – to communicate and collaborate better. This influenced our choice to focus first on non-legal communities, which up to then had received relatively little KM attention – for example, our business services groups had a growing need to share more knowledge and information as staff numbers reduced and the demand for efficiency increased.
So how did we go about identifying the right communities? This is where the knowledge manager’s passion for promoting collaboration came in. The
Even if users are familiar with external social networking tools in their own homes, it’s a real shift to use them in the office. No matter how easy they are to use, it requires a change in the way we work, especially for naturally conservative law firms. We’ve learned that you can significantly boost your chances of success by appointing enthusiastic wiki gardeners, otherwise known as ‘wiki gnomes’1. These will typically be more junior members of the community and represent a great opportunity for KM professionals to develop a new skillset that should come naturally to many.
Stuart Mader’s excellent ‘Wiki Patterns’ site2 goes into more detail about the role of the wiki gardener, but it includes showing and reminding people how and when to use the wiki, tweaking pages to improve the readability of content, organising new additions to bring structure by tagging pages or by adding and fixing links, or doing cosmetic editing, such as weeding out typos and encouraging people to use the wiki by asking the right questions and seeding it with content.
The gardeners also coach people on how to use the wiki as an alternative to e-mail until the necessary momentum has been achieved – for example, they realise that it’s a great way of helping to reduce the information overload. Make no mistake, e-mail is a strong obstacle because, for all its faults, it’s so pervasive in our working lives. At the very least you have to try and integrate your wiki with e-mail as much as possible, for example, using e-mail to alert users to new content, or better still, using RSS feeds for this purpose.
We’ve found that many users are still more comfortable treating wikis like blogs, so they’re happier adding comments to the bottom of a page rather than directly editing text. Even when they do start editing they often continue to put their own additions in brackets or a different colour. It takes a while to help people realise that wikis make it easy to show who added what and when and to roll back to an earlier version if necessary. With time and the help of the KM wiki champions, people do realise that they can safely let go.
A challenge we’ve encountered with blogs is encouraging people that they have something interesting enough to say. Blogs for communities certainly flourish best if the contributors voice an opinion, even if it’s something quite provocative or controversial. It’s also good to describe a unique personal experience, for example, their take on a recent strategy announcement by management or a visit to another office. Posting a ‘corporate’ message is unlikely to generate interactive comments or debate, if that’s what you’re after. This means that people have to adopt a different communication style which is likely to be outside their comfort zone at first. One tip is to make sure they have a place where they can draft a blog item securely before posting to a wider audience.
At the outset of our project, risk management and IT were understandably concerned that wikis and blogs might be misused or would result in thousands of unused, unmanaged islands of content. For this reason the central wiki team retains a governance role, reviewing each business case for a new wiki or blog and reviewing each one every six months to check that they aren’t breaching any of the firm’s policies on use of the internet, client confidentiality, copyright, and to ensure that core know-how finds its way to the firm’s more formal know-how system. But by far our biggest task is helping wiki owners to nurture their online communities.
How do we measure success? While some of our wikis and blogs have been more successful than others, generally they do seem to follow the ‘90-9-1 pattern’ identified by Jakob Nielsen3. This states that in any online community that depends on its users to generate content, 90 per cent of the community will read content but won’t contribute, nine per cent will contribute only occasionally, while only one per cent will participate frequently. Activity levels far below those figures probably do indicate problems, but for us, a wiki is successful when it has become the primary way of achieving its purpose – replacing e-mail for collaboration, for example.
Take the plunge
Given that wikis and blogs can deliver strong business benefits for relatively little financial investment, this is exactly the right time to introduce them. Clifford Chance’s biggest challenge in doing so is not the worry about an explosion of uncontrolled content, but the achievement of a critical mass where wiki communities can look after themselves and members feel comfortable using this alternative to a more traditional method of collaboration. The key to this realisation is simplicity – finding a key problem you want to solve and focusing on that – but also being prepared for new uses to emerge. KM professionals have a great opportunity to develop their skills as facilitators of knowledge communities and to help their organisations to successfully adopt Web 2.0 as a better way of working.
Sam Dimond is director of Knowledge Systems at Clifford Chance LLP. A former tax lawyer at that firm, he has eight years of experience designing and implementing KM processes and tools, and encouraging knowledge-sharing behaviour, most recently focusing on communities of practice and enterprise search. He can be contacted at email@example.com
Cora Newell is a senior KM adviser and solicitor with wide experience of city firm practice. She is founder of KM Insight Consulting, a consultancy which offers advisory and change management services to firms wishing to develop their knowledge capabilities, information management and business efficiency. A regular speaker at major KM and legal conferences, she can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
1. ‘WikiGardener’, (Stuart Mader et al, http://www.wikipatterns.com);
3. ‘Participation Inequality: Encouraging More Users to Contribute’ (Jakob Nielsen, 9 October 2006, http://www.useit.com/alertbox/participation_inequality.html).