posted 1 Jun 2001 in Volume 4 Issue 9
The next step
Turning information into knowledge
Capturing and storing information is a process every law firm is familiar with, but it is the way in which this information is identified and analysed that determines how useful it will be as a knowledge resource. Nigel Oxbrow discusses the value knowledge management, and in particular a chief knowledge officer, can bring to law firms looking to take this next step.
The legal profession exists on its ability to capture, analyse and use information and knowledge effectively. The most successful law firms are not those that are able to capture only the tangible information assets inside and outside the firm, but those that are also able to effectively capture and reuse the wealth of knowledge and experience that exists within the heads of their most talented employees. Given that almost all law firms have access to the same external information resources to aid their business and their clients, the real competitive advantage that any firm has rests with its ability to fully exploit the talent and creativity that resides within each lawyer. Knowledge management presents all companies with the means and processes required to encourage the sharing and utilisation of both tacit and explicit knowledge.
KM has four features that are vital to implementation:
- People and organisational culture;
- Corporate infrastructure, both physical and technical.
The key to effective KM is, however, content. Unless the process of identifying, selecting, and analysing quality information is carried out, the process of turning information into knowledge, and sharing it, is fruitless.
The term ‘knowledge management’ is not universally used in the legal sector, even though some initiatives in the sector clearly use KM approaches. This may be due to the fact that the term itself, and the ‘management fad’ that the name confers, has not instilled confidence among legal professionals. There may also be a reluctance to instigate what could be perceived as another significant change programme at a time when most law firms have already had a great deal of fundamental change. Equally, many organisations may also believe that aspects of KM are already being addressed. In addition, many of the features of KM require changes in the behaviour of the leaders and employees of the organisation. Leaders have to tackle the ‘soft’ side of management – an area in which they may not feel comfortable. The demonstration of quantifiable benefits from adopting KM strategies is not an easy task, especially if there is a requirement to make a direct link to value to the client, and the bottom line.
KM approaches need to become embedded in work practices before any real benefit can be assessed, and even where their potential value is acknowledged, they may then struggle to secure a place within the strategy and structure of an organisation.
There are two quite distinct strategies for KM implementation: top-down and bottom-up. KM may also be a separate function, providing a service to business units wishing to implement KM activities. Alternatively, individual business units within a firm may follow their own path in embedding KM practices and processes.
KM is, nevertheless, gaining increasing credibility in the legal sector as a robust and essential strategy – but not necessarily under that name. A survey of 453 large organisations carried out by KPMG in 2000, showed that 55 per cent had either adopted or were considering adopting a KM programme. In the legal sector, we estimate that 15 per cent of firms have begun to seriously adopt KM approaches, although only a few of these explicitly use that label. The aims of KM are to:
- Know what you know;
- Learn what you need to know;
- Use knowledge effectively.
KM is about stimulating and managing an environment in which knowledge is created, shared, harnessed and used for the benefit of the organisation, its people and its customers. Implementing KM initiatives and culture change within an organisation requires the appointment of a knowledge manager who has a capability to identify key knowledge assets and the mechanisms required for effective knowledge transfer within an organisation.
The chief knowledge officer
There is a very wide range of job titles that reflect the role of the knowledge manager within organisations, but the most common title is that of chief knowledge officer.
The CKO is usually a proven and experienced manager appointed to drive the development of a knowledge culture. The role is seen as a project management position by many firms. There is a responsibility to develop strategies, establish standards and procedures, stimulate change and new initiatives, and embed the desired culture, working practices and behaviours within the organisation. When the CKO achieves this good management practice in the firm, the CKO position can be retained, but the role will change to become less strategic and focused on maintaining the culture and the knowledge and information flows.
More often than not, a CKO is appointed internally, or from within the legal sector, with a strong background in law, information management, IT and people management. The CKO needs to have an intimate understanding of the business and, therefore, their career path will often have progressed in various divisions of the legal sector, (even former lawyers become CKOs). Their knowledge should support the strategic objectives of the firm and its clients, but not interfere with the individual partner-client relationships. The CKO must have the ability to interpret KM initiatives from other business sectors that will deliver real benefit to the law firm. The CKO should be a natural leader with vision, energy, drive and authority. The CKO should be a determined individual, prepared to take risks, make mistakes and survive! They should have strong nurturing and coaching qualities that will help them impart their vision, skills and abilities into teams of people across the firm.
The CKO will have to work closely with a team of senior partners in the firm who actively support ‘the vision’ of a knowledge culture and the benefits it may bring. The knowledge teams that are created around the CKO can be drawn from a wide variety of positions within the organisation – including business analysts, client relationship managers, para-legals, human resources professionals and IT systems experts. It is valuable if some of the knowledge team members are in positions of ‘influence’ – senior executives from corporate functions and from major business units – and it is also beneficial to a successful implementation if they come from functions where resources will be required as initiatives are developed and implemented. These roles may be only part-time, and once the initial planning and implementation has been completed they may well change into advisory roles (or disappear altogether).
One of the skills of the implementation team is to be able to identify those people in the firm who have a natural affinity with both knowledge and information – such individuals should ideally be intuitive sharers, who make connections between disparate pieces of information, who think laterally and are seen by their peers as a natural repositories of information. These people are invaluable as local knowledge leaders, navigators and synthesisers. They can take on the important role of information community co-ordinators and as facilitators for important knowledge or information assets within the business units aimed at encouraging participation and use by their colleagues. Business unit managers have the responsibility of stimulating and encouraging KM initiatives and a knowledge culture within their unit added to their role. Others within the unit will have additional responsibilities for leading an initiative or being part of a team or community.
If a law firm is to thrive in the knowledge economy everyone associated with the business needs to actively embrace new ways of working – the new knowledge culture. Not only will there be a need (and sometimes a requirement) to share information, but everyone will have to develop new information literacy and information handling skills.
‘Buy-in’ by all employees is a critical factor in ensuring effective knowledge sharing within the firm, and the CKO’s biggest challenge will be to break down the natural human barriers (and sometimes corporate barriers) to the sharing of information and ideas across the firm.
Nigel Oxbrow is founder and chief executive of TFPL. He can be contacted at: email@example.com