posted 17 Dec 2009 in Volume 13 Issue 4
A fresh look at knowledge capture
Cora Newell and Mark Gould explain law firm Addleshaw Goddard's individual approach to creating a client-centred knowledge culture, rather than implementing a firmwide knowledge infrastructure
The current recession has highlighted the importance of good knowledge practices and a corporate culture that actively supports those practices. It would be too much to argue that an absence of those things would threaten the viability of businesses as risk of failure is more likely to be a function of business model and trading activities. However, a sound approach to knowledge should mark out those businesses that emerge strongly from the current economic situation.
For many organisations, especially those that are more process-driven, good knowledge practice focuses on distilling and improving upon condoned working practices with the aim of creating a lasting knowledge culture and, ultimately, a more effective knowledge system. Historically, the sector of legal private practice has seen substantial investment by many law firms in knowledge capture systems. It is probably fair to say that there are many who would argue that these investments have not always paid off and that this approach has created further difficult problems: the variable quality of documentation included; topicality and the need to weed; duplication; the creation of silo databases; and other issues.
Addleshaw Goddard (AG) is one firm which chose to buck this trend by relying on team approaches to knowledge capture rather than a firm-wide infrastructure. And, on the whole, it has not regretted its decision, believing that it has managed to maintain competitive advantage while successfully avoiding some of the troublesome issues alluded to above. But AG has realised that a knowledge system can bring more subtle benefits of greater value, above and beyond the creation of a store of working documents, with commentary and guidance. The fact of having a knowledge system raises the profile of knowledge sharing and clarifies to staff that the firm considers knowledge sharing a priority. This, in itself, can result in changed behaviours even through the knowledge system may not be as heavily used as intended. The existence of a knowledge system can therefore make a significant cultural difference by influencing changes in behaviour. These behavioural changes are capable of influencing activities that are wider than the formal knowledge system and are of greater value to the firm as a result.
Knowledge is what law firms do – knowledge in this context being the work practice itself, rather than any particular documentation or abstract. By not investing in firm-wide knowledge systems, AG considers that, although it may not have suffered in missing out on an effective body of knowledge, it may have missed out on a much more important prospect – the opportunity to create and develop a knowledge culture – a set of expectations among its staff that, as knowledge is what we do, we all have a part to play in its contribution.
The creation of a knowledge culture is no small thing to achieve and of real benefit in a recession. Determined to act, but mindful that heavy investment in a centralised know-how system was not possible, AG decided to approach the cultural issue directly – it would drive the development of a client-centred knowledge culture by defining good knowledge behaviours in the context of transactional activity. But how does one go about distilling generic behaviours, which lead to good working practices around knowledge, so as to create a useful product rather than a safety net? How does one identify actual examples rooted in particular transactions that everyone can understand and, more to the point, so that the processes can be applied to different work areas?
AG believes it has an answer and is currently piloting knowledge behaviour models that cross practice area boundaries, attempting to develop processes capable of being tested, reported on and achieving consistent client satisfaction. This two-year project is currently half-completed.
Amongst AG’s existing know-how resources, a couple stood out. The private equity group had developed a particularly effective set of materials (which they termed a ‘toolkit’) to support their transactions. The real estate team managed support for repetitive leasehold transactions for key retail clients by matching clients’ commercial needs with a low-cost legal process. Close examination of these two valuable strands of work led to the view that they would be suitable examples from which to develop a better understanding of the application of good knowledge management principles across the firm.
Working with consultants, Mark Gould, AG’s head of knowledge management, took the raw materials provided by the private equity and real estate teams to produce two fundamental resources. One was a generic transaction map and the other a table of key knowledge-related behaviours supporting effective work with clients and others within the firm. Although the content of these would not surprise most experienced lawyers or knowledge managers, they are surprisingly uncommon documents. An excerpt from one of the transaction maps, together with a draft of the related knowledge behaviours are provided in Figures 1 and 2.
The transaction maps break into four major stages. These comprise certain processes that are generic across a range of work types, such as the beginning and end of each matter (matter opening and matter closing), a project management stage (consisting of key actions that might be repeated a number of times, especially during a larger matter) and a transaction-specific set of activities. The illustrative material refers to the closing stages of a matter, typically a problematic area for many law firms. Many of the tasks performed at this stage are considered by lawyers (and even by clients) as peripheral work, especially as the key elements of the transaction or case will have been resolved. The natural inclination of most lawyers is to throw themselves into the next piece of work, rather than ‘mopping up’ the remaining pieces of the last one. However, the benefit that can accrue from an effective review of work done, and of the client’s reaction to the work – lessons learned – is potentially huge. There is at this stage a real tension between what individuals want to do and what the organisation needs from them.
It is hoped that the process map will help to resolve this tension by providing a useful checklist to remind lawyers of these key tasks and an explanation of why performing those tasks makes a difference. A similar checklist approach has proved highly successful in emergency medical care (see, for example, Atul Gawande’s new book, The Checklist Manifesto).
Of course, when resources like these are created, they are often seen as written in stone and promoted to legal staff who are exhorted to comply with them at all stages of their work. This approach often falls foul of lawyers’ natural propensity for risk-aversion. By way of example, an expectation which underpins the process map and knowledge behaviours is that the client’s needs should be the key driver when there is a clash between the client’s commercial needs and the perfect legal process. So, where a client has good commercial reasons to occupy a shop within four weeks of deciding to take the lease, but a full-blown assessment of the relative obligations of the landlord and tenant would take six weeks, a way has to be found of shortening (or avoiding) the process.
A number of things flow from this scenario. Most importantly, the lawyer needs to know exactly what the client’s needs are for this transaction and more generally. There needs to be effective communication between the client and lawyer and within the legal team more generally. To be effective, this communication must draw out the right knowledge from the client. It is also essential for lawyers to know which aspects of the legal process are most critical to achieving the client’s commercial goals. They therefore need to understand those goals and be able to communicate them effectively to others (as well as know when to communicate them). Sadly, all these things are harder to do than to explain. AG employs two mechanisms to help lawyers to become better at this communication.
Typically, work in law firms depends on a pair of key tools: e-mail and documents. Both tend to be used in a formal fashion, unlike knowledge sharing which tends to be informal. Thus, knowledge sharing that does take place can often be lost or at least restricted to those who are directly involved. It is unfortunate that some of this informal knowledge sharing includes information that could improve client service if made more widely available.
In an attempt to try and capture this informal knowledge sharing that can add real value to the client relationship, AG is moving away from historic, dead tree approaches and using dynamic wiki and blog, people-focused systems, consistent with the firm’s wish to link knowledge culture and client service. These systems aim to provide a snapshot of what’s in AG’s people’s heads at any given time – an approach better suited to the nature of a professional services firm. But the focus of these wikis and blogs is not on legal expertise and know-how, but on a set of key clients. This enables everyone in the firm to contribute insights into these clients, the markets they operate in, and their relationship with the firm.
As its knowledge behaviours project is designed to link client experience with knowledge and give clients a better experience, AG’s developed models of good knowledge behaviours will be incorporated into the firm’s performance management system, replacing existing generic statements favouring undefined ‘knowledge sharing’. Staff will be shown what good knowledge sharing behaviour looks like rather than just being told what it is – enabling greater depth of practice area coverage.
In common with many organisations, AG employs an annual performance review for each employee. These reviews depend on feedback from others and are based on a competency framework for each role in the firm. These competency frameworks reflect the range of behaviours, skills and attributes that the firm expects of its people, but are typically presented in a simple descriptive form. Where the behaviour or attribute described for a role is widely understood, this is a sensible approach. But often the term ‘knowledge sharing’ is not clear enough for people to give meaningful feedback. In order to achieve a wider acceptance in the firm of the new models of knowledge sharing, the key behaviours identified during this project are being presented in narrative form so people will more easily be able to understand what is required of them in sharing knowledge. More importantly, these examples will enable better informed, more nuanced, feedback on performance.
The firm has just started the process of reviewing its competency frameworks to take account of the knowledge behaviours. This work is progressing iteratively, with the first draft of the behaviours being tested with a wider range of lawyers and support staff. Their comments, observations and additional examples will be used to improve the final version. In addition, it is expected that further examples of good (and not so good) knowledge use will be incorporated into the performance management system each year. As a result, good knowledge practices will be embodied in the performance review process as well as in other working processes throughout the firm.
Addleshaw Goddard’s approach to knowledge sharing is an experimental one, but it has been developed in a way that allows for graceful failure. The changed performance management process will be constantly monitored by people throughout the firm (not just HR professionals). This monitoring, together with the availability of process maps for working practices, will enable the firm to judge at the earliest opportunity if the changes are making a difference to knowledge sharing. If the experiment succeeds, the firm will reap the rewards. If it fails, any changes made in the process can easily be rolled back. The firm’s downside is limited as its investment has been relatively minimal, especially in contrast with the creation of a firm-wide knowledge system. As such, this is a real example of the kind of safe-fail experimentation that Dave Snowden considers to be a significant strategy in dealing with complex systems1.
Mark Gould is head of knowledge management at Addleshaw Goddard LLP. He joined the firm in 2001 as a professional support lawyer after a 13-year career as a legal academic. He blogs on KM and related matters at http://blog.tarn.org/ and can be contacted at Mark.Gould@addleshawgoddard.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 that 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