Friday, August 31, 2012

In KM... Volume Doesn't Equal Value: Descriptive vs Prescriptive Approaches to Knowledge Management

James Gleick's 2011 book, The Information: a History, a Theory a Flood documents humanity's 5 millennia quest to define and organize various galaxies of information.

A Lesson From The 17th Century

In response to an earlier information explosion caused by the proliferation of printed books, 17th-­century writers began compiling  indexes, bibliographies, compendia and encyclopedia to "winnow out the chaff. "
Gleick's review of the history of English language dictionaries reminded me of a concept I learned in graduate school about the differng linguistic approaches of dictionaries. Some dictionaries, e.g. Webster's An American Dictionary of the English Language. are "prescriptive:" i.e. they advise on the proper use of a word.  A "descriptive" dictionary such as the Oxford English Dictionary tells you how a word has been used --- exhaustively--- throughout history--- it delivers all recorded usages of a word. It passes no judgements. The definition of the word "information" is an opus in itself--- an astonishing 9,400 words long. Or should the definition of this definition be shortened to "TMI?"

The Prescriptive/ Descriptive Dichotomy In KM

As firms increasingly turn to enterprise search as the next "holy grail" for taming the tidal wave of documents surging from their Document Management Systems, it is important to recognize that we may be embarking on a "descriptive" approach to Knowledge Management. We are not passing judgment or making a selection based on quality we are simply allowing lawyers search an ever growing repository. They can retrieve documents based on relevance, they can often filter based on objective "facets" of information. What most systems can't do without human intervention, is  provide  lawyers with an easy way to locate curated results based on quality.

There seems to be a hope that over time lawyers will provide curation by recommending documents the same way people recommend restaurants and movies on social networking platforms. Are we wise to consider that likely or even desirable, if we consider the reliability of lawyer provided desciptive data in our DMSs?

KM's Role in Professional Development And Professional Efficiency Needs to be Prescriptive

As firms are seeking both to enhance the efficiency of legal processes and to provide more practical guidance to associates, KM resources should be utilized as a component of the training plan. While British firms have deep legacy of "prescriptive KM,"  using Practice Support Lawyers to craft and filter and promote the use of standard documents, US firms have relied heavily on technology. While technology offers lower headcount and greater efficiencies on producing a KM resource, it may not be optimizing lawyer productivity.

A Hybrid Approach?

A new role for embedded practice librarians may be as KM curators, helping practices define, organize and  tag their best practice templates, checklists and model documents. These curated documents could be appropriately weighted to facilitate retrieval in the KM or enterprise search systems.

The Perfect As the Enemy of the Good

One of the biggest obstacles I have observed in various iterations of KM projects, is the paralysis and indecision that surround what I call the "blessing" of documents and 'exemplars" representing the "best of firm work product."  We need to have the courage and persistence to lead and make choices, knowing that we can over time improve the selection process.The important thing is to make a start at taking KM from a "volume proposition" to a "value proposition."

Friday, August 3, 2012

Practice Group Oracles and Knowledge Engines: Law Librarians Climb the Value Ladder

Jordan Furlong's keynote address "Climbing the Value Ladder"  at the recent  PLL Summit outlined the critical forces reshaping the legal market. Furlong  concluded his talk with an optimistic array of emerging  roles and responsibilities which obliterate the cliche of "library as administrative cost center." In my experience it is rare moment when a lawyer/consultant escapes the prison of "librarian conventions"  and demonstrates that he not only understands the analytical skills and substantive knowledge of librarians but can re-imagine these skills in strategic new roles in the 21st century law firm.

Some of these roles are already emerging in firms today, from embedded librarians to Competitive Intelligence Analysts, but Furlong turns many an "ear catching" phrase. The list of new roles suggest new possibilities  not only within law firms, but also new client facing roles.

Niche expert resource: You could also call this a "practice group oracle," which sounds much better. This person is a kind of permanent attache to a practice or industry group who is fully versed in the law and legal developments in a given subject and who lawyers can contact with topic-specific questions or research requests.

Bespoke CPD designer: Professional development (as distinct from "CLE," which remains fixated on lectures) is the next natural evolutionary step for law librarians. Assign a librarian or knowledge manager to become a key lawyer's personal PD coach and guru, interviewing the lawyer about his or her practice, clients, industry, specialties, interests, ambitions, etc., then provide a steady stream of learning and networking opportunities to help advance the lawyer's goals.

LPM coordinator: Legal project management is all about creating a structure and discipline around legal workflow --designing processes, milestones and collaboration requirements to ensure that a given legal project proceeds on time and on budget to the client's specified conclusion. Process is knowledge's first cousin, making the transition natural for law librarians.

Business intelligence director: This also encompasses the similar but distinct category of competitive intelligence; in both cases, it's a position that strives to tell the law firm what it needs to know about its operating theater, its competitors, its clients, its industry sectors, etc. This can be a case of revealing what the firm doesn't know that it knows.

External - Services to Clients

Legal knowledge liaison: A practice group oracle who alternatively or additionally is assigned to perform the same knowledge resource and research functions for a key client in the practice or industry group.

Expert application programmer: Based on emerging applications like Neota Logic, which integrates sophisticated legal knowledge management into a logic-driven decision-tree questionnaire, this job involves designing programs that can answer a firm's most commonly asked legal, regulatory and compliance questions.

AFA coordinator: Every law firm needs to offer alternative fee arrangements in an intelligent and profitable manner, and many are hiring new Directors of Pricing to do so; many successful candidates for these key positions are knowledge managers. engineer: Based on my column about, the idea is to engineer a firm-specific system that will analyze every data point of client interaction with a firm and, like Amazon, "recommend" certain products, services or knowledge streams for key clients.

Cost Center to Knowledge Engine

The most compelling line of his talk was both a declaration and a challenge. "Law librarians are not running a cost center they are running the knowledge engine of the law firm." 

The most strategic among us have already shifted focus to strategic knowledge services, but for those who have not, it may soon be too late.