Law firms have been knowledge management organizations ever since handfuls of lawyers started practicing together under the auspices of a "firm." They just didn't know it.
Steve Denning is the author of numerous top-selling business books about leadership, and his client list reads like the Fortune 500 issue of Fortune magazine. He happens to be a former practicing lawyer and was the Program Director for Knowledge Management for the World Bank.
Here is a link to an extraordinary blog post called "The economic imperative of knowledge management" - and here is an excerpt that almost gave me goose-bumps:
Many factors have transformed the way in which organizations now view knowledge, but perhaps the pivotal development has been the dramatically extended reach of know-how through new information technology. Rapidly falling costs of communications and computing and the extraordinary growth and accessibility of the World Wide Web present new opportunities for knowledge-based organizations, to share knowledge more widely and cheaply than ever before.
Thus organizations with operations and employees around the world are now able to mobilize their expertise from whatever origin to apply rapidly to new situations. As a result, clients are coming to expect from global organizations, not merely the know-how of the particular team that has been assigned to the task, but the very best that the organization as a whole has to offer. Knowledge sharing is thus enabling — and forcing — institutions that are international in the scope of their operations, to become truly global in character by enabling knowledge transfer to occur across large distances within a very short time.
Once clients realize that global sharing of knowledge is possible, they want nothing less than this. If one organization will not provide it, then they may turn to another that will. As a result, sharing knowledge ceases to become an option, but rather a necessity of business survival. In a real sesne (sic), the strategic choice facing an organization is knowledge sharing or death.
IT departments in law firms, and certain conscientious practice groups do their best to gather and maintain practice area intelligence so that it can be broadly shared, used and reused - by lawyers and their clients. I published a chapter in a White Paper in late February this year (I'll post it here, too) for Leigh Dance, ELD International, called "Improve Client Service and Satisfaction Through Global Project and Knowledge Management."
In this chapter, I ask and answer the question: Despite 25 years of KM progress, why haven't law firms embraced it even more closely? A reason that we hear from firms of all sizes is that "lawyers don't like to share." I think this is too easy an excuse (although I admit there are some who don't). I think the reason is that KM is too far removed from what lawyers actually do - from the delivery of legal services. Other than knowing where documents are in the document management system, KM is fully off the day-to-day radar screen of many lawyers in even the largest law firms.
To combat the obstacles, my company, Content Pilot, has designed a robust, but highly natural KM system/experience database that easily integrates with other databases, called CP Deals & Cases Tool. It is designed to facilitate trust among lawyers and marketers, and promote data gathering because it's so intuitive and easy to use. It is designed to sift through the enormous proliferation of data to isolate the salient and most relevant pieces of information that tell the complete and right story about a particular piece of experience.
But this post isn't about selling our products and services. It's urging law firms to absorb what Steve Denning preaches - that clients expect global knowledge sharing, and if your organization doesn't embrace and provide it, clients will seek firms that do.
Steve Denning says:
By 2007, more and more firms were recognizing the need to manage their knowledge. The factors creating massive change were diverse: accelerating competition in the global economy, the consequent imperative for ever faster innovation, the emergence of global networks of partners, the rapidly growing role of intangibles, which can’t be controlled like physical goods, the increasing ownership of the means of production by knowledge workers, the escalating power of customers in the marketplace, and the burgeoning diversity in both the workplace and marketplace—all these forces imply a vastly more important role for knowledge and leadership in the future.
Now, halfway through 2010, we are receiving numerous inquiries about experience databases and KM, but we still hear about the cultural obstacles to successful implementation. Try to imagine telling a client wanting to know about your project finance expertise in the Middle East, "Our firm doesn't know what it knows - we don't have a mandatory system that invites and encourages this type of sharing."
Instead of such a heart-on-the-shirtsleeve admission, lawyers send a broadcast email that asks, "Does anyone here have experience in project finance matters in the Middle East?" What if the perfect expert is on vacation without email access? And what if that vacationer is a recent lateral, whose broad and deep expertise isn't yet known by practice area colleagues?
The client will go elsewhere - to another law firm that can not only surface the individual who is the expert, but the details of the experience that are the most relevant to this client opportunity.
Cultural impediments to KM will cease to be the excuse for those law firms that want to become "all-knowing."