The future of knowledge management (KM) gets more complicated by the minute as the rapid evolution of technology continues. Meanwhile, necessary cost-cutting in law firms is shifting discretionary services closer to the chopping block, writes Angela Priestley, and KM needs to prove its worth
When Simon Price walked into a law firm a little over a decade ago, he was stunned to hear that personal use of the internet was banned.
"There was one terminal where people could go and browse the internet," he said. "Now, would you think of banning the internet? No. But you would put some controls in place."
The European director of Recommind shared the story with a room of knowledge managers gathered at the Janders Dean Law Firm Knowledge Management (KM) conference in Sydney last month.
Price's anecdote refers to an aspect of KM that is all too familiar: once upon a time the internet was the ultimate disrupter in the known knowledge environments of law firms. These days, the internet still plays its part, but Web 2.0 technologies, social networking, as well as evolving forms of search and electronic file management are coming to the fore.
Knowledge is everywhere. The portals and forms of access are numerous and have been developed at such a rapid pace that one can only assume the evolution will continue into the future. In 1999, organisations were grappling with how the "first edition" of the internet should be handled. In 2009, with the proliferation of Web 2.0 technologies presenting themselves in our personal - and our professional - lives, organisations have a whole new ballgame to strategise for.
So why do knowledge managers have to work so hard to prove their worth?
Selling the proof
This year a study by the Korn/Ferry Institute asked senior partners of the Global 100 law firms to rank in order the importance of their support functions. Of the six options available - including business development, finance, HR, IT and sales and marketing - knowledge management came in last.
Janet Young, chief operating officer at Freehills, told the conference that she finds those results concerning. "You've got the top 100 firms in the world saying, '[KM] does not offer much value'. So how do we change that?"
Having undertaken an extensive overhaul of knowledge management at Freehills, including the development of numerous "know-how" guides written by the firm's top lawyers, Young is adamant that KM adds extreme value to the firm. "It's incumbent on everybody who works in KM that you have to actually prove that value," she said. "You have to sell that."
Young believes selling such value comes down to realising what knowledge can offer clients. That, she said, may mean assisting the legal departments of clients on managing and organising their knowledge. It may also mean ensuring lawyers and senior management understand that knowledge is about much more than the library and precedents, and that effective KM may require a cultural overhaul.
Meanwhile the evolution of knowledge - especially its enhanced ability to promote inter-connectedness between staff members - could also provide a key to proving its worth. Rather than looking at the return on investment figures, Young looks to the value of KM by viewing it as an enabler for assisting with access to information and innovation, and ultimately, aiding staff engagement.
It's also a matter, said Young, of proving KM's role in mitigating risk, in pushing efficiencies, the effectiveness of processes and the need for continuous improvements.
"What underpins this for us is that, yes, law is a profession, and yes, there are a lot of ethics that we need to adhere to - but we're also a business," said Young. "It's not an 'either/or' so we need to run ourselves as a business, and that means thinking about the value we're creating."
A reposition to the heart
Justin Harness, associate director at Macquarie Bank and former head of knowledge at Lovells, says that he places business optimisation at the heart of KM in an organisation.
Harness believes that while the knowledge contents at Macquarie are markedly different to a law firm, there are a number of parallels both types of organisations can appreciate in the current economic climate. "It's an opportunity to challenge the way we've been working," he said.
"It's an opportunity to challenge our existing technologies and our existing approaches. There are some real opportunities to reposition ourselves at the heart of the organisation."
There has been a considerable shift, said Harness, from when the economy was booming and knowledge was seen as a driver of innovation - providing some ripe, value-proving options ripe for the picking. "There has been a shift as the environment has changed to actually now looking at businesses and seeing how we can make them as profitable as possible, how we can streamline activities, how we can challenge our existing practices and how we can enable our lawyers to work as effectively as possible."
The fundamental shift
According to Matthew Parsons, author and former global director of knowledge at Linklaters, the next 10 years in KM could see as much rapid change as that experienced in the last 10 years.
That change is likely to promote fundamental structural changes in the way knowledge is handled in law firms.
Parsons said it's possible that "knowledge partners" might rise to prominence in firms, as partners who are asked to take responsibility for the governance of knowledge and be offered a team of support staff to assist.
"They are going to have to be a senior, pragmatic partner. Frankly, that person is probably not going to be a technologist, but a dinosaur - somebody with loads of credibility and respect."
With such a partner in place, Parsons believes, more accountability around the measurement of knowledge would be in place to better understand the return on investment that effective KM can offer.
Other roles to emerge could include usability and communications advisors, practice knowledge support offices, intranet managers and online learning and extranet production managers. Parsons said those roles could help provide effective connections to better manage the knowledge and processes emerging from multiple areas within the firm.
Such structural changes might be a few years off though. In the meantime, we have the global financial crisis to contend with.
The question needs to be asked: will the downturn leave its own mark on the current state of the legal sector - and leave knowledge vulnerable to the axe? Young thinks not. "It's helping our lawyers deliver what they need to do," she said.