Knowledge Management—More Than Technology

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Explore:  Knowledge Management

Some people assume, incorrectly, that technology is the be-all and end-all of knowledge management (KM). Technology undoubtedly facilitates KM, since most information is now stored, indexed, and accessed electronically. In fact, according to the International Legal Technology Association’s 2012 Knowledge Management Survey Results, 25% of respondents reported that their company’s IT/Systems department reported to, fell under, or was integrated with KM. Nevertheless, it would be misleading and counter-productive to assume that KM is nothing but the implementation of technology or that technology can solve every KM problem. A few of the ways in which KM extends beyond technology are:

  • Understanding Users’ Needs: Perhaps a knowledge manager’s most important function is to understand the needs, wants, and aptitudes of the organization’s employees. In legal KM, this means understanding the legal problems faced by the law firm’s attorneys and clients, the resources that are most helpful to solving those problems, and the terminology used in creating and classifying those resources. Similarly, even when implementing a technological solution to a KM problem, a knowledge manager must always consider what format and user interface will best fit the attorneys’ needs and wants (which aren’t always equivalent).
  • Quality Control: Edward R. Murrow once quipped, “The speed of communications is wondrous to behold. It is also true that speed can multiply the distribution of information that we know to be untrue.” Like any knowledge repository, a law firm’s document management system, if left unchecked, will inevitably accumulate its fair share of outdated or inaccurate briefs, forms, and memos. Technology simplifies the gathering, categorization, and dissemination of information, but no existing algorithm can distinguish accurate information from misinformation, truth from falsehood, or tried-and-true wisdom from defunct advice. Although we now rely on technology to store and distribute information, humans with real-world experience are still necessary to distinguish “knowledge” from “information that we know to be untrue.”
  • Content Creation: KM tries to help organizations avoid recreating the wheel by helping them find and leverage prior solutions to reoccurring problems. However, sometimes a question or problem will resurface time and time again without anyone creating the “best practice” answer or solution. In such instances, KM Counsel can help by creating documents or processes—either from scratch or by compiling and analyzing past solutions—that best address the issue.
  • Strategic Planning: Throwing technology at problems is no better than throwing money at them. To improve KM in a law firm or any other organization, someone within that organization needs to identify specifically what obstacles are impeding the gathering and sharing of knowledge and develop specific methods for removing those obstacles. The solutions are not always newer or better technology. For example, if a law firm is mired in a culture that fails to encourage knowledge sharing and instead incentivizes knowledge hoarding, then enterprise search, wikis, instant messaging, and other technologies will have little effect because the lawyers won’t use them.
  • Overcoming Information Overload: The role of KM in overcoming information overload deserves its own treatise, not just a single bullet point. Daniel Boorstein once lamented: “Technology is so much fun but we can drown in our technology. The fog of information can drive out knowledge.” Boorstein’s words were prophetic: after millennia of knowledge being scarce and inaccessible, technology has made it possible to type any topic into a search box and receive, in tenths of a second, more purportedly relevant search results than we could review in a lifetime. Although technology plays a role in alleviating this problem, such as the advent of newer and better search engines, a human touch is still necessary to empower users to find the right knowledge without having to wade through an overabundance of search results that may or may not be helpful.
  • Training and Outreach: Not everyone appreciates the importance of knowledge sharing, and knowledge managers must reach out to those people to educate them on the benefits of KM. Similarly, not everyone appreciates or understands technology. The results of the American Bar Association’s 2012 Legal Technology Survey show a wide range of technology use among lawyers, regardless of firm size. For example, in firms of 100-499 attorneys, a small but technologically-savvy group of respondents have tried some form of cloud computing (8%) or have been retained because of blogging or social media actions (13.6%), whereas 1.9% of respondents still use dial-up Internet connections. Consistent with the first point above, knowledge managers have to find ways to make an organization’s collective knowledge accessible to people of all levels of technological aptitudes.

Flyn L. Flesher is knowledge management counsel in the Houston office of Ogletree Deakins.