Why do so many knowledge management (KM) IT projects within law firms struggle to show a good ROI? For that matter, how many KM IT projects really succeed?
The KM community in the legal sector is a varied one with many excellent practitioners who do implement superb and effective projects. But there are also many projects which despite their high value, high effort, and often high cost only see limited success. Some industry statistics show success rates for KM IT system projects as low as 50%. It is all too easy for consultants to advise that a Knowledge system, a CRM or even a document management system is needed, and while they may well be right, it is a fair question to ask if they have really understood the business requirements for that specific law firm or if they are just following best practice from other organisations.
To really make a difference, the essential guide is to take everything back to the business need; what is the problem to be solved rather than what is theoretically a good thing to implement. All too often a KM project is created as a response to management pressure to do something quick, easy and ideally with minimal cost or disruption; circumstances which immediately make the necessary behavioural change for successful projects hard to achieve.
As Nick Milton of Knoco states when looking at 7 reasons for success with KM projects: “Make sure your KM implementation is focused on solving real, pressing business issues”.
The reasons for the failure of knowledge management initiatives are various, and not limited to the structure and culture within legal organisations – there are many good discussions covering these factors. A common theme is not taking sufficient notice of the “people” factor. Not just the intended audience, their behaviour, needs and preferences, but also of ourselves, the KM practitioners. I identify with what Nick Milton says when he talks about people who own KM initiatives being human, and as prone as other human beings to rushing in without “learning before”.
A frequent KM IT project is that of building or replacing a knowledge system; an effective platform to facilitate the acquisition, storage and dissemination of know-how and expertise throughout the organisation. There is no doubt that these can be a very good thing. The software salesman will always try to persuade you that their system is the best possible solution, but it is important to recognise what the most important requirements are for the business concerned and not to let technology control the design – or the implementation.
When designing a knowledge system for a law firm or legal department, it can be enticing to set up a complex solution following academic best practice with taxonomy application at a detailed level and with various controls to ensure content can be vetted before publication – review mechanisms that make good sense in an ideal world. However when that system is live, there is seldom a network of dedicated staff within the existing legal environment with sufficient bandwidth to maintain it. It is often assumed (wishfully) that existing staff can handle the load. While increases to headcount may be undesirable, consideration should at least be given to resourcing alternatives, such as legal process outsourcing, to complete the project and ensure staffing levels are adequate. Lacking sufficient resources, the practicalities can become onerous for already busy lawyers and practitioners and as a result the system slowly becomes out of date; not because good know how isn’t being produced, but because it is too time consuming to load it onto the system. A vicious circle will form whereby the content on the system is viewed as generally out of date, lawyers will use the last example they know of as a starting point for the next transaction and then cease to contribute high-value IP to the knowledge system.
No matter how expensive the KM system, if the content is not filtered, current and maintained, it will fail. The application of theory in a thoughtful way, utilising analysis and experience to address business needs are key. It is simply too easy to assume that a good system is of benefit to the organisation, but sometimes the painful truth is that those using a system just do not work in the manner necessary to ensure a productive and effective utilization. Although on occasion, business efficiencies can be driven by changing working practices, which when scoped well can result in better performance. But it is important to understand when that change is not driving efficiency, but instead driving people to find a way to work around it due to the difficulty of using it. If the business need is ignored, then initiatives will underperform or have the opposite effect.
One example of how the academic practice of what “should” be good KM can actually ignore aspects of the business need, is the design of taxonomy. It is important to know how the business actually works and how the taxonomy will best perform for whatever function it is applied to.
Here at Integreon, for instance, we are managing the build of a new knowledge system for a legal client, and the legal topic taxonomy has to be pragmatic. The new KM system utilises SharePoint and the firm’s document management system (DMS), which is HP/Autonomy’s WorkSite. Search has been identified as a priority for the firm, but for browsing content, contextual provision has also proven its worth. Therefore the design of the new system enables the taxonomy to be used not just for effective search results with highly relevant items returned within the top ten results, but also for how the information is displayed in context throughout the system. As a result, there are some groupings within the taxonomy which would make taxonomy experts very uncomfortable, but it serves the purpose for which it was designed and supports the way that fee earners actually work, rather than being a technically correct hierarchical arrangement.
There is no denying the importance of aligning KM with the business need. As David Straker says: “Knowledge systems succeed, perhaps unsurprisingly, when they give their customers what they want, meet broader company goals and are reasonably easy to manage and maintain.”
When organisations are trying to save money, cutting knowledge workers should be the last thing that is considered rather than the first. Equally, KM should not be introduced for its own sake; it should be used because it solves business problems, increases efficiency and improves performance.
1. Knoco Stories, From the knowledge management front-line, 20.12.2010 www.nickmilton.com
2. “A Synthesis of Knowledge Management Failure Factors”, Alan Frost M.Sc., January 25, 2014, www.knowledge-management-tools.net
3. Knoco stories: Why do KMers do often fail to learn from the past? http://www.nickmilton.com/2013/12/why-do-kmers-do-often-fail-to-learn.html#ixzz33NTwOQ3U
4. How Knowledge Management Systems Fail and Succeed. David Straker, http://syque.co.uk
Kate Stanfield is Vice President, Knowledge & Research, Integreon