In from the wilderness

posted March 9th, 2010 by Neil Richards

Well not really.

My wife and I have been busy with the arrival of Baby Knowledgethoughts in early December which has pushed everything to the back-burner, including my online Twittering & Blogging. My absence on both platforms is likely to continue for some time.

In a bit of a switch, I’ve left purist KM and joined Avanade, a Technology Consulting company where I’ll be focused on SharePoint implementations. In actual fact, it’s not much of a change from what I’ve been doing since leaving Linklaters but my focus will be much more of a technical one.

I haven’t decided yet what that means for this blog. I suspect though that I will stop writing about KM purely in the interest of balancing the needs of my newly expanded family with my new role. Between the two, KM is simply going to have to take a back seat for a good long while.

Have no fear however, I am not leaving the field a disgruntled nonbeliever. My time away from pure techdom (where i started) has been extremely valuable and informative. In fact, Avanade execute KM amazingly well. Traditional KM folk would be truly jealous.

So for now, back to my regularly scheduled absence.

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Going Dark

posted November 30th, 2009 by Neil Richards

Going Dark: To disappear; to become suddenly unavailable or digitally out of reach for an undefined period of time.

That’s me. I have quite a bit going on right now, such that my Twitter & blogging participation is next to nil and will be for probably the next month or so. Nothing bad is happening, and I haven’t abandoned the blog. I simply don’t have the time.

It is purely a coincidence that Christmas is just around the corner.

Enjoy the holidays!

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A shiny new toy for you

posted October 29th, 2009 by Neil Richards

I tried to start my last post by stressing the importance of learning a broad set of basic skills to complement one or two deep skill-sets. Ultimately though I was reminded that there is simply too much to know for that approach to be feasible.

Nonetheless, there’s no sense ignoring useful tools when you find them, provided there is a simple way bring them into your toolbox. It is with this in mind that I’d like to mention another McKinsey Quartely article on the Industry Cost curve. How it’s useful to KM is not immediately obvious, but bear with me and I’ll explain why I feel it’s useful re: the deployment of KM resources within a firm.

If you’re going to read the rest of this post you really should read the McKinsey Article.

Welcome back.

The Industry Cost Curve is an analytical tool that is used in pricing and to assess just how profitable a line of business could be. Traditionally it is used to analyse commodities to determine whether or not to build a new plant and the price/margin a given commodity might be able to fetch.

With firms seemingly wed to a cost-based approach to pricing (1 hour of work costs $x and is billed at $y) and offering a arguably uniform level of quality, the Industry Cost Curve is relevant to KM in three ways:

  • effective deployment of KM resource can help a firm improve its margin by executing deals in a less costly way;
  • analysis of the various curves (by engagement type) can help a firm understand how it can best deploy its KM resource by identifying areas where the impact will be greatest; and
  • at a more basic level, this can help identify the business case for a KM project, even if it’s a smaller, specific piece of work rather than a giant search, taxonomy or portal project.

Now, if you’re like me, you may struggle to conduct this analysis in on your own, but I imagine some boffin from your strategy or finance department might be able to help with some of the numbers. If your efforts prove successful, your hard work will help raise the profile of KM as a strategic tool in your practice; and if not, you’ve conducted an interesting piece of analysis which will increase your insight into the practice you support.

Before you go off piste with this, chat to your business manager to see if what tools they use to manage the practice and see whether there’s any other tools for you to adopt and adapt.

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101 Skills

posted October 28th, 2009 by Neil Richards

“A little learning is a dangerous thing; drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring: there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain, and drinking largely sobers us again.” – Alexander Pope

This post started out as a quick rant about how important it was to make it simple to learn the basic skills needed to function in your firm. Fortunately, as I was trying to finish it off, I realised how naive the post was. I’ve included my original below for a bit of fun and for some public introspection.

Being from an IT background and finding myself continually involved in some sort of IT project or another I am constantly amazed with how little other people know about IT projects. Frequently I think to myself “This is IT Projects 101!” when I come across others who don’t understand unit testing, user interface design or any number of commonplace issues in IT projects. Of course, it’s basic for me because of my experience and education, and I will be the first to admit that there is far more that I don’t know than what I do know.

In the North American vernacular, 100 level courses are synonymous with first-year university courses, 400 level courses for fourth year courses, with a 101 course being the very first in a subject area. 101 courses are simple stuff against the backdrop of the deep and complicated concepts to come. While the standard is not terribly difficult, there are a great many areas we’ve never even gained an understanding of the basics.

There is great undoubtedly a benefit to focusing on one or two niche skills, but it is important in business to understand at least enough to know where to look should something crop up. Budgets are a good example of this. Many are frightened by the annual numbers drill, and the process is made even more unpleasant when accompanied by a crippling lack of knowledge. One of our roles in knowledge management is to make it easy to get people up to a 101 standard.

Here’s a few you may choose to ask yourself in a quiet moment:

  • What are the 101 skills people need at my firm? Can they get them?
  • What 101 skills am I missing that hinder my performance at work? Is it worth gaining them or can others do them for me.
  • What 101 skills to people need to work on my projects? Do I make it easy for them to attain them?
  • What inexpensive ways can I find to help people gain these skills?

If you can’t even get the 100 level skills right, why bother with the 400 level skills?

Of course, our resources are not infinite and our ability to make available a basic level of training on every topic is constrained. Further, firms are more likely to be able to make the big money from complicated engagement (400 level skills). In the end I feel firms need to strike the right balance between:

  • making 101 skills simple to obtain for those who need them;
  • putting people on a path to build 400 level skills and beyond; and
  • leveraging subject matters experts in other fields, internally or externally, when needed.
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KM Suggestions: Buy two get one free

posted October 25th, 2009 by Neil Richards

This one’s a quickie, but not quite succinct enough to fit into 140 characters.

I just came across an article in the April McKinsey Quartely (password required) which discusses how to tackle strategic issues considering the current climate. Granted, while some say that the economy is picking up, several of McKinsey’s suggestions struck me as being both useful and offering an opportunity for KM folk to offer value in ways they might not normally do.

Suggestion 1 – Increase Monitoring of key industry variables. The idea being that a firm is especially sensitive to changes in the environment just now and so, the firm should keep a closer eye on what’s going on. Where KM can contribute to monitoring is in the use of available tools and information sources and in helping to identify what those variables are. Tailored alerts from providers like Lexis and Factiva can help a firm keep a tighter reign on things. Used cleverly this information can be integrated into a firm’s Intranet or delivered to Blackberries via RSS or email alerts.

Suggestion Two – Look beyond the crisis. In actuality, the work is quite similar, but look to gather and share trends that a firm may either be forced to ignore while it struggles to cope with the current climate. Again, an astute approach to the collection and distribution of this data will be helpful to others in your firm. This might involve a PSL or Information Manager keeping an eye on practice/sector trends and then synthesise these into pieces of thought leadership articles for the practice and its clients. After all, when you’re in the trenches it can be hard to get a read of the entire battlefield.

I’d like to include my own suggestion for good measure:

Be on the lookout for these requests within your firms. It can be very simple to meet a narrow request for information with a specific and narrow response. Imagine a Partner ringing you up and asks:

“Could I please have a Factiva alert on Transfer Pricing?”

The straightforward answer is ‘Yes’, whereby you login to Factiva, setup the alert and the Partner’s request has been met. However, consider what is actually being asked for and whether there might be an underlying need. Alternatively it might just be that there are other sources for that information or others in the practice who may also benefit from tracking the issue in question. As a service provider to the practice you’ll be well placed to spot trends in the behaviour of your lawyers that they may not be in a position to notice.

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Thoughts on ‘Learning from failure or success’

posted October 23rd, 2009 by Neil Richards

Several weeks ago Mark Gould blogged about whether we learned better from instances of failure or instances of success. The post is interesting and I suggest you give it a read.

I don’t have any specific comments on what Mark has written beyond saying that I mostly agree with what he wrote; instead I would like to share some  thoughts stemming from my own experience and views.

Bottom line, I’m of the view that failure is a better source of learning than success. Here’s an example which typifies my position.

Mrs. Knowledgethoughts and I are expecting our first child. As part of the process, every old wives’ tale and theory comes out of the woodwork. One of my favourites is that the severeness of morning sickness is indicative of the baby’s sex. The thinking goes that if there is morning sickness the child is more likely to be a girl, if there isn’t, a boy. A quick squiz on various baby forums shows this theory to be false and also shows cognitive fallacy at play.

“It’s true for me, so it must be true”

Which works for about two posts until contrary evidence is presented.

Correlation does not imply causation, and learning only from success often stems from correlation, the same type of learning that led us into the credit crisis (these CDSs make money now so they must do so in the future). It is just as easy to find examples of failure should you only look so far, and a single instance of failure proves the theory incorrect. Success can attributed to any number of variables, and that attribution may or may not be correct. Failure forces us to confront our Cognitive Bias, our tendency to make errors in judgement based upon cognitive factors. Failure forces an adjustment of our mental model.

Our adjustments won’t necessarily be correct, but in the process we have gained two valuable pieces of knowledge:

  • our mental model is not correct… yet; and
  • our understanding of the situation is not perfect

The first is obviously important, because you are required to either alter your view or bury your head in the sand. Should you chose the former, you will be better off in the future. Lawyers engage in this type of thinking whenever they construct an argument. Rather than accept raw ideas, they examine ideas for flaws, seeing how they stand up to changes in circumstance.

The second point is even more important because it shocks us into the unavoidable conclusion that our belief was mistaken and that future beliefs may also be incorrect and will require more rigorous conception.

I’ll close this post by sharing an example from my programming past:

When writing software, my first pass at coding is full of holes and flaws. I usually focus on implementing the perfect scenario. The user types the right thing, hits the right button and gets the right answer.

Perfect, but all I really know is that my software can handle correct input. I could run the software 100 times and get a right answer, but I haven’t learned anything about what’s wrong with it.

Fortunately I know from hundreds of previous bugs that my limited success is insufficient, and set about seeing how my system copes with unexpected inputs; users entering dates in the wrong format, missing out fields or clicking “submit” 50 times. The system will then fail time after time after time, whereby I refine the code (the model) and over time it becomes more robust, a process only becomes possible by intentionally seeking failure.

Ever come across a piece of software that didn’t work?

Don’t you wish the developer responsible had failed just one more time?

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Here’s Waving at you kid

posted October 14th, 2009 by Neil Richards

Earlier today I received my Google Wave invite along with many thousands (millions?) of others. For those who don’t know, a Wave is synonymous with a real-time email/Twitter conversation amongst an ad-hoc group.

Even at this early stage, what seems clear to me, is that Wave will influence how email works in future, setting aside the numerous risk & implementation issues with Google’s version. Once you get into the swing of things, it’s a more effective than the context-less approach of Email1.0.

In getting my feet wet, I first shared some invites with people I know in the KM community. I have 5 left and will happily share them provided you’ve an an obvious interest in legal KM type. Just leave a comment to this post and I’ll get in touch.

Creating a Wave is as simple as creating an email. You only need to hit “New Wave” and you’ll get a conversion for one. You can get a better idea of functionality by watching watch this video.

Having activated my Wave account, I noticed via Twitter that several people I knew were already on Wave (Doug Cornelius and Mary Abraham) and added them to a Wave I had created. It’s slightly ironic that in order to add & find others I had to contact them via Twitter.

I have to say that currently the interface needs work, but also, I need a better understanding of how it might be used. Doug, Mary and I have already started getting our feet wet with chats on privacy and possible uses. If you’ve got Wave account and want to participate in our initial foray into KM Waviness, then add as a contact and I’ll add you in.

Some questions I have yet to answer:

  • How do I share a link to a Wave?
  • Is a Wave public? How would I make it so?
  • How do I control the privacy of a Wave?

There’s a lot more to be said about Wave, but you really need to read / see it for yourself. Watch a couple of the vids to get a better idea as to what it’s all about.

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A KM Groundswell?

posted October 1st, 2009 by Neil Richards

Presenting hard data in an insightful and interesting manner is very difficult. Malcolm Gladwell and Jim Collins do so by telling compelling stories, the New York Times, while using stories, also does it through clever infographics.

Forrester have just published an interesting piece of work on the Groundswell blog I encourage you to check out, not only because it’s well presented, but because it should provide some useful insight for KM folk.

The useful insight (theirs not mine)

Forrester have put together a little tool which profiles how different people use social technologies and provides hard data as to use within different age groups & countries (included below).  Have a play, its fun, but before you do, reading about the different user profiles will help your understanding.

Okay, now that you’ve enjoyed yourself here’s what I think it means for KM.

In general, the use of social technologies is increasing, but adoption rates vary significantly in differrent countries. For a global firm that will colour your adoption rates and should inform how you deploy social tools. The Germans just aren’t adopting these tools as much as others in Europe. Italy might be your best bet for a pilot of new tools.

Further, age makes a huge different in terms of correlation with a profile. The younger you are, the higher up the ladder you’re likely to be. Funny how those with the least experience are the most eager to share. Seems like a characteristic to nurture.

While the survey was not aimed at lawyers, I believe the results can reasonably be extrapolated to lawyers in their respective countries.

In terms of the different social profiles, here’s my view of what the results mean:

On Creators

A smallish group, the desire to contribute raw content is not pervasive.  While it might not be an area to devote a huge amount of time, it might be worthwhile to consider giving the young’uns access to these tools so that they can share experience with their peers (i.e. trainee to trainee rather than trainee to partner). It may not be PLC quality knowledge, but it might not need to be. In fact, the younger lawyers may be much closer to the knowledge that needs sharing than the Partners (who should be the grunt work).

On Critics

Commenting on other content is more popular than raw content creation. Tools aimed at capturing knowledge through comments, contributions to wiki articles, content ratings & discussions seem likely to see real use.  Again, age plays a big impact in terms of adoption, but arguably, it’s the less experienced who need the tools and are most amenable to KM indoctrination.

Teach them early and often and they just might develop some good habits.

On Collectors

The least popular of all tools, this area just isn’t going to give you as much adoption for your money. Tagging it seems, is for a select group of people. This is a little disappointing (since I obsessively use Delicious) but sometimes the truth hurts. I’d include the users of a number of the classical KM tools in this category as it’s often about profiling existing content.

On Joiners

People like Facebook apparently and of all the profiles that “participate” in the use of social tools, this is the most popular area. Still, a “Facebook for the Enterprise” sounds pretty lame, and I’m not sure there’s a latent desire for KM tools in this space among end-users.

If there is, my sense is that it would need to feel fun and light. What might that look like?

My guess? Not like Sharepoint’s My Site.

On Spectators

Passive consumers, they read things based on interest. Content is king, spend money on PSLs or creating tools for the producers, this lot (tend to be older) aren’t likely to contribute anything.

On Inactives

When you’re this experienced who needs to listen to the views of others? Cater to the needs of others, at most this group aren’t likely to share knowledge using any tool other writing a document or sending an email.

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If Sharepoint is the solution, what is the problem? Part II/II

posted September 15th, 2009 by Neil Richards

Yesterday I discussed Generic Problems, which make up the day-to-day of law firm life for a good many people.

Dealing with these problems in a systematised way often involves a piece of software.  When software is needed, the firm’s IT Director (lets call him Bob) is often the first point of call. Keep in mind however that Bob not only has to deliver a system to solve your generic problem, but also has to deal with his own generic problems.

“How dare he?!?!” you might ask.

Well, Bob has a duty of care to keep budgets low so that the Partners’ children can go to Oxford. Bob can’t do that if he treats every new system as a unique instance. He needs a way of delivering generic IT requirements in a consistent and cost-effective manner. Below I’ve listed some of the characteristics of generic IT systems:

  • Simple to deploy
  • Respect security & confidentiality requirements
  • Function on firm hardware
  • Utilise the firm’s taxonomy
  • Be simple to use

To the extent that Sharepoint helps deliver these requirements without having to write any code, it makes a firm more efficient, contains cost and ensures little Henry won’t have to slum it at Cambridge. Using Sharepoint saves the firm from figuring out “how” to implement security for any given system because delivering security requirements becomes generic. The project team can then focus on:

  1. what the business requirements are;
  2. how Sharepoint maps to those requirements; and
  3. what gaps exist between Sharepoint functionality and the business requirements.

Take for example a firm that is looking to build an expertise tracking system. Traditionally this would have involved a developer finding some space on a server somewhere, grabbing some database space, then working through global deployment issues. When it comes time to do an upgrade the process will be complicated and similarly bespoke. With Sharepoint the approach is known in advance.

Further, as a platform, Sharepoint ticks some important boxes.

  • its scalable
  • its upgradeable
  • its distributed (important for remote offices)

For a Knowledge Management professional, the parallel should be clear. It’s stopping the firm from reinventing the wheel, and helping it learn from prior projects.

What’s not to like?

But is Sharepoint worthwhile?

I would say that it’s probably “good enough” to support a great many requirements. Most applications needed to run a law firm are not terribly complex, and while people like bells and whistles, the reality of bespoke software development in small companies (and sometimes large companies) is that once a system is finished it is unlikely to be upgraded for a long period of time.

What it does well

  • managing lists
  • managing tasks
  • managing simple work flows
  • managing documents
  • connecting systems

What it doesn’t do well

  • wikis
  • relational data
  • deliver to your exact requirements.

One problem is people’s expectations. If your requirements can mostly be met through the use of a generic tool, is it unacceptable to ask the business for a bit of compromise? Hardly.  If the business case warrants it, Sharepoint is extremely customisable, you merely have to have the willingness and the developers to do so.

On Expectations

Sharepoint out of the box is not sufficient to solve the needs of most firms, in the same way that a vanilla wiki / blog / search engine is not sufficient.

Is it sold as a one-stop-show? Yup.

Is that wrongheaded? Definitely

Sharepoint is a tool like any other. In order to be effective with it, you need to understand what it is capable of and how to use it. When a specific requirement appears that cannot be delivered in an elegant way, customisation is almost always possible and appropriate.  Moreover, just as a swiss army knife is useful in a number of situations, it has neither the best knife, saw, bottle opener or toothpick.

From time to time a firm will encounter generic problems which are so important / specific that they will warrant specialised software. Examples would include Document Management, legal research tools & Billing. Alternatively, there may be other tools (like wikis) which can be used to substantially better effect, especially if highly structured data is not required.

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If Sharepoint is the solution, what is the problem? Part I/II

posted September 14th, 2009 by Neil Richards

First off, apologies for the break. I’ve been on holidays, recovering from jet-lag, and suffering social activity fatigue. Also, Twitter (you can follow me at makes for a quick way to participate on-line without the burden of writing a blog post.

On with the show.

Quite a long time ago, my friend Mark Gould posted a comment in response to a post about Sharepoint. Mark’s queried why firms should consider adopting Sharepoint as it is fraught with risks (such as unmanageable group growth).  I had a similar exchange with Mary Abraham on Twitter, but am unable to recall the log from Twitter at the moment.

“Why Sharepoint?” is a worthy question and I’ll look to management guru, the late Peter Drucker to help me answer it.

In his book “The Effective Excecutive” Drucker classifies four types of problems:

  1. Truly Generic (individual occurrence of a problem is a symptom of a common issue)
  2. Generic, but Unique for the individual institution (i.e. merger)
  3. Truly exceptional, truly unique (coping with a Black Swan event)
  4. Early manifestation of a new generic problem (responding to toxic assets)

Today, I’ll outline what these “problems” look like in law-firm speak. Tomorrow, I’ll share why I feel Sharepoint is suitable in addressing some of these.

Of the four types of problems, only the Truly Generic is relevant to our discussion. However if you are interested in reading more about the other classes of problem, Sources of Insight provides a quick breakdown.

Truly Generic problems

A “truly generic” problem is something that comes about frequently and is not dealt with as a one-off, but instead is dealt with as part of day to day operations. Consider the following example:

Whenever Acme Partners LLP needs to hire new trainees they go to the law schools. Sometimes they find themselves hiring well after the end of the year, with all the top students having already signed training contracts. Other times, they are mid-year, with students still months away from being ready to begin their legal career in full.

With such an ad hoc approach, the firm rarely gets to speak with the top students and even more rarely, is able to hire one. After years of only hiring students at the lower-range, quality is poor, profits are low and partners are unable to afford that second Ferrari.

Then one year, they happen to be hiring just as the law students are seeking their Training Contracts. With exposure to more students, Acme Partners land some high-quality prospects. Reflecting on their success, one astute Partner asks:

“Why don’t we just hire at this time every year? We might not be able to get the very best just yet, but we’ll get better than we normally do.”

And so a policy to only hire as students complete their law course is born.

The very specific problem “I need to hire a single student as of 12 September, 2009” is merely an instance of the generic problem “I need to hire a student”. By taking a step back, the generic solution allows the firm to achieve better, more consistent results.
Law firms encounter dozens if not hundreds of these generic problems. A firm that fails to systematise these would soon find themselves out of business. Some examples:
  • Sharing documents
  • Researching legal questions
  • Tracking credentials / major deals
  • Managing relationship information about each client
The solution to a generic problem can be found through the adoption of a policy, a procedure, a strategy, a piece of software, or combination thereof.
Tomorrow, I’ll share why I think Sharepoint is an appropriate tool to use when solving some of these problems.
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