Strategic Librarian

Using strategy to develop the law firm library.

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Peer Assists – Can this KM Methodology work in Law Firms?

A Peer Assist program is a methodology for group problem solving conducted in a formalized manner.  In many ways, it mimics what took place in the past when people gathered together by chance in an informal setting (e.g. the firm library), talked about what they were working on, and helped each other in solving issues that stymied one or more of them.  Peer Assists attempts to create those interactions.  Question:  Will something like this work in a law firm?

In the past (5-10 years ago), people working in organizations socialized more.  At the very least, they spent more time in a collegial setting where interactions with each other happened more often and spontaneously.  Those interactions often evolved into problem solving sessions.  Today, we find ourselves working more in a solitary setting (our office or cube) where much of the interaction with others happens using email, social networking tools, and other technology available to us.

Email serves a purpose but solving problems or identifying and dealing with issues, isn’t it.  Social media takes us further into the type of interaction that allows us to communicate with each other in a group setting.  LinkedIn Groups is a great example where someone can submit an issue to the group and, in many cases, create a discussion where several individuals provide suggestions.  I’ve participated in many discussions where one suggestion led to another and another and the outcome was far different than it would have been with one person trying to solve a problem.

Yet, I can’t help but think that a face to face discussion among a group of people could be more productive.  The question is, in a culture,  like that of a law firm, where the billable hour keeps lawyers and staff tied to their desks, how can they benefit from the knowledge that their peers possess?   The development of client, industry and practice teams is one of the steps law firms can initiate to bring smaller groups together but, is it enough?

Peer Assists work by formalizing  what’s been lost as technology became more pervasive in our lives.  As an on again, off again pessimist, I think it has a place in law practice but the culture in law firms may create problems for the program before it gets started.  Here’s an outline of the structure of how it works provided by the University of Ottawa Centre for e-Learning:

Prior to the Peer Assist session, the Peer Assistee (the individual or team facing a challenge or problem):

  • Sends an invitation to his/her peers asking them to participate in the session.
  • Identifies a facilitator and works with him/her to ensure that the session moves in a positive direction by supporting the dialogue and recording the ideas generated on a flip chart.
  • Arranges a venue for the session and organises the space with chairs in a circle around the flip chart.

During the Peer Assist session:

  • The Peer Assistee presents his/her situation to the group. The problem or challenge should be summarised on the flip chart in point form and articulated as clearly as possible in less than 5 minutes.
  • Participants are encouraged to ask questions bringing out details of the situation.
  • Participants are then invited to make suggestions based on their experiences of how the situation might be improved.
  • The facilitator (i) keeps track of the discussion on the flip chart, and (ii) provides an environment conducive to sharing experiences.
  • Towards the end of the session, which generally lasts anywhere from 20 – 45 mins, the facilitator may invite a final suggestion or idea from each participant. A summary of the ideas is then presented.
  • The Peer Assistee informs the group how s/he will follow-up with the group.

Watch the following video/animation created by the University of Ottawa Centre for e-Learning and is based on the peer assist methodology as outlined in the book Learning to Fly – Practical Knowledge Management from Leading and Learning Organisations by Chris Collison and Geoff Parcell (Capstone Publishing, 2001, 2004) to learn more.

Going back to my initial question, can a Peer Assist program work in a law firm?  I would love to get your feedback whether it answers the question or not.

Knowledge Management in Today’s Law Firm

I am sorry that I missed the Ark Group Knowledge Management (KM) for Law Firms conference last week, but I did get a chance to learn from the speakers and participants through blogs and twitter posts.  It sounded like some interesting presentations based on some participant’s perspectives.  Greg Lambert’s quote, repeated a few times on by conference attendees on Twitter, “KM is a process, not a technology.”, inspired many of those same participants.  I’m not sure of the context of the quote but I’m thinking it might have had something to do with his recent blog post, You Can Call It Knowledge Management If That Makes You Feel Better About Yourself

I’m not the first to write in response to Greg’s post.  See  Mary Abraham’s, Mark Gould’s, and Ayelette Robinson’s responses.  If nothing else, Greg’s post has inspired others to articulate their ideas on the role knowledge management plays in law firms today.  While I’m not sure I’ll be as articulate, here’s my two cents.
In his post, Greg wrote:

Many of them were “Client Services” products… or were fancy dashboards attached to accounting or time and billing resources, but not really what I would think of when it came to capturing “knowledge” at a firm. Don’t get me wrong, these projects were very cool, they were very useful for getting information in the hands of clients or attorneys, but to call them knowledge management resources would be stretching the truth a little bit because they didn’t really capture and reuse existing firm knowledge in the traditional meaning of knowledge management.

Hhhmm… the “traditional” meaning.  If I look back at the two-part article (Knowledge Management : Can it Exist in a Law Office? Part 1 and  Knowledge Management: Part II) that I wrote for LLRX back in 1997 and 1998 respectively, I did define brief banks, work product collections, pleadings/form banks, and research memo collections as traditional KM.  Afterall, I had been working to organize these collections since 1986.  Even so, after learning to call those same endeavors KM, it was clear to me that there was much more that KM (call it a process or strategy or both) could do for law firms.

In the first article, I listed conflicts, records, document and case management, as well as marketing information and contacts management as being areas that KM was or could be used.  What disappointed me in the years following my aha! moment with regards to KM, was that I couldn’t get many others to see beyond the traditional.  Perhaps it was because most firms did not (and may not today) have the “traditional” KM under control. 

In fact, in 2003, when I attended my first ILTA conference having been asked to speak about KM, I decided to use my part of the panel discussion to talk about how KM could be used to develop knowledge about clients from internal and external sources as well as both tacit and explicit knowledge.  To my surprise, the response I received from the audience and panelists was less than accepting.

Now, the tide has turned – at lease in some firms.  KM in law firms still focuses on the “traditional” but, unlike Greg, I am pleased to say that the notion of law firm KM has fallen in line with how it is viewed in other organizations.  For example, an oil company wouldn’t just use KM to research and explore for oil, but also to get that oil to market.  KM isn’t just about the practice of law but also the business of law. 

I agree that KM is not a technology.  I also believe it is more about people and less about technology (the 80/20 rule applies here) but I wouldn’t throw the baby out with the bath water.  It makes sense to use technology with its “fancy interfaces” to put the information firm’s have stored, in different silos and through external resources, in context* to assist in the development of knowledge that’s not possible to do without technology.  It also makes sense for firms to use that same technology to capture knowledge for later reuse.  I’m excited to see just that happening.

Next time: Content / Information in Context = Knowledge


Musings on the Librarian’s Role in Knowledge Management in Law Firms

Mary Abraham’s post on her blog, Above and Beyond KM titled Librarians vs Knowledge Managers, about a blog post written by Morgan Wilson on his blog,   , titled  reflection on KM and libraries in law firms really got me moving this morning.  Near and dear to my heart, the goals of librarians and knowledge managers are or at least should be the same. 

Morgan discussed his disappointment in how the two roles evolved when placed in the same department which was called Knowledge Management.  Mary discussed her surprise at his musings and questions about whether the two groups should work together.  More concerning, comments made by at least two readers discussed the need for librarians and libraries declining in the future. 

I couldn’t help but comment myself:


This post really caught my attention since I am a librarian and a knowledge manager. I’ve been a librarian since 1980 and I’ve worked with knowledge management in law firms since 1986 where I wrote a two-part article on law firm km – part one, part two. I believe that article was the first law firm km article posted on the web in 1997.

I have a masters degree in library and information science and I’ve taught KM classes for a graduate level program similar to what I attended. I write, speak and consult on KM and, yet, I am not a lawyer. (Note: the caste system is alive and well and doesn’t seem to be going away any time soon.) I know a lot of other librarians who have the same interest, education, skills, and, yes, passion. Morgan being one of them.

During all these years, I’ve learned that KM in law firms is a messy endeavor that has survived more by the passion of those who work with it, instead of any firm’s commitment to what using KM as a tool can do for them. There have been jumps and starts that have gone no where and there have been some successful projects at some firms. Any consistency in effort has been done outside of the U.S.

I recent years, KM has started to take hold at firms where the lawyer KM manager or the librarian KM manager have been in place. I don’t believe either have moved of the other in the goal to make KM work. I will note, though, that many of the skills needed by one are the same skills needed by the other.

In library school, I learned more than just cataloging and selecting materials. I learned about defining & building systems, human interaction with systems and more. While working on an MBA, I learned about organizational development, change management, communication and more. I am just one librarian to have all this in my background. There are many more of us.

Much of what is called knowledge management today is library science re-branded. It isn’t new to us. Some librarians may not be able to talk the same talk as a KM manager but that is because the language has changed.

Finally, librarians in law firms (and else where) have never been valued to the degree they should because of old stereotypes that continue to live on because of jokes we’ve heard to often and messages that are reinforced over and over again. We are not a shushing, sensible shoe wearing, or angry lot. We are professionals who have skills that most law firms have left untapped because they don’t fit that stereotype.

I don’t believe where the library is situated organizationally matters. Morgan’s situation has and is being repeated throughout the legal industry where a law firm doesn’t understand what the library is capable of supporting/doing or where the individual in charge (no matter what department) doesn’t value or understand the potential contribution.

The library and KM teams are a powerful force when connected and managed properly. Who does what shouldn’t depend on what part of the team someone is on. Look at the education, skills, experience, etc. to determine who should be doing what. If that isn’t done, and the library is relegated to doing what the stereotype describes and the librarian’s traditional role, that part of the team will suffer. Especially when they have already been playing many roles that the KM team may see as their turf only.

P.S.: For Rick, “connecting people to people and facilitating their ability to make sense of their collective information/knowledge, etc” has been a role the library has thrived on for many many years.


My comment to librarians regarding these two posts is as follows:

I have always said that librarians will be employed in law firms for a long time to come and have never been too concerned with those who have been painting a darker picture.  Lately, I’ve been doubting my stand on this topic and have been become more and more concerned with our future.

If we do not do something to change the perceptions that the rest of the law firm has about our skills, we will be marginalized.  With more lawyers out of work because of the economy, we should expect an influx of the same unemployed lawyers as library positions open in the near future.  As law firms decide that having a lawyer, who has demonstrated an acumen for research, in charge of the library,  we will see the numbers of professional librarians diminish.  Don’t think it won’t happen.  There are many law firms who still don’t get it.    Our associations should support us in changing that perception but I don’t think we can look for anyone to save us.  We each need to take action now! 

  • What do you or other library staff know/do that others in the firm do not know/do?
  • Does your firm understand that you have skills and knowledge that is unique?
  • Does your firm know that you have skills/knowledge that can be used in innovative ways?
  • Do you understand how you can innovate?
  • Do you have any ideas of how to start the discussion about the validity of their perception?
  • If you are fortunate to be working in a firm where you are valued, what advice do you have for others?

I am really hoping we can get a discussion going here through your comments.  If not here, then consider making a comment on Mary’s and/or Morgan’s blog.

David Hobbie Blogging KM Track From LegalTech

I am missing LegalTech in New York this year.  While I can’t find a replacement for the exhibit hall and networking, I am happy to find that David Hobbie is writing posts from the Knowledge Management Track.  His first post, LegalTech KM Session–“How Integration Drives KM”, features Preston McKenzie, West and Tom Baldwin, Reed Smith.

Additional programs in the track include:

Look for updates on his blog, Caselines, throughout the day.  If you need a minute by minute report, check out the Twitter entries tagged #LTNY.

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Mary Abraham on Why KM Needs Good Design

j0438675I truly enjoyed reading Mary Abraham‘s post on KM design on Above and Beyond KMWhy KM Needs Good Design provides steps to take toward good design and references some great writing from other bloggers as well. One of Mary’s points in the post is what design isn’t – it isn’t just how a product looks.

I like to think that the user-centered design that Mary writes about includes:

  • Requirements design – what is needed? 
  • Project design – how will you get from start to finish?
  • Architecture design – how will individuals interact with or navigate the KM product or what is the structure going to be?
  • Visual design – What will the look and feel be?
  • Staffing design – who will be part of the initiative?

For those who are interested:  The Creating the Successful Law Firm Intranet webinar series we (Nina Platt Consulting and Southerton Consulting) presented this year included a session on user-centered design.  It applies to intranets but the same principles can be used for KM initiatives whether technology is used or not.  After all, the intranet is just another KM initiative.

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Knowledge Management (KM) Certification

The SLA Knowledge Management Division has been having a lively discussion regarding KM certification via the listserv that members are automatically subscribed to when joining.  This division is relatively new to SLA but, if the programs at the annual conference and the traffic on the listserv is any evidence of success of the division , it is well worth the membership dollars.  While SLA offers cerficates in KM, some members in the division question how their organizations will view the certificate.  Will management accept it as validation of education and experience?  With this question, the group has started to discuss what other certification programs exist.

While this seems like a simple discussion, it could lead the group to discussing whether certification is even worth pursuing.  I’ve learned what I know from 20+ years in the trenches with a lot of trial and error so will most likely not seek certification at this time.  I have, however, thought that pursuing a certificate in KM would be useful to those starting out in the field where they are expected to hit the ground running, knowing enough not to make the same mistakes that those of us, who have been working at this for a while, made in the past.  At the same time, earning a certificate, does not necessarily make one certified.

One member of the group pointed the rest of us to a recent blog post by Stan Garfield in his Weekly Knowledge Management blog which is part of HP Communities.  His post on KM Certification is in the form of a question and answer.  The question, “What are his thoughts on certification?”.  His answer provides links to certification vendors and opinions put forth by seasoned KM practitioners including Patrick Lambe, Dave Snowden and David Gurteen who come down on the side against certification. 

Dave Snowden’s quote, “I am totally opposed to any attempt to certify people in a developing field such as KM.” from his Cognitive Edge blog.  At the same time, he offers an accreditation program based on Cognitive Edge methods. Certification vs Accreditation?  That’s a topic for another post.  Another quote by Dave Snowden addresses KM experience, “True Eureka innovation is not going to happen by an internal training programme but from engagement in the real world.”  I’ll stop here as I really haven’t spent enough time researching this topic to be able to make a decision one way or another or to understand the nuance of being certified or accredited in this context, nor would I attempt to argue points made by the experts referenced in the paragraph above.

My parting thought?  While we do need to train newcomers in the theory of KM, practical experience can not be replaced and is often more valuable.  When I’ve taught Knowledge Management in the past, my focus was more on experience than theory.  A potential employee who can provide a certificate will make me take notice, but, unless that certificate is accompanied with experience, the candidate would be limited to very entry level positions in my organization and, finally, I would never equate having certificate with being certified.

Findability vs Searching

I can see a summary of the searches that have been done that lead the searchers to Strategic Librarian.  It’s interesting to see the words and ideas that people use while searching.  For example, “how to write a business case” leads searchers to the post I did on writing business cases.  I was baffled recently when I found the search string “to do both make”.  While baffled and wondering what post of mine led that searcher to this blog, I realize that search is a bit of an art form that many haven’t mastered. 

I often refer back to Roy Tennant’s quote,  “Librarians like to search, everyone else wants to find.”  Since I do think this is true, I was interested to read Mark Hall’s recent On the Mark post Finding, not searching is what really counts.  Thank you to Janice LaChance, SLA CEO, for pointing out this posting in her blog, Executive Connections.

Hall reports on the research being conducted by Carl Frappaolo, vice president of market intelligence for AIIM.  In summarizing a recent survey, Frappaolo reported that:

HIs survey, taken in May among 528 respondents, … indicates 52% of business users acknowledge that the enterprise search process has gotten easier over the past two years, but half of them (49%) still find it difficult and time-consuming.

He also notes that “49% of any given company’s employees were clueless on advanced search techniques, like Booleans or even multi-term queries.” 

Frappaolo contends that “IT is “throwing a lot of good search tools at siloed content” and that the main problem is that “nobody owns the strategy for findability.” 

Search is tough to get right in most organizations.  Besides there being no owner of strategy, other roadblocks exist:

  • Most members of an organization, do not understand how search works, they just know that many times, it doesn’t
  • Leadership, who need to understand more detail to define and approve search projects and expenses, don’t think there is a problem and don’t have the time or interest to learn
  • IT thinks putting a search strategy in place is a simple task – index, search, find
  • Content owners don’t think to share with one another or don’t understand the value of their information to others
  • Members of an organization may be working on the same issue, idea, project, etc and not know it

Knowledge management practitioners are in a unique position to help solve these problems, if they get the support, as their work crosses boundaries and silos in the organization.   Having done a knowledge audit, they can draw connections that would have otherwise remained unknown.  With this knowledge they can define the search/find strategy needed and then work with IT toward a successful solution that works for everyone.

Several past surveys by various firms support the need to improve search/find.  In 2005, Outsell, Inc. reported:

Today’s professionals spend most of their time (53 percent) seeking out information. Four years ago, knowledge workers were able to spend 58 percent of their time analyzing and applying what they had found. Collectively, the time spent gathering and looking for information translates to an estimated. 5.4 billion lost hours per year for US corporations.

With these kinds of statistics, you would think corporate leadership would be very interested in finding a solution to improve efficiencies.

I am most likely “preaching to the choir” as most of you already know what I am talking about.  How do we get leadership and IT to understand that there is a way to quit focusing on searching and start focusing on finding?  While not the solution, I think we need to start by giving up our own love affair with Search and start learning more about Find.  Does anyone have next steps? 

An article with a different take on search: Foraging for Information with Search Search Insider, July 10, 2008