Knowledge Harvest | Knowledge Management

In their article, Don’t Just Capture Knowledge – Put It to Work, Katrina Pugh and Nancy M. Dixon discuss ways to ensure that institutional knowledge is available for those who need it and not simply filed away in the archives. They use an approach called a “knowledge harvest: a systematic, facilitated gathering and circulation of knowledge.”

“The key,” they say, “is to identify, before the harvest begins, others in the organization who could use the knowledge (the ‘knowledge seekers’) and involve them in gathering valuable lessons.” The case study in the article involved a health-care consulting team. The authors reported that the knowledge seekers participated out of self interest and therefore asked “tough, exploratory questions of knowledge originators, extracting important nuances…how knowledge might be applied elsewhere, what worked and what didn’t, and so on.”

One factor not discussed was the ease with which the facilitators were able to obtain the assistance of the key participants, the knowledge seekers. For law firm KM folks, we know all too well that getting our knowledge seekers–the attorneys–to participate in knowledge-sharing activities is tough. Since KM activities don’t directly contribute to the all-important Profits Per Partner (it’s Am Law 100 season!), when they finish one case or deal it’s usually on to the next. “Post mortem” and “after action review” are not terms they teach in law school. And good luck getting attorneys involved before some “knowledge harvesting” activity begins.

Legal KM folks always have to keep in mind what I like to call the Zero-Percent Rule: try to make any KM initiative require zero percent of an attorney’s time. It’s a half joke, but painfully funny. Ask anyone involved legal knowledge management and they’ll tell you that it’s a real problem. More on the Zero-Percent Rule later.

So, to all you legal KM folks out there: Can a knowledge harvest work in a busy law firm? Is this a question of KM culture, technology, both, or neither?

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2 thoughts on “Knowledge Harvest | Knowledge Management

  • May 8, 2008 at 3:29 pm

    The first question you must ask is what the attorneys want to learn from each other, in other words, what knowledge, very specifically, do you want to harvest from a matter. As KM professionals it is not often apparent what is most important and useful to an attorney.
    Because of the zero percent rule you need to recognize that you already know a lot about a legal matter. For example, accounting knows the correct client name, the amount of time spent on the matter, the names of attorneys assigned, and they have probably noted the kind of matter that it was. We know what jurisdiction it took place in and most likely the legal issues involved in the case. If you need more, you can always look at the matter files for a more precise definition.
    Most likely, the attorneys who were assigned to this matter come from a practice area which resides in an office. (important metadata) In addition, the HR department would know the backgrounds of the attorneys assigned to the matter because they have their resume’s electronically stored, so you can understand who is most expert in the legal area addressed.
    Again because of the zero percent rule, some firms elect to only harvest knowledge from the largest matters and ignore the smaller cases. You can identify the larger matters by looking at the number of billable hours.
    Once all the background data has been harvested from all the available sources, you can put together a very specific set of questions about the matter. These questions address the knowledge that your attorneys have previously identified as the most important. From a list of billable hours you can select one or two attorneys that can answer the questions. Make an appointment to ask a few very specific questions which will address the key learnings. This will take about 10 minutes.
    Regarding “Profit per Equity Partner”, there is a direct correlation between knowledge management and sales or margin. To sell new business or to qualify for a panel, partners need to know how much experience the firm has in each area of the law and the clients that the firm has worked for. Selling more effectively increases the top line. Margin is affected by using the firm’s leverage model to assign the best attorneys to the matter. These attorneys must work efficiently to generate the required margin. They will benefit from the knowledge harvested from previous work. Legal services is extremely competitive and knowledge managers have a key role in continuing to make the firm profitable.
    So in summary: take maximum advantage of what you know is as you harvest knowledge and use accounting and HR as data sources. Don’t harvest knowledge from every matter. Taking work oout of the harvesting process will allow you to have more time to deliver knowledge to attorneys on their current matters.

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