KM 101: Introduction to Legal Knowledge Management

Welcome to a new series of posts about legal knowledge management, called KM 101.  My goal is to provide a concise guide to KM topics — both in general and legal specific.  Just as important, I hope that this will be a conversation.  I welcome comments and encourage you to agree, disagree, and enhance the topics.  All comments (other than spam) will be allowed.

What is Knowledge Management?

Let’s get right to it.  KM is vast and far-reaching.  There is no agreed-upon definition of KM, but there are some good ones out there.  I prefer the plain-language definitions.  Jargon is the enemy.

Legal KM: In Knowledge Management and the Smarter Lawyer, Gretta Rusanow writes, “knowledge management is the leveraging of your firm’s collective wisdom by creating systems and processes to support and facilitate the identification, capture, dissemination and use of your firm’s knowledge to meet your business objectives.”  It’s a little jargony, but I still like it.

KM in general: A pretty straight-forward definition of KM comes from Melissie Clemmons Rumizen in The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Knowledge Management.  Rumizen writes that KM “is the systematic process by which knowledge needed for an organization to succeed is created, captured, shared, and leveraged.” Good, too.

Leverage: The word “leverage” is commonly used when describing KM (see above).  I don’t like that word, but I guess it works.  So, allow me to “leverage” the work of someone who has put some effort into identifying definitions of  KM.  Ray Sims of Sims Learning Connections wrote a piece called “43 knowledge management definitions – and counting…“.  Here is a graphical representation, or word cloud, of the words used in Ray’s blog post.   And Ray has completed an analysis of the compiled knowledge management definitions.  It’s an interesting read.

It’s also interesting that people don’t even agree on the nature (i.e. “the what’) of KM.  They initially describe it as:

  • a process
  • an activity
  • an effort
  • a method
  • a system
  • a tool
  • a technology
  • a strategy
  • a framework
  • a system
  • a concept
  • a philosophy
  • an art
  • a discipline
  • a practice
  • a set of principles

Some people avoid the “what” question all together by saying what KM is “about.”  A common refrain is “KM is about getting the right information to the right people at the right time.”  Also, “KM is about not reinventing the wheel.”  KM is “about” many other things.  We could go on and on, but we won’t.

One of my favorite summaries is that KM addresses: who we know, what we know, and how we do what we do.  The “we,” of course, refers to the members of a law firm.  I like this approach because it is (a) results-oriented, and (b) open-ended.  It is not restricted to traditional KM ideas, like precedent repositories and contact lists.  Rather, it opens up the aim of KM to all sorts of ways to solve the problems and challenges that a law firm experiences.  Instead of asking “how do we re-use our work-product?”  we may ask, “how can we practice more efficiently and effectively?” or “how can we provide better service to our clients?” or “how can we reduce costs and make more money?”

The bottom line is that KM is all these things, and more.  The way KM is structured at different law firms varies greatly.  For some, KM is hierarchically within the information technology department, or combined with the library, or loosely scattered around the firm, with KM attorneys in each practice group.  For others, KM is an umbrella that covers areas like library services, professional development, practice support, etc.  Almost always, KM works closely with law firm leaders — both lawyers and non-lawyer administrators.

Please join in the discussion. Leave a comment.

  • How do you define knowledge management?
  • How is knowledge management structured at your law firm or organization?
  • What issues or ideas would you like to see addressed in future posts on KM 101?

Coming Soon in the KM 101 series:

KM 101: Tacit and Explicit Knowledge

LawyerKM :: Knowledge Management & Technology for Lawyers and Law Firms

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8 thoughts on “KM 101: Introduction to Legal Knowledge Management

  • December 30, 2008 at 7:06 pm

    Coming from the point of view that simpler is better, here’s the definition of KM we’ve been using at Honeywell: KM is the ENVIRONMENT in which people have immediate access to the information they need in order to add value by making the right business decisions.

    This environment is supported and enabled by the usual troika: people (behaviors), processes and tools (technology).

    Key behaviors include transparency, authoring, knowledge creation, organization (categorization), reusing and sharing.

    Key processes include local knowledge creation (Lessons Learned), global knowledge distillation (CoP’s maintaining Best Practices) and knowledge reuse, all embedded in the core business processes.

    Key tools include wikis, blogs, discussion forums, Yammer, SharePoint, LiveMeeting, Office Communicator, intranet knowledge portals, etc.

    That’s it in a nut shell 🙂

  • December 30, 2008 at 7:18 pm

    Great comment. Thanks. I like your definition and approach.
    How is the adoption of Yammer? I have been wondering if micro blogging will catch on inside companies.

  • December 31, 2008 at 10:32 am

    Currently we have ~230 yammer users out over 100K Honeywell employees. These early adopters realize tangible benefits by moving conversations from email, making connections, increasing project and expertise awareness, creating ad hoc communities, etc. Yammer fills in the gap between synchronous and asynchronous communication tools.

    This adoption pattern is no different than what we experienced with the wiki about 4 years ago. Start was slow, now it’s part of how we do business. I see the same happening with micro blogging.

    Happy New Year!


  • December 31, 2008 at 4:59 pm

    I don’t pretend my definition is any better or worse than the others. I use the more “vague” academic definition to introduce the field and try to convey its nature as a connective praxis across business and strategy functions. Once on the ground, of course, we simply look for and solve problems using precepts, techniques and enabling technologies. Clients rarely are fascinated by the fuzzy definitions.

    For my more recent work, however, the lawyers wanted a KM definition to place in our legal reform mechanisms for national security. Here’s what I told them (

    “Knowledge Management refers to the management of the components and enabling of relationships from which knowledge emerges: used to enhance decision making, spark innovation, and comprehend weak signals in the information environment. Knowledge management does not focus on managing knowledge itself; rather, it seeks the positive interaction of the component elements that can be managed to lay the foundation for better decision making, innovation, and adaptation.”

  • January 1, 2009 at 1:04 pm

    Thanks for starting this off, Patrick. I am sure it will be a useful resource. In case you are not already aware of it, you might be interested in Matthew Parsons’ book “Effective Knowledge Management for Law Firms” (

  • January 12, 2009 at 1:13 pm

    I think it is interesting that our definitions are developed through our own filters.

    In 1997 a Library Journal article defined KM as “”accessing, evaluating, managing, organizing, filtering, and distributing information in a manner that is useful to end users …. knowledge management involves blending a company’s internal and external information and turning it into actionable knowledge via a technology platform.” Very focused on information.

    Verna Allee, an HR professional defines it in terms of what she knows – organizational development – “Real knowledge management is much more than managing the flow of information. It means nothing less than setting knowledge free to find its own paths. It means fueling the creative fire of self-questioning in organizations. This means thinking less about knowledge management and more about knowledge partnering.” Very focused on people and behavior.

    Those of us with a more process or systems background no doubt focus on the tools that we use to do the work. My own definition has that bent – knowledge management is the creation of systems or processes in a learning environment that allow all employees to have access to the information resources they need to develop the knowledge necessary to do their jobs.

    Nina Platt

  • January 12, 2009 at 1:15 pm

    I clicked submit too early.

    My point in lookeing at how we filter is that no matter how we define KM we need to find a definition that all can agree on to work on the multi-disciplinary teams we need in place to do our best work with KM.

  • January 21, 2009 at 4:12 pm

    Really Good Post. I am getting into the KM field and am very interested in the basics. I fell like good subjects for posts would be: a) differences in a KM strategy according to the size of the law firm; and b) most popular tools for KM;

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