The New Communication – 11 tips to help

The New Communication is better communication.  Why address communication in a KM blog?  Because communication is part of the “how we do things” component of knowledge management.  Here are 11 tips on how to better communicate:

1. Be Concise. Nobody wants to read though paragraphs of blather to reach your point.  Enough said.

2. Choose the right tool for the job. Don’t send an email if you need (1) immediate confirmation of receipt of your message or (2) an immediate response.  While some people have the ability (or luxury?) to respond to emails immediately, others are not always in front of a PC or able to check their BlackBerrys.  The only way to ensure that your message got through is by way of a synchronous communication (like a telephone call or face-to-face meeting).  As fast as some people seem to respond to email, remember that it (like snail mail) is an asynchronous communication tool.  Don’t assume that everyone reads all of your email as soon as you click “send.”  For more ideas about using the right communication tool for the job, see my previous post on the topic.

3. Indicate the need for action up front. If you’re in the unfortunate group of people at your firm or company whose emails are routinely ignored after the first sentence, then make that sentence (or even the subject line) count.  If I need someone’s attention or action in response to my email, I start it with “Your action is needed” (yes, in bold, red letters).  If it’s an important update, use a headline (e.g., “Note: meeting time has changed — info below“).

4. Make your point up front. Your email should not be a suspense thriller like The Sixth Sense, where only at the end do you realize that Bruce Willis’ character… I won’t spoil it for you.  Sometimes an email will be longer and more complex than you would like.  If that’s the case, consider an executive summary or a short statement that will make the recipient want to read the whole thing.  Instead of starting off with “I met with opposing counsel today regarding settlement.  At first, the plaintiff would not consider our proposal…” try “I have negotiated a settlement in the Martin case; here are the details.”

4. Don’t change the subject without changing the subject. Sometimes email strings get pretty long.  And sometimes, the topic of the email “conversation” changes midstream.  If that happens, then change the subject line of the email (or simply start a new email).  Your email recipient will appreciate it.  And you will too when you try to find the email weeks or moths later.

5. Name your shared appointments properly and respectfully. I keep my Outlook calendar up to date.  If someone wants to meet with me, they can simply schedule an appointment and pick any free time (while people can’t see the contents of my calendar, they can see whether I am available).  It’s handy and it obviates back-and-forth emails suggesting meeting times.  When inviting someone to meet with an appointment invitation, remember that it’s not all about you.  If you send me an appointment invitation called “Meeting with Patrick,” it may help you, but it is meaningless to me (all of my meetings include me).  Instead, name the appointment by its topic (e.g., “Monthly Performance Review” or “Smith v. Jones Deposition Prep”).  Be concise, but not vague.   “Monthly Meeting” is confusing to someone who has multiple monthly meetings with various people.  “Monthly IT Budget Meeting” is better.

6. Stop using “ASAP” as soon as possible. ASAP is meaningless.  What you mean by “as soon as possible” may be very different than what I mean by it.  Don’t leave things up to chance.  If you’re asking someone to do something, you probably need (or want) it done by a deadline (real or contrived).  Say so.  While you’re at it, eliminate all temporal vagueness from your communication.  Rather than “send me a draft ASAP” or “send me a draft next week” (both vague), try “send me a draft by noon on Wednesday” (certain).  Be clear and leave no room for interpretation.  It saves time for everyone and eliminates misunderstanding.

7. Don’t leave them hanging. If part of your job is to respond to requests for assistance (e.g., a Help Desk or Reference Librarian), then let your customers know that you’re taking care of them.  Promptly acknowledge receipt of your customers’ requests and let them know when they can expect results (or ask when they need an answer).  If things change and you can’t meet the agreed-upon deadline, then let your customer know as soon as you learn things have changed.  Don’t wait until the last minute.  Nobody likes to be surprised by delays.

8. Avoid jargon. Do not use KM jargon or “geek speak.”  As a former practicing lawyer who now tries to bridge the communication gap between other lawyers and techies, I can attest that this is very important.  Speak in the language of your audience–not your language.  There’s no better way to lose the attention–or the confidence–of your audience than to make their eyes glaze over in confusion.  If you want to communicate your point, speak in terms your audience can understand.

9. Avoid the details, if they’re not important. This concerns the previous point about concision.  Sometimes people just need to know when something will be done so that they can act on it.  They don’t necessarily need the details.  Perspective is important.  If a lawyer asks a litigation support analyst when he’ll be done with a project, she probably doesn’t need to know when each step of the process (initial culling, de-duplication, data processing, database creation, etc.) will be completed.  She really wants to know when she can begin doing her job: reviewing the electronically stored information (ESI).  Don’t waste someone’s time with minutiae.

10. Include details, if they are important. On the other hand, it’s important not to withhold information if it’s important to a decision.  Using the litigation support scenario again, a lawyer may ask if all of the electronic documents in a matter can be “TIFFed” or turned into images for attorney review.  The answer is generally yes.  But other factors, such as cost, ability to keyword search the documents (by applying optical character recognition (OCR) processes), the processing time, and better alternatives (in this case, perhaps initial native file review) should be discussed.

11. Measure twice, cut once. Today’s forms of communication are fast.  That’s great, but they can lead to hasty mistakes.   Take a moment to check some things before sending that email: (1) double check the recipient list [we’ve all heard of “reply all” horror stories]; (2) spell check; (3) proof read; (4) did you forget an attachment referenced in your email?  (thanks to Jennifer Perez for this list).  Slow down, and get it right.  It can avoid embarrassment and wasted time.

How do you ensure better communication?  Please share your thoughts by leaving a comment below.

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

Autonomy iManage Early Adopters (ILTA Presentation)

At the International Legal Technology Association conference in Washington D.C. I’m attending the Autonomy iManage Early Adopter session.   Among others, my colleague at Gibbons P.C., the Chief Technology Officer, Michael Aginsky, is speaking.  On a related note, Michael is starting his own personal blog, Law Firm CTO, soon.  Check it out.  And you can follow him on Twitter at @michaelaginsky.  Another note, my friend David Hobbie is sitting next to me (and typing much faster), so he probably has better coverage than mine at his Caselines blog.  Check that out, too.  Finally, please forgive any typos because I am creating this post at the conference to get it out quickly.

Here are some interesting points from the presentation:

  • Email filing is an important aspect of the new system.  How to get attorneys to file their emails in to the document management system (DMS) has been difficult.  iManage 8.5 should help to do that.
  • Budget – how to justify the cost of this type of project in this economy. For some, the cost is not too significant.  Also, the offset of eliminating a lot of paper file space makes it worth it.  The cost savings from email management issues makes the project worth  the expense.
  • Indexing the documents took much less time on 8.5 than on other systems.  The IDOL indexer is much faster than the previous Interwoven system and apparently faster than competing systems.
  • Document accessing performance: there is significant improvement in time for accessing documents.
  • Search: search results come back more quickly.   Full text searching is much better and more precise.  Some are even seeing documents that they didn’t even know they had (this can be risky – especially with documents that should be locked down).  The results are “almost instantaneous.”
  • Matter-Centric Design: firms are taking guidance from other firms that have been recognized for their MCC designs.   Minimal and simple folder structure seems to be preferable among the panelists.
  • User adoption — Buy in from the top is important, and e-discovery issues are also a driving factor.  The firms are essentially requiring that their users adopt the DMS and use it.  The project is seen as a strategic initiative, and it is therefore required by all users.
  • Deployment: most firms are deploying to small groups (sometimes admin groups) first to test it out.  Firm-wide deployment will be done later.
  • Advice: test, and don’t under estimate IDOL – it needs more attention than the predecessor – Verity; don’t under estimate hardware needs and staffing needs in terms of expertise; early adopter training was helpful, but it only scratched the surface, more training will be necessary.

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

The Right Tool for the Job | Knowledge Management

I’ve always been really impressed with what craftsmen can make when they have the right tools.  My close friend, Mick, of Relyea Custom Cabinetry is one of those people.  As a custom cabinet maker, a big part of what he does all day is cut wood.  He has dozens of saws.  They all cut wood, but they’re not interchangeable: Mick wouldn’t use a band saw when the job calls for a table saw.

Similarly, we “knowledge workers” have lots of communication tools, like email, telephones, blogs, SMS, Twitter, instant messaging, etc.  But for some reason, we often don’t always use the right tool for the job.

Email has its place. Probably the most overused knowledge-worker tool is email.  To some, it’s like a Swiss Army Knife.  Yes, there is a saw folded up in there (it’s right next to the tiny scissors and little wrench), and it may work in a pinch, but it’s not always the best tool for the job.

Email is great.  But let’s not forget its roots: mail.  Email is faster than the USPS, but it’s not faster than a phone call, or SMS.  And more importantly, even though some people check their email every time their BlackBerries buzz, it’s not all that common: most people check their email rather than having it check them.

Time sensitivity is a factor when deciding which of your knowledge-worker tools to use.  If you need an immediate response or reaction, you’d better reach for something other than email.  An actual phone call (remember that tool?) is best because it is a synchchronous interaction: you confirm receipt and understanding of the message (can you hear me now?).  If there is a last-minute time change for an important meeting, email is not going to cut it.  You need to know that the participants got the message.

Email is the default, but not at fault. Sometimes it’s hard to figure out which tool to use.  Email is so popular that it has become the default.  This is because people are self-centered (present company not excluded).  Many people think that their emails are read as soon as they click “send,” irrespective of the time of day or night or other circumstances.  In fairness to the self-centered senders, however, we’ve brought this expectation upon ourselves by immediately responding to email at all hours.  (Do you keep your BlackBerry on your nightstand?)

So, how do we tame the tech?  Well, technology is not the problem.  We are the problem.  Email is not evil, but in the wrong hands it can cause havoc.  It is a very effective tool for certain tasks; but it’s just one tool.  And like all tools, we need to learn to use email effectively.  Tim Sanders has a blog that tries to educate people about email usage and etiquette.  Please read it.  Tim Ferriss advocates checking email only a couple of times a day.  That may be impractical for some people, but the alternative–responding to email as if it were a real, live conversation–will send people the wrong message.

After choosing the appropriate tool, Mick would say “measure twice, cut once.”  That’s good advice.  But, many of us are not as good at tool selection as Mick is.  We knowledge workers should back up a step and think twice before even selecting our tool.

Before you send your next email, ask yourself: is it the right tool for the job?  Will it achieve the desired results?  Should you call or wiki instead?  Maybe just walk down the hall and have a good, old-fashioned, face-to-face chat.

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

RSS Bankruptcy

After only four days without Internet access, I am considering declaring RSS Bankruptcy. There are just too many RSS feed items in my Google Reader account, and I can’t keep up.

By now, most people have heard of e-mail bankruptcy: the act of starting over by deleting most (if not all) of the e-mail messages in your in-box and requesting that people resend messages if they are really important. It’s becoming pretty popular. Maybe the next version of Microsoft Outlook should have an e-mail bankruptcy button. Here’s an article about how venture capitalist Fred Wilson declared e-mail bankruptcy last month. His message was, “I am so far behind on e-mail that I am declaring bankruptcy,” he wrote. “If you’ve sent me an e-mail (and you aren’t my wife, partner, or colleague), you might want to send it again. I am starting over.”

I sympathize with Wilson. I know that I’ll spend most of the day playing the “e-mail catch-up game” when I return to the office after vacation. It’s stressful. But I feel an almost equivalent level of stress when I see that I have several thousand unread RSS items in my Google Reader account. There are close to a thousand items in my KM folder alone. Part of me wants to at least skim the items, but the other part wants to simply pretend they never existed. This is nothing new, really. I wrote about it last year in RSS Overload is the New Black. So, I should have seen it coming.

For now, I’m not ready for RSS bankruptcy. I’m just going to allow the items to accumulate, read some at my leisure, and really do nothing. (I know, it’s all very Zen.) If I miss something, it’s OK. I’m sure someone will re-blog it and I’ll see it eventually. Or maybe I’ll see it on Twitter, or maybe in my FriendFeed wrap-up email. Or maybe I should follow Tim Ferriss’ lead and outsource my RSS reading, the way he outsources his e-mail. Or maybe… it just doesn’t matter.

How do you deal with RSS overload?

Update: One thing that will help is Google’s new Google Reader application for the iPhone, which is still in beta. Read about it on Lifehacker. The previous version was pretty good, but it was clearly a “light” version of the full web-based RSS reader. The new version more accurately resembles the full version. Very handy.

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

Too Much E-Mail Leaves Workers Disoriented, Inefficient | Knowledge Management

Update: the Wired link below is apparently dead.  Here is another link to the same study on ABC News and another on MSNBC.

Great article [dead link] on Wired. Best take-away: “Resist the urge to immediately follow up an e-mail with an instant message or phone call. Make sure the subject line clearly reflects the topic and urgency of an e-mail. And use ‘reply all’ sparingly.”

We in KM have a special hatred of email. Let’s hope that 2008 brings RSS, internal blogs, and wikis to reduce the amount of unnecessary email we have to battle. We’ll deal with RSS overload at another time.

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

Too Much E-Mail Leaves Workers Disoriented, Inefficient | Knowledge Management

Great article on Wired.  Best take-away: “Resist the urge to immediately follow up an e-mail with an instant message or phone call. Make sure the subject line clearly reflects the topic and urgency of an e-mail. And use ‘reply all’ sparingly.”

We in KM have a special hatred of email.  Let’s hope that 2008 brings RSS, internal blogs, and wikis to reduce the amount of unnecessary email we have to battle.  We’ll deal with RSS overload at another time. 

LawyerKM :: Knowledge Management for Lawyers and Law Firms

RSS Overload Is The New Black

“Email overload” is so . . . last century. RSS was supposed to help with that, but it seems that RSS has a bit of an overload problem itself. Apparently, the “inundation of information” knows no bounds.

RSS power users have dozens of feeds and (literally) hundreds of posts to read each day. Just look at this Google Reader Blog post (with video) about how Robert Scoble, can go through 600 feeds in a flash. He demonstrates some tips on how to breeze through all of that RSS goodness and focus on the stuff that is important to him.

Others look to technology to vet the deluge of RSS data. One such company is AideRSS. According to their blog (which ironically does did not – at the time of original posting – have a prominent RSS subscribe button), it works this way:

AideRSS AideRSS is an intelligent assistant, which continuously monitors RSS feeds, finds the good stuff, creates a PostRank™, and delivers it to you. We do the grunt work of collecting information on every post, allowing you to focus on your agenda and stay on top of the news stream.

That is interesting, but what does it mean? This “PostRank™” apparently is a scoring system that ranks articles based on “relevance and reaction” (is this a Digg-like component where users vote and thereby to elevate a story’s relevance?). In any event, a picture says a thousand words:

aideRSS filtering

And moving pictures (with sounds) say even more. Here is the AideRSS screencast page.

Enter BlastFeed. Another company that apparently has the same frustration with RSS (and is doing something about it) is BlastFeed. In addition to essentially filtering RSS feeds, it allows delivery to an RSS reader, email, or IM. In contrast to AideRSS, BlastFeed does not appear to have an automated scoring system. Here, you define the keywords that activate the filter.

According to their about page, “BlastFeed lets you create “channels” of information. A channel describes: (a) what to search for, i.e. a set of keywords defining the topic you are interested in; (b) where to search for, i.e. in which RSS content sources these keywords will be detected; and (c) how to receive results, i.e. by email, on IM, or as a RSS feed.”

Oh, the possibilities for lawyers. I can hear it now: “I want a feed on Antitrust law, but only blog posts that mention Microsoft.” Or, “I like that Wall Street Journal Law Blog, but I don’t have time to read all the non-sense like associate salary news, can you review it and only send me the good stuff?” Etc., etc. etc…

What about KM salaries?

LawyerKM :: Knowledge Management for Lawyers