Businesspeople can sometimes get bogged down by buzzwords. Certain phrases become hot or popular, and people tend to toss them around without necessarily stopping to think about what they mean, which can get in the way of implementing truly innovative ideas.
This certainly holds true for the term "knowledge management" (KM). It's a term that people use quite often, but they sometimes use it interchangeably with "document management" or "records management," and the truth is, it's a lot more than that. And if properly implemented, KM can make a big difference in your legal department.
Just what is KM?
"Traditionally, it's one step up from document management," explains law department consultant Colleen Scimeca about knowledge management. She notes that it is an "interactive, iterative process" that allows attorneys to actively identify supporting materials that can enable new efficiencies. "You can go from stagnant solutions to having the lawyers in your law department actively identifying supporting materials to drive efficiency," she says.
With knowledge management strategies in place, attorneys can identify the best-in-class documents and solutions and develop steps to more effectively handle matters, such as litigation or mergers and acquisitions. It allows lawyers to more quickly and effectively respond to legal issues, giving them templates and guidelines that they can use to become more efficient.
Aside from not being clear on what KM actually entails, another challenge that legal department operations professionals need to overcome if they hope to reap the benefits of KM is the urge to default to technological solutions.
"Sometimes law departments get a tool, slap a process in place and forget the people part," explains Sandy Owen, legal operations director at Intel. "It requires a real shift in behavior, not just in consuming but creating, getting tacit knowledge out of the brain and offering it up where people can use it. Then you can get the right tools."
To Owen, the most important piece of the KM puzzle focuses on people. But often, lawyers are trained to operate in silos and not to share their best practices. Therefore, it's important to focus on the mindsets of the members of your law department.
"It's about changing the behavior of your people," she says. "People are used to having information being pushed to them. You get bombarded all day with your email and your content feeds, so it's a shift in behavior from not just consuming but to creating, getting tacit knowledge out of your brain and offering it up where people can use it."
Another factor in getting your team to trust information is by making sure it is up to date. If the material in your KM system is not constantly curated, people will begin to distrust it and default back to what they have on their own hard drives, material that they themselves have come to trust. That, of course, defeats the purpose of the KM system.
But people alone are not sufficient. There was a time when having a legal librarian to help attorneys find materials was good enough, but now, attorneys need to be able to find the best-in-class material in their practice areas themselves to become substantive experts.
Often, the newest attorneys are the ones who can benefit most from a knowledge management system. They might be seeking advice or wisdom but don't know where to get it. As Owen puts it, "If you've just joined the law department, how do you talk to someone who has already done what you are working on? How do you find someone in a large department who knows how to do this? How do you identify the experts?" The answer, of course, is through knowledge management.
"Technology speeds up bad processes," says Scimeca, noting that if you don't have the right people and processes, even the best technology in the world will not be helpful.
But, with the other parts in place, the right technology can make the process of KM adoption a lot smoother for lawyers, who, as noted, are sometimes resistant to change. If the knowledge management solutions are difficult or complicated, then attorneys may decide that the system is not worth their time and abandon it altogether.
That is why Owen decided to take a look at the solutions that the Intel legal department had deployed and make them easier for her team to use. "We pushed our document management system into the cloud. We focused on the interfaces people are accustomed to using and put those in front of it," she says. "Now they can do what they are used to doing and have our system as a container in the background."
She says that the Intel legal department uses most of the "usual suspects," such as SharePoint, a content management system and search engines. Those, she says, make up the core components of the knowledge management system.
It's important to keep the technology up to date as well. "Ten years ago, people would consider document and records management as cutting edge," says Scimeca. "But now, in an era of data breaches, document management is only a piece. Knowledge management is about pulling in the best of the best and helping your law department perform bespoke work."
Once people are on board with the new initiatives, and proper solutions are selected, the right processes must be put into place to ensure that the knowledge management system works smoothly and as intended.
As part of the process, the material on the system needs to be constantly curated, says Scimeca. "If material is posted and not actively managed, if it turns into a dumping ground, then the material gets old," she explains, noting that it helps to have someone who has practiced law take an active role in curating the content, identifying which materials are better and helping move the attorneys through the processes as well.
The process is indeed iterative. It's not a watch you can wind up once and let it run forever. "You have to cycle through it, constantly improving as people begin to adapt. At first it might feel foreign; you might feel like you have more overhead. But as people start to find value in it, they start to adopt it," says Owen.
It's also important to make sure the processes fit the team, rather than trying to jam the team into a rigid process. Landscapers often delay the creation of footpaths, waiting to see where people naturally walk. Owen thinks it is important to take that approach with knowledge management, bringing in tools that have the right capabilities and not inundating the team with every capability that is available. Instead, counsel should choose the tools with the highest value and then constantly refine the process.
Intel's legal department features a Legal Practice Excellence program to create and manage its substantive legal training, creating toolkits on various legal topics and developing best-practice guidelines that are not rigid. "That team is also tasked with advancing knowledge management across the department with a focus on connecting people in various ways," she says. The program put into place processes that promote Intel's knowledge management system and enable the members of the team to more easily collaborate.
For a huge, multinational corporation like Intel, knowledge management processes and tools can help a large team of attorneys collaborate and share their experiences and information.
Owen notes that, with a legal team spread across the globe, it is sometimes a challenge to build connections between team members. But the legal practice excellence group understands this and works to bridge the gaps. It put together a monthly newsletter that spotlights a random person in the department so colleagues can get a sense for their peers, including their interests and what they are working on.
"We also have a microblogging tool embedded in the legal portal. A lot of people use that to find experts, people who have experience in various legal areas. Others use it to show their personal side, posting photos of their kids or their dog. That helps to humanize the team and build connections. With a global team, fostering trusted relationships can be difficult," she says.
Scimeca points out that knowledge management tools can also help legal departments interface with the law firms they use every day. "Some law departments are asking law firms about their knowledge management processes and systems," she says. "They want to be on the same level."
"Knowledge management is more important now than ever," Scimeca says. "Law departments need to be more efficient, not only in their budgets but also in their timing. Some law departments now see the value of analyzing all their legal work from the past, determining what is most important for growth and finding the most efficient way to do their legal work."
Knowledge management plays an important role in this and, as long as law departments understand what it is, and how to leverage people, processes and tools to achieve it, KM can be a way to find those efficiencies and drive a leaner, stronger legal department into the future.
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