Like the weather, everyone seems to be talking about managing knowledge, but not doing much about it. Not only has law firm Phillips Fox done something, it's looking to "invent new knowledge"Information overload is escalating so rapidly that by 1999 it will threaten to paralyse many organisations, according to Gartner Group. The legal profession suffers more than most. In the course of an average working week lawyers must refer to precedents, case histories, legal databases and a host of published laws and rulings. It all equates to a virtual mountain of information from diverse sources, within and without the lawyers' offices. One legal firm that's determined not to get buried under the weight is Phillips Fox, which has embarked on a major knowledge management implementation designed to provide a competitive edge in its core business of delivering service to clients.
While many organisations would claim to have a knowledge management project in place, and others are struggling towards realisation of the knowledge management paradigm, Phillips Fox is taking the principle one step further.
Precedent/knowledge manager Kim Sbarcea believes the truly creative law firms of the future will be ones that will be able to "invent new knowledge", and she's determined Phillips Fox will be right up there with the best.
The sixth largest law firm in Australia, Phillips Fox specialises in insurance litigation in the financial services area. Technology director Jim Delooze says the company has always used its technology as a differentiation tool and provider of competitive edge. The corporation's lawyers and some of its largest clients use the two-and-a-half-year-old corporate intranet. The organisation intends to progressively move applications to the open systems environment to make them readily accessible to both staff and clients via browser technology.
It also has a well-established document management system.
But the diverse "areas of corporate knowledge" scattered throughout the organisation remained a recalcitrant problem even after the intranet began delivering benefits. Lawyers doing research might need to visit many sources for information. For example, to research laws on the sale of goods might mean visiting the corporate library and Oracle database for case records, accessing proceedings stored in the document management system, and accessing precedent databases and other data from external legal information providers. "And then they would have this awkward problem of retrieving it and pulling it together," says Delooze.
If that weren't difficult enough, there were other, vastly more elusive sources of information to consider. "In regards to knowledge, knowledge is in bottom drawers and it walks around in people's heads; especially in a legal firm where there are precedents that have been developed over years and years that may not have been published on an open system anywhere for people to acknowledge and find. And the questions to consider are how do we get to that knowledge; and then once we get to it, how do we maintain it and make sure we nurture it," says Delooze.
Clearly the first step was to ensure that users could access all the disparate printed information through a single interface. Phillips Fox chose Fulcrum Technologies' Knowledge Networking application for its ability to slice and dice data from sources both internal and external and to bring it to lawyers via a browser. It was also chosen for its ability to provide Active Server page interfaces with the Oracle databases. Thanks to the product, lawyers now access information through a tailored research page on the corporate intranet.
Without needing to know anything at all about the source of the information, lawyers can view either the full text or a software-generated summary. "Our absolute criteria was being able to provide it all through one interface. The worst thing you can do with knowledge is to offer access to the library through a library piece of software; and access to your documents through a document management system; and access to the Internet through a particular, specific, restricted interface. The philosophy is to accumulate this research information and present it through one interface, really keeping it simple," says Delooze.
"That's exactly what the Fulcrum product offered, because unlike other knowledge-based systems, the interface to that information was not proprietary -- it was able to be used with browser technology and it fitted in really nicely with our existing systems which were Oracle-based."Equally vital was the technology's ability to work with the existing security and audit trail to the Sydney-based document management system, known as Media Manager. The product inherits the user permissions and privileges that have already been established for authoring applications, thus minimising any administrative overhead.
By providing seamless access to information, the technology makes it possible to extract all relevant information from a range of repositories and view it as a single logical collection. The result is a "virtual document warehouse" housing all the organisation's information assets across multiple databases and multiple areas of storage and which is searchable on multiple terms. This virtual warehouse is important because it means data is not being duplicated and stored in multiple locations. Maintaining a single version of the information ensures accuracy, version-control integrity and administrative efficiency.
Library databases, document management databases, precedent databases and external databases like AusLii are all searchable from within the "virtual document warehouse", with the help of a Web crawler which identifies sites requiring indexing. Documents selected from search "hits" are viewed as HTML documents through the browser and can be cut and pasted into new reports for clients. The next step will be to ensure the information can be shared and published over a WAN so it is accessible from each of Phillip Fox's offices (located in every state but Tasmania). Clients from other states will then also benefit from access to documents pertaining to relevant matters, status of matters and costs incurred to date.
The organisation will then look to extend the knowledge management technology from legal research to support areas of the legal business, including the financial and marketing areas, which also use Oracle systems. This virtue will bring its own financial rewards. As Delooze notes, better service always translates to lower fees because the work can be done faster, better and cheaper.
But a virtual warehouse is one thing. Capturing the knowledge "walking around in people's heads" is quite another. Now the organisation is beginning to tackle those more elusive forms of knowledge it recognises as so important to its core business.
In her own words, former teacher/-librarian and lawyer Kim Sbarcea has been "knocking around in law firms" for about nine years. She began her legal career with seven years as precedent manager for Allen, Allen and Hemsley before joining Phillips Fox to pursue a keen interest in the discipline of knowledge management.
Sbarcea says that in her opinion at least as important for corporations as establishing their knowledge base is recognising that any knowledge base worth its salt actually incorporates two different types of knowledge: tacit and explicit. Explicit knowledge includes books, documents, images and computer programs. The Phillips Fox document management system, corporate intranet and other technologies handle that quite well, says Sbarcea.
Tacit knowledge is an entirely different kettle of fish. Take the case of a litigator of 20 years experience -- much of it stored in his own head. Every lawyer has advice filed away in bottom drawers or in private folders within the document management system. Even where an image of such a document is stored on the computer somewhere, the knowledge remains tacit, because no one else is aware of its existence.
How can an organisation hope to capture that tacit knowledge in order to transfer that vast wealth of experience to more junior lawyers? How, in fact, does it even take the first step of identifying that tacit knowledge? If the organisation is Phillips Fox, it starts by building a framework for knowledge management. Over the last six months the organisation has built a system called FoxTrek, which will become the framework for capturing that tacit knowledge.
"Since about September I've designed the interface, and I've designed all the icons," says Sbarcea. "It's something I think will be intuitive for lawyers to use; we're piloting it right now and we've got all sorts of lawyers with varying degrees of computer skills using it. The idea is to have the one interface to many information repositories across the firm. For example, the information repositories that we have now are advices, precedents, library resources and selected Internet Web sites.
"Now we need to transfer that. So we are using FoxTrek by putting Fulcrum on top of all our systems architecture. If I'm a lawyer who has to remove a caveat, I sit here with the FoxTrek interface, and instead of wasting my time and going down the hall to see someone else, I type in the terms 'removal' and 'caveat' and search across the whole range of information repositories. That will immediately tap me into some of that tacit knowledge."Much of the rest is up to Sbarcea as the precedent/knowledge manager. She says while her work as a lawyer sees her drafting a lot of documents, three-quarters of her time is given over to trying to wrinkle knowledge out of people's heads.
Sbarcea talks with lawyers on a daily basis to find out about new material they have published. Then she extracts important documents, saves them as precedents, or publishes them either as an advice or as a journal. Everything is registered in the document management system and is fully searchable. She has also set up practice groups and appointed representatives of each group to the responsibility of identifying the sort of knowledge that is essential to such a group.
General manager Stuart Walker is also working closely with Sbarcea to develop a corporate vision. Without such a vision a true knowledge base is impossible, Sbarcea maintains. "Knowledge management is the big buzz word of the moment.
Everybody and his poodle will now say 'yes, we have a knowledge manager and yes, we have a knowledge management system'. My philosophy is that anybody can get together information and search it; but if you don't have a corporate vision where you are actually using that knowledge to strategic intent which defines yourself in the marketplace, then you have a bit of a problem."That means ensuring all employees appreciate the purpose of knowledge management, the way information is being used, and who is acting on that information. Part of the philosophy, then, is to marry the concept of knowledge with the corporate vision.
Getting commitment from staff involves cultural change and can be very difficult. Sbarcea says while Phillips Fox has a good culture of recognising the importance of precedents and advices, the problem is in getting all staff to accept ownership of the knowledge base. To that end, she is giving all key staff a role in building the knowledge base. That will ensure the knowledge base will be built consistent with the organisation's commercial needs.
"Then they can invent new know-ledge, which is the area that I'm heading towards. I think a truly creative law firm of the future will be one that will be able to invent new knowledge," says Sbarcea. "Now by that I mean taking the advices, taking the opinions, internalising it and then when you have a new situation, a new legal problem, being able to reuse that knowledge because it is internalised, to solve that new legal problem."Achieving that involves a certain amount of psychology and actually involves two principles: articulation and internalisation. Articulation is the ability to express legal principles and knowledge, while internalisation is the ability of another lawyer to use that knowledge.
Lawyers are not known for their ability to express themselves in plain English, yet an important component of articulation is clarity of expression, says Sbarcea. To transfer the knowledge incorporated in a well-crafted advice means being able to transfer that knowledge, that legal principle, very simply and very quickly. In a legal firm, that is known as plain English drafting, and Sbarcea plays an important role in training lawyers in this area.
"One of the things we are very strong on, and I believe it is essential to the transfer of knowledge, is simplifying things -- not only for our clients (writing something that the clients can understand) but even in our communications with our staff members. We have plain English drafting sessions, and our lawyers are trained on how to craft a nice advice," says Sbarcea. "You can't transfer know-ledge where one lawyer has no idea what another means."This imperative has to be balanced against a belief that when an organisation is starting to build a knowledge base, it can't afford to be too judgmental. So in stage two, but only in stage two, if any material in the database is considered too obtuse, it will be sent back for reworking, according to Sbarcea.
Delooze says that while much work remains to be done, the organisation is encouraged by the availability of technology designed to make it easier to access and maintain knowledge. Without Web-enabled document management technology, the organisational knowledge base would be far less effective.
"The really good thing about us here is that we have this document management system, and everything that is produced is stored on it. And it's not stored by individual author, it is stored by client and matter. So that information is always available, providing the standards of titling the document are adhered to," he says.
"But you also have to have the support technologies in place. And saving documents in the traditional form, where you would just save it to an author's folder and just back that folder up, doesn't really give you access to everything you need in a quick manner. That's why document management systems exist," says Delooze.
Five Steps to Knowledge Management
Think backwards. Before developing your own knowledge management systems, think about the end result you seek. How does knowledge fit into the company's most basic needs? What are your company's critical success factors?1. Identify your company's thought leaders, the ones who are generating innovative insights.
2. Adjust the reward structure. Do your company's star performers tend to share knowledge or keep it to themselves? Are they knowledge hoarders? Rewards should be based on who shares best, not just who knows best. Integrate responsibility for contributing best practices and sharing knowledge within the employee appraisal process.
3. Focus on creating value through application to real situations. Don't just gather and store knowledge in a database somewhere but actively leverage it for daily use.
4. Consider developing an interactive database where people can easily find and share information on best practices. To control quality, use subject matter experts to review the information that people submit. Have them think about who else could want it, how else it might be used, and where else should it be made available for the most utility.
5. Avoid the wrong people. Knowledge management depends on people -- specifically knowledge workers. Sometimes though, companies try to turn the wrong kind of people into knowledge workers.
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