If there is anyone out there who still thinks knowledge management (KM) is a backroom research function, the current economic climate should surely be encouraging them to think again. If KM is to survive in the new world, it needs to shape up.
The beginnings of a trend towards a more client-facing service have been emerging for a while, but few firms have exploited this as they should. Most have spent the past year or so cutting costs and their KM resources going forward are likely to be stretched.
To decide where best to focus these more limited resources, KM needs to go back to the reasons for its original emergence. As law firms became bigger and the law more complex and all-embracing, it became increasingly difficult for lawyers to access the tools they needed quickly and efficiently. A bridge was needed between the information sources (and the information professionals who marshalled them) and the lawyers in full-time practice. So the KM, or professional support lawyer, was born.
To begin with, the focus was on the basics: organising the many rich seams of in-house material in ways that made it quick and easy for lawyers to find them (these days almost exclusively electronically); developing standard form documents; assembling precedent collections; and designing and delivering appropriate current awareness products. However, the original vision was always that, once these tasks were complete, or at least at a stage where keeping on top of them was no longer all-consuming, the role would develop in ways that justified a firm’s investment in the senior lawyers it had recruited to kick-start the function. There were to be two priorities: first, to use the focus on standard materials and precedents as an opportunity to review and improve transaction processes (this was to be an ongoing process of continual review and improvement); and second, to take advantage of KM lawyers’ experience and across-the-board involvement by using them to develop cutting-edge thinking to drive the firm’s business development initiatives forward.
At many firms, the basic organisational tasks took longer than expected, and eventually became so time-consuming that many KM lawyers remained almost wholly focused on them. In some cases management of the KM function was poor and priorities were commonly set by client partners who misunderstood the ultimate goal or who had particular axes to grind. The vision of the KM function as the efficiency engine of the firm, constantly streamlining working practices and driving forward proprietary knowhow, became blurred. Now is the time to clarify it.
To do this it is critical that KM lawyers engage proactively with the business. Their central focus should be on profitability. They will need a clear understanding, at both the financial and technical levels, of the work undertaken and the systems adopted in the different practice areas.
Once fee-earners understand, and appreciate, the central role of good KM in delivering value and profitability, they should be encouraged to participate themselves. Incentives and rewards should be built into the firm’s culture. The key will be to do as much as possible with as little as possible, with a constant focus on the firm’s business goals and the twin aims of the KM vision.
In future the successful firm will be the one that knows and understands its core client base and has identified the core services it wants to provide - and then does so efficiently and cost-effectively.
The firm that succeeds in revitalising and refocusing its KM function will give itself a real edge.