Knowledge management: Learning curve

The KM conversation has moved from internal document creation and management to creating value for the client

How is the role of the knowledge management (KM) professional changing to meet the demands of a disaggregated workplace?

David Halliwell
David Halliwell

David Halliwell, director of knowledge, risk and legal services, Pinsent Masons: Disaggregation works if firms have identified what they do, how they do it and who is best placed to deliver it. Technical legal skills need to be supplemented by an understanding of project and change management and process mapping, and by the people and communication skills that enable proper engagement with the lawyers. The new normal is an opportunity for KM to get on the front foot and out of the back office, and to lead on what needs to be done rather than waiting to be told. 

Cathy Mattis, head of process improvement, Berwin Leighton Paisner: Teams in different locations can co-ordinate their efforts and the quality and timing of their output by building platforms to share their knowledge and processes. Processes are visual pictures of each step in a transaction or a piece of litigation. They can support junior fee-earners at a granular level or more senior teams with a high-level view of their roles and their interaction both internally and externally. 

As legal processes are defined collaboratively with client teams, demand for knowledge to support them grows. Opportunities for improvement are identified during mapping workshops and often rely on knowledge. The KM professional needs to listen to the legal teams’ needs and negotiate a plan to prioritise tasks for maximum impact. 

Sarah Vickery, head of knowledge management, TLT: Agile and flexible are how I would describe KM at TLT today. This means evolving our solutions to make sure we support the business as it transforms and grows.

We still need a strong central hub to set standards and source the right technologies, collaboration tools and knowledge sources. But delivery is now dispersed because to add real value, knowledge experts need to be closely aligned to the teams and clients they support. This can impact the location of the role. However, TLT has invested heavily in technologies such as Link, SharePoint and HighQ extranet platforms, which make working and supporting disparate national teams from any location achievable.

We are also increasingly focused on the scalability and accessibility of knowledge solutions. This means we can respond as the business transforms and support fee-earners as their work locations or patterns adapt to client needs.  

What risks can you identify in relation to KM in a disaggregated workplace?

DH: A focus on process can mean people do not spot the non-standard – the quirks that make a transaction or case different. Successful firms make sure that the processes for supervision, review and quality assurance leave room for the oddities to be spotted. But as traditional pyramid leverage structures turn into diamonds or grow branches where work is being delivered by third parties, the time for junior lawyers to ‘learn by doing’ becomes limited. Firms need to make sure juniors still get time for apprenticeship.

Sarah Vickery
Sarah Vickery

SV: The risks attached to a disaggregated workplace increase the need for a strong KM function. As being at work becomes less about being in the office, the risk of losing consistent ways of working increases. People can become disconnected from the firm’s strategy and approach. Getting the right knowledge infrastructure and support in place is essential. This has been a major focus for us as the firm adds new offices and people – creating a backbone of insight and knowhow that runs across the firm, wherever people are working.

CM: Building knowledge into a process is key to ensuring efficiency, quality, consistency and managing risk. These are the main benefits of using knowledge to integrate the efforts of different teams collaborating on service delivery. 

However, risks could emerge if the knowledge is not ‘owned’ or maintained. Process teams need to adopt continuous improvement routines supported by technology and ensure ongoing senior sponsorship.

In which ways is knowhow now being used to create value for clients?

Jane Bradbury, head of knowledge and information, Slaughter and May: I would draw a distinction between value-add, which is additional services that a client receives, and knowhow that is used in the course of a transaction. KM is about extracting as much value as possible from the firm’s collective knowledge to support the firm’s business objectives. Document creation and management and all the knowhow processes around those activities assist fee-earners and produce efficiencies for clients. 

Legal project management is a common theme at the moment and is seen as a way to secure value for clients. Standardised documents and checklists will no doubt play their part. So too will stepping back to scope out and plan a transaction and then taking time to review progress, learn from experience and adjust plans as the matter progresses.

Cathy Mattis
Cathy Mattis

CM: The immediate value is in cost savings through the efficiency achieved by investing in knowledge resources that support excellent service delivery. Processes can be designed with the client and other advisers so specific needs are met. Clients also benefit from the rapid integration of sector knowledge into the way we work. Processes allow this built-in knowledge to become cumulative over time and capable of building repeatable, scalable benefits. 

SV: It is being used in its traditional sense, by predicting changes that will impact clients and then helping clients to manage those changes. Value is delivered in a number of other ways for clients, including: Using knowhow to re-engineer how we do business. This means capturing legal processes and learning about how we can deliver it more effectively. Quicker delivery and reduced costs are two examples of how clients can benefit. The development of knowhow resources helps to reduce duplication and removes inconsistencies in the way we approach and deliver work. Using process innovation to reduce the amount of time and level of expertise needed to create a first draft of a document and passing these savings on to our clients. Using post-transaction reviews and lessons learned to target our output more effectively to address client need. 

DH: Clients have been getting value out of knowhow for years, it just has not been as apparent. The drive towards standardisation and better use of technology means clients are getting more consistent advice. More obvious value is now being delivered through taking a broader view of ‘knowhow’ – not just what firms know about a particular type of deal, but what they know about deals in that sector or what they know about project management to deliver the deal in a way that is transparent to the client, or being able to price effectively through properly understanding the work involved in delivering it.

What trends are you seeing in the way clients  prefer to interface with firms’ knowhow?

SV: It’s all about collaboration. Clients expect us to co-ordinate and present knowhow in partnership with other firms. They do not want 10 bribery law updates on the same day or to have to remember 10 different extranet passwords. Providing one central knowledge hub that incorporates knowhow from different firms is a definite trend. We recently set up an extranet platform for one client to hold precedent documents, training information and knowledge updates from all its panel firms. This approach requires a much greater focus on targeted information specific to a particular client or industry segment.

JB: When I was talking to clients two years ago, there was only limited appetite for podcasts and video content and very little use of tablets for work purposes. Recent advances in IT security mean that tablets are used far more widely, so optimisation for tablet and smartphone use and delivery of knowhow by video is becoming more prevalent. Clients are very comfortable working in Outlook so we continue to send newsletters and briefings by email but we have also developed apps as an alternative method of delivering knowhow to clients.

CM: By including clients in process design they are involved directly in identifying the knowledge necessary for efficient and effective service delivery. They can often produce or contribute knowledge resources themselves, for example by designing standard forms or providing sample documents. They can also see first-hand where knowledge can be used to curb the frequency of low-level queries, for example by publishing frequently asked questions on an extranet or producing automated documentation and guidance for direct consumption by business units. This allows clients to apply their legal budgets to support more strategic work. 

DH: The more-for-less agenda continues to drive the value-add offerings. We do not see as many requests these days for blanket access to precedent banks, simply because such requests have never been met by any firm in the past. Clients now want to negotiate a number of tailored precedents as part of a longer-term relationship. More exciting is the trend for clients to access firms’ boardroom-level thought leadership and insight, pushing firms to focus more on what is coming down the track for clients in particular sectors.

How do you see technology changing the way knowledge is delivered internally and to clients over the next five years?

DH: We are just beginning to see the first signs of artificial intelligence (AI) making a difference. The first will be getting rid of search – we won’t have to go and look for stuff, it will find us by knowing what we are working on and what we like to look at. AI is already beginning to automate certain document review activities, and from there it will push into other areas. Five years is too soon for true ‘robo-lawyer’ capabilities, but as AI hits all aspects of our lives – from driverless cars to online eBay dispute resolution to medical diagnosis – law will inevitably be affected.

CM: Knowledge will become more specific, commercial and accessible. A surveyor can access a standard heads of terms from their smartphone and upload the necessary details for a property to the site to drive the process forward. Technology allows clients, lawyers and other advisers to share an integrated view of how they co-ordinate their activities and communicate to deliver a project or process on time and to budget. It creates transparency. 

Jane Bradbury
Jane Bradbury

JB: One of the challenges that KM tries to solve is that of managing information overload. On top of this, we now have the potential of big data – with so much information and data out there, how can we present it in a meaningful and digestible way, so that our lawyers have what they need in terms of both legal and business content? Software that supports aggregation of content and also personalisation will play an increasingly important part in this. 

I also think we will increasingly use the type of computer learning that is used in e-disclosure software, in order to manage vast volumes of information. However, while technology gives us exciting potential, we need to check back constantly with our internal users and clients to ensure we are designing and delivering systems that integrate seamlessly within their current technology environment and are intuitive to use.

SV: The boundaries between work and home are blurring, so we need to see continued improvement in the way technology can support remote working, whether on a train, at home or at a client’s office. 

Knowledge needs to be accessible internally and to clients, in multiple formats and in ways and at times that suit the individual. This means mobile technology and on-the-move collaboration tools need to keep pace.

However, the key to successful knowledge management is in the culture and mindset of an organisation – technology is just the facilitator. 

What role can KM play in the integration of a firm, particularly one with dispersed delivery mechanisms?

DH: Firms are getting bigger and more diverse in terms of the range, age and qualifications of the people that work for them. Enterprise social networking tools can allow people to share knowledge and insight. Opening up discussions means firms can get closer to speaking with one voice. As digital natives come to dominate law firms, the idea that you do not communicate in this way will seem as outlandish to them as using email did to us digital immigrants. 

JB: KM is about knowledge sharing and connecting people. Putting systems and processes in place that enable people to find answers to the questions “Who’s who?” and “Who knows what?” is just as important as standardising documents and answering the “How to” question. My guess is that the internal telephone directory search is used most frequently on firms’ intranets, and a simple starting point is to make the information in that online directory as rich and useful as possible. The firms’ systems hold so much more information beyond name and phone number and I would recommend exploring just how much of that information can be displayed on an individual’s profile.

CM: Knowledge and process lawyers have a pivotal role in facilitating the collaborative design of process and the appropriate blend of resource for efficient and effective delivery. These professionals can integrate teams, leveraging local learning for the benefit of multiple clients. Enhanced definition of the way lawyers operate either in respect of repeat work or on a one-off project enables elements of standard practice to be identified and agreed firmwide, allowing benefits of process improvement work to be amplified. Embracing the application of knowledge within process results in both client savings and firm profitability, leading to sustainable relationships.

SV: Knowledge management is the glue that holds any law firm together, making it a critical success factor in the integration of any new office, team or individual.