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Knowledge management is fast coming of age in firms. In a nutshell, knowledge management is a discipline designed to harvest, re-use and extend an organization’s knowledge. Firms are the archetypal “knowledge intensive business.” In essence, a firm sells information. Those firms that recognize that effective adoption of state-of-the-art knowledge management (KM) practices is essential, not merely a luxury, will thrive in the face of global competition. Anyone doubting this assertion need only look at the top 12 firms for 2001 listed in “The World’s Largest Law Firms,” as published by the Legal Media Group. There you will find four of the Big Five global accounting firms, five of London’s “Magic Circle” law firms and three U.S.-based law firms. Most of the listed firms are acknowledged leaders in the adoption of knowledge management, and they would all describe knowledge management as one of the key contributors to their success. Despite this evidence, the majority of firms around the world continue to remain skeptical about knowledge management. Fortunately, a growing number of them are abandoning skepticism and moving into the evangelical phase. Their leadership acknowledges that KM is important, and they are beginning to attack the cultural and business process changes necessary to facilitate adoption. The handful of global firms representing the state-of-the-art in knowledge management have mastered the basics. They have established the basic business processes. They have allocated lawyer time and other resources to identifying, capturing and maintaining knowledge assets. They motivate and reward contributions to the knowledge repositories, including establishing linkages to their evaluation and compensation systems. They have built on the strengths of their internally focused systems and are creating new services offered directly to clients. These leading-edge firms are focusing on the hard work of making knowledge management work harder for them and deliver even more benefits. An informal survey of leading firms identified the following as key areas that are currently at the center of their attention. TAXONOMIES Experience has taught leading firms that there is no substitute for taxonomies, an index of terms structured to categorize and organize information and knowledge so that it’s easy to find and use. (Think of West’s keynotes or the Dewey decimal system in libraries.) Firms are engaging their librarians as they wrestle with the task of building taxonomies that lawyers will use. In this arena, firms are wrestling with a number of thorny issues. Should they adopt existing industry standard taxonomies, looking to Lexis and West in the United States and Current Legal Information and Moys Classification in Europe, and can they do so within the constraints of copyright laws? Should they develop a unique taxonomy customized to fit the lexicon of their specific organization? How detailed should their taxonomy be? What is the right balance point between a structure that is useful and maintainable and one that is so onerous that it naturally fails in their firm environment? Should the firm invest in one of the software products, such as Autonomy or Semio, currently available to build taxonomies and categorize materials automatically? How well will these products work within their specific environment and match their specific needs? How will they approach the initial training of the product, and what business processes will they adopt to maintain it and keep it relevant to their needs in the long term? XML: XML offers a tool to “tag” words and phrases within an electronic file, making it easier to incorporate materials in knowledge repositories with less manual indexing. Using this tool to its maximum effect will require firms to develop standards for XML tagging that will be useful within an organization and across organizations when a document is shared. It also will require tools and business processes that make the tagging process easy and consistent. While firms are focusing on developing approaches that they use themselves internally, there is growing interest in developing XML standards specifically for knowledge management. PORTALS: These Web-based user interfaces and related tools make it easy for lawyers to find information and applications. Portals play an essential role in knowledge management by delivering knowledge resources when and where lawyers need them. Sophisticated firms understand that portals must be designed not only to aggregate applications and filter information, but also support legal work processes, thereby delivering applications and information at the point they are needed within the flow of a work activity that a lawyer is performing. SEARCH ENGINES: These are essential to find knowledge assets. Leading firms understand that it is imperative to have an engine that supports targeted searches, either Boolean or full text, when a lawyer knows what he is looking for, and a browse/drill down search method when a lawyer is casting a broader net and looking for ideas and concepts. They recognize that filtering and relevancy ranking are essential if a lawyer is to find quickly the most useful items. Firms are looking carefully at incorporating into their knowledge management systems sophisticated search engines that fill their needs. RATINGS Leading firms already have built a variety of knowledge repositories. Most of these firms have established a vetting process to determine which materials are included in a given repository. Some firms are beginning to recognize they need tools that allow contributors and users to rate materials indicating how valuable and useful they find the materials to be. While this may seem simple in principle, firms are finding that putting these rating systems in place surfaces a host of related issues. What rating system and criteria should be used? How will they think about discrepancies between self ratings and ratings by others? Will associates fairly and impartially rate work contributed by partners and vice versa? Who should see the ratings — all users or just the owner of the collection? Leading firms are working to resolve these issues and include this important rating step in their KM work processes. Those firms that are entering the evangelical phase of knowledge management are well-served to watch the progress of leading-edge firms as they continue to evolve their systems and work through these more advanced issues. The leaders demonstrate ample evidence that knowledge management is hard work and that it requires consistent, sustained effort and focus to maintain state-of-the-art positioning. Sally R. Gonzalez, a member of the Law Technology News Editorial Advisory Board, is a consultant at Hildebrandt International, a management consulting firm for professional services organizations. Her e-mail address is [email protected].

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