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For the past few years the legal IT world has been buzzing with the words “knowledge management.” Many firms have jumped on the KM bandwagon, some successfully and many unsuccessfully. Legal technology vendors have developed or re-labeled products to meet the demand for KM “solutions.” But, what is KM? Fact is, you may already have it in place at your firm, and just not know it. We did. Over the past two years, I’ve heard many attorneys and firm technologists talk about KM, and I’ve heard almost as many definitions of what KM is. Most commonly, KM is defined as culling and classifying the best attorney work product so that the firm’s intellectual capital can be shared and reused — similar to the brief banks that were attempted years ago. Others tell me their firms are KM-enabled, describing intranets that share various types of common information firmwide. Still others have talked about attorney bio and experience databases, and a few have mentioned their client relationship management programs. Who is correct? Everyone. KM means different things to different people, and even within a firm, different practice areas have different components of knowledge and knowledge management needs, and therefore, different definitions of what KM means to them. For example, a real estate attorney uses document assembly to manage relevant knowledge — is that not KM, too? Much of the KM discussion has focused on establishing collections of precedent documents and ways to reuse written attorney work product. Many vendors give credence to this somewhat narrow definition of managing knowledge with products and services focused on that aspect of KM. Many firms have attempted to implement “KM” only to spend significant amounts of time and money in an attempt to find the KM holy grail. Narrowly defined “KM” systems built from a cookie-cutter definition have not helped bring victory to the KM crusade. ASK FIRST Before a firm invests any dollars on KM processes, software or hardware, its leadership should first answer the question, “What is KM at our firm?” Only after you have taken the time to look deep into your work processes can you be comfortable knowing how, and if, to proceed. At Foley & Lardner, we heard a few attorneys and others ask, “When are we going to do KM?” or say, “We need KM.” When asked what we should do, few could answer with any detail or the answers were varied. Before buying any KM systems or investing time in systems, we surveyed the firm’s timekeepers, librarians and other key personnel. We created a project team composed of 40 people from throughout the firm: 35 attorneys (25 were partners) and five support staff. Predictably, the meetings with the team and survey results clearly revealed different priorities. We also discovered that in many areas we were already successfully managing knowledge — we just never called it “KM.” (We called it “best practices” or didn’t label it at all.) But knowledge sets of the various legal teams were being managed — sometimes with commercially available systems, sometimes with databases developed in-house, and sometimes with custom applications. We also found that with KM being so misunderstood and the term being so misused, that talking about “KM” was detrimental to developing the best way to manage knowledge. All buzzwords become overused and misdefined over time, and I think that KM is in this category in both form and function. When talking with many attorneys and senior law firm administrators, mentioning the phrase “KM” yields raised eyebrows and a moaning, “Oh, not that.” Do I think that we need KM? Yes. But, let’s not get hung up on buzzword definitions and cookie-cutter “solutions.” It’s not a one-size-fits-all knowledge management world. Before looking to do or buy something new, look inside the firm at what you have been doing. Like Foley, you may find that you are already managing knowledge in many ways, often from ad hoc beginnings. After discovering how much we had already been doing, our approach changed from defining KM so that we could find a “KM system,” to one of investing, reworking and formalizing existing knowledge management processes and systems — “KM systems” that were already being used, with little chance of becoming high-dollar shelfware. What was our discovery? Not that we were late in jumping on the KM bandwagon, but that we had already been riding in a front row seat. Doug Caddell, a member of the Law Technology News Editorial Advisory Board, is CIO of Foley & Lardner, based in its Chicago office. E-mail: [email protected]. Web: www.foleylaw.com.

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