Professional Services: A strong know-how culture: overcoming the barriers

Professional Services: A strong know-how culture: overcoming the barriers

Harriet Creamer explores the barriers to creating a strong know-how culture explains how to overcome them.

A strong and supportive knowledge management (KM) culture is the foundation of all successful KM initiatives. Achieving a positive KM culture is the holy grail of the KM community and it seems that many, if not most, firms are still only part-way through their journey.

Partner or Senior Management buy-in is the key to a supportive culture. KM teams that engage with their firm as a business, communicate clearly the vital role of effective KM and take a practical approach to the delivery of KM, are more likely to be able to establish and maintain a strong KM culture.

The barriers
An unsupportive KM culture can develop for many reasons. Historically, some firms had a working environment that actively discouraged professionals from sharing knowledge and experience. Professionals worked in small teams, guarded their expertise and clients jealously and there was a marked lack of trust. Happily, in most firms these days, sharing is rarely actively discouraged, but there are still cultural and structural issues that have the same effect.

The behaviours and attitudes described below are both reasons for, and symptoms of, a poor KM culture. While only the unluckiest KM teams will encounter them all, most will encounter some of them.

  • Partner attitude. Most significant in terms of KM culture is partner attitude. In firms where partners are unconvinced of the benefits of good KM, KM across the firm as a whole is likely to be undervalued and under-supported. Even where partners pay lip service to the importance of KM, unless they model good behaviour, junior lawyers or other fee earners are unlikely to prioritise KM.
  • Irrelevant to success. In some firms, junior fee earners see highly regarded senior colleagues succeeding and being promoted even though they do not actively support, and in some cases actively undermine, the KM function.
  • Previous poor experience. Lawyers and other professionals can be notoriously impatient and only a small number of poor experiences can quickly mean that the idea that “KM does not work at this firm” becomes accepted wisdom. Once this is the prevailing view it is very hard to correct, irrespective of whether it is justified.
  • Lack of trust and confidence. This may be the result of issues with internal KM systems: perhaps they were designed with too little practising fee earner input and fail to meet needs in practice, are not sufficiently easy or intuitive to use, or include too much (or too much out-of-date) material. It may also be the result of fee earners’ behaviour, where they are reluctant to take time to discuss their needs or participate in even basic training.
  • Barriers to contribution. These include the cultural barriers described above and other, practical barriers largely revolving around the firm’s systems. For example, KM staff may not be sufficiently visible because they are physically located too far from the fee earners with whom they work, or systems for contribution may be onerous or too easily forgotten.
  • Lack of incentive. Most firms reward client-facing contribution in some way. Many set formal billable hours targets. If there are no equivalent incentives or rewards for KM contribution it is unlikely to be prioritised. All too often, any fee earning work, urgent or not, takes precedence over anything non-billable.

Overcoming the barriers
Partner and fee earner buy-in is the most significant influence on the firm’s KM culture and no initiative intended to create a positive KM culture will succeed unless this is addressed. Partners and fee earners must be convinced of its benefits, in terms of increased efficiency and profitability, quality and reduced risk. There are no short cuts here: the business benefits of effective KM must be clearly demonstrated by the KM team, with all aspects of KM at the firm clearly aligned to its business strategy and objectives.

This takes time and dialogue. KM professionals and information staff need a deep understanding of the aspirations of their particular practice area and must both articulate clearly how KM can help to achieve these aspirations and encourage partners and others to participate in, and contribute to, a prioritisation debate. This involves including the KM function in the business planning process. KM that is clearly aligned to, and seen to be supporting, the goals that the practice has set for itself is more likely to be actively supported by partners and others in the relevant area.

However, there are other practical approaches that are likely to promote partner and fee-earner buy-in and help to achieve the necessary cultural change.

1. Deliver practical tools
Partner and junior fee earner buy-in is more likely to be achieved if the KM team deliver work tools that provide immediate practical support to fee earners delivering client work. Focusing on products that help to streamline working practices and improve efficiency, including by enabling junior fee earners to handle delegated tasks effectively, will foster support for the KM team.

2. Forge close links
To deliver tools that really help to drive the practice forward, the KM team needs to foster close links with fee-earning professionls. KM fee earners must be visible; ideally, they should sit centrally to their team. They should engage in regular dialogue with other fee earners in their practice or service areas about the work they are doing and their KM needs.

Closer engagement with fee earners also helps the KM team to develop the appropriate practical tools. This, in turn, promotes the development of a more effective working relationship between the two, meaning that KM fee earners are better placed to identify how they can best support client work and other fee earners are more likely to see the benefits of a supportive and supported KM team. They will engage more readily and good practice will take hold. The need for a deeper understanding of client work extends beyond the fee earner members of the KM team. It is important that everyone in the KM team – fee earners, information professionals and juniors - understands the work, clients, needs and demands of each practice or service area. All members of the team should be encouraged to get to know and understand the practice or service area, attending practice or service area meetings and being visible to its fee earners.

Fee earners also need to be encouraged to communicate well with the KM team. Too often, poor communication by lawyers and unrealistic expectations of what can be delivered are at the root of poor experiences of KM functions.

3. Intuitive, accessible systems
KM materials also need to be easily accessible and intuitively delivered. Some KM teams are finding new and more effective ways to achieve this. Rather than simply maintaining a database or Word index of standard documents in particular practice areas, they are presenting them as diagrams or in workflow form. These are sometimes described as “matter pathways\\\" in law firms. Matter pathways enable users to see at a glance what materials are available and when and how they fit into the transaction process.

Accessibility does not apply only to material generated by the KM team. Material contributed by fee earners must be easy to find. So, systems must be intuitive to use and designed with clients fee earners – and their working practices - in mind. This requires their input, which will be easier to obtain if client fee earners already have a close working relationship with the KM team. The urge to include everything that might be relevant should be resisted and out-of-date material should be regularly weeded out. It also needs to be as easy as possible to contribute material to the system. Most e-filing and document management systems allow for prompts to be built in that encourage client fee earners to send documents to KM staff or file them in a pending KM library.

4. Partner and senior associate support
It is critical that partners and senior fee earners are encouraged actively to support participation in KM. KM staff should be vocal about what they need. They should have regular meetings with lawyers in their practice groups at which they can discuss their priorities and explain the support that they will need from fee earners if KM projects are to be delivered.

5. Practical incentives
Firms are increasingly beginning to introduce practical incentives for participation in KM. Many firms include KM contribution in appraisal criteria and KM expectations are built into the firm’s competency framework. Before conducting an appraisal, partners should be actively required to obtain feedback on KM contribution. The most progressive firms are including KM contribution as one of the factors determining bonus entitlements. In firms with a strong billable hours target culture, some are beginning to set separate targets for participation in KM activities.

KM staff should encourage the partners in their team to establish a clear policy as to the priority to be given to KM projects, with a clear statement that the same degree of importance should attach to completing a KM project as to a piece of client work. It helps if this can be done as part of a firm-wide strategy.

6. Publicise successes
As well as actively seeking opportunities to discuss and explain KM projects and priorities with partners, KM staff should take every opportunity to publicise the work they are doing and the tools they are putting together. They should clearly explain the day–to-day benefits that will be delivered to fee-earning lawyers.

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