How Social Intranets Can Support Legal Knowledge Management

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Last week I had the pleasure of spending the day in Toronto with legal knowledge management practitioners from across the Canadian public sector. The need to manage knowledge in the legal and courts system appears to be alive and well, not surprisingly, as knowledge of case law, decisions, and interpretation of new legislation lies at the heart of the lawyer-knowledge-worker’s everyday work activities.

I was asked to share some of my thoughts on how social software fits into the KM mix — something not unfamiliar to those who’ve travelled to Washington DC for KM World or any of the related intranet / KM conferences around the world these days — but still a new topic for those who have not yet adopted a social intranet in their organization. I shared a panel with our ThoughtFarmer client and Knowledge Management Specialist Heather Colman from Hicks-Morley, a leading Toronto-based HR-focused law firm, and Ruven Gotz, a SharePoint MVP from Avanade.

My panel comments zero’d in on some common social intranet features and design patterns and then moved onto investigating exactly what problems those features attempt to solve. While the inventory of use cases for social intranets is lengthy, I framed the problem of social intranets through the lens of attempting to manage knowledge, and in particular, through the pioneering work on contemplating knowledge as an asset by Max Boisot.

Boisot’s book Knowledge Assets (1998) had come to my attention early on in my KM reading, back 10 years ago when I first read Snowden & Kurtz’s seminal whitepaper “The new dynamics of strategy: Sense-making in a complex and complicated world.” Dave Snowden, who I’ve since had the ability to spend a fair bit of time with as a Cognitive Edge practitioner, was influenced by Boisot’s work in his development of the Cynefin model — something Dave has written about at length elsewhere. En route to KM World this past November, I finally sat down and read the book in its entirety.

In Knowledge Assets, Boisot introduces the I-Space; a 3-dimensional conceptual framework that contemplates how knowledge exists across 3 different axes: abstract/concrete; codified/uncodified; and diffused/undiffused. Boisot’s framework goes beyond the typical tacit/explicit dichotomy so popular in much of the KM rhetoric, and in doing so allows us to contemplate some of the problems associated with managing knowledge in a more nuanced and subtle way.

boisot_ispace_550

The resulting combination of the 3 dimensions produces a classification of familiar forms of knowledge in our lives, from personal knowledge (concrete, not codified, and not diffused, like my knowledge of how to race a road bike gained over 20+ years of competition) to public knowledge (abstract, codified, and diffused fully, like the contents of textbooks and newspapers). In between, we find other types of knowledge like proprietary knowledge (somewhere between abstract & concrete, codified, but not diffused widely, like trade secrets and patents) and common sense (abstract, diffused widely, but seemingly not codified anywhere in particular).

If we can contemplate the function of knowledge management within organizations as supporting effective decision making, creating the conditions for innovation, and communicating “more than we know” to our colleagues (as Dave again has suggested), then how might social intranets help afford and support this function?

Simply put, social intranets and their common feature set (blogging, commenting, discussion forums, easy page editing, status updates, etc.) remove some of the effort and cognitive friction typically associated with KM systems that rely upon heavily structured data input, mandatory meta-data, and rigid taxonomies for capture and storage of “knowledge” (perhaps “information” or “data” being the better words). Many of the example KM systems I’ve seen are systems of record; not systems of engagement. The difference is a big one, especially if you’re in the business of claiming to manage knowledge.

My hypothesis is that social intranets afford an alternative way to codify what you know, typically via first-person narrative (blogging), story-telling, less formal, less “structured” means of expression (or let’s say less “fielded” in that last bit, as all stories clearly have intricate and meaningful structures). Going back to the principles of KM, these modes of expression are closer to speaking; and as such, help get us closer to “what we know” if we believe that we truly “know more than we say and say more than we write down.” We move through Boisot’s I-Space, from problem-solving in a concrete/un-codified/not-diffused personal knowledge space, through to an increased level of abstraction and codification that allows for knowledge to be more easily diffused across the organization (hopefully on its way to absorption and impacting, helping others gain value from the knowledge asset).

Of course, in a legal context, there are often structural barriers to diffusion — you may not be allowed to share what you know with another lawyer, even in the public sector where teams of legal counsel don’t have the same kind of intra-firm competitive forces at play in the private sector partnerships that may lead to knowledge hoarding. Privacy, confidentiality, the looming spectre of Freedom of Information requests; all of these structural elements of the public sector legal profession simply get in the way of actively sharing what one knows — and certainly through sharing a blog post on a social intranet.

While many people speak of the fear associated with the use of “social” tools within the enterprise, usually stemming from some kind of embarrassing/inappropriate/awkward mis-use of the technology that violate the cultural norms of the corporate workplace, these legal practitioners certainly had a good reason to be wary of how one would go about effectively using a social intranet while respecting their legal constraints and obligations. And we can’t forget that power flows through networks in the public sector, as much as it does in the private sector as well. Personal barriers to contribution may be much larger than having a hard time remembering what bit of data goes in that mandatory meta-data field…

So there you have it: a blogged (codified) version of what I certainly believe to be a useful conceptual linkage between social intranets and knowledge management, hopefully on its way to being diffused to some of you out there with an interest in the subject, to then be absorbed and to make an impact… all thanks to the blog text box and it’s little buddy the comment box.

And all because it’s easier to do that on the plane home from Toronto instead of sitting down in front of a bunch of mandatory fields and meta-data input requirements, and as the theory goes, if it’s easier to do, the likelihood I’ll do it increases too

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