What next for knowledge and innovation?

Richard Brent, editor-in-chief|Briefing

Having expended all that energy fusing their functional silos over the years (a fairly constant theme for us since Briefing began publishing a decade ago), law firms will surely be keen to ensure this doesn’t entirely unravel in the exceptionally uncertain environment facing us today. As we know though, engagement/management of all project stakeholders is a fine art for firms at the best of times. What will become of it in the worst?

This was just one question-mark hovering at a virtual roundtable we were pleased to co-host recently with iManage – following a spotlight focus on KM strategy and case studies, Knowledge Learnings, published in March this year.

Let’s take KM and that newest kid on the smarter-business-management block – innovation. Although many firms integrate their respective destinations (and some don’t separate them at all), it was pointed out by one knowledge leader that you could see potential for strain even before something as potentially seismic to organisational fabric as a lockdown. Those innovation people can err on the side of seeking to “rush things through”, perhaps neglecting some long-honed KM principles in the process, it was said. They conceded, however, the other side may well counter with a charge of “slow and cumbersome” on KM’s part; perhaps even simply unaccepting of ‘the new’.

To steal what I found to be one individual’s most excellent image of market-leading energies at work – could the Wile E. Coyote of innovation be in danger of chasing the Road Runner of glorious profile off the cliff edge?

And naturally, nobody wants to be perceived as “old hat”, while the new joiner is grabbing irritating headlines playing with the cool stuff.

“It has been a source of conflict, and everyone has at times felt the strain,” it was said, with some admirable frankness. Or, to be a bit more glass-half-full about it; there’s a definite appetite for working better together in future.

Other challenges voiced included some jurisdictions being more conservative than others; team members in this mix who inevitably have less experience of the legal market; feelings about that so-called ‘shiny object syndrome’ of trying to plaster tech onto anything and everything; and of course budgets. And out of all of this, instead of the sense that “knowledge is power” for organisations at the end of the day, do we perhaps risk fuelling a retreat to a “narrower definition of knowledge” in the 2020s, wondered one? Such a move to isolation would be regrettable.

If that all sounds a bit shaky, we heard there are at least some people in our midst with one foot in each camp helping to reinforce bridges – bringing the right people together and doing some “translating” to get them on the same page: “We try to ensure both sides are asking the right questions of each other to get what they both want out.”

Will that be enough to address the question raised of initiative ‘ownership’ – of the KM precedent, say, but then also the tool that’s now automating it? Are they one and the same person? Should they be?

One firm has ditched the innovation title/label altogether, finding it ultimately unhelpful (and it’s not the first time we’ve heard that). One challenge can be that, since firms have opened that box up, everybody now wants to be one of the chosen ones to innovate – but the business needs “best bang for the buck”. And we can’t see that particular driver slowing down any time soon.

A sure-fire way of not achieving KM/innovation ROI, however, is bringing a new tool in for an individual ‘problem’; then finding, after a burst of initial hype-phase excitement, it’s barely used. One even pointed out that as suppliers introduce well-marketed improvements to their products, you can risk a “second spike” in that infectious enthusiasm!

What other difficulties did people anticipate for the balance of 2020? Well, collaboration tools might be an obvious win for all to get things done as ‘new normal’ slowly materialises (Zoom fatigue or no). But it was suggested we may sadly see a new fear of tech rearing its head to meet us in the months ahead – not overall wariness of change so much as fear of anything, frankly, that saves too many hours of your day – or passes control of work to someone else. It might have had the best efficiency business case last year, but everyone on the floor will now want to be heads-down ‘busy’. Unless a client simply insists on X innovation streamlining a delivery, could it just be left to quietly fall through the cracks?

More positively, we heard some partners are at least suddenly seeing duplicated effort that could be tackled with some of those AI investments of recent years.

On the client-side, then, there’s also likely to be pressure to provide more value-add, rather than paid-for, extras. And on Covid-19 specifically, there’s avoiding over-communicating that same urgent update in the same way as every other firm on the panel. People will need to be having purposefully better conversations about what their clients really need to hear from them – and KM is positioned to help with the framing of those exercises, as well as the content and work delivery that ensues.

Finally, it’s worth pointing out some in this area do see at least a bit of upside in having a little more headroom right now. There’s the opportunity, for example, to explore improving integration of existing systems (not least of course, with collaboration tools), of data, or indeed of business units and recent acquisitions. In one case, professional support lawyers, even lawyers themselves, have time to wade into a new document management system project with some helpful data cleansing – which is a pretty key ingredient of future process improvement. And the case for achieving a ‘single source of truth’ has certainly grown now everyone’s after it from home.

When we covered this area back in early March, we put it out there that an even brighter future in which UK firms’ KM and innovation teams might manage to collaborate more could be a world of new ‘analytical KM’ – giving clients greater insight into patterns in work completed to reach better business decisions in general. The perspective of iManage is that’s a stream of activity that has found most momentum in the US legal market, while the UK has tended to follow a somewhat more ‘traditional’ approach to generating process or knowhow knowledge. But that was, of course, before the future of all our workloads became a whole lot harder for anyone to predict with confidence.

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