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Lawyers are knowledge workers who must cope with an ever-increasing volume of information flowing within and outside of their workplaces. In this ever-more connected world, sifting through irrelevancies to find what you need can take a lot of time. Solution: Try PKM.
Working with today’s vast amount of information and growing number of information tools is an ongoing challenge. We want our information to flow smoothly, but more often it feels like it’s gushing at us with the pressure of a fire hose turned to full gauge.
Personal knowledge management (PKM) is a disciplined, comprehensive approach through which knowledge workers gather, make explicit, categorize and share what’s most important to their jobs and professional development. It can transform the information fire hose into a clear well, a source of targeted, personalized news and knowledge drawn on when needed.
While PKM processes have always been carried out by the more organized among us (think index cards!), advances in Web-based tools have provided new and easier methods, not just of increasing the ease with which we access and manage our own information, but of connecting to people inside and outside the workplace who can help us. PKM aims to make individuals more effective managers of their own knowledge, largely through improved skills and better use of technology.
In turn, the users’ organizations benefit in two ways: First, more effective individuals can do more for the organization. Second, many of the corresponding Web-based tools, when used by more than one individual in an organization, can themselves be mined and can lead to greater internal knowledge sharing and management, even if that’s not the user’s initial goal.
Measure the Web-based PKM tools identified in the following against your own tool set. They are grouped around the KM processes of (1) gathering and collecting; (2) making explicit; (3) categorizing; and (4) sharing, engaging and collaborating, although in truth, the tools assist the knowledge worker in more than one process at a time. That’s one of their strengths.
Gathering Information from Online Sources
To learn what you need to know about what’s happening in the legal industry and your particular corner of the profession, you can’t simply rely on a couple of publications or Web sites. You have to identify which subjects are most important to you and then find the most targeted, efficient ways to keep up on those subjects. Fortunately, these days you no longer have to go to different sites on a daily basis and browse the contents to discover what’s new.
Instead, you can use an RSS reader, such as Google Reader, PageFlakes or FeedDemon, to be automatically notified of relevant new content on a given site. Just visit the Web site once, sign up for RSS feeds on your chosen subjects, and have the news delivered to your reader. This saves you time and gives you more control over the process of seeking information from known Internet sources.
Other Web tools will run searches across less-specific pools of content and notify you when there are new hits for particular search terms. Comprehensive Google Alerts, for instance, will show you what would come up in searches of Google News and Blogs. (Yahoo has a similar service.) I have it set up to send me results that include my firm’s name, as well as other topics of interest to me. Google Alerts provides the information via e-mail or RSS, at intervals that you specify (i.e., once a week, once a day or “as it happens”).
A caveat, however: The vast volume of news that you can now easily access in this manner creates its own PKM issue. Also, even within good-quality sources, articles may vary in relevance to your line of work. So you need to be judicious about both the quantity of RSS feeds or alerts you subscribe to and how you choose, or word, your subjects.
While I was enthralled with RSS for a while, I’ve found that recommendations from trusted peers, such as the ones I find on Twitter, can provide a more highly focused source of news for me. Also, because you only need follow people who “tweet” about information relevant to you, the spam-like problem of too much access to your intake that occurs with exchanging e-mails too widely tends not to arise. Further, because Twitter users use “hash tags” (such as “#pkm”) to categorize posts, you can search Twitter for posts on specific topics, subscribe to a Twitter search RSS feed, or even have a set search running in an application like Tweetdeck or Hootsuite for ongoing recommendations on particular topics.
Making It Explicit with Wikis and Blogs
It’s one thing to stumble across an interesting concept or have a new project idea. But as anyone who has ever written a term paper can attest, fully developing an idea or making it “explicit” is a whole other level of engagement with the subject. The knowledge management field has long considered the concept of making knowledge explicit a critical step in knowledge retention and retrieval.
In the Web 2.0 world, one way to make pieces of information explicit (on both the personal and organization-wide levels) is to use a wiki. You can set up any number of Web pages within an internal law firm wiki, and users can type in their notes and interlink that information with other pieces of information, giving the whole better context. For example, at my firm, I use a page on the knowledge management team’s internal Sharepoint 2007 wiki as a personal information tool. I create and link to a wiki page for each significant project and have a grid (an HTML table) that lists projects in columns by priority. It’s very easy to make new pages on a wiki, and I can jump back in to review wherever we left off if some task was held in abeyance for a while. It’s also easy to link (relate) different projects. Of course, your wiki page can also link to other information sources such as, in my case, my Delicious account and my LinkedIn profile, so that it serves as a fleshed-out internal profile.
If you don’t have wikis internally available, try a secure outside wiki such as PBWorks Legal.
Also, a blog can be an ideal note-taking and categorizing device. In addition to one public and one internal blog on litigation knowledge management, I’ve also used a completely private blog (free on Blogger.com or WordPress.com) as a family journal. It’s easy to go to the blog and find pieces of information I need because it is inherently subject-specific (as I don’t write about anything else on the blog). It comes out chronologically ordered, has tags that I can use to categorize my posts, and has its own targeted search. And instead of relying on the continued viability of my hard drive, the cloud and hundreds if not thousands of Google’s information security professionals are working to keep my information safe.
Categorizing by Tagging
Tagging is a great way to assign context to resources, so you can more readily re-find them and compare and contrast them to similar or related resources. A tag is simply a keyword or phrase that you assign to some type of content on the Web. (Get details on tagging in the January/February installment of Legal Web 2.0, at www.lawpractice.org/magazine.) Unlike a traditional classification system, there may be (even should be) more than one tag assigned to a given resource. You can view all the resources associated with a given tag, as well as your own tags, in what’s usually called a “tag cloud.”
Social bookmarking sites such as Delicious and Digg let you tag bookmarks (URLs), so you can store and manage them separate from whatever computer you happen to be working on. Better still, users of these sites can search and view each other’s tags to find new Web pages of relevance to them. Leveraging other people’s tags greatly expands the power and utility of tagging. (For an example, see the set of resources with the “PKM” tag at http://delicious.com/popular/pkm.)
In addition to social bookmarking tools that focus on public Internet pages, wikis, blogs, Twitter and other tools generally have tags or other means of categorization built in.
Social bookmarking extended to organizations’ internal resources, such as documents and intranet pages, has made inroads at many Fortune 500 companies through tools such as IBM’s Dogear and Connectbeam. But it has yet to be adopted to any significant degree among law firms. Social bookmarking is also a feature of Vivisimo’s Velocity 6 enterprise search platform.
Engaging and Collaborating
Making some of your thoughts public through online conversations offers many advantages to knowledge workers. For one thing, conversations are another way to make ideas explicit, and they also offer a testing ground that may prove some concepts, in retrospect, half-baked … or brilliant! Gaining the trust and respect of colleagues may also prove valuable when you need assistance with information seeking and otherwise.
Blogging publicly can be a great way to start the conversation. Blogging well, though, requires a significant investment of time and a strategic consideration of the value that will be returned. I’ve found blogging particularly helpful at conferences, where it is the best way to quickly capture the insights shared and gained from peers and presenters.
Microblogging, as with Twitter or enterprise services such as Cubetree or SocialCast, provides another way to learn what peers are doing and thinking about, and it’s also a way for you to join in the conversation by reacting to a post or passing it along to others (“retweeting”). Micro-blogging’s 140-character limit forces brevity and allows you to quickly vet many different people’s contributions, while still allowing for categorization and links to fuller sets of resources. I quickly learned a lot about PKM, in fact, through posting a query to my Twitter colleagues. Those who work a lot on PKM directed me to several sets of related links and blog posts.
Learn By Doing
Lastly, a piece of advice. Experimenting with some type of each of the tools is by far the best way to learn how they work and what they might do for you. If you don’t like one, discard it and try something else. Different people have different personal information stores and different ways of dealing with the onslaught.
In the end, you’ll find that investing your time in learning personal knowledge management skills and tools can improve your effectiveness in working with the information you already have, and expose you to people and ideas that you would not have encountered otherwise. Plus, your organization—which, just like any organization, is only as good as its people—may also find that investments in PKM training and coaching will provide excellent returns by increasing individuals’ effectiveness and thought leadership.
David Hobbie is Litigation Knowledge Manager at Goodwin Procter. Previously, he practiced commercial litigation in Boston.
The information contained in this article reflects the opinions of the author and is not an official opinion of Goodwin Procter LLP.
Web 2.0 column editor Steve Matthews is principal of Stem Legal Web Enterprise. If you have ideas to share or topics to suggest, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Steve blogs at www.stemlegal.com/strategyblog.