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Creating Intranet Applications for Knowledge Sharing Within Law Firms

By Jason Eiseman, Published on February 12, 2007

Jason Eiseman (MLS) is the Computer Automation Librarian at Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt in Portland, Oregon.

By now most people are tiring of the 2.0 meme. First there was Web 2.0, then Library 2.0, now there's Intranet 2.0 and Enterprise 2.0. People are so tired of hearing these buzzwords that their very utterance is enough to make some cringe. But if you look past the semantics what you will find are technologies that hold great promise for the future of the Web. If you open your mind a little more, you'll find that these technologies hold great promise for the future of organizations as well. You can call it whatever you want, but what's really important is that the latest and greatest Web applications have the ability to spawn knowledge sharing applications inside the enterprise.

A knowledge-sharing, collaborative application can be as simple as a system for routing reference questions to appropriate librarians, or an expertise locator. The key to making these applications valuable is by leveraging that user-generated content so the entire organization can learn from it. Instead of simply routing reference questions, why not store them in a searchable application, place them on a blog, a wiki, or otherwise make them available so other employees can learn from the answers. This may not always be possible for a variety of logistical reasons, but it is surely an ideal we can strive for.

These types of solutions are becoming easier to custom build or implement. Today, intranet applications can be custom built with simple programming languages and databases. Often open-source applications like blogs and wikis, costing very little (if anything), and are easy to customize [Editor's note: the cost of these applications is in the value-added expertise of personnel who design and implement these applications], are being deployed inside organizations as well. The success of these applications have been the ease with which they can be created or deployed, the ease of use of the applications, and the knowledge-sharing benefit to organizations.

The benefits of knowledge-sharing applications

Organizations are increasingly recognizing the value of knowledge management. However, too often knowledge management is strictly defined as document management, customer relationship management, or some other smaller piece of the puzzle. Too often the organizational knowledge tied up in these proprietary systems is isolated with no relationships pulling information together. Enterprise or federated search products might be able to pull data out of separate systems, but they don't necessarily create the requisite relationships between search results, to make the data really useful. And not all knowledge resolves with inclusion in these systems.

Creating avenues for sharing more informal knowledge can also benefit an organization. Just as an example, these systems often fail to adequately address Continuity Management. Continuity Management refers to the capture of knowledge of current employees before they leave (often referring to retiring employees). By encouraging users to share their knowledge, or creating applications to capture that knowledge, you might be able to prevent it from walking out the door when employees leave. Along similar lines, sharing knowledge about how to accomplish tasks, best practices, and other training materials can help with new employee training and orientation.

The key to encouraging employees to share their knowledge is by making it easy, and leveraging that user-generated content throughout an enterprise. Intranet applications which make use of user-generated content might be as trendy as blogs and wikis, or as simple as allowing employees to edit and maintain their own biographical information for expertise and specialized skill location. Applications that leverage user-generated content can provide a significant return on investment (ROI) for organizations. That ROI can come from exposing hidden resources or even helping employees get to know each other better. These applications can often supplement existing corporate knowledge management programs as well.

Many administrators worry that opening up the intranet for user-generated content could lead to a free-for-all where information with no business value is posted. At one conference, I heard concerns that users would start writing restaurant recommendations if allowed to blog, an obvious waste of corporate resources. I asked the concerned manager if he ever takes clients out to dinner, or bars, and how he chooses where to take clients. Law firm employees know that many attorneys might benefit from restaurant recommendations. This could be especially helpful for meeting clients with special dietary needs or culinary requests. The fact that these recommendations might come from trusted colleagues makes them all the more reliable. The lesson here is to maintain an open mind about what type of user-generated content might provide value to an organization. Employees are already sharing this type of information with each other. Creating an application to make that process easier can provide a great benefit to an organization.

Targets for applications

One of the best ways to introduce an intranet application is to look for processes in your firm which can be improved. This includes processes which are not working properly, are inefficient, overly laborious or time consuming. I also like to look for processes for which people have created work-arounds. Work-arounds may be symptomatic of an application which isn't working, a process which could be streamlined. There are several benefits to this approach. The most important benefit is that it creates a measurable impact and ROI for the firm. If you can prove that the firm can save money by allowing users to create content, it will create more opportunities to implement intranet applications. In some cases I have saved individual employees months worth of extra work on an annual basis. That's thousands of dollars in savings and improved productivity from simply allowing users to generate intranet content for the benefit of others.

Another target for intranet applications is email addicts -- those employees who simply email requests for information. If you see similar requests emailed over and over again it might be an area ripe for an intranet application. For example, constant email requests for employees who speak specific languages, employees with specific skills, and requests for recommendations, are all prime candidates for an intranet application. Even if these emails are not seen as work related, creating an application to store such information can help eliminate redundant emails that cost the firm money. This also helps eliminate the use of email for nonessential communication (a common complaint among law firm administrators).

Examples

Lattice Semiconductor was attempting to fix a broken process when they instituted an internal wiki. Posting content on the intranet was a slow process. Author/editors, responsible for pages or sections of the intranet, had to send content and change requests to an intranet authority. That authority would then post the content. There was a significant lag time between the time content was sent and the time it was posted on the intranet. By trying to alleviate this content bottleneck, they got more than they bargained for. What they got was a crucial tool for sharing knowledge throughout the organization.

“The wiki is a window to what the company is up to internally,” says Gretchen Leslie, Corporate Librarian at Lattice. Leslie played two key roles in the implementation of the wiki. First, at the request of the intranet manager, she performed research about the benefits and drawbacks of wikis in the enterprise. Second, as a content creator, whose intranet pages were highly used, she was asked to move that content to the wiki. [Editor's note:  Lattice also has blogs with comments enabled; an example is here]

Morrison & Foerster's AnswerBase, a souped-up enterprise search engine, leverages-user generated content differently. At Morrison & Foerster, like many organizations, corporate knowledge had been dispersed in a variety of different proprietary systems. A simple federated search might have been able to pull the information from the various data sources. However, AnswerBase goes beyond that. Instead Morrison & Foerster focused on creating an intranet search application with a seamless interface.

“AnswerBase gives you more value than any other search system,” says Oz Benamram, Director of Knowledge Management at at the firm. The value of the application comes from the integration of the data so relationships between various firm resources are linked together.

AnswerBase acts more like a Web application mashup than a traditional enterprise search product. Searching within documents allows you to narrow down your search by facets, created on the fly, by linking to data from disparate data sources. So users might be able to narrow down their search by the industry for which documents were created, or by client, people related to the document, and more. What makes the product really unique is that instead of linking to that information in the native database (CRM, Internal Directory, etc.), all of the information is presented in the same interface.

Ideally all research will eventually go through AnswerBase.

“We see it as a one-stop shop with total integration of all the data in the firm,” says Michelle Schmidt, Knowledge Management Information Analyst at Morrison & Foerster.

The results of these two applications have been successful because they address some of the key considerations for collaborative intranet applications.

Considerations for intranet applications

Usability

The most important consideration for next generation intranet applications is usability. Many people pay lip service to usability, but few actually think about how usability affects the use of their applications. Oftentimes the difference between a successful application and an application that fails can be boiled down to how many clicks are required to accomplish a task, how many form fields have to be filled in to enter data, or how easy it is to understand what's being asked for and why. Usability is not about making a website pretty, it's about making it easy to use. Inside the organization, it's about saving employees time. If the application is not easy to use, people will not use it. It's that simple.

Ease of use has been a key factor to the success of Lattice Semiconductor's internal wiki.

“It’s a very dynamic tool for a librarian,” Gretchen says. “I like the ability to edit content on the fly.” Content creators can now edit their pages quickly and easily. Leslie says she often creates and edits pages while on the phone with employees, creating pages of resources which are ready for use by the time they get off the phone.

AnswerBase was designed with simplicity in mind. With it’s single text boxes and, tab-based navigation it is reminiscent of Google’s simplicity. Benamram says that AnswerBase aims to allow users to move between information objects (documents, people, projects, etc.) without leaving the application. This integration is a major factor in application usability.

Michelle Schmidt confirms that the feedback to AnswerBase has been exclusively positive. Much of the positive response to AnswerBase is due to this ease of use.

Identity

I use the term identity here from a usability standpoint, although there is a security component to the concept of intranet identity as well. This may also be described as the single sign-on problem. In many organizations applications require separate sign-ons. Requiring employees to log on to applications separately is a usability problem that employees may not stand for. This is particularly problematic with third-party vendors who are unable to integrate with internal employee directories.

The key to integrating with internal directories and managing intranet identity is the Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP). Many third-party vendor applications offer LDAP integration, and many programming languages like ColdFusion, ASP, and PHP allow you to connect to internal directories as well. So whether you create custom applications, purchase a commercial application, or use an open source solution you should have the ability to use LDAP to connect to your organization's internal directory.

The wiki at Lattice Semiconductor integrates with the internal directory, using LDAP. Once they sign in, employees’ roles and security rights are integrated with the wiki application. Employee access to documents can be maintained through the wiki. So if a content creator creates a link to an internal document on the wiki, employee access to the document is allowed or denied based on existing security settings. Gretchen Leslie has even used this to help manage rights to digital documents. Leslie also sees value in showing users what's available.

"No one knew who had what," Leslie says about the time before they instituted the wiki. Even though employees may be able to see documents they cannot access, simply knowing that they exist and that the firm has them has been a great benefit of sharing information.

Identity in a law firm is of the utmost important. Law firm document management requires more than just simple security procedures. Ethical walls are often required to prevent attorneys from viewing documents related to cases, clients, or matters in which they have an ethical conflict. Thus, identity management is critical in law firm intranet applications.

AnswerBase maintains all the security and ethical precautions required by Morrison & Foerster. According to Schmidt, employees are not required to log in to the application. Their network login is recognized and integrated through LDAP with the internal directory. Employees are not able to see documents which are blocked by those ethical walls.

AnswerBase goes even further.

“I don’t see the same results as a partner,” Schmidt says. In addition to differences because of ethical walls, different employees can see additional information about time and billing, human resource information based on the employee role in the organization.

According to Benamram, there are identity-based relevancy factors built into AnswerBase, but they have not been turned on yet. Just as an example, eventually, search result rankings will be partially sorted by the geographic location of the searcher. Because legal work is often dependent on jurisdiction, searchers are more likely to want documents from the same jurisdiction they are working in. Identity can improve usability in many different ways.

Decentralizing content creation

In many intranets and content management systems, content creation is limited to authors or editors. Each author or editor is responsible for creating or managing content on a specific page, or internal website. Even large organizations with thousands of author and editors have essentially centralized content creation by limiting the number of people who can create content. To share knowledge across an enterprise requires decentralizing content creation.

Sharing knowledge requires allowing users to create their own content. This means allowing users to blog, comment on blogs, edit their own personal biographical information, rate items, and generally promote social and collaborative technology.

In addition to making it easy for author and editors to create and edit content on the intranet, the Lattice Semiconductor wiki has also decentralized content creation so all employees have the ability to create and manage their own pages. A good search system ensures that all content is findable, whether it's content from a seldom used employee page, or the heavily used library pages created by Gretchen Leslie.

"This is working out really well at a grassroots level," Leslie said.

AnwerBase does not do anything special to decentralize content creation. Instead it makes user-generated content easier to find, use, and increases the value of that content by revealing the context in which content was created.

“Every object has several handles,” says Benamram. “Every document has an author, every author has a location, a project, and so forth.” AnswerBase uses these “handles” (metadata) to make connections between content objects in the organization, and make user-generated content easier to find.

As Michelle Schmidt says, “It’s a place where we can leverage the collective knowledge of Morrison & Foerster.” As new releases of AnswerBase are planned, and more data sources are added to the system, new pockets of knowledge will be leveraged throughout the firm.

“Every system that exists in (Morrison & Foerster) will be findable in AnswerBase,” says Benamram.

Conclusion

In his most recent 10 Best Intranets feature, Jakob Nielsen begrudgingly recognized the value of using Web 2.0 technologies inside the organization. The question is not when these technologies will make their way into law firms and corporations (they already are), the question is how do we best use them to improve knowledge management in our firms. Whether you implement a complex, far-reaching application, delivered from the top like AnswerBase, or a wiki that grows from the ground up, using collaborative technologies in the enterprise is about helping organizations make the most of a precious resource, knowledge.