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Features - Change Strategies Are the Key to KM

By Nina Platt, Published on May 23, 2004

Nina Platt is the director of library services at Faegre and Benson LLP in Minneapolis. 

Attorneys in law firms around the globe have spent the last five to ten years trying to identify the perfect knowledge management (KM) initiative and make it work. In that pursuit, one repeatedly encounters these questions: How do you staff for KM? What technology do you use? How do you get attorneys to participate? How do you transform the firm’s culture to prevent failure of the initiative? It isn’t unusual to hear the response, “We just haven’t figured it out.” So, where is that elusive KM success everyone is striving for? To find it, we need to start learning how to manage change.

Managing Knowledge = Managing Change

Change management is a field of practice that has been discussed in business literature for more than 30 years. According to change management educators Jeff Hiatt and Tim Creasey, managing change is the convergence of “the engineer’s approach to improving business performance and a psychologist's approach to managing the human-side of change.”  (The Definition and History of Change Management, BPR Online Learning Center, a tutorial available at www.prosci.com.)

Hiatt and Creasey define change management as “the process, tools and techniques to manage the people-side of business change to achieve the required business outcome, and to realize that business change effectively within the social infrastructure of the workplace.” It is the people-side of change that we often ignore as we look to innovate.

What must be done to ensure that implementation of a KM initiative within the workplace is successful? One tactic is to look to the experts in change management and the models they have developed for managing the process.

John Kotter, author of Leading Change, describes an “eight-stage process of creating major change.”  (John Kotter, Leading Change, at 21, Harvard Business School Press, 1996.)  Kotter’s stages are set forth below, along with my own suggestions for using those steps in a KM initiative:

Eight Stages of Creating Change Implementation in a KM Initiative
1. Establish a sense of urgency Communicate the business problem or reason for implementing KM—why is it necessary?
2. Create the guiding coalition Establish a team with the knowledge to initiate change and the power to make KM happen.
3. Develop a vision and strategy Develop the firm’s vision for KM and the strategies for implementation.
4. Communicate the change vision Share the vision and how it will affect the participants.
5. Empower broad-based action Give the KM team the authority to initiate the changes.
6. Generate short-term wins Work with the practice groups that are most likely to accept KM and celebrate their achievements.
7. Consolidate gains and produce more change Use success to create more success.
8. Anchor new approaches in the culture Make the KM initiatives a part of the daily work process of the firm.


Kotter suggests that all of the steps in the process must be taken to effect permanent change. The order in which they are done is not critical. However, doing all is essential. Step 4 (communicating change) and step 8 (transforming culture) are the most significant. Change can’t happen without effective communication and won’t be permanent without acceptance into the culture of the firm.

Change As Transition

William Bridges and Susan Mitchell talk about change as “transition” in their article Leading Transition: A New Model for Change. According to Bridges and Mitchell, change efforts fail because the transition that comes with change is ignored. “Transition is the state that change puts people into. The change is external (the different policy, practice, or structure that the leader is trying to bring about), while transition is internal (a psychological reorientation that people have to go through before the change can work).”

For Bridge and Mitchell, transition is a three-step process: (1) Saying Goodbye; (2) Shifting into Neutral; and (3) Moving Forward. Change is similar to the grieving process, through which one must let go and move on. The necessity of accepting the end of what has been and the beginning of what will be is very clear, but people sometimes get lost in the process. Bridges and Mitchell name this process the neutral zone.

 “The neutral zone is uncomfortable, so people are driven to get out of it. Some people try to rush ahead into some (often any) new situation, while others try to back-pedal and retreat into the past. Successful transition, however, requires that an organization and its people spend some time in the neutral zone. Time in the neutral zone is not wasted, for that is where the creativity and energy of transition are found and real transformation takes place.”

The Four P’s

The model developed by Bridges and Mitchell is a seven-step process similar to Kotter’s. To help people affected by change get through the neutral zone, they place an emphasis on communicating “The Four P’s”.

The Purpose: Why we have to do this
The Picture: How the attainment of our goal will look and feel
The Plan: How we get there, step by step
The Part: What you can and must do to help us move forward

A Law Firm’s KM Transition

A law firm enters the neutral zone on the day it announces the need to implement a KM initiative, and it remains in the zone until everyone understands the firm’s vision for KM and accepts the use of it within their daily work. Communication must take place through many means, and as often as necessary to help each individual through the transition. For example, implementing an expertise system would require communicating the Four P’s. Here is an example of what that might look like:

The Purpose

As a firm grows into a size where the attorneys and staff no longer know everyone and what they can do, a system for sharing knowledge is needed. By enabling the user to identify sources of expertise within the firm, the expertise system will:

  • promote integration of practice groups and offices,

  • increase interaction among individuals,

  • enhance cross-marketing efforts,

  • reduce the incidence of outside referrals, and

  • improve teamwork as team members get to know others on the team.

The Picture

The system will be Web-based and will work by indexing profiles provided by individuals, and documents and databases that show where expertise can be found. Attorneys and staff will be able to search by expertise or the knowledge needed and will be provided with a list of experts with links to profiles, documents, and other materials.

The Plan

A team of attorneys and staff will be assembled to determine critical issues, such as the following: the architecture of the system; the data sets to be included (e.g., human resources, time and billing, client relationship management, and document management); and the information that will be available in profiles. Once a design is in place the KM team will work closely with developers. Team members subsequently work to test the system and develop and implement a rollout plan.

The Part

The Part encompasses two questions: “What do I have to do?” and “What’s in it for me?” Your part in this initiative is to participate in planning, development, and rollout (if asked), provide content on your expertise, and learn how to use the new system. Why? When everyone shares what they know, you learn more about your colleagues, keep client work within the firm, reduce the time you spend learning about a new topic, and give yourself more billable time.

Communication—Performance—Transformation

Many firms struggle with KM initiatives because they think they must change the culture of the firm in order to be successful. In her article The Key to Cultural Transformation, Frances Hesselbein argues that culture does not change because we want it to change. She states, “… changing the culture of an organization requires a transformation of the organization itself—its purpose, its focus on customers and results … Culture changes when the organization is transformed; the culture reflects the realities of people working together every day.”

Hesselbein describes seven essential steps necessary to transform a culture, and observes that, “If we note Peter Drucker’s definition of innovation— ‘change that creates a new dimension of performance’— it is the performance that changes the culture, not the reverse.” In the context of KM, the act of sharing information (and the expectation that all will share) transforms the culture.

KM for the sake of KM serves little purpose. When you identify the values that make up your culture - or the values that you would like to see as part of your culture - and use KM as a strategy to strengthen that value or transform the culture, KM becomes useful.

For example, if the values that you see (or want) as part of your law firm’s culture include consistent teamwork, high-quality client service, and cost-effective operations, then KM can be a strategic mechanism for moving toward those goals.

Attorney and author Richard Susskind wrote “Perhaps the greatest management challenge that has faced lawyers grappling with IT has been this move beyond successful automation to strategic innovation, so that IT could change legal practice and the delivery of legal services, both cost-effectively and qualitatively.”  (The Future of Law: Facing the Challenges of Information Technology, Oxford University Press, 1996).

People Are at the Center

Strategic innovation cannot happen without change, and change does not happen without people. Perhaps one problem is that we focus too much on information technology. Being successful in transforming a KM vision into reality requires that attention be given to the people involved. Above all else, managing change requires good communication of the vision and the path to success, thereby transforming the firm’s culture into one of teamwork and sharing.

This article was originally published in the October 2003 issue of Practice Innovations, a Thomson West publication. Reprinted with permission.