by Rick Klau
(A version of this was originally published in the July, 2002 ABA Law Practice Management magazine)
In my last nothing.but.net column, I wrote about the weblog phenomenon. I said, “Blogs are focused on writing—often brief, informal comments with helpful links to other sites (most often other blogs or news sites). And the technology behind blogs makes them easy to update and maintain.”
This ease of use, coupled with the growing popularity of weblogs in general (in the past three months, articles in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, and MSNBC have all documented the craze), has led to considerable momentum behind the “law blog” community.
Denise Howell, an attorney with California’s Crosby Heafey Roach & May, maintains her own weblog called Bag and Baggage (at http://bgbg.blogspot.com/). As of this writing, she maintains the most exhaustive list of law blogs (which she calls “blawgs”) which numbers more than 35 blogs from judges, attorneys, law students, and law professors. Howell explained that from her vantage point, weblogs are the “killer app” when it comes to members of the legal profession interacting with each other and the public. “The biggest hurdles attorneys face in letting the world know who they are and what they’re good at,” says Howell, “are (1) the print marketing materials available to them are dry, expensive and slow to obtain, (2) sending out unsolicited marketing materials of ANY kind is ineffective and annoying, and (3) people – including other lawyers – are predisposed to distrust and look for the ulterior motive behind most anything a lawyer says.” The advantage of her own weblog is that it “cut through all that.” A “fast, easy and cheap” mechanism for publishing information of interest to her, Howell found it was also interesting and valuable to fellow attorneys and potential clients. After less than six months, she’s hooked.
Howell’s belief that these sites aren’t just for personal edification is not unique. One lawyer I’ve spoken with reports getting business as a direct result of his blog – substantial business that could help the firm develop a more national practice (the client is an out-of-state client whose attorney was familiar with the lawyer’s blog and called when a need arose). This won’t be the last blog referral – as blogs continue to establish their authors as authorities on their subjects (aided in no small part by Google’s preference for new content, which is exactly what blogs provide), finding attorneys with expertise in an area as a result of a quick search will increasingly result in attorneys with blogs.
Ernest Svenson is a litigator at 40-lawyer Gordon Arata McCollam Duplantis & Eagan who maintains a personal site titled “Ernie the Attorney” (http://radio.weblogs.com/0104634/). As the head of his firm’s technology committee, Ernest is always looking for ways to improve the practice of law through use of technology. One reason that the Radio blog appeals to him is its potential as a knowledge management tool. A Radio user for two months, Ernest is convinced that weblogs can help the firm distribute and consolidate its internal knowledge. “Certain people within the firm are always being consulted with procedural questions,” he explains. “Unfortunately their responses to these questions – many of which come up repeatedly – are not captured in any searchable database.” Weblogs, Svenson believes, will eliminate this bottle-neck and ensure that much of this institutional information will get captured and easily distributed. (The marketing benefits aren’t bad either: Svenson was highlighted in an MSNBC article about professional blogs in March.)
This last idea – of blogs as KM tools – is one that several have started to think about. A senior technologist at a large New York law firm e-mailed me after my last weblog column. Intrigued by the concept, he indicated that they too are considering weblogs as they explore a variety of knowledge management initiatives.
While two firms do not a trend make, I think these firms are examples of what will soon be a much larger trend: the move towards a simplified, decentralized approach to collecting and distributing information. In other words, a K-log.
Weblogs as Knowledge Management
Driving home one day in January, I caught a report on NPR about a couple of researchers who are trying to identify genetic causes for various forms cancer and other diseases. According to Michael Myerson, the researcher interviewed for the story, “the human gene sequence database contained a lot of things that weren’t gene sequences.” Myerson and the other researchers used the human gene sequence database to help find new microbes that cause diseases. They looked at a total of 7,000 sequences, and found 22 that didn’t match known human gene sequences, then narrowed it to two that matched the human papilloma virus. With that, they were able to identify the microbial causes for cervical cancer.
What is really interesting about this report is the notion that the breakthrough was a completely unanticipated result of the collection of information in the human genome database. The purpose of collecting the gene sequences in the database was to map the human genome – and the info that made up the core of this research project was an afterthought of that goal.
This is a great example of the premise that you just don’t know what you’ll want to know down the road. Any knowledge management initiative must ensure that as much information is captured as possible – because there’s no way you’ll be able to predict which pieces of information will be useful to you a year from now. If that information is collected, then you may be able to use it. If it’s not, you won’t.
This is where I think a number of current KM initiatives at law firms have fallen short: they are too structured and require too much effort on the part of the individual to contribute useful information. Weblogs, at their core, are simple tools for the collection of information. Because the architecture behind the scenes is explicitly built to encourage linking, publication of posts and sharing of relevant information, once that information is collected it is easily distributed throughout the organization.
The Tools to Create a Community
There is a term for these KM-oriented weblogs: K-logs (pronounced kay-logs). K-logs are communities of weblogs, typically within a single organization. The weblogs handle the collection of the content, then other systems kick in to help distribute that content. John Robb, President of Userland (makers of Radio, a weblog application) and originator of the k-log concept, explains that k-logs contain several items in addition to the core, browser-based weblog interface. Weblogs should contain “subscriptions for knowledge streams, categorization of posts, and community tools for finding related content,” explains Robb.
If you’ve found someone in your office regularly posts items of interest to you, you can subscribe to their site and have their content automatically delivered to your desktop. Robb believes that this automated delivery helps “unlock hidden knowledge resources within the company.” By automating the distribution of the information, it reduces the need for individuals to remember to visit sites of interest to them – and ensures that relevant data will find its way to people who need it.
Community tools track things like which weblogs point to other sites in an effort to measure the popularity of individual sites. These referral logs – typically kept privately by individual site owners – become powerful tools when aggregated across an organization. If you see that Alice regularly points to Bob, the system can learn that if you are interested in Alice you may very well be interested in Bob’s content as well. Similarly, if Charlie is pointing to your site, you may want to see what Charlie has to say.
To see this in action, visit MIT’s Blogdex at http://blogdex.media.mit.edu/ – it’s an experimental service that routinely extracts links from thousands of sites. By sifting through the links, it’s able to identify what the most popular destination sites are, and what are the most popular weblogs. By using something like this internally, you could quickly identify whose contributions were most popular (and presumably most valuable).
Having a useful search interface makes finding the right content critical. Google is a great answer for public content. Part of the reason that weblogs fit in so nicely with Google is that Google favors content that has been linked to before – so the weblog metaphor of linking to content that is interesting or relevant to the author helps Google evaluate the relative merit of that page. (This is what makes up Google’s proprietary “PageRank“ technology.) Whether you choose to implement Google on your internal network (which carries with it a $20,000 price tag) or use something similar (see PicoSearch at picosearch.com and Atomz at atomz.com for two widely used search engines for web weblogs), you’ll be able to provide tools to mine the deep content collected in your firm’s k-log.
You don’t know today what you’ll want to know in a year. So rather than try to solve that problem, focus on providing simple tools to your users that creates valuable content across the firm. Individual contributions within the firm will be far more visible, you will have a searchable archive of the firm’s institutional memory, and a simplified process for ensuring that everyone is up to speed on what’s going on within the firm. Whether you embrace weblogs for their individual benefits or the larger, institutional benefits, one thing is certain: weblogs will become a powerful tool for those in the legal profession that seek ways of more efficiently and intelligently managing their information.
About the author: Rick Klau is Vice President of Vertical Markets at Interface Software, Inc. He is the co-author of the upcoming ABA book The Lawyer’s Guide to Marketing on the Internet (2nd edition).