Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The West Wing: institutional memory and swine flu. (What’s that to do with KM?)

I'm a huge West Wing fan. I have the entire series on DVD and every now and then I'll dip into it if I have the time.

At the weekend I happened to watch an episode called 'Institutional Memory'. In the final two weeks of office, CJ Cregg (White House Chief of Staff) asks all White House Staff and heads of Department to draw up transition memos. The purpose of these memos was to help the incoming staffers and members of the new administration with details of procedures, current work underway and any other nuggets of information to ensure that they know how to do their jobs. Increasingly frustrated, CJ doesn't get much co-operation. Everybody has an excuse not to complete their memo – they're all busy interviewing for new jobs and are firmly in holiday mode. Furious with the lack of co-operation CJ, at one point, yells at a reluctant staffer that this is the most important thing they will ever have to do and that it will be impossible for new staffers to do their jobs without it.

Later in the episode, CJ finds herself between a rock and a hard place when the President Elect asks her to stay on as a special adviser to him for the next two years. He tells her that the Oval Office will not be able to function without her as she has the institutional memory that he needs in order to govern the country – i.e. she has all the know-how, history and expertise that he needs to tap into in order to govern with continuity. Torn between her desire to take time off to learn how ski and serving her country, CJ replies that she'll be at the end of the phone to help out and provide information to the President Elect whenever necessary. Suffice it to say, that he wasn't wildly impressed!

A couple of things struck me about this episode as it raised some issues very relevant to my work in law firms. Firstly, I couldn't believe that the White House (of all places) had no knowledge management programme in place that would capture procedures for each staffer role, and one click access to commonly used forms, documents etc. Surely, they would have stringent procedures in place so that staffers wouldn't have to compile half-hearted and last minute transition memos?

Secondly, CJ herself, who albeit at the last minute was pleading for transition memos from staffers, was just as guilty as the others. She had worked in the West Wing for almost eight years, the last two of which were in the position of Chief of Staff (arguably the most important role, next to the President). The sum of her experience, learning and wisdom, would walk out the door with her. A mere transition memo from her fell far short of what was required.

If you remove the White House setting, it's easy enough to translate these issues to legal practices. People leave jobs, new people start but most of them do so without the benefit of having access to 'transition memos'. Part of the firm's institutional memory evaporates when people move on elsewhere. This is where a knowledge management programme can help.

The third thing that occurred to me while watching the episode was swine flu. Yes, think about it. Elements of a sound knowledge management programme can assist with business continuity planning. It is likely that this winter some of your employees will be absent with swine flu. The nature of the illness (like other flu) is that it's highly contagious. Apart from implementing practical sanitary and hygiene procedures to alleviate the risk, what else can you do?

Well, if you have seen the light and have a working knowledge management strategy in place, this is a really good start. You should have a good precedent bank (quality assured and approved and easy to access). If you have a know-how database with access to previous golden nuggets of research (which are annotated and tagged by other staff members), this will also come into play. Document management systems will allow other staff members to quickly identify the latest version of the document worked on by the staff member who is absent. Features such as the ability to search by date, client and matter and folder facilities will make it easy to track the latest emails from a client regarding a matter and identify other members of staff who have been working on the case. An Intranet page (or even an updated paper-based manual) for each area of your practice and support functions are all components of a sound knowledge management programme. If you have a Continuing Professional Development Programme, departmental information meetings and communities of practice (I'll talk more about those in a forthcoming blog) your staff will be updated on current legal developments and cases being undertaken by their colleagues (who may be out with swine flu). (Hopefully, the proceedings of these meetings will be minuted and available on your Intranet).

Consider taking your Continuing Professional Development Programme a bit further. By providing some rudimentary cross-training you can mitigate the risks posed by the swine flu to your firm. Have a member of your accounts team train two members of professional staff on entering new matters to your client/matter system. Make sure they know how to issue bills and receive payments! Train another member of your staff on the switchboard and reception, likewise with the post-room. The main thing to do is to carefully think about and then identify key functions and practice areas without which your practice would not be able to function - then develop a brief cross-training programme.

Oh… and 'don't forget the transition memos'!