Knowledge management tools and processes

The key concepts and approaches of knowledge management (KM) can help in-house legal teams operate successfully. This article covers some of the main aspects of KM and sets out what it could mean for you.

As a specialist function reliant on accurate and up-to-date information, your team will need to know how to manage and disseminate knowledge.

The basic principles and components of KM covered here will help you follow good practice and maximise your effectiveness.

What is the knowledge management?

Wikipedia defines knowledge management (KM) as:

‘the process of creating, sharing, using and managing the knowledge and information of an organisation.’

It’s a set of approaches and tactics that help organisations, teams and individuals achieve strategic goals, maximise operational efficiency, increase learning, drive innovation, deliver services and create value.

Although this definition of KM is quite wide, the term can, at some organisations, describe a support department. For example, in some law firms, KM often refers to a function that includes the library, has some say over data management, incorporates professional support lawyers and owns the intranet.

However, KM is wider than this. Its principles influence the way people in modern organisations manage content, projects, records and learning, use digital channels, collaborate and much more.

A very quick history of KM

KM became popular in the late nineties and early noughties, when many organisations implemented formal KM programmes. It’s now widely perceived that many of these initiatives failed to deliver value. They had too much focus on technology implementation and not enough on how people actually used them.

Large complex repositories to capture knowledge were linked with different organisational workflow systems to create custom KM ecosystems. However:

  • Not enough people used them;
  • The systems were customised and hard to update; and
  • They needed constant maintenance.

Synonymous with hype and poor solutions proposed by IT vendors and consultants, KM became discredited.

Despite this, many of the principles behind KM remain solid. In industries like professional services, healthcare and pharmaceuticals, KM plays an important role. Today, as more organisations encourage knowledge-sharing and invest heavily in collaboration tools, KM is enjoying a mini-renaissance.

Illustratively this website is a form of KM!

What does KM mean to in-house legal functions?

In-house legal functions can use KM to improve the way they work internally as a team and the ways in which they interact with the rest of the organisation and keep on top of what’s happening in the external world. Great KM tools include:

  • Your intranet;
  • Knowledge databases;
  • Team collaboration tools;
  • Community forums;
  • Specialist databases and sources - such as this website;
  • Automated training tools for AML, DP, etc;
  • Document management systems; and
  • Tools such as OneNote and RSS readers

Process, people, technology and content

A common approach to KM is to consider people, process and technology as separate components that must work together in harmony. Some practitioners add content as a fourth component.

This gives you a high-level framework for considering an issue in a KM context. For example, you may be considering how to share essential legal updates within your team and across a wider set of stakeholders. By considering the technology you need, the associated processes, people’s willingness to share updates and the content itself, you can start designing your KM solution. Align all the components to make it work.

KM is about people, not technology

KM is more about people than it is about technology. Thought leader David Snowden once said:

‘Knowledge can only be volunteered, it cannot be conscripted.’

This goes to the heart of the issue. A slick KM system is worthless unless people use it. To get people to use it and share knowledge, it must be user friendly and there must be some incentive.

When considering sharing knowledge via KM systems within your team or across your organisation, create conditions that encourage individuals to cooperate. So:

  • Consider the WIIFM (what’s in it for me?) factor, design processes and systems that are easy for people to use;
  • Encourage knowledge-sharing behaviours by explicitly recognising good practices; and
  • Build KM into existing HR and review processes such as appraisals and project reviews.

Tacit and explicit knowledge

A recurring theme is the difference between tacit knowledge (knowledge locked in people’s heads) and explicit knowledge (knowledge captured and written down). In the legal world, there’s a lot of explicit knowledge in precedents, model documents, case material, procedural approaches and so on. There’s also a lot of tacit knowledge, which is only learnt from experience. KM helps to turn the tacit into explicit, so it really can contribute to learning and improved processes.

Capturing tacit knowledge is difficult. Some people find it hard to articulate their knowledge because it’s so instinctive. Common mechanisms include project reviews, exit interviews, lessons learnt sessions, discussion forums, training output and so on. However, once captured, this knowledge can be used in procedural documents and best practice guidelines. Remember that tacit knowledge leaves when the person does, so explicit knowledge is much better for your business and for your team.

You may already have processes to capture tacit knowledge. However, even thinking carefully about what is tacit and what is explicit can be a valuable exercise and help knowledge transfer and capture.

The importance of context

Presenting and viewing knowledge in context provides even more value. Context could mean additional information or knowledge that is useful and complementary, or delivered in a format suited to a particular situation.

For example, a single document, presented in isolation may be meaningless. However, when presented alongside data about the matter it relates to, it gains value. When made available to remote colleagues or offsite teams via a dashboard accessible via a tablet or a mobile phone, that contextual data could be even more valuable.

One source of truth or publish once

A fundamental tenet of KM is to deliver one source of truth. Publish something once, then let that be referred to from different systems. (A key component of the "one team one answer..." approach that we advocate in the strategy articles.)

Don’t have two sets of the same data or files. As well as being inefficient, it carries the risk of something being presented as authoritative, yet not being the latest version. This has obvious ramifications for anybody dealing with documents or providing content relating to aspects of the law.

Knowledge and content lifecycles

Another useful KM concept is the lifecycle of knowledge as it is created, disseminated, stored, reviewed and archived. In-house legal teams generally need to ensure that the knowledge they work with is current and accurate (i.e. "version control" and "last reviewed by ...on..." controls are important) and so processes designed around a lifecycle, with appropriate reviews, is the way to go.

KM maturity

Maturity models in KM systems show the different stages of maturity and progression. KM consultants love them as they can help you assess where you are in terms of KM and the bigger picture. For example, you could use a KM maturity model to:

  • See if you’re in line with, ahead of, or behind the rest of the organisation;
  • Consider the next steps for your KM practices; and
  • Emphasise that KM doesn’t happen overnight – it’s more evolutionary than revolutionary.

Personal knowledge management (PKM)

In recent years, the internet has greatly enhanced the tools and sources that help individuals manage their own knowledge and learning. Thanks to the growth of social software and personal apps, individuals can now perform activities that were once the preserve of central functions.

This has led to the growth of what some consultants call personal knowledge management – the ability for employees to manage their own knowledge. For in-house legal teams, it means individual members can take more responsibility for their own KM, particularly in respect of external developments. However it is important not to let this autonomy of input result in a "rabbit warren" of hidden, personal KM stores emerging - it is the company's IP and so the company and not just the individual need to be able to utilise it.

The role of managers and central functions is to encourage individuals to use these resources, provide choice in what tools they can use and allow them time in their working day to carry out this activity. You could encourage your team to read this website, for example!

Pragmatism trumps perfection

Having learned from the failings of the past, many people now advocate a pragmatic approach to KM. Building the perfect system is an intellectual goal rather than a realistic one. Perfection means high set-up costs, intense effort and ongoing central resource to make it sustainable. The value the system will deliver is unlikely to justify these inputs.

An imperfect, perhaps even messy, solution that is well used will be far better than a perfect one that remains untouched. Paula Young, Global Head of Knowledge at PwC sums this point up nicely. She says it’s all about the bazaar rather than the cathedral.

Finally, when considering ways to manage your organisation’s knowledge:

  • Look at the systems you already have. Often, you won’t need new technology - Excel could be just fine;
  • Always consider the 80/20 rule – do you really need to do the 20% that’s difficult to maintain? and
  • Think clearly about what is sustainable and usable going forward.


Though it sounds like a specialist subject, knowledge management is largely about common sense. Some teams worry that they need to be KM experts to follow KM principles, but they’re probably already following its key principles without realising it.

After all, this is simply about ensuring that: (1) the right people have access to (2) the right information (3) easily (location and form) (4) when they need it and that they can have confidence in it being (5) complete, (6) accurate and (7) current (you might call this the "salient seven" test!) - this requires thought, planning and ongoing effort - but it is hardly rocket science and it rarely requires rocket science technology to deliver it either!

In this article, we’ve covered some of the basics, but KM is a vast topic covered by academia and the management press. There’s much we haven’t covered, such as communities of practice or structured and unstructured knowledge, and there’s even more for you to discover via Google. If you’re serious about KM, use what works for you. Done right, KM is a set of solid principles, approaches and tools that will help you, your team and your organisation achieve its objectives.

Nick On has commented on this article below:

This is a really helpful article which gives succinct guidance on the key considerations in implementing any knowledge management system. Successful KM is all about seeing the wood for the trees and the failure of many approaches results from a zeal for perfection coupled with an exclusively detailed approach.  Thinking about the broad principles captured in this piece should be compulsory for anybody planning a KM system or update.  The legal department should function as the custodian of vital corporate memory and whilst it is natural for lawyers to focus on the protective aspects of KM it is the availability and timely dissemination of information that is what often makes the difference between compliance and breach of contracts and regulations.