Skip to content
Kate Simpson

Size matters for KM

Knowledge management at law firms is about externalizing the knowledge held in lawyers’ heads. Because we can’t remember everything and everyone, we need to tap into a centralized system or repository as extensions of our brains. Think of Google. Most of us now outsource to Google some of our thinking selves — which grapes go into a Bordeaux blend? In fact, our smartphones now act as personal knowledge management devices or memory banks — people’s phone numbers, birthdays, meeting start times, to-do lists, and even interesting articles saved for future use.

Formal KM departments attempt to do this but on a much bigger scale.

KM at smaller law firms is made relatively easier, not because there’s any less to remember, but that we externalize our knowledge to other people and our systems. Lawyers know everyone in the firm. They know who to ask and where to go for expertise. Through face-to-face contact and maintaining these connections, knowledge management just seems to happen.

As it turns out there’s a reason small organizations are more connected and able to do a lot more knowledge management without a separate team or department co-ordinating it all. It’s all down to a Brit named Dunbar. An evolutionary psychologist, Robin Dunbar found that most humans cannot maintain more than 150 meaningful relationships — those we know, who they are and what they do, and how they relate to us. Apparently it’s something to do with brain size. After studying groups of monkeys and apes, Dunbar hypothesized that the bigger the brain, the bigger the social group we primates can handle. This number for humans (though it is more of a range with 150 being the average), has since been found in all sorts of studies; from some of the few remaining hunter-gatherer tribes, to the modern military unit of a company. It also showed up in one study of the average size of network that the English sent out Christmas cards to each year (this was before changing status updates on the day and shouting out a warm but impersonal Merry Christmas to your social network was a way of life).

This magical number is also the maximum number of staff that W. L. Gore & Associates (who make Gore-Tex and the such-like) will allow in one office building before opening another. Based largely on the car park, they create 150 spots and as soon as they see cars parking on the grass, they know it’s time to open another office. Using this magical limit, Gore & Associates doesn’t need the “usual layers of middle and upper management — because in groups that small, informal personal relationships are more effective,” wrote Malcolm Gladwell in The Tipping Point.

So as firms get bigger, formalized processes start appearing. Departments spring up to take responsibility for things rather than relying on the ad hoc and informal. Silos appear. Policies are drafted. Suddenly all the people you can say you know has hit a limit and you can’t keep it all in your head. Instead of knowing who has the expertise you have to use a system to find that knowledge and expertise. Then, before you know it, someone starts talking about the need for an intranet. You know you’ve crossed that 150-max line when someone starts talking about SharePoint. But it’s true — suddenly you need centralized storage solutions and a team to help co-ordinate the sharing of best practices across the groups of people that you no longer know.

Large law firm KM does well at scaling up the personal or small firm KM for externalizing knowledge. We now have access to constantly evolving technology that helps us solve these information management problems caused by our brains’ inability to retain the full institutional wisdom of the firm in our heads.

But that’s only half the problem. If externalizing knowledge was all that KM was about my work here on earth would be done. But there’s another key tenet to any knowledge management strategy in law firms: widespread adoption and usage of those centralized repositories of wisdom. I have been involved in user experience and design at law firms for most of my career and I can now say, pretty definitively, that not only has the “build it and they shall come” saying never been true, but that even if you build it to be useful, usable, and engaging, they still won’t come.

(Though if it is useful, usable, and engaging, people do tend to stay longer once they’ve arrived.)

So I am coming to the conclusion that perhaps this usage and adoption side of the problem comes down to that most fundamental of human characteristics: trust. The knowledge sharing literature states in no uncertain terms that it requires a culture of trust — both from a willingness to use other people’s documents and expertise, and a willingness to share your own documents and insights, according to Dr. Max Evans at McGill University.

And so that Dunbar number pops up again. With greater social interactivity in groups of 150 or smaller, some social networking sites are beginning to adopt this thinking. Path, for example, is a popular social network that allows people to message friends, and share photos. But this site is different because they have adopted the Dunbar number theory and limit their users to 150 friends.

There is growing empirical data that “many startups find that after 150 people the company becomes more rigid and loses the initial spirit.” Dave Morin of Path says: “Fundamentally, once you go beyond this number of people you can keep in your head, you begin to filter yourself, you change what you share and how much. . . .”

In our larger organizations and practice groups, do we filter or stop contributing our know-how to communities of practice if we’re not sure of the full audience anymore? Do we stop sharing when the personal relationships between colleagues are stretched too thin? How do Facebook, Path, Twitter, YouTube, and LinkedIn build in enough trust to keep us engaged? How and why do we continue to post and share freely on these sites? What might KM learn from further developments in evolutionary psychology and how our brains are wired to create greater engagement and adoption of our internal knowledge systems?

KM at larger firms attempts to replicate and scale the social interactions that happen in smaller groups and firms. KM helps lawyers cross the trust and social boundaries between groups of 150 to find the knowledge and expertise they need — whether through expertise location, regular group meetings, or centralized knowledge collections. We have worked out how to store and (possibly less successfully) retrieve large volumes of knowledge. But it isn’t clear that our processes and systems make up for the lack of trust that creeps in when our firms tip over the 150 mark. This is where KM’s next challenge lies — how to foster trust so that we can truly scale knowledge sharing in our larger organizations.

Kate Simpson is national director of knowledge management at Bennett Jones LLP, and is responsible for developing the firm’s KM strategy and initiatives. The opinions expressed in this article are her own.

  • Consultant

    Gordon Vala-Webb
    Thanks for raising the question of the Dunbar number.

    It is, as I'm sure you'd agree, more complex than just "150". Other things - such as number of office locations, of practice groupings, of languages spoken and such things as the nature of the rewards / recognition system - have an impact as well.

    One issue is that our email systems actually hyper-silo-ize our organizations. Marshal McLuhan said that first we shape our tools, and then our tools shape us. Email shapes us by dividing us into many internal conversations (if you're not on the distribution list or in the header you'll never hear about it). Social networking suites have an entirely different "many-to-many" paradigm which breaks through those silos (and can help reshape organizations).

    The other issue is about culture (of which trust is one component). Culture can - and arguably must - be modified for people to share ideas and questions and information across most organizations.
  • Peyton Anderson Endowed Chair in Information Technology

    John Girard
    Great article Kate. Interesting opening line "Knowledge management at law firms is about externalizing the knowledge held in lawyers’ heads." My experience suggests that KM that focusses exclusively or primarily on externalization is doomed to failure. I have seen much more success in connecting people with people rather than people with "centralized repositories of wisdom."

    I certainly agree with your comments on size.