Knowledge Management Illustration

The Role of Libraries in Knowledge Management

In October, I attended the Knowledge Management (KM) in the Legal Profession presented by Ark in New York. Speakers were from a diverse range of law firms and corporate legal departments – diverse in size, geographic location, and practice focus. Attendees likewise represented a cross-section of the private legal industry. While there were many law librarians in attendance, they were outnumbered by those from I.T. departments, knowledge management attorneys, and others in high level positions within their organizations – law firms, corporations, and consulting firms.

As is the case any time you dive into the world of KM, one finds it to be a frustratingly nebulous concept which intertwines throughout an organization’s departments. With that intertwining comes the question of who should be in charge of it? Law firms and corporate legal departments have answered that question in a variety of ways. Many see this as data work and should therefore fall under I.T. Others see it as needing to be led by attorneys. Still others have housed this responsibility with the library – clearly the right place for it! Self-interest aside, the more I learn of knowledge management, the more certain I am that the responsibility and, more importantly, the strategic direction for this rapidly developing area belongs with the library.

Central to any knowledge management project is understanding the data that flows in, out and through your organization and the processes that facilitate those movements.  The quality of the data, the organization of that data, and the movement of that data are key to successful projects. Bad data in means bad data out. But what makes data “good” or “bad”? Librarians will recognize the similarities to cataloging – the need to collect the right information, in a consistent manner, and to funnel it to the correct fields, databases, departments. We understand the vital importance of taxonomies,  authority files, search relevancy, and platform usability. We also understand how to work with and adapt to a wide variety of users’ (attorneys, professors, students, secretaries, paralegals) learning styles and platform functionality needs. Like knowledge management, librarian work crosses over all practice areas and departments. At least this should be the case if we’re doing our jobs right!

The law librarians who spoke represented our field well. AALL members presenting included Marlene Gebauer (Greenberg Traurig), Stacy Pangilinan (DLA Piper), Jean O’Grady (DLA Piper), Saskia Mehlhorn (Norton Rose Fulbright), Scott Bailey (Squire Patton Boggs), and Brian Blaho (ReedSmith). But from hearing from the other speakers – non-librarians who are leading the KM efforts at their firms – it is clear that we must actively pursue this area as one in which we should be the drivers. It’s a natural development of our responsibilities in the broad area of information management. It’s also clearly an area that will continue to grow in importance (and in budgets). Whether your organization has an active and developed knowledge management program or (like the majority of law firms) is just getting started, it’s important that librarians step forward to make sure they have a seat at the table, and to assert our knowledge and expertise to lead those efforts.

Clearly, I’m arguing that knowledge management should be under the domain of the library. However I can’t emphasize enough that it is essential for the survival of our departments to not hold onto to these areas with clutched hands refusing to give up tasks or access to those outside our departments. Knowledge Management can only succeed with the cooperation, integration, and active participation across the organization. We can position ourselves to be essential to the success of our organizations – but only if we take the time to understand our organizations and how we rise and fall together.