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Knowledge Management in Crisis Response with Chris Smith

Chris Smith

Chris Smith is the internal entrepreneur at a major New York-based law firm. He works with the firm’s lawyers to identify opportunities, shape creative solutions. His specialty is making knowledge management work, and he’s with us today to reflect on Knowledge Management challenges through the lens of our current global context: COVID-19.

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Chris Smith

Chris Smith


Pete: Hello everybody and welcome to Shared Insights, the podcast from BA Insight. I’m Pete Wright and I’m here with a fantastic guest. We’re going to be talking about knowledge management in a time of crisis. Chris Smith is the internal entrepreneur at a major New York-based law firm. He works with the firm’s lawyers to identify opportunities and shape creative solutions to their knowledge management and search needs. His specialty is making knowledge management work, and he’s with us today to reflect on knowledge management challenges through the lens of our current global context and beyond, of course, COVID-19. Chris, welcome to the show.

Chris: Hey, great to be here, Pete.

Pete: Now, I introduced this conversation with a nod toward COVID, but I’m thinking that that is perhaps too limiting. So, let’s start by talking about what happens to an organization and an organization’s knowledge management platform resilience in times of crisis.

Can you take us back a few months? At what point did you recognize things were changing and that you’d need to change your mode of operation?

Chris: Well, let’s go back to January. That’s where we started getting early signals of the news and things. We have our offices in the background, so they were catching early signals of this and talking internally about things that are getting ugly in the work environment.

So, we started thinking, and actually I credit my wife whose CNN viewership said, “You’re not getting on the subway anymore.”  So I started walking to work pretty early in February, which was good because I needed the exercise.

But anyway, having remote offices gave us a little bit of a remote feeler, so we could be aware of the fact that things were going on. And the collaborative environment in the nature of the work we do here, be it via phone calls or video calls or the email threads that are going on, pretty much made us aware that something significant was happening pretty early on.

I think a good three weeks before we declared emergency in New York, I pinged a couple of coworkers and started taking odds on whether we were going to shut the office down or not.

Pete: Has that ever happened to you at the firm, shutting the office down, in your experience? You’ve been there a long time.

Chris: I’ve been there a long time, and I have the dubious distinction of having been with the firm through Y2K, 9/11, Super storm Sandy and a couple other things that were less horrific. But yeah, I’m not a disaster recovery guy. I’m not a prepper, but I don’t like getting called in the middle of the night, and I like my systems up.

So very early on, I think it really hit home after 9/11 that for things to be available all the time, for people to be able to trust your systems, you have to do an awful lot of upfront work to make sure things are functioning.

The number one lesson after 9/11 is that for disaster recovery to work properly, you have to plan on not being there. You want your office, you want your coworkers, everybody to have everything they need to keep working while you go and take care of your family and get safe. And that was a really poignant lesson on that particular day.

Just a little background, we are less than a mile from the Twin Towers, and I live four or five blocks from the Twin Towers, so it was a very real and abrupt situation. That was 9/11. My systems, when I say knowledge management, and this is the overarching piece, is getting information to people who need it when they need it. So search is a huge part of that, but there’s also other line of business applications that have to be up and running.

Our overarching philosophy at the firm is that all information has to be thought of together. So we’re constantly, every system is flowing real time into a centralized environment and then made available through a variety of applications in search. This is accounting, time recording, documents, email; they all fall into the same place in process, according to permissions and needs from there.

So all of that had to keep working through these disasters. 9/11, we did not lose the building, although we lost access to it, so remote access and remote work became a very real thing. At that point, our lawyers weren’t as good as they are now for working remotely, but I pretty much taught them when they finally got back to the office, they had to get pretty good at it pretty quickly.

Pete: I’d like to digress just a little bit there because in terms of doing that work, training the staff to be more efficient, to have a greater affinity with the tools that they have available to them so that they can use them in all kinds of different contexts, I imagine that is building a resilience state that was not without its own challenges.

Chris: You touched on a couple of things right there. You said the word “training” and “lawyers” in the same breath. Lawyers are very smart people, but they’re very busy. If you say you need to take an hour to learn the technology, they’re going to look at you like you got three heads. So, everything we do has to be so easy to use that it’s intuitive. It’s like a Zoom or what have you. You don’t just want…

Pete: Discoverable.

Chris: Yes. Yeah. You want it to make sense. I think the significant flaw in a lot of software, in general, up until probably 2005, 2006, it was just too complicated. It was for techies by techies.

But the whole thing about remote work is really interesting because since we are a distributed workforce, we’ve always wanted people to work across time zones and across offices and across geographies, and we’ve wanted our systems to foster that. We wanted collaboration and search and availability of information to span time and place. That’s a fundamental premise of what we do with knowledge management. You don’t want to have people call or be in the same place to get the information they need. So, if we were doing things right in the late ’90s, and 2000, people were starting to figure these things out and work more efficiently in a non-disaster environment. That was the idea, and we have a certain, I’d say, proportion of people that really bought into it and thrived. But we also were aware that this was all optional. People could come into the office and go sit at their desk and have their secretary print out an analysis and walk them in. And they’d shuffle through their in and their out basket, and they’d work much the way they did a hundred forty years so from start.

Then you get Super storm Sandy, then you get COVID-19 and the option is called. You have to use this stuff to work effectively, and you’re either going to be pleasantly surprised or frustrated that you didn’t spend the time to learn how to use these things, or you’re going to discover some things that really would have made your life easier months or years ago. And that’s kind of what I think, not just what my organization is going through right now, but there was a meeting of all of the heads of New York Law Firm knowledge bands. We get together pretty much monthly for lunch. We had this meeting last week, and everybody was singing the same song. People are discovering things for the first time and using things for the first time, and that’s really cool.

Pete: It is cool when… It is just a little bit difficult to swallow that a catastrophic global event causes them to be able to discover new tools for efficiency.

Chris: Yeah. The big problem is awareness. You have to get through the problem, what they’re doing day to day and make them aware of the fact that these things are here, and that can be difficult because you’re asking them to leave the mindset of contracts and law and people, and going to the idea of how information flows, and how applications work. And there’s some people that don’t make that transition.

Pete: Sure.

You said, “Prepare to not be there.” So, let’s move ourselves into reaction mode, and now, we have these few days in March where the world compresses all at once. Talk to us about how you enter that mode, and what that looked like for the firm.

Chris: Really kind of boring, I’m very pleased to say. Emails went out for conference calls. I think, they did an in-person directorate meeting for the support staff in early March. That was the last time we were in person, I think. But after that, it was all conference calls and Zoom meetings. I mean, we weren’t in emergency mode. From a knowledge management perspective, I’m very happy to say that I wasn’t even operationally involved, but the team raised an internal COVID-19 response center that had medical and physical resources for the firm to how to respond where you’re supposed to be, remote working, as well as different practice areas, specific legal information. How do you advise your clients about how to deal with COVID-19? How do you deal with the new laws that were coming out? So, we did this internally, and, at the same time, external facing resources were being put up for our clients to see. So, all of this was using the platform we have in place. It wasn’t an emergency situation. It was just another kind of knowledge that we were dispersing to our team internally and externally.

Aside from that, my team is pretty much well. For the past three or four years, we’ve been about 70% remote working. So I have people London, in Texas, in Bangalore, everybody working together on some significant projects. So, it was very comfortable to have a morning Zoom to move on from that. The trick was just getting the lawyers on board. The first couple days of after the edict saying, “Don’t come in anymore” was difficult for the support staff, but it wasn’t earth shattering. It wasn’t like we slowed down at all. In fact, I spent last week reviewing usage and analyzing usage, and there was really only a small blip in the total amount of usage. There was actually some increases in certain lawyer groups in terms of the amount of knowledge resources that they were using. It was pretty obvious they couldn’t get to the offices. So, for instance, every closing set, every document set we have is digitized and stored. So, they couldn’t get to the binders sitting behind their desk in their office, but they could get to the digital.

Pete: The next question was going to be, what, if any, services did you find were strained across the KM organization? And it sounds like you didn’t feel that.

Chris: I’m so proud of the team that it was really uneventful. Everybody knew what they had to do there. The only abnormality was a couple of the very highest partners were discovering, for the first time, that this team existed and joined us to raise this COVID-19 response center and to create a special section for the partners. But we just jumped down. I mean, this is not a place for beginners, never has been. A former executive director asked to join us. You’re not coming to a place like this, unless you’re a pro and ready to deliver to these very powerful lawyers, and you’ve got a ways to there and be ready for that. So, we were ready and anticipating. The anticipation was the huge piece. We were just there for them.

Pete: One of the things that we’ve been talking about of late, specifically in the context of adaptation, is the generational adaptation, and you mentioned the senior folks who are able to come to the table and learn. Talk a little bit about how that plays out at the firm.

Chris: It’s very interesting, and I’ve done a lot of work looking at the average lawyer, the average age of the workforce right now is about 42 years old. This person who was working with Nobel in college. I’m of the generation before that. I was out of college before the internet was pretty much invented. So, there’s a certain number of people in the workforce that have that generation, and then you’ve got our digital natives that were born with an iPad in their hands. And so, we’re seeing a really large variety of people that have comfort levels with technology. And what I have to do has to span all of those people.

We have to make it useful so that all of these groups of people can share to the certain extent that they will. The one thing I’ve learned, though, is that you cannot make any assumptions about people you are working with. Some of the most tech savvy people I work with are very senior lawyers. There are also some incredibly tech savvy lawyers that don’t have a computer on their desk. It’s an amazing thing. They just have a line that understands the technology, but they don’t actually need to physically interact with it. So it’s a really mind-blowing thing to work with these guys. They’re really smart.

Pete: So, now we’re in, I guess, is it fair to call us in a chaos state, right? We are now trying to come to terms with what recovery looks like, what it means to resume continuity of business operations. What, if any, lessons do you feel like you’ve brought away from this and how do you bring about a new normal at the firm?

Chris: Great phrase, “new normal.” I don’t know that resumption of business as usual is something that we, or anybody’s going to anticipate. What I do think the challenge ahead of us is, certain things are working. You can see somebody, you can talk to them while you’re having a conversation, but it’s not the same as being normal. It’s not the same as the environment you get from the spontaneity in being in the same physical space as everybody else. There’s a lot of work that’s been done with creativity, the Da Vinci effect, and it’s in Crystal’s book, in terms of the value of having people with different skill sets and abilities and putting us in the same place. That is the thing that I don’t know that we’re going to solve unless we get in the same space.

Pete: It’s interesting, in preparing for this conversation, I read a piece this morning on the psychology of eye contact and, particularly, the power of eye contact for attorneys who use it as a tool and the absolute categorical deficit that comes from trying to do that work on zoom, where eye contact is fundamentally broken, always by a couple of inches that leads to a mile. Nobody’s looking at each other’s eyes anymore. How do you get anything done?

Chris: We really need a laptop that has the camera in the center of the screen.

Pete: That’s exactly what we need. That’s right.

Chris: We need to get there. I was watching, Microsoft did their build conferences this week, and they did a wonderful thing. It was all online, and Scott Guthrie was giving his keynote and hosting the entire 90 minute thing. And afterwards they pulled out and he’s wearing pajamas and dragon slippers. And I said, “Yeah, that’s good. I like that.”

Pete: That’s on brand.

Chris: So, again, not just eye contact, but body language, as well. I’d add to that. It’s important, and not just the typical negotiating board room client-attorney situation, but meeting in the hallway, passing in the stairwells. You never know what you don’t know in that situation, but how can we digitally come up with an equivalent? I don’t know that we can. So, it’s how we’re going to get there, when we’re going to get there, how? I don’t know. I could foresee easing back in and having office days a couple of times a week or having small teams, but even so, it’s going to be pretty unsatisfying until you can take the masks off.

Pete: Access to information comes with access to devices, and as more and more, let’s just say, schools are coming out saying, “We’re moving to single occupancy, no more shared rooms for the foreseeable future.” That increases the demand. In terms of libraries and computer labs, any shared resources are all but a dinosaur anymore. I’m wondering if you have any impact or if the firm is going to see any impact on that of the individualization of devices; iPads, computers, no more shared devices.

Chris: I don’t see that as an issue. We’re not bring your own device, but we’re one to one there.

Pete: Any other physical adjustments? Any other sort of planned adjustments that you’re facing right now, as you think about coming back to the offices?

Chris: Well, we’re in a big tower in Manhattan, so the elevator is going to have to be monitored, so we can only have one or two people at a time, perhaps.

Pete: Rush hour is going to be a delight.

Chris: Oh, well rush hour, that’s the next topic. People that are commuting, some people, several hours each way, is going to be horrible. They don’t have the luxury that I do. I live downtown so I can walk to work. So, they’re going to want to stagger the commute so that not everybody’s traveling at the same time, so the trains aren’t as crowded. Food service. There’s a cafeteria in the building. Even before we moved out, we stopped the salad bar, shutdown, changed to make it more sanitary. Office and conference rooms. So, I mean, we have a lovely conference center I worked for in the office, and a lot of those rooms out the chairs are packed together. All of these things have been thought through. The firm is also, even before we left, we were having some industrial cleaners come in and nightly, do the whole spray sanitation piece; elevator backs, doors, things were clean. They really made the effort to take care of the physical plant because you don’t want people getting sick.

Pete: It’s a daunting task. In terms of information management, though, it sounds like the lessons learned of crises past served you well in adapting to this one. What do you think you’re going to take away looking at this massive wall of fog that stands before us of the unknown? What do you take away after the last eight to 12 weeks that you think might serve you going forward, in terms of your architecture systems, build that sort of thing?

Chris: I think that I’d like to see some broadening of what we’re doing. I think we’ve got the basics done fairly well. I think we can build on the ability for the lawyers to modify and build on their knowledge basis without the help of the staff to offer some self-service there. I’d like to expand the environment to make it available to our client base, as well. So, we’re collaborating well internally, and it’s very easy to spin up the resources internally, and I’m sure that they wanted to share them with our clients and say, “Okay, here you can go here,” and have this partition available for them to real time go in there and search the knowledge base of new advice regarding COVID-19 legal implications.

That, I think, was a little bit kludgy right now. Our external facing resources are separate from our own internal. I think we’ve come a long way. Aside from that, I think if we can build on the awareness, we’ve built our mortars regarding that the fact that you can get an awful lot done sitting in your pajamas at home. And sometimes it may be a better alternative rather than wait to get to the office the next day, or wait to fly to Tokyo. Get on Zoom. Get on a chat.

Pete: Well, last question. What are you most excited to see your attorneys, your lawyers adopt that you never thought they’d adopt?

Chris: I love that they’re using Zoom. That is great. I love the fact that they’re not afraid to turn the camera on, which they weren’t for a long time. I really was extremely pleased to see the amount of time, particularly the associates, were spending on our knowledge and resource center on our knowledge platform. So much effort went into laying out and creating collections of useful information, for not just COVID-19, but for everything we do. To see people find it and use it was very gratifying. What I am looking forward to doing is, again, analyzing the types of usage that we’re getting post COVID-19 or post remote work versus pre. So, when you look at the type of searches that people are doing, look at the usage patterns, see what’s changed. What are people searching for? They’re no longer looking for cafeteria menu, but they are looking for benefits information.

They’re no longer looking for local things, but they are looking at videos about how to use technical resources, how to use a document compare that they never did before. So, that’s kind of interesting. What I want to do is analyze that and look at and compare that to the effectiveness of the lawyers. It’s very good metrics, as far as how lawyers, particularly the associates, reform on different matters. But I’m going to see the lawyers who are actually using these resources performing better in the eyes of their superiors, and they say, “Okay, this is a better associate because they know how to use these resources.” And they do.

Pete: No time, like the present. If they’ll do that, surely they’ll do X, Y, Z sort of a push right? There’s a lot to learn.

Chris: And if they learn it, it makes their life easier.

That’s the key. If they can get through this and say, “Okay, because I did this, everything is so much easier. I’m going to do this in the future.”

Pete: Well, this is a fascinating conversation. You exist in a fascinating space, and I appreciate you joining us to share a little bit of your world here, even in quarantine.

Chris: Happy to do something. Thanks.

Pete: Thank you so much, Chris Smith, and thank you everybody for downloading and listening to this show. We appreciate your time and attention. We’ll be back again with Shared Insights, the podcast from BA Insight.