James Gleick’s 2011 book, The Information: a History, a Theory a Flood documents humanity’s 5 millennia quest to define and organize various galaxies of information.

A Lesson From The 17th Century


In response to an earlier information explosion caused by the proliferation of printed books, 17th-­century writers began compiling  indexes, bibliographies, compendia and encyclopedia to “winnow out the chaff. “
Gleick’s review of the history of English language dictionaries reminded me of a concept I learned in graduate school about the differng linguistic approaches of dictionaries. Some dictionaries, e.g. Webster’s An American Dictionary of the English Language. are “prescriptive:” i.e. they advise on the proper use of a word.  A “descriptive” dictionary such as the Oxford English Dictionary tells you how a word has been used — exhaustively— throughout history— it delivers all recorded usages of a word. It passes no judgements. The definition of the word “information” is an opus in itself— an astonishing 9,400 words long. Or should the definition of this definition be shortened to “TMI?”

The Prescriptive/ Descriptive Dichotomy In KM


As firms increasingly turn to enterprise search as the next “holy grail” for taming the tidal wave of documents surging from their Document Management Systems, it is important to recognize that we may be embarking on a “descriptive” approach to Knowledge Management. We are not passing judgment or making a selection based on quality we are simply allowing lawyers search an ever growing repository. They can retrieve documents based on relevance, they can often filter based on objective “facets” of information. What most systems can’t do without human intervention, is  provide  lawyers with an easy way to locate curated results based on quality.

There seems to be a hope that over time lawyers will provide curation by recommending documents the same way people recommend restaurants and movies on social networking platforms. Are we wise to consider that likely or even desirable, if we consider the reliability of lawyer provided desciptive data in our DMSs?

KM’s Role in Professional Development And Professional Efficiency Needs to be Prescriptive

As firms are seeking both to enhance the efficiency of legal processes and to provide more practical guidance to associates, KM resources should be utilized as a component of the training plan. While British firms have deep legacy of “prescriptive KM,”  using Practice Support Lawyers to craft and filter and promote the use of standard documents, US firms have relied heavily on technology. While technology offers lower headcount and greater efficiencies on producing a KM resource, it may not be optimizing lawyer productivity.

A Hybrid Approach?

A new role for embedded practice librarians may be as KM curators, helping practices define, organize and  tag their best practice templates, checklists and model documents. These curated documents could be appropriately weighted to facilitate retrieval in the KM or enterprise search systems.

The Perfect As the Enemy of the Good

One of the biggest obstacles I have observed in various iterations of KM projects, is the paralysis and indecision that surround what I call the “blessing” of documents and ‘exemplars” representing the “best of firm work product.”  We need to have the courage and persistence to lead and make choices, knowing that we can over time improve the selection process.The important thing is to make a start at taking KM from a “volume proposition” to a “value proposition.”