Monday 1 September 2014

KM in two legal departments - a comparison and lessons

In the late 1990s Schlumberger and BP - two oil-industry giants -  launched Knowledge Management programs in their legal departments, hoping to transform the “lone ranger” culture of both organizations. 

 In a 2003 paper in KM review, my colleagues Vince Polley, Walt Palen and I summarised the approaches taken by the two companies, and drew out some lessons, which I summarise here.

Overall, both organizations took a technology-led portal-focused approach, with varying degrees of success. Schlumberger technology was the LawHub, BPs portal was lexpertise.

Technology alone did not provide the answer in either case, and both organizations made the mistake of over-complicating the software. High-level support was important in both cases.

Schlumberger differed from BP in developing a structure of practice groups to provide content management and local ownership, and had this structure been more aligned with the needs of the business, it could have been a powerful mechanism for promoting knowledge sharing.

The two approaches are summarised in the table below



Getting startedPilot began in 1997 with management support and two enthusiastic champions.Started KM after company-wide efforts began because it took time to gain leadership support. Turning point was visit to the Schlumberger legal team.
Initial challengesEmployees were technologically proficient, but biggest challenge was culture of independence.Merger with Amoco meant lawyers needed to work collaboratively. Launched portal and document management technology first, and intended to introduce knowledge sharing culture later.
TechnologyWanted to make LawHub a one-stop shop for its legal function. Results have been mixed.BP's Lexpertise is a portal, a knowledge base and as a collaboration space.
MotivationReward is through recognition of collaboration although in 2000 the performance review was changed to reward contributions to LawHub.Some of the legal teams had a salary component a team in Houston committed to a “post one, retrieve one” system. However no systematic incentive was rolled out.

Initiative launch

Schlumberger’s well-planned LawHub launch succeeded very well. BP’s “launch by e-mail” approach, without formal user training, was not as successful.

Schlumberger launched LawHub worldwide in December 1999. Designers believed junior lawyers would be the most active content users, and senior lawyers would be the most likely content contributors. Shculmberger held a series of eleven “live fire” exercises – one for each of the practice groups – to encourage buy-in from both groups. In each exercise, a simulated problem, such as “provide a best-practice Letter of Intent for use in Scotland,” was posed to small teams of junior lawyers, working in breakout rooms with live access to the LawHub. Senior lawyers had already populated the LawHub with relevant, responsive content, and they participated in the exercises as observers.)

The exercises were a terrific success. In one breakout group, a mid-level lawyer with eight years of experience and who had been recognized as a highflier, said, “If I had known this material was here three weeks ago, it would have saved me four days work.” The senior lawyers were taken aback by the enthusiasm, particularly from people like the highly-respected junior lawyer.

BP’s Lexpertise had two launches to progressively larger groups, then launched to the entire legal community in August 2001.

BP had intended to introduce Lexpertise at a worldwide legal conference in Budapest; unfortunately this conference was cancelled during a round of cost cutting. Instead, it was rolled out through e-mail, including a context-setting video recorded by BP’s chief counsel. All lawyers in the BP group were sent this email, and told that they had been enrolled into Lexpertise.

While the initial intention had been to provide training, an unintended and perhaps mistaken feeling developed that “this is so simple they will not need to be trained.” This wasn’t the case, and the lack of an accompanying training package delayed users getting up to speed, and also meant that users skill sets varied widely at any given time). Training was eventually provided either through Microsoft Netmeeting or by local champions at each of the main legal offices.

Lessons from the two implementations

  • Focusing on technology can be dangerous, but ignoring it can be fatal. 
  • Culture is key, especially where the key aptitudes for KM (e.g. team based structure and explicit performance measurement) are weak, difficult to employ, or simply lacking. Both BP and Schlumberger have terrific technological solutions and highly adept employees. Nevertheless they were only just beginning to develop a knowledge-sharing culture more than two years after deployment
  • Keep the technology simple for users who are not technologists, such as lawyers. 
  • Success requires support from the highest levels in the company. 
  • Burn some bridges. Part of Schlumberger’s success in making the LawHub a daily tool came from discarding e-mail bulletin boards and distributing all department announcements through threaded discussion. The LawHub became the only place to go for departmental management issues. 
  • Align the knowledge sharing with company structures. BP was somewhat successful, but the Schlumberger practice groups were not aligned with the business units, and business managers saw involvement in the practice groups as not directly related to “real work.”

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