Monday 14 August 2023

Should you be able to time-write knowledge management activity?

A common question from clients in professional services, legal or consulting firms, which usually operate a strict time-writing regime, is "How do we Time-write KM activity"?

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In an industry where billable hour is king, how do you time write, and therefore bill, time spent in Knowledge Management activities such as Peer Assist, KM planning or Retrospects?  Is the activity billed to the relevant client? Or do you introduce Knowledge Management as a separate charge code, and therefore treat it as an overhead, which you pass on to all clients by increasing your fee level? Or do you cover the costs of that overhead by the leverage that KM offers; enabling more junior staff to deliver highly billed work?

Approaches seem to vary, with some companies allowing neither billing to clients nor a separate timecode, therefore relegating KM to a "personal time" activity.

Personally, I think KM should be billed to clients. 

Knowledge Management should only be introduced if it is going to benefit clients, and indeed the whole purpose of Knowledge Management within a professional services firm is to "bring the whole knowledge of the firm to bear on each client's problems". Therefore KM is part of providing a better service (in fact you could see KM as a component of good business practice).  If you are providing goods to a client, then the costs of the supply chain for those goods are passed on to the client, and if you are providing knowledge to a client, then KM is the supply chain for that knowledge. 

By this logic, KM should be paid for by the client. The time spent in Peer Assists, After Action reviews and even Retrospects should be billed to the client, by the logic of "we provide an excellent service to you through KM, so KM is billed as part of that excellent service". Of course, by the same logic, if KM is not delivering an excellent service, then you should stop doing KM. Time writing in this way keeps the focus on KM as a means to support the clients.

Certainly the KM activities that provide direct and immediate benefit to the client; the Peer Assists, the KM planning, and the After Action reviews are easiest to argue as being billable.  Retrospects, which do not benefit the current client but which benefit other clients in future, are harder to argue for. You could argue that because the results of the Retrospect are not shared with the client, you cannot charge the activity to the client, and therefore you could bring in a separate time writing code as part of overheads. However most firms try to keep overheads down, which disincentivises taking time for learning.

Giving KM a separate time writing code altogether, and not billing any of it to the client, implies that KM is an add-on, and an overhead, which is why I don't like this approach. KM should be seen as an investment, both for the client and for the firm, and not as an overhead cost.  

Not allowing people to timewrite KM at all will kill KM, unless you can find a sneaky way around the system. Last week I was discussing just such a sneaky way, with a KMer from a company with no KM charge code, and where nobody would spend any time on Retrospects or Lessons Learned. However one thing they do, on every client project, is to assign a junior as part of the juniors' Development Activity.

Here they have the opportunity for KM by Stealth - to use the Junior as the corporate learning resource.

The junior can keep a "learning blog" or "lessons blog" on which they can identify and publish all lessons and good practices recognised on that project. This is analogous to the "commanders blogs" used in the Army, which prove an excellent source of learning. The blog allows the junior to reflect and learn, and through that public reflection allows the firm to learn as well. The community of learners can take a role similar to the "lessons learned integrators" but without the supporting lessons learned system.

Of course KM by stealth is not a long term solution, and should only be used to demonstrate the value of KM with sufficient clarity that it becomes fully adopted, which means it then becomes a valid time writing activity and a cost/investment that can be passed to clients.

However you charge KM - to the client, to a separate code or as part of Development Activity - you need to find a way to make it fit with corporate incentives, otherwise your organisation will fail to learn, and thereby learn to fail. 

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