by Manfred Riepe
For companies operating in a globalized economy, business advantages come hand in hand with tougher competition. The pace at which international rivals close the gap on any competitive edge is accelerating. In addition to capital, labor and property, corporate culture also has to align itself with increasingly rapid changes in market conditions, thereby taking into account the ‘soft’ factors. In doing so, the focus falls on knowledge sharing.
Knowledge differs from physical resources in that it multiplies when shared meaningfully.
There are three levels of knowledge sharing: Optimization of knowledge sharing in in-house databases, optimization of communication between colleagues, optimization of contact with clients.
Knowledge sharing involves promoting a culture of active exchange. This is accompanied by flattening hierarchies and supporting a smooth flow of information.
At the end of the day, sharing knowledge means getting a head start and securing a competitive edge.
Knowledge is of rising importance for companies as it has long been regarded as a relevant factor in production. The knowledge applied and circulated within a company is a form of capital. But if know-how is scattered throughout a company, locating good advice can prove a costly undertaking. Well-designed and effective knowledge management is the solution.
Sharing knowledge can produce a number of benefits: New ideas emerge and the overall level of knowledge is enhanced, which in turn yield competitive advantages. For company lawyers, knowledge sharing and knowledge management can be roughly divided into three areas. Measures focus on improving the exchange of information
- with clients,
- with colleagues in the company and
- between the IT systems and databases.
Optimizing databases and IT systems
One aspect of knowledge management that should not be underestimated is the optimization of internal databases. Agnes Wallfahrer, Senior Legal Counsel at Siemens, particularly recalls the electronic search for contracts. Despite entering the correct keywords, the search engine was unable to produce any results – which cost a lot of time. And experience has shown that this tends to occur when time is of the essence. Problems like this can be solved by optimizing search algorithms and selecting the right keywords. Above all, however, improving a database’s content depends on consistent compliance with “scheduled maintenance cycles”, according to Agnes Wallfahrer, meaning that outdated documents must be updated regularly. Agnes Wallfahrer solved the search problem with her idea of subsequently adding a search tracker to documents. For example, when searching for a document, if a colleague discovers that a helpful search term does not lead to the target because a tag is missing, they can ensure with just a few clicks that the search term is subsequently entered in the Metadata. According to Wallfahrer, “this did not require any significant amount of programming, but produced a lot of benefit.”
Knowledge sharing with colleagues – changing corporate culture
Sharing information with colleagues is no less important. This aspect is closely linked to the respective corporate culture. Sharing knowledge requires a process of active exchange. Knowledge, at least within a company, should not be considered a resource to be fought over.
The process involves expanding unofficial forms of communication. When it was discovered, for example, that two colleagues at Siemens were not aware that they were both working on the same topic, a so-called pulse check was carried out as an experiment. Companies may have different designations for this process, but it basically entails holding regular brainstorming sessions with colleagues who present a succinct overview of their current projects. This pulse check proved to be even more effective than anticipated by Agnes Wallfahrer. Digitalization is a megatrend in the 21st century, but increasing digitalization makes personal interaction with colleagues even more important. Face-to-face conversations can trigger a ping-pong game of ideas: space to think outside the box, where useful knowledge is exchanged that normally does not leave the confines of an individual office or department. A win-win situation for everyone involved.
Knowledge sharing can be easy and effective
The advantages of informal communication of this kind are obvious. They can also be combined with technical tools such as Merck KGaA’s EVA Digital Workplace platform, a network of interconnected websites that links all business sectors, explains Dr. Marco Rau, Head of Team Strategy & Transformation, Group Legal Services at Merck. For example, if a colleague posts in the thread on Legal & Compliance’s Eva page: “Please note: new information on this subject! Anyone currently working on it is welcome to contact me. I’m happy to share what I know with you or you can attend an in-house training course (e.g. @DSGVO)”; in this way, the information is made available to the entire legal department on an ad hoc basis. The advantage of sharing knowledge via an internal social network platform: short, descriptive teasers formulated like a tweet on Twitter give employees a quick overview of a variety of relevant topics – in real time.
Knowledge sharing with clients
Effective communication with clients is an important instrument for client retention. That is why improving knowledge sharing is of fundamental importance for client relations. Postings, templates and self-service tools are helpful because they make it possible for clients to obtain comprehensive information prior to initiating personal contact. Regulated access to internal networks gives clients access to frequently used standardized contract clauses. “Clients,” says Marco Rau, “can be very different. Some want to gather information for themselves first. Others prefer immediate and direct contact with the lawyers.”
Contact with clients can be optimized with Chatbots, which have been in use at various larger companies for years. The familiar waiting loops used by telephone service providers are a good example of this kind of tool. The loops automatically pre-sort the customer’s special request using a standardized procedure which prompts the customer to answer questions. This tool is not yet used by legal departments.
Take employees with you on the journey
When innovations are implemented, companies must also keep an eye on their employees: When the way we work changes with the use of new tools, this also affects employees and their attitudes. As Wallfahrer and Rau explained in the joint lecture “Winning by Sharing: Knowledge Management & Transfer in the Legal Department” at the Legal Technology Summit in September 2018, employees’ reactions to unpleasant but necessary changes are decisive in this process. These reactions are generally separated into three phases:
First, the employees’ performance is at a high level thanks to their usual control over their field of activity. After being confronted by drastic changes, many employees ask themselves the questions: Why do we need this? Can I do this? Do I even want to? Experience has shown that this phase is followed by extreme resistance to the change. Only after overcoming this second phase can employees adapt to the new situation, accept the change and finally increase their commitment.
How can resistance be overcome? Changes are usually initiated at company management level and are passed down from there step by step, first to middle management and only then to the employees involved. The frictional losses that arise can be cushioned with improved communication. Flat hierarchies also help to increase the efficiency of getting knowledge to the areas where it is required for implementation. Knowledge sharing is becoming a key factor in all these areas.
Photos: © shutterstock.com/Ashalatha