What is knowledge management today? Recent developments in the legal publishing world provide one answer – and the answer may not be what you think. 

Early in January, I was struck when Thomson Reuters (TRI), which owns Westlaw and other primary and secondary legal content, acquired the Practical Law Company (PLC). Legal KM professional know that PLC, with its precedents and legal updates prepared by very experienced and specialized lawyers, substitutes for much of what professional support lawyers do.

I can say the same about Reed Elsevier’s Lexis Nexis. For example, see my August 2012 post, LexisPSL – Automating and Standardizing Practice Support , which describes a product that I suggested competes with PLC. In it, I took special note of additional tools for lawyer such as checklists, forms, and calculators.

At minimum, we can conclude that two major legal publishers “are getting more into KM.” That’s true, but rather limited. The bigger conclusion is that legal publishers are moving from providing content to solving problems.

If I had any doubt about that conclusion, it was erased by a product and strategy roadmap session that TRI held for bloggers in mid-January. Reports from it make clear that TRI is explicitly shifting its focus. Jean O’Grady, at her Dewey B Strategic blog, wrote on 17 January 2013, Thomson Reuters Legal Announces New Strategic Direction: Content no Longer King, Shift to Client Centric Platforms. She reports that “TR Legal was evolving from a content company to a software company focused on providing integrated platforms supporting total workflow, collaboration and mobility.” Ryan McLead, at 3 Geeks and a Law Blog, wrote on the same day On the Tendency of Vendors to Release New Products and then Seek Publicity. He reports “Thomson now sees itself as primarily a software and solutions company, rather than an information and news provider.”

Those of us in legal KM should not be surprised. After all, we are undergoing a very similar transition ourselves. For much of the 1990s, legal professionals did not even use the “KM word”. Instead, we talked about work product retrieval and precedents. That continued into the new century until we finally realized how hard it is to find work product and to write, maintain, and organize precedents.

Moreover, we also recognized that “content is not enough”. We broadened our focus to finding experienced lawyers and finding relevant matters. Both of these have value in their own right and lead to relevant content. Of course, we were aided by the development of software that automated much of the effort to accomplish all this.

More recently, KM has shifted again and I choose “shift” carefully. Many KM professionals today focus on legal project management, alternative pricing arrangements, and process improvement. In my view this reflects more a discontinuity or abrupt shift than ‘evolution’.

Legal KM, like legal publishers, sees the light: content is only a means to an end. Even software is only a means to an end. The real end, the real goal, perhaps the Holy Grail, is improving lawyer productivity; is solving real problems. To use Mary Abraham’s words, KM is becoming a “force multiplier” (in her November 2011 blog post, Is KM a Real Force Multiplier?, Mary explains the “key to force multiplication is not to settle for incremental improvements, but to aim for dramatically improved results. “)

At one time, we thought it sufficed to make it easier to find cases (Lexis or Westlaw) or to find work product or precedents (KM). Today, anyone who supports lawyers, whether in firms or provider companies, sees the need to do more. The “more” is improving how lawyers work and serve clients. The “more” is improving how law firms operate as businesses. I think we are making good progress and that our progress will continue.

The bigger question may be, will lawyers see the light and embrace what providers and law firm professionals are doing? I have no doubts some will and some will not. In the 1990s, the answer turned out not to matter. In these challenging economic times, in these times of price pressure, in these times of profit pressure, I think we will see that the answer indeed matters.

[This post first appeared on the ILTA KM blog yesterday.]