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Designing physical space as a knowledge management and collaboration tool

Posted/ 13 November 2013

Geyer CEO Ivan Ross presented at the 6th Annual Janders Dean Legal Knowledge & Innovation Conference.


Law firms are under tremendous pressure and are going through significant change. At times like these, firms need to use every tool, every weapon in their arsenal to set their firm apart. Space is a tool that is often neglected, but can be a powerful lever to drive strategy and cultural change.


You can tailor space to drive knowledge management and collaboration strategies including using space to break the growing barriers to sharing of tacit knowledge, and using space to build trust to enable greater connection and collaboration.


There are lots of experts out there touting approaches to design a modern workplace, and Activity Based Working (ABW) is the latest flavour. It is very easy to get caught up in the trend, but firms need to make sure the solution fits their model of working and business objectives. 


Until recently, law firms have been lagging behind most other industries in the strategic use of space, in part because of some significant constraints on how legal spaces operate. Status, visual confidentiality, the difficulty of eliminating paper and the fact that quiet working still represents the majority of most lawyer’s time, have all impacted legal workplace design. 


Status is the biggest constraint and space is a very tangible indicator of status. Lawyers in large firms have generally been groomed to expect impressive office space as a reward and recognition for high performance. Because of these constraints, law firms have shied away from adopting new strategic floor plans and work styles. Law firms are now starting to adopt best practice working: moving individual offices away from the windows, reducing office sizes to provide collaborative spaces and implementing some level of open-plan, although generally for support services, paralegals and more junior lawyers. Only a handful of firms have progressed this to senior lawyers and partners. 


With firms now facing a period of significant disruption and pressure, there is a serious risk that just as they start pioneering a more strategic view, the focus returns to cost cutting and a significant opportunity will be missed. Based on a study of large law firms in the UK*, the value of lawyers time is anywhere from 10 – 20x the cost of the space they occupy. So if you focus only on cost and adopt a compromised workplace solution that risks productivity of your people by even 1 or 2%, it can wipe out any real estate savings. New ways of working, depending on how adventurous you are, can drive up productivity without an increase in cost and even a reduction in cost in some cases. 


There is no right answer in an absolute sense – what you do has to work for you. In our experience, you will have almost as many views internally as you have lawyers. You need to cut through all of that with a clear view of your business objectives and desired culture.


For any firm, there is great value in their people acquiring knowledge and skills faster than their competitors, but there is more than one type of knowledge and more than one way to acquire it. Explicit knowledge can be codified and put into IT systems, intranets, etc. but tacit resides in the heads of your key people. Being less tangible, tacit may not get the same focus, but it is as important as explicit knowledge and it needs to be carefully managed, with space being a critical management tool. 


While technology has vastly improved the passive sharing of knowledge, it has reduced opportunities for interaction. Precedent systems, intranets and email mean there is less need to talk to someone else to get information. This is not a bad thing as it takes less time and everyone is more effective and efficient, but it reduces the opportunity for sharing of tacit knowledge where deeper learning and skill-building occurs, and reduces the opportunity for relationship building that become the foundation of future knowledge exchange.


Space can be used to increase connections without having to be completely open plan if you position those with the knowledge and skills you want to be shared with those you want to receive it. Shared offices, neighbourhoods, and spaces which create opportunities to interact outside normal groups encourage tacit knowledge transfer without having to go all the way to full Activity Based Working.


* Source: the Lawyer “Good Offices”, 15 October 2012