Networked Thought

Most knowledge management systems are deliver on the expectations knowledge workers have of them. Tools for networked thought are ideal to develop the sorts of big picture thinking that needs to be part of a legal knowledge management system. The more you use these systems the more information they surface.

This article was first published in The Mint. You can read the original at this link.

Knowledge sits at the very heart of the practice of law. Lawyers need to be acquainted with a wide variety of laws — what they contain and how they are actually implemented. But given how complex commercial interactions can be, the range of laws they could involve, and the unique requirements that individual clients bring to the table, lawyers need to have this sort of information at their fingertips so that they can provide clients with advice exactly when they need it.

Knowledge Management

Before digital systems, practitioners used to carry around this knowledge in their heads, augmented by a prodigious memory or their own bespoke note-taking systems. But this approach to knowledge management is fundamentally not scalable and therefore useless to a modern, integrated law firm. What is required is a KM system that everyone can use — that allows one fee-earner to upload data in a way that every other fee-earner can access it, and derive value from it.

There are dozens of KM systems available in the market. Unfortunately, none of the products I evaluated (from the sophisticated, AI-enhanced ones used by some of the largest law firms in the world to the off-the-shelf open source products that anyone can spin up) really delivered on my expectations of what a KM system should do. Since they all depend on lawyers accurately uploading information into pre-arranged file-folder hierarchies with information duly tagged and annotated — the slightest mistake in data entry will mean that no-one will be able to access information they need when they need it. Not only is data entry in this manner time-consuming, it demands a lot from lowly associates who simply do not have context that the system expects them to have.

There has to be a better way.

Neural Thinking

The human mind is remarkable for its ability to make connections between seemingly unrelated pieces of information. It is precisely because we can make these connections, because of our ability to associate disparate items of information acquired in unrelated contexts, that human intelligence is still, far and away, superior to machine intelligence. Unfortunately, KM systems currently available on the market, designed as they are based on traditional hierarchies, actively inhibit us from making connections between data in ways that will result in meaningful insights. As a result, these expensive KM systems are nothing more than glorified [[filing cabinets]] into which information goes to die.

Over the past few years, a number of personal knowledge management systems have been built on the idea of networked thought. These systems encourage users to distill their knowledge down to their atomic components and offer them tools by which these nuggets of information can be stored so that they can be intuitively connected with each other. This facilitates the development of complex, well-founded ideas with minimal friction.

Since each atom of information is capable of being bi-directionally linked with every other nugget of information, it becomes possible an infinite number of connections to be developed between hitherto unconnected thoughts. And since every related thought leads to further layers of nested information, serendipitous connections abound. The more you use these systems the bigger your knowledge graph becomes till finding insights and developing new approaches to solving problems becomes both easy and intuitive.

In an earlier article I described how I’ve been using one of these systems for my own personal knowledge management:

For nearly a year now, I have been using one of them—an application called Roam Research—for all my knowledge management needs. Roam allows me to take free-form notes and then, using a technique called back-linking, lets me link those notes to every other note related to the topic that I have made before.

Since I have started down this path I have done all my thinking in this manner. I have used Roam to write academic papers, review draft [[legislations]], and even taught an entire seminar course at the [[National Law School]] using its networked thinking features. Every single Ex Machina article that has featured in these pages over the past year and a half, started out as an outline in its pages - and it is here that I accumulated sources, tussled with arguments and evolved ideas until I had all I needed to generate an article I was comfortable submitting to my editor.

Tools for Connecting Knowledge

The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that tools like this are the future of legal knowledge management. They are ideally suited for developing the sort of big-picture, holistic thinking that lawyers need to be able to do in order to develop nuanced opinions and thoughtful advice. They allow concepts across industries, sectors and practices to be associated with one another and, as a result generate novel solutions to the sorts of complex commercial problems that lawyers are called upon to solve. From personal experience, when you use these tools to review documents - statutes, case law and other jurisprudence - they surface nuances that would otherwise have remained hidden.

There is no need to restrict this just to lawyers. Everyone who deals in knowledge will benefit from the ability to store ideas in a system that encourages information to be connected in unconventional ways. It takes while before these new tools begin to generate the results I’ve described above. For most novices, the learning curve stays flat for a long time and progress often feels glacially slow. But once you have crossed this initial hump and filled your knowledge graph with a critical volume of information, the benefits become tangible and, very soon, exponential.

For longer than I can remember, we have stored information in files, folders and filing cabinets. Today, even though the wonder of networked computing gives us the liberty to expand our thinking beyond the traditional, the way we think about storage and retrieval of information has remained skeuomorphically stagnant. It’s time we break out of our path dependence and entirely re-imagine information management.