Phillips Fox hunts for elusive knowledge

Phillips Fox hunts for elusive knowledge

In the pursuit of knowledge - and fewer research hours - innovative law firm Phillips Fox has shown the way for future KM systems.

By Alicia Camphuisen

In one of the first implementations in Australia of a complete knowledge management system, the Sydney head office of law firm Phillips Fox has integrated its diverse array of information repositories - as well as the Internet - into a uniform front-end with a customised browser-style interface.

Called FoxTrek, complete with icons of foxes and paw prints, the firm's customised knowledge management (KM) system has now been installed on 60 desktops across the firm. It links and searches the company's growing databases of advice, case summaries and precedents, as well as selected sites on the Internet.

Although Phillips Fox is one of the country's more IT-literate law firms, Kim Sbarcea, the firm's precedents and knowledge manager, still had to present a succinct business case for implementation of the KM system.

The bottom line for Ms Sbarcea was that Foxtrek should result in a reduction of time spent researching a case. Further advantages, although much harder to quantify, are the benefits from sharing knowledge among the legal teams. The faster the access to the firm's repository of precedents and case histories, the better prepared the lawyer will be. Prior to the implementation of the KM system, the firm was tending to exceed the quoted research hours as lawyers and support staff trolled through the ever-growing number of databases and Web sites which may have helped with the case. This didn't help costs when the firm was only able to bill their client for the hours they were quoted.

"For some information we were looking in up to six places, and each database had its own syntax," Ms Sbarcea said:

"Heuristics" ranks search results according to how well each matches a set of fields determined by the user, a feature described as being like "artificial intelligence".

Although there had been a corporate intranet in place for around two years, it was not suitable as a knowledge management tool. There was no link between the intranet and other databases to help lawyers find information across the network, and the information that was retrieved was not categorised.

Extending to 350 lawyers

Believing that "knowledge management couldn't be done without technology", Ms Sbarcea began the search for a software solution. Phillips Fox uses Macintosh clients, Oracle databases, and servers running Windows NT or Unix, so it had to be platform independent. The network is projected at extending to 350 lawyers and support staff, so it also needed to enact searches quickly from the desktop and be intuitive enough to meet various levels of computer proficiency.

Phillips Fox explored a number of alternative searching and indexing packages, such as ISYS Web and DynaWeb. Eventually, Ms Sbarcea said the company chose Fulcrum's Knowledge Network version 2.5 for its scalability, and because it provided an enterprise view of information sources from one application, and integrates with more than 170 file formats. Another useful feature, given that Knowledge Network was to operate within a legal context, was that users could read documents in their native format via an Inso viewer - an important feature to preserve line references in long case judgements.

The core of the Fulcrum system is a complex middleware layer, which in Phillips Fox's case takes about six seconds to track down database information from a keyword search. Beyond getting all of the right hits on a search, it was equally important that the information retrieved was relevant to the user, and to ensure this a technique called "heuristics" ranks search results according to how well each matches a set of fields determined by the user, a feature Ms Sbarcea described as being like "artificial intelligence."

If the user is not able to judge the suitability of a result by title alone there is a function within the network that summarises the selected article. There is also a Web crawler which traverses nominated Internet sites and returns the URLs of sites that hold relevant information. If there are no appropriate results at the time, the user can place a ProActive Agent on the network which monitors the databases and delivers information updates to them via email when new data is added to the network.

"It's our form of push technology," Ms Sbarcea said.

Customising the interface

Armed with a technological framework for knowledge management, Ms Sbarcea faced the task of customising the interface to its staff. Inspired by the company name, the FoxTrek interface has won internal support for its suitability and look.

While the initial design was handled in-house, a freelance graphic designer was brought in to finalise the interface and make it appear like a popular Web site home page.

Even the search button has generated discussion over whether it should remain 'fetch', or whether it is more appropriate to change it to 'hunt'.

FoxTrek operates on Macintosh clients (the new G3 Macs) and also incorporates a search wizard, which functions like a Windows-style wizard help menu for those users more familiar with a PC. The fox metaphor has been incorporated in the form of cascading 'paws' which denote different repositories including articles, precedents and 12 relevant Internet sites, such as the Law Foundation site. Users can enact a general search if they are not exactly sure where under which 'paw' to begin looking.

As the interface looks somewhat like an Internet browser with hot links, search buttons and results lists, it was not unfamiliar to the lawyers who would use it. According to Ms Sbarcea, the fox metaphor has inspired contributions from all quarters of the firm as users suggest how FoxTrek can be enhanced. Even the search button has generated discussion over whether it should remain 'fetch', or whether it is more appropriate to change it to 'hunt'.

Rather than considering such discussion superficial, Ms Sbarcea is delighted that her colleagues are taking an interest and contributing to the system. The closer the staff identify with the system and see their input taken on-board, the more likely they are to continue using it.

Ms Sbarcea is also focusing on FoxTrek's potential to transfer the tacit knowledge, which may only reside in the minds of senior partners, to the younger generation of lawyers. One approach is the mentor system, where a junior lawyer assists a senior lawyer and transfers case notes and other background information to the system.

Inevitably, convincing staff to contribute their knowledge is an ongoing obstacle. Ms Sbarcea said staff should see FoxTrek as an opportunity to share information, rather than sacrificing that advantage to others. While she briefly entertained the notion of linking contributions to FoxTrek to salary bonuses, Ms Sbarcea abandoned this in favour of a psychological tactic she termed "ego surfing".

Lawyers like to be popular. So, information contributed to Foxtrek which finds favour results in a listing on the "cool knowledge" directory on the interface. A listing here results in credits for the staff member.

At the same time, the firm has employed an auditing facility to monitor how often and by whom specific resources are accessed. In this way, Ms Sbarcea hoped that management could tell what data was in hot demand and be sure that these resources remained current.

The second stage of the implementation scheduled for August involves extending the network to include 30 users in the firm's human resources and financial services sections and tap into their respective databases.

While a convincing business case was important for the development of FoxTrek, for Ms Sbarcea, it is integral to the apparent success of the firm's knowledge management system. "You need evangelists, you need passion and the top management have got to be behind it."

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