Law Office Computing
From Information to Knowledge
Do some play-acting with me for a moment. Here is the skit: You walk into your office and there, in the center of your desk, is a stack of paper a foot high; you pick up the top sheet and you see rows of numbers in sequence. The top sheet indicates that the first number in the sequence is 0000001 and the bottom sheet indicates that the last number is 1253567. You wonder outloud if somebody from the CPA's office next door delivered the wrong package to you. Sorry!! The pile is for you!!!!
Welcome to the information revolution. What you have just looked at is a list of Bates Stamp numbers. You have a one-foot high stack of "information" but you have no actual "knowledge" of what on earth it all means. Assume now that instead of just raw numbers there was placed next to each number a short description such as "letter dated 10/25/87" or "memo re: 3rd quarter." What you now have is a million or so additional pieces of information but still no knowledge. We can continue our play for many more levels of additional information without arriving at a level of understanding that anyone could equate with actual knowledge. Knowledge can be created from that mass of information but it requires analysis, categorization, synthesis and evaluation in order to create it.
Building a Knowledge Base
The pile of papers that I have just described will be familiar to the trial lawyers among you because it reflects in many ways the kinds of information produced during the discovery process in what we euphemistically refer to as "big document" cases. If I provide you with a million and a half pages of documents, each with its own carefully placed Bates Stamp number on it, I have made a "production" of documents that may in some sense comport with my discovery obligations. This is not the place for debate about the efficacy of mandatory disclosure or the future of discovery practice in the information age though they are topics that interest me mightily. I use the above example only because it is distressingly familiar and makes the distinction between information and knowledge pretty clear.
The distinction between information and knowledge has indeed taken the information technology industry by storm. If you are into IT and you like to drop important code words in casual conversation, the concept here is "knowledge-management." Most of the mavens of the IT industry are struggling now to provide solutions to the knowledge management crisis. Indeed as any experienced litigator knows overwhelming amounts of information in the hands of the artful dissembler can be used to hide knowledge rather than promote it. How then does a lawyer faced with such overwhelming kindness on the part of an adversary attempt to extract knowledge from the information? That is a very hard question and as digital technology continues to exponentially expand the amount of information that confronts us it becomes an increasingly critical one.
One of the ways of dealing with the mass of information is to attempt to "structure" it by doing what is called "objective coding." Objective coding involves the collection and organization of objective data such as name, time, date, type of document, etc. Much objective coding can be done by machine or by entry level personnel who extract the objective information from each document and place it into a database. Once that information is structured you are able to find out all kinds of interesting relationships. You can, for example, discover every letter that John Jones wrote to Sarah Smith during the period 1987 to 1994. The database will produce that for you in an instant but really all you have is just a reduced set of information. You can refine that information by by using software designed to search for words or phrases but knowledge will not come until you take that reduced set and start to read the documents. As you read the documents you will begin to discern patterns of information that may relate in some way to the issues that arise in your case. You may, if you are lucky, stumble upon some penetrating insight that allows your understanding of the factual or legal conundrum to bloom like a desert flower. And, as the hours lead to days and the days lead to weeks and the weeks lead to months, you will have picked many of those flowers and set them aside for later use. Eventually, however, as the trial date looms you must gather the flowers and prepare for trial.
In the real world of litigation, the flowers that I have just described take the form of paperclips or yellow stickies. In the more sophisticated shops the paperclips are different sizes and the stickies are different colors. In firms that truly value document analysis the paper clips are also multi-colored. There are, of course, ubiquitous and cryptic notes written on yellow pads, occasionally even with reference to a Bates Stamp number. There are drawings and sketches and rudimentary flow charts whose genesis now is dim or unknown. You have taken a huge giant step forward: having once been inundated with information you have now have sifted and winnowed the overload to a manageable set. But you still have only information. How can you build knowledge from that information set?
Information management is relatively easy. The Bates Stamp and objective coding do a pretty quick and easy job of that. Modern computer tools such as database and text searching software can do a remarkable job of organizing that information. But knowledge is derived not by software but by "WetWare" ---the magnificent mechanism that lies between your ears and those of your staff and associates. WetWare is the skill and creativity that draws knowledge from information just as a skilled silversmith extracts a piece of art from a raw chunk of metal. It is the instinct of the water-witch who finds a well in the desert and it is the intuition of the computer programmer who solves the data-processing enigma that grounding his most important project. It is why lawyering is an art and not just a craft. It is why we are paid so much.
My friend and former partner, Tom Elke, is one of the more gifted among us. Tom has spent the last five years building a computer program that implements the principles of knowledge management in the trial preparation context that he has developed over 40 years of experience. Tom was one of the first and most perceptive critics of the information deluge that began with a trickle in the early 70's. He lives in Palo Alto where information is king.
Tom's program is called Once is Enough. It is not an information management program in the sense that it is designed to allow you to bring to bear information management techniques on that one-foot high stack of papers on your desk. Tom's program assumes that a variety of information management techniques can reduce the hundreds of thousands of documents to a few thousand. That process is essentially mechanical and requires no human intelligence. It relies upon the incredible power of the computer to classify and reclassify, organize and document information. Once is Enough is designed to facilitate your application of "WetWare" to that mechanically reduced information set. The core principal of Once is Enough is described best by its name. The information upon which knowledge is based is entered into the system only once and from that point on the development of knowledge from that information is continually organized and refined by application of your WetWare to it. Once is Enough replaces the paperclips and colored stickies with managed knowledge. Watch out for Once is Enough--it will be coming to a firm near you before the end of the year. Beta testing is underway in several Arizona firms.