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Standards and structure matter a lot. This article is composed of words that combine to form sentences, which can be grouped to form a paragraph. According to widely accepted conventions, these and other linguistic devices provide meaning and clues as to what is being said within or when one thought connects or flows into another.

Without that normalisation and the existence of language conventions, comprehension would be significantly reduced or impossible.

Language and knowledge

Standards have mattered in language for some time. We have been codifying the meaning of words for hundreds of years. While Samuel Johnson’s 1775 A Dictionary of the English Language wasn’t the first attempt to do so, it is one of the best known. Taxonomies – or systems for controlling vocabularies and structuring thought – are also nothing new. Organising books into subject order using a subject catalogue – a taxonomy – has been standard practice for hundreds of years. Indexes, both to taxonomies and within books, help us find what we need.

Between them, dictionaries, taxonomies, and indexes are the core of knowledge management.

Today, legal professionals must contend with much more than just an armful of books. The sheer volume of words they need to sift precludes manual retrieval. The formats in which information is stored are many and varied – documents (in multiple versions), emails, Microsoft Teams chats, meeting notes and much more. Yet every legal professional knows that these words contain knowledge, and it is that knowledge which is the blood coursing around the firm’s corporate veins. The better a legal firm’s ability to codify the documents it holds, the greater its power to index. So, it follows, the greater its ability to successfully retrieve information and utilise its knowledge.

This is where computers come in, playing their part in storage, indexing, and retrieval, and where taxonomies play a significant role in helping firms precisely retrieve the knowledge they require at any time.

The pain of going it alone

At present, we often see law firms doing their own thing when it comes to taxonomies. They will have their own way of structuring the corporate knowledge embedded within their documents. There are several disadvantages to the approach.

Vendor-provided knowledge management solutions require a certain amount of customisation to dovetail into the firm’s way of doing things. As time rolls on, the in-house standards will need to be maintained and developed, with software adjusted accordingly. A mish-mash of taxonomies could be used, requiring people to select appropriate terms from several on offer.

The professionals working in law firms will learn how things function, but if they move jobs, they’ll have to learn a new system. Similarly, new hires will need to be trained and supported. Perhaps they’ll spend weeks or longer asking colleagues, “where do I find….” or “how do I search for…..”.

Both factors mean the firm invests considerable money and time to ensure its knowledge management systems are efficient. This is time and money that can’t be spent on servicing customers, and it affects the bottom line because it reduces the availability of billable hours.

Setting the standard for standards

It doesn’t have to be like that. What if there was a standardised way for law firms to structure, organise and utilise their knowledge? One where the taxonomy is shared between firms so that software solutions don’t have to be tweaked to fit and the learning curve for new hires is minimised. There is a move towards this kind of standardisation. At the moment, it is small, concentrated among just a few larger firms, but the momentum is growing, not least because the firms involved can see real benefits.

For such a system to be helpful across the whole sector, it needs not to be owned and developed by any particular practising law firm but rather by an external body which has the technical expertise to build and maintain the taxonomy and the commitment to be in this game for the long haul.

A system like this presents considerable advantages. There’s no need for new hires to learn a new system when they change jobs, and there’s no need for existing team members to provide fine-grained support on how to find things. The software used should – if the vendor is doing its job correctly – update as the vocabulary does, giving firms access to all the latest revisions in taxonomy. The software should also be able to accommodate firms’ nuances of taxonomy, likely to be minor in the bigger scheme of things but vital to a firm’s focus. So firms can get the best of both worlds.  

There are more extended-term benefits to a standardised taxonomy, too – such as when firms might merge for good or collaborate on larger projects. The integration process should be much easier with a shared taxonomy than without one.

Making metadata and tags work for your firm

In the end, language is everything. All this talk of dictionaries, indexes, taxonomies, search, retrieval and knowledge management – boils down to one thing: there are inherent advantages in using language most efficiently, and standardising taxonomy is a huge step in the right direction.

Knowledge is the beating heart of all successful organizations. Putting it to work effectively yields the edge that every business requires. Explore the knowledge opportunity in our updated Making Knowledge Work research report.

This article first appeared on Artificial Lawyer

About the author

Sam Grange