Justice Canada

Vol. 10 No. 1

Table of Contents

Knowledge is Power – and People

Alexandre Larouche is the Department of Justice Canada's Chief Knowledge Officer. justice canada's managing editor Stephen Bindman recently met with Larouche to discuss his role, its challenges and his aspirations.

Larouche has been with the Department for almost 15 years. He has worked for the Human Rights Law Section, the Official Languages Law Group and worked in Whitehorse as part of the Indian and Northern Affairs Legal Services Unit. He was Executive Director of the Parks Canada Legal Services Unit for more than seven years.

What is a Chief Knowledge Officer, and why does the Department of Justice need one?

First of all, I'm sure you will agree that it is a pompous title! However, more and more organizations within and outside government are appointing Chief Knowledge Officers.

The Chief Knowledge Officer ensures, with his or her team, that their organization has the proper policies, procedures and tools in place to derive the greatest benefit from its collective knowledge. We ensure that the Department's knowledge management practices will maximize the value of our intellectual capital.

When it comes to providing legal services to government, we offer judgment and analytical skills, but our main asset is our legal knowledge and experience. This is true for many organizations, but it is particularly applicable to our Department.

That knowledge is in people's heads; in the memos, e-mails, briefing notes and facta we produce every day; in the Department's deskbooks and other practice tools; in the decisions made by senior management relating to law practice. The idea is to have people connect with one another, share their knowledge and make it accessible so that practitioners will know who to talk to and where to find relevant information to provide the best legal service possible in the most efficient and consistent manner.

This is why the Department needs to be the best at managing its legal knowledge, and this is why it created the position of Chief Knowledge Officer and the Knowledge Management and Law Practices Division.

Some refer to the Department as the country's largest law firm. Are the challenges faced by the Department in knowledge management similar to or different from those in the private sector?

Many of the challenges are the same. I am in touch with knowledge management experts in private law firms in Canada and they are facing many of the same challenges – selecting, acquiring and implementing the right technological tools; and getting their lawyers and professionals to buy into the concept of sharing knowledge with their colleagues. Also, more work is done through e-mail, which makes it more difficult to manage information and knowledge. Finally, they don't really know how to put social networking tools to work to facilitate collaboration and knowledge management.

The Department also faces those challenges, but on a larger scale. Plus, we are spread out across the country, and we are divided in a greater number of smaller units. This will probably require creativity and innovation to get everyone on board. Fortunately, the culture of collegiality in the Department generally favours sharing our knowledge, and we already have many people who are eager to participate. This gives us the opportunity to become leaders. For instance, when I spoke about Legal Questions & Answers 2010 at a meeting with knowledge managers from some Montréal firms, they were curious to know how we would engage practitioners from the Department and how much they would participate. I committed to reporting to them later this spring.

You refer to Legal Questions & Answers 2010. What is that?

This was our most recent knowledge management initiative, to develop a series of legal Frequently Asked Questions, checklists or other guides.

In the fall of 2010, we invited employees to identify routine or recurring legal questions for which they felt the Department should have ready-made answers. We received 82 suggestions, and 15 of those were assigned to articling students. We matched each student with five seasoned Justice counsel who will share their knowledge and experience on the topic. The students will draft practice guides which, once approved, will be distributed to all employees.

In the end, the Department will have new legal tools to facilitate the practice of law, and articling students will have gained new knowledge and expanded their networks. The initiative has harnessed our collective knowledge and contributed to building the Department's social fabric.

What are some of the other projects you are working on?

Our first priority is Justipedia, the Department's legal knowledge portal. This Web site will consolidate our existing legal knowledge tools and serve as a single national repository for all of our legal opinions, pleadings and facta, legal practice tools and models, legal training materials, a directory of expertise and much more. Content will be searchable, and organized by practice area and content type. The concept has already been piloted with the Department's correctional law community, and we are hoping to roll out the first version of Justipedia within the coming months.

Alexandre Larouche Photo: Pat Walton for the Department of Justice
Alexandre Larouche
Photo: Pat Walton for the Department of Justice

We are also providing support to practice groups – practitioners who meet on a regular basis to share their insights and knowledge on a topic, whether it's national security law, constitutional law or bankruptcy law. The number of practice groups is currently up to 27! The Department is now trying to make it easier for them to function by helping set up groups, providing training to the chairs, and launching a new on-line tool–the very first component of Justipedia–to organize and advertise group meetings.

Another initiative is the Knowledge Transfer Toolkit, which will offer a variety of practical tools and strategies to foster knowledge transfer and succession planning. We hope this will help managers and employees better integrate knowledge management into their daily business. We are planning to release the Toolkit in the spring.

Finally, we are working on making law practices in the Department more consistent. On that front, we are leading the adoption of practice directives to clarify issues around the application of solicitor-client privilege to our work and rules around sharing legal opinions within the Department and with other departments and agencies.

So is this project fundamentally about people or technology or both?

Illustration: Kamélélons & Cie
Illustration: Kaméléons & Cie

Knowledge management is, first and foremost, about people, not technology. It is about transferring the knowledge gained by one person to others so that they can use it to do their work and build upon it to create new knowledge. It is making sure the right information gets to the right people at the right time, but with the knowledge spin to it.

Some of our knowledge can be found in our documents – that is what we call explicit knowledge. We need to make sure our documents are in one location and can be searched and retrieved by the next person doing similar work. Here, technology can help, and Justipedia will provide the location.

However, much of our knowledge is in our own experience and knowledge – in our heads. This we call tacit knowledge, which is at least as valuable as explicit knowledge – some would say more so. There are many ways to transfer tacit knowledge – working together, discussing topics in practice groups, coaching, mentoring, post-mortem or lessons-learned reviews, brown-bag lunches and other presentations. Most of this happens already, and technology can provide us with new ways to interact, but the essence is to focus on people and connect them to one another.

And finally, how do you measure success? How will you know that you have done something worthwhile for the Department and the Canadians we serve?

Very good question! Knowledge management experts around the world are wrestling with that one. The literature does not really propose practical ways to measures returns on investment or success.

Although we still need to finalize our evaluation framework, we know we will monitor usage of Justipedia, as we believe the more users who search its content and contribute, the more useful they will find it. We will also consider having focus groups or user surveys to measure how useful they find Justipedia, practice groups and other knowledge management tools, and how much time they save by using them.

Good luck. You have a lot of work ahead of you!

Yes, we are quite aware of that. However, our initiatives are fun and exciting, I have a great team supporting me, and, above all, I know I can count on the cooperation of all of my Justice colleagues.

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