The STP Group recently acquired Knowliah in a deal that should give wind into its operational scale-up. Shortly after, I met its founder, Hans Van Heghe; however, he and his team were still deeply involved in the integration process.
(as an interlude to the uninitiated, Knowliah helps corporate legal departments - CLDs - navigate and thrive in the age of digitalization of knowledge and information)
Fast forward some weeks, and Hans was too kind to volunteer his time for a short chat.
We discussed Knowliah’s approach to solving information complexity product development and challenges inherent to CLDs. The “JERI,” their forward-looking approach to managing and using information, made a particular impression as, in my humble view, paramount for the contemporary counsels’ work.
(also, I had to touch a bit on building products as someone deeply interested in SaaS and business development)
I hope you enjoy Hans’s thoughts as much as I did; without further ado, ladies and gentlemen: -
a mathematician interested in psychology and human behavior
A not-so-typical engineer & Knowliah
Q: Firstly, would you please introduce yourself, Knowliah, and your mission for the uninitiated?
Hans Van Heghe: Certainly; to start with myself, I am an engineer, computer scientist, and mathematician. I have also been the President of the Engineers Association in Belgium and am deeply interested in psychology and human behavior. Due to those interests, I've been told that I am not a "typical" engineer.
For the last 25 years, my interests have shaped my work. Therefore, when I started Knowliah in 1999, I was mainly driven by the ambition to develop a novel platform and method of managing information. Please pardon a bit of the industrial jargon; to put it briefly, I didn't want to use relational databases or tree structures. Our vision ultimately brought us to a cognitive and context-driven object-oriented information management method.
The main point and benefit of such a method is that it serves "Just Enough Right Information" (or "JERI," as we dubbed it for brevity). The information from it is contextual and relevant to your present work and helps you swim (or even surf) through informational tides.
Once we were happy with the core of the method, we built ancillary functions around it: repositories, document management, document generation, search, and advanced case management (to name some). Any data points or documents in the system become a part of the context and enable users to reach their goals accordingly.
Think of context as the glue that ties it all together.
Q: Your early inspirations were cognitive psychology and associative thinking. How did these branches influence your ideas, thinking, and concepts?
HVH: These fields helped me understand how people pile, discover, archive, and use information, as well as its actual value.
What’s the information worth to you?
Simply, the value of information is not in collecting but in reusing it. Similarly, the importance of knowledge management is in reusing said knowledge rather than sharing it. In other words, hundreds of people could share knowledge and information, but there is no value creation if nobody uses that knowledge. The whole point is then lost.
So, when I teach my classes in knowledge and information management programs, one of my openings is that I don’t care about sharing knowledge and information.
what is wrong with how we use info today
Yes, it’s exaggerated as sharing is still a prerequisite, but not THE step that creates value. Using knowledge is what pushes the needle.
Then comes another realization that I like to quote: Organizations should pursue evolution rather than change management. The latter implies a one-off change, but the journey never ends there. Hence, I prefer “adaptability,” which observes “change” as a constant rather than a single event.
Q: You’ve mentioned your goal was to revolutionize how people find, think about, and reuse information. What does that mean, practically? What is wrong with the way we use information today?
HVH: It is easy to be subject to tunnel vision, mainly when focusing intensely on a given task. Hence, we sometimes get distorted notions of information and its value. CLDs are no exception here; the same goes for every sector.
My utmost goal is to inspire and enable people within CLDs to reuse their available information, as that is one of the few ways to create value. We reached that goal by abandoning relational databases and trees in favor of the cognitive and context-driven approach.
Q: Have you ever seen a similar approach in other companies, namely one inspired by cognitive sciences?
HVH: This will come across as me blowing my own trumpet (chuckles); I yet have to see a product as adaptable as the Knowliah platform.
Usually, management gurus and organizational futurists talk about the impact of psychology on work and products. However, I haven’t seen it applied on the technological level. With the “no-code” approach, this is bound to change, and I feel we will see more of it in the future.
Read from right to left
Q: You are prominent on the Jobs to Be Done framework in your product development…
HVH: Yes, I greatly support the JTBD framework (firstly mentioned in one of his books by Clayton Christensen, a professor at Harvard Business School). It helps us understand what goals customers hope to achieve with software products.
Traditionally, people tend to look at the software development process the way they’d read a book in our part of the world - from left to right. This means they start with their ideas (in a vacuum) and create something that they try to sell once it is done.
a corporate counsel burdened by information
I prefer the Arabic way of reading, however. That is, to look first into what jobs our users have on their table and then try to understand how we can support and facilitate those jobs.
Q: What are some of the most essential jobs of corporate legal departments that you address?
HVH: If you look into corporate legal departments, you will note they mainly work with text rather than data. Hence, we developed our core competencies in the text domain by looking into CLDs’ jobs to be done.
And it is not about archiving and managing documents and emails. It is about “JERI” - the “just enough relevant information” approach. We ensure each member of a CLD has access to reliable information in the context of their tasks and organizational privileges, as soon as they need it.
Q: Would you argue that information overload is one of the main challenges (generally speaking) that CLDs nowadays face? Or was that always a part of their job?
HVH: I quite like a quote by an English journalist: "The evil of nowadays is too much information." What is the year when this writer stated that?
You're spot on if you guessed Barnaby Rich, the 16th-century soldier and writer. Information increase has been a trend that transcends centuries; it is nothing new. And I don't see it reversing any time soon, either.
There are many reasons for that. Generally, human knowledge is expanding as our civilization advances. For example, I graduated in robotics and could follow and pinpoint any relevant information back then. Fast forward a few decades, and I cannot do the same anymore.
Corporate legals’ influence
Another reason, however, is that we tend to cling to things. We hoard and rarely throw away. This phenomenon goes even more for digital goods, data, and information. In the context of CLDs, we need that information to stay compliant if a new regulation occurs. But we must keep the deprecated regulation, at least during a transitory period. And what happens once that period ends? Do we always diligently clean up our machines and wipe irrelevant sources?
The answer is "no, not always," and that factor also contributes to the exponential growth of digital media. It is easy to see why many feel overwhelmed. However, if we only observed the relevant information vital to your present work, it would grow much slower.
the most influential factor in the team
Corporate lawyers and CLDs have a peculiar task to manage compliance risks. Thus, they are inherently afraid of missing any critical information. Their responsibilities practically encourage them to keep as much information as possible. This brings us to their primary challenge: navigating through and finding "Just Enough Relevant Information."
Q: How did the role and perspective of CLDs change from the early 2000s to what is today?
HVH: Ten years ago, CLDs were regarded as just one of the "staff" departments. They were considered a cost. Today, though, they are one of the most influential teams of a corporation.
Just consider the regulatory explosion over the last few years and all the liabilities of boards and their directors. Compliance is more of a focal point than a decade ago, and top management kept notes.
CLDs have gotten a new responsibility due to the whole trend. Namely, they must educate their organizations' managers about compliance topics and initiate preventive projects where required.
Q: Have you ever been approached by a CLD planning to digitalize their operations yet wondering where to start? What is usually your advice in such situations?
HVH: Frequently, I see corporate legal departments that believe managing their contracts digitally is the be-all and end-all of contemporary and future work. This is just a start.
Firstly, many corporate counsels struggle with choice paralysis. They see lots of vendors and have a hard time distinguishing between solutions. I advise observing contract management as a starting point from which they have to set their transformation goals.
I like seeing CLDs move from early steps to the complete digital legal service ecosystem. The road might be lengthy (relative to their starting point), but it is well worth traversing.
AI - an enabler to evolve CLDs?
Q: Did you start applying AI within your solutions to CLDs’ challenges quite early?
HVH: I have considered AI a supportive technology for about 20 years. We then released our first AI, driven by natural language processing (NLP) and auto-classification. We have released a new version every two or three years, so AI is a core aspect of Knowliah.
Without giving away too many details, we combine nine distinct approaches to reach a consolidated result. The advantage is that our algorithms are configurable, adaptable, and don’t require considerable training.
a cyberpunk corporate lawyer at a beach
Q: Some views of AI are pretty sensationalistic (e.g., “replacing legal professionals”). What’s your take there?
HVH: I feel that even in the Computer Science world, not many understand AI. And that is not meant as an offense; it is a complex topic, and it's OK not to understand it entirely.
I also remember the CEO of a speech tech company where I worked in the '90s. He, too, claimed their tech would remove the need for personal assistants. Well, thirty years later, personal assistants are still essential in all industries while their jobs have evolved. Likewise, repetitive and low-value tasks of legal teams will disappear, but more valuable work will continue to come their way.
Yes, their jobs will change. They will need to adapt but will not disappear.
Just look at all the areas they are busy with (even without considering their educational role, which I've mentioned previously). They are responsible for contract management, legal entity management, IP, and legal operations. As the cherry on top, there's the compliance. Compliance alone will make sure there's always work in CLDs.
AI is helpful as long as you are being prudent with it. There are ethical considerations, yes, and more and more customers are becoming aware of all the questions they must ask about AI-driven solutions before jumping on board.
Hans Van Heghe is the founder and Managing Director of Knowliah. With over 50,000 hours of experience in the domain, he developed the TINK method and authored "Learn to Swim in Information" (2005) and "Knowledge Centric Management" (2011). In his spare time, Hans lectures on subjects of knowledge management, innovation, and the knowledge economy.
Ivan Rasic is the Law Firm Management SMB Director of Engineering and the “Sofia Tech Hub” MD at STP.one. In his off-time, he enjoys classic Sci-Fi literature, dad jokes, and making bread with his bare hands. His DMs are open if you feel like throwing a pun (or discussing a serious matter if that’s your flavor).
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Hans Van Heghe was too kind to volunteer his time for a short chat. We discussed Knowliah’s approach to solving information complexity product development and challenges inherent to CLDs. The “JERI,” their forward-looking approach to managing and using information, made a particular impression as, in my humble view [...]
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