The knowledge supply chain is broken
In November 2020, cargo ships began to congregate off Los Angeles and Long Beach in numbers never seen before. U.S. ports have been unable to keep pace with demand for imported consumer goods, driven by closures and economic stimulus measures. A supply chain crisis had begun.
Today, in addition to dysfunctional logistics, we face another supply and demand crisis: a breakdown in the knowledge supply chain. Professionals in law, medicine and education are seeing increased demand and their employers are not finding enough talent to meet it.
What are the consequences of breaking the knowledge supply chain? And how do we solve it?
A FIRST IN NEVADA
Those with a legal background are likely aware that the vast majority of states imposed moratoriums on trials in 2020 and some through 2021. Courts were behind before Covid-19, but now the situation is dire. So bad, in fact, that the State of Nevada just did something I never thought I would see in my lifetime.
The Nevada Supreme Court has ordered what amounts to a halt to all trial proceedings – essentially, a postponement of a trial to a later date. It is not normal. Frankly, it’s shocking.
As the Washington Post illustrates in heartbreaking detail, society suffers when the wheels of justice stop turning. The defendants live with charges that render them unemployable. Family members of murder victims are anxiously waiting for the suspects to stand trial. Suspected criminals are released, as they cannot be held indefinitely without trial.
Justice, not just in Nevada, but across the country, is beginning to resemble the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Crates idle in the ocean; the backlog stretches beyond the horizon. Everyone is stressed and overwhelmed, from lawyers and experts to judges, clerks, court staff and mediators. Lawyers do something they rarely do: turn down good work.
A shortage of talent in the legal profession has only exacerbated the situation. “Overstretched Big Law Can’t Find Enough Lawyers With Rising Demand,” headlines a December 2021 Bloomberg headline. Subsequent data shows that in the first nine months of 2021, “Big Law” revenue increased by 14.7%, prices by 6.5%, demand by 6.6% and productivity by 6.1%. But the staff? Up just 0.7%.
IT’S NOT JUST THE LAW
In this context, other breaks in the knowledge supply chain are becoming increasingly serious. In medicine and education, for example, outages, backlogs, and talent shortages hurt society.
Seattle-based University of Washington Health System reported a backlog of 18,000 surgeries and procedures in December. People awaiting their procedures – whether for a lung diagnosis or a knee replacement – are likely to suffer greatly, withdraw from the workforce or turn to narcotics and sketchy alternatives for relief. The United States is not unique in this regard. The UK’s Nation Health Service (NHS) has a waiting list of six million for elective procedures, around one in nine citizens.
The teacher shortage in the United States is arguably more dangerous than any other breakdown in the knowledge supply chain. A RAND survey in early 2021 found that one in four teachers were likely to quit their job and leave the profession by the end of the school year. Meanwhile, analysts continue to detect “learning gaps” as students remain behind in math and reading, especially in majority-black schools.
States see less interest in the teaching profession. Missouri, says PBS, has reported a 25% drop in the number of people enrolled in its teacher preparation programs, while the annual teacher turnover rate is 11%. Not only are we facing a shortage of key knowledge workers, but we are losing the people who can train more of them.
No wonder lawyers, doctors and teachers all report high levels of burnout and mental health issues. In a knowledge supply chain, the cost of high demand and insufficient supply is to keep people working at an unsustainable pace. They and the people they serve – all of us – suffer the consequences.
REPAIR THE FAILURE
What will it take to fix the knowledge supply chain? In the short term, organizations will use technology to improve productivity and reduce stress.
Law firms are further modernizing and digitizing case management systems. Healthcare organizations rely more on telehealth and are even turning to robotics to catch up. Revamped teacher training and technology will likely emphasize efficiency and automation. These professionals must reserve their time for tasks that no machine can perform.
That said, efforts to make knowledge workers more productive could backfire if they lead to further losses in work-life balance. Organizations need to hire more people and pay better salaries, especially for teachers, and invest more in mental health support, childcare allowances and time off. Otherwise, entire knowledge supply chains, such as the teaching profession, will lose talent to other supply chains.
A CONSTRUCTION FOR OUR AGE
It is surprising to find similar challenges among lawyers, health care providers and teachers, despite the difference in their jobs. If we looked beyond these three professions, I suspect we would find more breaks in the knowledge supply chain. That’s why it’s a useful construct. The forces that have led to a backlog in trials, surgeries and learning are not isolated to an industry but shared by a society.
Everything from education policy and funding for social services to penal reform and policing to immigration and health care regulation can influence what our knowledge supply chains will look like. in 10 or 20 years. Let’s not assume that these supply chains will thrive.
Like freighters off the coast of California, knowledge workers left adrift by society can have unintended consequences for their workplaces, their communities, and our political system. The health of our society depends on solving the broken knowledge supply chain.
Ryan Anderson is the founder and CEO of Filevine, a project management, collaboration, and legal case management tool for attorneys.