In November 2020, cargo ships began to gather off the coast of Los Angeles and Long Beach in numbers never seen before. American ports could not keep pace with demand for imported consumer goods, driven by lockdowns and economic stimulus. A supply chain crisis had begun.
Today, in addition to dysfunctional logistics, we face another crisis of supply and demand: A breakdown in the knowledge supply chain. Professionals in law, medicine, and education are seeing increased demand, and their employers cannot find enough talent to meet it.
What are the consequences of the knowledge supply chain breakdown? And how do we solve it?
A FIRST IN NEVADA
Those with a legal background probably know that the vast majority of states put moratoriums on trials during 2020 and some well into 2021. Courts were backlogged before Covid-19, but now, the situation is dire. So dire, in fact, that the state of Nevada just did something I never thought I would see in my lifetime.
The Nevada Supreme Court ordered what amounts to a halt of all trial continuances—essentially, a delay of a trial to a later date. This is not normal. Frankly, it’s shocking.
As The Washington Post illustrates in heartbreaking detail, society suffers when the wheels of justice stop turning. Defendants live with charges that render them unemployable. Family members of murder victims wait in agony for the suspects to be tried. Alleged felons are released, as they cannot be held indefinitely without trial.
Justice, not just in Nevada, but across the country is beginning to look like the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Cases are idling in the ocean; the backlog extends beyond the horizon. Everybody is stressed out and overwhelmed, from lawyers and experts to judges, clerks, court staff, and mediators. Lawyers are doing something they rarely do: Turning down good work.
A shortage of talent in the legal profession has only exacerbated the situation. “Overworked Big Law Can’t Find Enough Lawyers With Demand Surging,” a Bloomberg headline from December 2021 reads. The subsequent data shows that in the first nine months of 2021, revenue in “Big Law” was up 14.7%, rates 6.5%, demand 6.6%, and productivity 6.1%. But headcount? Up just 0.7%.
IT’S NOT JUST THE LAW
Against this backdrop, other breakdowns in the knowledge supply chain are growing dire. In medicine and education, for example, breakdowns, backlogs, and talent shortages are harming society.
The University of Washington health system, based in Seattle, reported a backlog of 18,000 surgeries and procedures as of December. People awaiting their procedures—whether for lung diagnostics or knee replacement—are liable to suffer immensely, fall out of the workforce, or turn to narcotics and sketchy alternatives for relief. The U.S. is not unique in this regard. The Nation Health Service (NHS) of the United Kingdom has a waitlist of six million for elective procedures—about one in nine citizens.
Arguably more dangerous than any other knowledge supply chain breakdown is the shortage of teachers in the U.S. A RAND survey in early 2021 found that one in four teachers were likely to quit their jobs 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 at black-majority schools.
States are seeing less interest in the teaching profession. Missouri, says PBS, reported a 25% decline in the number of people enrolling in its teacher preparation programs, while the annual churn in teachers is at 11%. Not only do we face a lack of key knowledge workers, but we are losing the people who can train more of them.
No wonder lawyers, physicians, and teachers are all reporting elevated levels of burnout and mental health challenges. In a knowledge supply chain, the cost of high demand and insufficient supply is to make people work at an unsustainable pace. They and the people they serve—all of us—suffer the consequences.
FIXING THE BREAKDOWN
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 upgrading and further digitizing systems for case management. Healthcare organizations are relying more on telehealth and even turning to robotics to catch up. Revamped training and technology for teachers are likely to emphasize efficiency and automation. These professionals need to reserve their time for tasks that no machine can perform.
That said, the effort to make knowledge workers more productive could backfire if it results in further losses of work-life balance. Organizations need to hire more people and provide better pay—especially for teachers—and invest more in mental health support, childcare benefits, and time off. Otherwise, entire knowledge supply chains, like the teaching profession, will lose talent to other supply chains.
A CONSTRUCT FOR OUR AGE
It is surprising to find similar challenges among lawyers, healthcare providers, and teachers, despite how different their jobs seem. If we searched beyond these three professions, I suspect we’d find more breakdowns in the knowledge supply chain. That is why it is a useful construct. The forces that led to a backlog in trials, surgeries, and learning are not isolated to one industry but shared by a society.
Everything from educational policy and social services funding to criminal reform and policing to immigration and healthcare regulation can influence what our knowledge supply chains look like in 10 or 20 years. Let’s not take it for granted that these supply chains will thrive.
Like the cargo ships off the coast of California, knowledge workers left adrift by society can produce unintended consequences in their workplaces, communities, and our political system. The health of our society depends on addressing the knowledge supply chain breakdown.
Ryan Anderson is the founder & CEO of Filevine, a project management, collaboration, and legal case management tool for lawyers.