The technological challenge has only just begun
IT plays a significant role in enabling firms to grow and adapt, but it's not just about investing in new pieces of software, says Steve Billot
I recently presented at the Legalex conference in London, which was a very interesting event. I also attended the previous four, which were staged in conjunction with Accountex. Back then, so many of the people walking around were obviously visitors from ‘next door’, but not so this year. There were no accountants in sight and the exhibitors were also very different.
Previous years had seen the attendance of many of the main banks and a wide range of lenders. This year I was looking forward to walking around and testing the water. What was their appetite for lending, what sectors were they attracted to, and what was the mood music? To my surprise, only one financial institution had a formal presence – although many had representatives walking around. Why not, I wondered. Are they all now nervous of the market post-KWM et al? Unlikely, and not a message that they are sending when you meet them.
The really interesting thing I noted was that out of 95 exhibitors, 48 were IT or related sector businesses. This is a material increase on previous years, and serves to demonstrate that the wave of change is being led by IT services.
This is not a natural place for many professionals. Yes, the accountants have embraced Excel spreadsheets and we have all had to learn word processing and PowerPoint skills, but a lot of us remain two-finger typists. Digital dictation works for many, but again it is a single-use process, and few outside of the truly large firms have thoroughly integrated IT solutions which link all aspects of the organisation.
In January I attended the British Educational Training and Technology (BETT) show with the CEO of a national charity. I do a lot of work with charities as many are at heart a professional services firm. They frequently employ people to deliver services to people paid for by other people. They work in a regulated environment overseen by a national regulator which is becoming increasingly intrusive, the government wants to spend less on them, and the public challenges their motives and questions how much management earns. The media has fallen out of love with them and the rogues have damaged the sector’s once pristine reputation – does that sound familiar?
Anyway, I went with the CEO to look at how the competition was faring at BETT as the charity is connected with teaching. He had not been for a few years and as we walked around it became clear that the vast majority of the attendees were IT-related companies. They obviously have the money as the stands were all very glitzy, with interactive displays and state-of-the-art kit showing how the new world of education is going.
However, it is not all about buying in the latest bit of software. My daughter works in an organisation (not a law firm!) which has recently had a new IT system for part of its process management installed. As an enthusiastic 22-year-old, she was keen to learn and went to work anticipating a good day. I asked how it went and she was appalled. The training was too fast and pitched at the wrong level, and she had to go out of her way to learn how the system worked by trial and error. A few weeks later, all her colleagues have failed to use it and say it is no good (how do they know when they did not learn?), so they are either using the old system or their own system, which means the investment has been totally wasted. We all know that it’s the training and implementation that pays back for the investment, but do we actually check that is what has happened?
Last week I attended a lecture at Coventry University from Mitch Kowalski, the Canadian author of Avoiding Extinction: Re-imagining Legal Services for the 21st Century. Together with a panel he looked at the future of the profession, and I took away the conclusion that times are going to be exciting for many, while those who do not adapt will face a Darwinian future. As he said, ‘It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.’You may conclude from this that I spend all my time going to conferences and lectures. While this is not the case, I do strongly advocate that managers of firms should attend. You gain much more insight about the future from talking to others who have a wider view of the world than trying to re-invent yourself in isolation.
The conclusion this leads to is that the technological challenge has only just begun. Many firms can only afford limited investment in IT and this tends to be poorly implemented, so my message to managers is to get outside of your firms and look at what is going on. Then ensure that your IT strategy fits into your ultimate goals and embed it at the heart of your firm – otherwise you will end up with a series of disjointed systems that no one wants to use.
Steve Billot is a consultant at Symphony Legal