Getting in Front of I.T. Challenges

[originally published in Law Technology News, August 1, 2003]

Law firm technology is not without its challenges, because the business of law mandates that I.T. leaders and staff do more with less. Astute technology decisions can generate concrete competitive advantages and improved bottom lines. Poor choices can exacerbate already bad situations. The margins for error are decreasing — and firms must balance innovation with the natural caution that arises in an uncertain economy.

Here are some thoughts for managing I.T. challenges:

1. Be an Artful Dodger: The good news: there are a lot of choices out there. Sort the wheat from the ever-increasing chaff of products and services. Be aware of nuances: sometimes it’s wise to dodge a safe choice, which may be expensive and less flexible, and go with an unproven vendor, even if that decision requires greater research and due diligence to assure longevity and stability.

2. Be Nimble, Be Quick: Savvy C.I.O.s focus on how to be innovative and nimble — choosing focused, niche technologies rather than the broad, all-encompassing “solutions.”

Time remains of the essense. Delivering new systems or services within a shorter period requires projects to be narrowly defined. Shorter projects can be knitted together in phases, letting long-term goals come to fruition incrementally.

3. Avoid Commitments: Another benefit to a phased approach: you can avoid commitments (of money or technology). But a caveat: I.T. staff must be vigilant as you complete each phase to be sure the overall project stays on track.

4. Manage Relationships: A solid relationship with vendors can generate the best service, but sometimes it’s time to sever ties. As the song goes, “Breaking up is hard to do” — but is sometimes necessary when the market has changed and your firm can be better served by others.

Keep a watchful eye on your in-house users, to be sure everybody’s kept in line with the firm’s (and your I.T. staff’s) ability to deliver new technologies.

5. Ch- ch- ch- changes: Be leaders in supporting the changes technology brings. Help other staff to manage that change. The future will include regular change, much of which may be relatively minor, but it can be fatal to underestimate the cultural shift required. The firm that plots its course and takes constant, gradual steps to that end will increase its likelihood of success. A gradual course will allow for the necessary training – of both I.T. staff and firm attorneys and staff – and preparation to make smooth technology transitions.

6. Less is more: Do more with fewer resources. The budgeted dollars may be the same but they are likely to be allocated in a more cautious fashion than in recent years. Low turnover in staff will require greater technological training of the I.T. team to ensure that skills stay current and ready for new challenges. The opportunity to create greater depth in the firm’s I.T. staff, in lieu of relying heavily on consultants or other service providers, is likely to grow rather than diminish in the near future.

7. Predict the future: Identify the technologies that are sitting on the horizon and prepare for them. This has been easier in recent years because firms could always hire the expertise to beat the learning curve if a technology is brought in late in the game. Chief information officers, technology partners and committees will need to make sure their crystal balls are polished up and ready to go. Law firms that can keep momentum in challenging times will find that momentum will accelerate when things improve.

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