Internet Based Collaboration
By Stanley M. Wasylyk
EXECUTIVES everywhere are pondering the implications of e-business for their industries and operations. For example, a major computer manufacturer recently announced an annual increase of 67 percent in daily revenue attributed to its customer-focused Web site.
It accomplished this dramatic growth through a willingness to aggressively embrace the Internet, integrate its operations, and extend the boundaries of core business functions to include both customers and suppliers. In doing so, it found expanded business opportunities and top-line benefits.
Changes like this are taking place in the competitive environment whether we like them or not, and whether we understand them or not. There is a clear risk of being left behind if we do not think about the question of what e-business means for our firm or company.
Moving Too Quickly
But there is a related risk of moving too quickly, and undertaking projects that will be superficial or provide little value. It is important to understand the whole problem and the nature of the value proposition before starting. How will e-business initiatives help us find competitive advantage? What structural changes will be required in our internal operations? How should we open borders to our customers and other parties?
The search for meaning will take different paths depending on whether a firm's line of business is selling computers, building airplanes, trading stocks, or providing legal services. Each type of business has a distinctive way of producing its goods or services and interacting with its customers or clients
Law firms have an inherent business model that is entirely dependent on the knowledge and experience of their lawyers, and through which services are delivered to clients in project-focused teams.
In the search for insight about the implications of e-business, I've found it useful to start by thinking about the core business functions that drive operations in law firms. My experience suggests that there are six high-level functions that describe what is going on.
They are: managing the firm, getting work, staffing work, doing work, managing work, and supporting the practice. Taken together, they drive an operational goal of exceeding clients' expectations. By our doing so, clients will be willing to bring new opportunities to the firm. This allows the business cycle to repeat and the firm to prosper.
This functional model provides a framework for analyzing the underlying business processes in each stage of the operation. We can drill in to each function to see what is going on, who is involved, what they are doing, how they are using tools or information, how decisions are being made, and how work product is developed. In turn, this allows us to think about how technology can help.
For example, consider two functions involved in the direct delivery of legal services to a firm's clients: doing work and managing work. In doing work, we are concerned about using our lawyers' knowledge and expertise to shape work product and solve our clients' problems. In managing work, we are concerned about staying focused, managing the scope of work, and assuring that we satisfy or exceed our clients' expectations.
Each of these functions is propelled by teamwork. In today's business environment, we find more and more that our own lawyers and our clients' lawyers are integrated into working units. The execution of the many underlying tasks involves relationships among team members that span our firm and cross into our clients' organizations. So, there is a general need to provide these integrated teams with the means to work across time and distance. The real drama is figuring out what that means and how to do it.
The analysis we did at Morgan Lewis identified specific functional requirements that focus on collaboration and the information resources that teams require in order to do their work. They included: hosting secure communications for all parties in a matter; working together across time and organizational boundaries; storing documents, thought processes, and work product in a common repository; and preserving team work product for future reference.
These requirements got us started by helping us focus on the problems we were trying to solve so that we would recognize answers when (or if) they showed up.Especially important is that the requirements extend the concept of teamwork beyond the walls of the firm, to include clients and other outside parties.
The search for these answers eventually focused on the use of Extranets for collaboration. For the purpose of discussion, I'm defining an Extranet as a state-of-mind by which we use Web-based technologies to extend services to authorized people outside our firm. For the most part these people are clients of the firm but in some cases they will be related parties or other firms.
We tested a number of products and found three types that fit our requirements well. There are three different products, because each one addresses distinctive elements of work flows or differences in the ways that people work together.
One provides private work spaces where teams can keep calendars, databases, documents, discussions, and other common information. Team members come and go according to their own schedules.
A second provides the ability for teams (or larger groups) to have online meetings where all participants are connected together at the same time. A third provides access from the Internet to our existing document management system. This allows authorized external parties to participate in document-level work flows along with lawyers inside our firm.
The distinctions among the products have to do with how they allow team members to work together - either in the same place, at the same time, or in the same work flows. What is common to all three is browser-based access from anywhere in the world.
Our experience suggests that this is work in process. The tools and our understanding of the best way to use them are evolving rapidly and I would not be surprised to see different approaches in a year or two. We have also learned a few things in our early experience that factor into our planning.
First is to expect lack of consensus about details of design and operating procedures. These are, after all, team-oriented tools and we expect that teams will want (and need) flexibility in deciding how to configure and apply them.Second is that end users decide how many resources to use so it is important that the products and platforms can scale easily.
Finally, participants in these systems will often be working beyond the reach of the firm's support staff and systems. As a result, there is a need to coach end users to be somewhat more self-sufficient than they may be accustomed to be. The privacy features of these systems can at least make it difficult for support staff to have easy access to do things that lawyers would normally want to delegate. The dynamic pace of work that the tools permit can also make it hard for lawyers to delegate tasks and require broader technical proficiency than they possess.
The changes we have made are not quite as radical as those undertaken by the computer manufacturer cited in the first paragraph.
Our changes are more incremental and evolutionary. They help us understand some of the ways we can harness the power of the Internet, what additional steps are appropriate, and what value they would bring to the firm and its clients.
The early indications are that these tools are making it easier for our lawyers and clients to work together across time, geographic, and organizational barriers. If doing these things ultimately helps to exceed our clients' expectations then we are heading in the right direction.
Stanley M. Wasylyk is the assistant executive director and chief information officer for Morgan, Lewis & Bockius L.L.P.