A long time ago, I argued that social technologies make most difference when they start by meeting real needs that people have. I still think that is true, and I am beginning to wonder if the same is true for other types of technology too. A few things over the past week have brought some threads together for me.
Joanna Goodman wrote a very good overview of the state of legal IT and innovation in the Law Society Gazette. Embedded in the middle of the article was this short statement:
Firms are focusing on innovation because legal IT is getting a lot of attention at the moment and they are looking for opportunities to use technology as a differentiator.
I am not so sure that technology alone can be a differentiator, except for a short time, especially as firms generally have to buy in systems and expertise (which is therefore likely to be available to everyone else on the same terms). When firms mix technology with something unique that they have (the knowledge of their people, for example) then there is a possibility of differentiation. I posted a couple of tweets suggesting my reservations (within the scope of 140 characters.
There followed a very interesting discussion about the need to consider technology and cultural issues in innovation, sparked also by a couple of observations by Charles Christian. (The whole thing can be seen on Storify.) In the end, I was persuaded by Joanna’s argument that technology is too important (and moving at too fast a pace) to be left to one side while firms deal with people and cultural issues.
Today, two excellent blog posts have made me return to the question of the balance between people and technology.
Julian Summerhayes, writing about “the broken law firm”, suggests that firms have never been particularly good at considering people issues:
As someone who’s worked in the business a long time, I’ve witnessed countless changes. Mostly these have been technologically driven. But what I’ve not witnessed is any attention being paid to the soft stuff. At this stage I’m reminded of what Tom Peters has been banging on about for about 40 years: Hard is Soft. Soft is Hard. In other words, focusing on the numbers is easy. The other 101 soft stuff is the really, really hard part of running a law firm (or any business).
Julian is not just concerned about innovation, but his point is particularly valid in that context. How many firms focus on improving processes or on taking advantage of the latest technology in the belief that these are hard options, when the really meaningful work consists in nurturing people (employees and clients)?
Anne Marie McEwan comes at the question from a slightly different, but no less interesting, angle. She has been developing a new approach to workplace learning that she has called Tiny Triumphs, and has written a long post on LinkedIn describing why it is important. (The post was first published last week, but Anne Marie substantially updated it today.)
Tiny Triumphs has a deceptively simple structure:
Eight themes and associated topics are explored across three phases:
- Diagnose workplace context (what’s happening)?
- Select, scope and plan a small workplace project – do it!
- What happened? What next?
What sets Anne Marie’s work apart from other approaches to developing skills is the fact that she puts people and their social interactions at the heart of work, and this principle then drives the learning experience:
…business processes are socially-generated through people, their relationships and inter-actions. These dynamic social processes are emergent (they emerge from what people do together) and they are complex – the people who generate them are diverse, connected, inter-dependent and adaptive.
I prefer self-organising to adaptive. People are not robots. Despite prescribed rules and sanctions for deviating from them, people decide the extent to which they will comply. They self-organise, acting alone (influencing / coercing others) and together in ways that may or may not be in line with what’s expected of them. It is therefore important to have some knowledge of topics like power, cultures (national, organisational, professional, demographic), collaboration, conflict, and how taking personal responsibility and organisational values-in-action encourage humane behaviour.
Anne Marie takes a similar approach to understanding customer-facing workflows — meeting (often undefined) customer expectations through the “outcome of relationships among people, their capabilities and how they interact” — and to workforce needs:
…work is changing. Operational roles are expanding and becoming more socially, technically and organisationally complex. What sort of pressures, for example, might fast-paced, collaborative, relationship-focused demands create for people? What might the issues be where knowledge is new, perhaps abstract and emerges from cross-boundary, cross-cultural conversations.
The issues that Julian and Anne Marie raise brought be back to the technology vs culture discussion I had last week. I am still persuaded that the future for law firms must involve advances in technology. (Those who hold out will become as rare as modern hand-weavers, compared to the successors of the 18th-century developments in weaving technologies.)
But, law is still an inherently people-centred business. As such, technological development needs to proceed with people in mind. When innovation is led by technology, and by people who promote technology without considering its impact on people, it is less likely to succeed than if change is driven by and depends on the interests of real clients, employees and others inside and outside the firm.