September 18, 2003

Are You an "Enabler"?

An exclusive LawTech Guru feature article by Jeffrey Beard

Q: What do e-mail, PDA's, and blogs all have in common, beyond the fact that they involve computer technology?

A: They're "enablers".

So what's an enabler? Imagine something that just works when you try it. Something so intuitive that the basic learning curve is low. Something that you can learn its basic operation in 20 minutes or less, just enough to get you started. It's also something of vital strategic importance to attaining your overall goals.

With e-mail, you just type in the recipients' e-mail addresses, a subject, a message, and click "Send". For PDA's, you just enter your appointments and contacts, and it works.

Admittedly, setting up a blog (a weblog site) might take more than 20 minutes, but once it's up, it just works. I will say that the new TypePad service has made setting up a new blog the easiest yet. It's preinstalled on their web server and includes easy layout design tools. New content can be posted in a few minutes, and from any PC with an Internet connection and a web browser. It's a self-publisher's dream. Case in point: A colleague at my office asked me what's the easiest way to set up a new blog. I showed him the TypePad site and feature comparison chart. That same evening, he signed up and created a decent-looking blog along with his first post.

So, is this article really about any one of these technologies? No. It's about making your practice more productive, more efficient, while reducing problems and even, gasp, enjoying it!

I'm talking about -- you guessed it -- enablers.

One could certainly raise the point: "Well, aren't all technology solutions enablers? What's so different in what you're saying?" When looking for new solutions to problems, technology is often a part of that solution. And more times than not, it becomes part of the ongoing problem as well, if not even a bigger problem than the original one it was intended to solve.

For instance, take a look at litigation support software. Trial presentation software should be easy, like PowerPoint, but many attorneys need someone else to set it up and run it for them at trial. Transcript management and document databases should be easy. But to many, they're not. How does one choose among them?

When in doubt, my opinion is to go with the one that's the most intuitive, the easiest to use, as long as it meets your defined needs. This last point is critical - a dumbed-down system may be easy to learn, but if it can't do what you need, then what good is it? Conversely, what good are all those extra bells and whistles if no one ever has time to figure them out and use them?

Now if you're already a power user, this changes the dynamics a bit. I'm referring to the median in most of this discussion, as that's where the mass base of business professionals fall in the bell curve. However, power users don't just use enablers -- they run with them.

At first, I was amazed that latecomers and upstarts such Verdict System's Sanction and CaseSoft's CaseMap/TimeMap took their market by storm so quickly.

Then I took a good look at these programs, and the people who created them. Their focus wasn't on adding every feature that everyone could possibly want. Instead, they focused on making software that was stable and actually usable without an MIS degree. It was priced affordably and bundled with fantastic customer service.

So what set these new guys apart? They created enablers.

They understood their customers' needs and built something that enabled them to get the job done without intensive training. Sure, to truly master these programs, it still takes an investment of time. But I'm a big believer of the 80/20 rule, that the first 80% is the easiest to obtain with the least effort.

Many law firms can "enable" their clients to do more via creative extranets. From the client-facing side, a well-designed extranet is an enabler. Whether it's a simple document repository, a geographical representation of pending matters, a deal room, or online training, law firms can make it easier for clients to get access to mission-critical information quickly and easily. And by offering an enabler that most other firms haven't, the law firm has an extraordinary opportunity to cement their client relationships. If a client is receiving competent services with unique benefits that are cost-effective (this is not the same thing as "cheap"), what strong motivation is there for them to leave their law firm for another?

In the economic downturn, I've seen a huge emphasis placed on marketing tactics, and not just in the legal profession. However, one has to ask exactly what it is they are marketing, and why it's better or different than their competition. All firms say they are competent and experienced. So why would I choose one reputable firm over the other? Among other factors, customer service and cost effectiveness often play a critical part here. Whatever enables you to provide them is worth investing in.

So, when making strategic and tactical decisions, try asking yourself, are you using enablers? Is your firm acting as an enabler for your clients? Or are they still waiting for you to catch up to their needs?

Creating effective enablers is no easy feat. It takes a lot of thought and creativity to make a complex technology or process drop-dead simple to use. How will you know if it's worth the effort? You'll know for certain when you see a lot of people actually using it, and talking about it with excitement. Take bloggers: This past year, blogging hit the legal market (and the rest of the world) as a force majeure. I haven't seen this level of technology adoption and excitement since the Internet exploded in the mid-90's.

What else has exploded in the past few years? What has sneaked into organizations via the back door? Odds are, such technologies are enablers. How about instant messaging and file-sharing? Aimster (n/k/a Madster), seeing the potential, combines both into one service. Let's add Wi-Fi to the list -- making Internet and network access nearly as easy as getting a cup of coffee. Digital photography and CD/DVD-burning also come to mind.

All of these technologies enabled people to gain access, communicate and share information so easily and quickly, like never before. And it didn't hurt that many of them were free or relatively low cost to consumers -- yet another mass enabler. Quite simply, an enabler is closely tied to providing self empowerment and convenience.

Law firms have been interested in Knowledge Management (KM) and Customer Relationship Management (CRM). These systems have great potential for being enablers, but only if implemented correctly, including the inherent cultural issues. These complex systems must be easy and compelling to use or they won't be doing much enabling.

So, how does one become or select an enabler?

Survey or otherwise feel out your target audience in advance. Gaining their input and buy-in is a necessary step to help make sure you hit the target. A simple question often gets the ball rolling: What do you need?

I've been describing a concept, a philosophy of an overall approach. Lest you think I'm painting a rosy picture: In the real world, implementing and deploying "enablers" can be quite challenging and expensive on an organizational scale. But I am suggesting that the ROI is more than just the financial numbers, and both are important items to consider.

While "enabler" may have a negative connotation in some other contexts, it most definitely is the focus of companies and firms who want to move their organization and customers ahead, whether they consciously realize it or not.

Are you an Enabler?

Topic(s):   Feature Articles  |  Law Practice Management
Posted by Jeff Beard

I was recently reminded by Dan Bowen, COO at Verdict Systems, that Sanction sprung from a "crazy bar napkin idea" (his exact words).

To that I say: Long live those bar napkins! Talk about using a drop-dead simple enabler to get your ideas across... which all the more proves they had the "enabler" concept down from the very beginning. (And it showed.)

Posted by: Jeff Beard at September 24, 2003 12:30 PM