Why we all need to get more geeky and friendly, to future-proof business

‘Get geeky’ was the advice of a leading commentator on the future of professional services at an event I attended earlier this week. Yes, it’s ‘cheesey’, yet I still wanted to stand up and applaud.

Not because it was a revelation.

But because the real leaders of traditional sectors, including professional services, are finally, demonstrably, committed to harnessing technological solutions better, and because they are starting to forge a path where there previously wasn’t one.

And their achievements are being noticed and appreciated. Which is great. Although it’s unlikely to be enough. It’s only a step in the right direction.

Why?

Most of today’s innovations will be tomorrow’s ‘hygiene’ factors

Within a very short while, today’s innovations will be tomorrow’s ‘hygiene’ factors in the eyes of our customers. As many other industries have found, as fast as you release something new, customers learn to expect it as a matter of normal service. What was new just yesterday, swiftly becomes a benchmark requirement and expectation, a basic ingredient you’d expect to find covered, and therefore not a premium-attaching or competitively distinctive, novelty.

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A classic illustration of how fickle we are can be found in just observing our consumer reaction to the iPhone. Why do so many of us claim to have fallen out of love with the iPhone? When it was first launched in 2007, we couldn’t get enough of it.

It’s largely because we now expect our smartphones to be able to do everything that the iPhone genuinely revolutionised. Smaller iterations or improvements aren’t necessarily enough to meet our now far higher expectations and so command our continued loyalty. However we still benchmark all other rival products against it, since we’re still looking for, and now anticipating, the same kind of wow and ‘must have’ sensation that we felt in 2007 – only 10 years ago.

It doesn’t help that every day, there seems to be a new ‘wow’ factor product or service somewhere, which increases the impression in the consumer mind that if something lacks the ‘wow’ factor, it’s probably not good enough, or there must be something better.

Will Artificial Intelligence and machine learning be immune to this?

No. I don’t think so.

You might argue that whilst finding the next ‘wow’ factor proposition is the challenge of the consumer products and technology industries, it’s not the same for professional services; that those types of clients don’t have the same expectations of being ‘wowed’. Whether that’s true or not today, the fact remains that today’s investments to modernise the service proposition will be tomorrow’s expected standards of normal service.

Machine learning and artificial intelligence are other great examples. Today, they are a novelty for the legal profession, there is much experimental activity underway and great promise of future efficiencies and benefits to the way that law firms can operate.

Good news for those law firms who are blazing the trail already and it’s a great step.

And those clients who do not baulk at legal fees (which can well be expected to rise further to cover firms’ investments in such new technologies), tend to see these efficiencies as a distinctive factor that may well influence their choice of advisor today.

But when you step back and look at what business clients expect from their professional advisers, it’s quite simple: expertise, cost-effectiveness and efficient management (helping to keep fee levels palatable), a modern approach, winning commercial outcomes.

Very soon, those clients’ expectations will extend to encompass an automatic assumption that you’re using the latest, modern technology to be more efficient in handling their cases. Just like Apple’s customers have rapidly grown to consider Apple’s once revolutionary technology ‘ordinary’, a bare minimum. It’s taken less than 10 years.

The stinger is that every good firm will need to invest in that latest technology to stay relevant. In short, today’s novelties and trends will be tomorrow’s ‘taken as read’ requirements. If you don’t have them in your pitch document and they are relevant to the client’s requirements, you risk not passing first round consideration.

Of course, there will also be many legal requirements that will not be addressed by machine learning or AI – at least for some time to come.

You’re also going to need to be different in other ways. Because let’s face it, especially when it comes to legal services, there’s plenty of competition out there.

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To succeed, you must stay ahead, keep going, keep changing & keep releasing new things

Embracing your inner geek is something that, whether we find it exciting or terrifying, as businesses, we are all going to have to do more of in the imminent future. Those that don’t will rapidly get left behind. Ordinary just won’t do it.

And it’s as much about pace as it is innovation.

We can all feel the pace of the world speeding up. Nobody really needs telling that running a successful business these days is a far more risky, demanding and time-consuming challenge than it might have been decades before.

As Bjarne Tellman, Pearson’s Senior Vice President and General Counsel pointed out at a technology summit that I attended earlier this week, if you were born in the 1100’s, the chances are that your way of life, trade and commerce, wouldn’t have materially changed in the 1200’s or even the 1300’s. Material change took centuries to evolve.

By contrast, today, fundamental changes to our private and business lives can take a mere matter of years to evolve. Roll back 10 years to 2007, for example and take a look at what was launched for the first time that year. It wasn’t just the iPhone.

How things have changed – in just 10 years

Tellman listed some examples (I’ve added a few others) and the reaction of the audience was to draw a sharp breath. Because it’s an impressive list of technology that we’ve already grown to take for granted:

  1. IOS – launched with the iPhone: a brand new operating system, fitting the operations of a computer inside the portable and user-friendly body of a phone
  2. the Kindle
  3. the first 3D printers
  4. AirBNB was founded
  5. wearable tech, designed by Philips, first made an appearance (admittedly looking a bit ‘space age’ and not much like the Fitbit!)
  6. Google bought YouTube (which was only 2 years old at the time)
  7. IBM created their artificial intelligence system, Watson
  8. Google maps went virtual, offering 360 degree actual views of (initially only) select destinations in the US
  9. Remote controlled dragon fly toys – looking very like mini drones – hit the shops
  10. And twitter was just 6 months old and only really getting started. Facebook had only been publicly available for a year. Both went global in 2007. Social media was properly born.

To be fair, 2016 felt like a slightly less technologically eventful year. According to Time Magazine, some of the best inventions last year included levitating light bulbs, folding bike helmets, solar panels that don’t stick up (or is that out?), supersonic hairdryers (thank you, Dyson) and trainers that tie their own laces. Very useful.

Still, it was also the year of VR headsets seriously going into retail and opening up a whole other world of commercialisable opportunities across many sectors, from marketing and advertising, to training on machinery and equipment, to applications medical, engineering and of course entertainment.

The IoT became a lot more real and Alexa joined families around the world…as my kids have discovered, researching their homework has never been so easy! And whilst for me, there is still a terrific sense of magic about what Amazon has created with the Echo, Alexa, for my kids, is already a normal fact of life. In less than a year, the way that we run our house, order shopping and interact with the outside world has fundamentally changed. And we love it. It’s empowering. It’s also annoying: we’re already grumbling about what Alexa can’t do, and why it should be able to do that already!

But I’m digressing a bit… The key point here is that we’re already expecting more. We’ve already integrated ways of living and working that were broadly unthinkable 10 years ago.

An exciting time to be a lawyer

It does feel like the dawn of a new age for legal and professional service providers.
And technology and change are not the enemy. They represent new opportunities and a chance to diversify, improve and for many, to really build on terrific skill sets already mastered.

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There’s no question that we need to embrace these skills and new opportunities better. To think more like the disrupters and entrepreneurs of today, who are more comfortable challenging (or even ignoring) the status quo and finding alternative, often very simplistic, solutions based on focussed outcomes, where the answer has to be ‘yes’ and nobody accepts that it won’t be possible.

Having spent the last 2 years working very closely with this vibrant, rebellious and naturally creative community across a multitude of different disciplines and sectors, I’ve become a huge fan (and copycat) of the far better way that they approach change, threats, opportunities and speed.

Change is good. We got this. We’re old hands at it … though we could do it better (and maybe grumble a bit less)!

I’m proud to be a lawyer. Lawyers are great chameleons. And there are many quiet legal heroes whose victories and value-add for their clients are not well sung. The in-house legal community is especially well T-shaped (multi-skilled and versatile) and flexible.

This ability and skill-set is nothing new and new technology (even AI) is not going to change that, even though the fields on which we advise will very likely morph to cover the new legal risks that have as yet to be experienced and protected against.

From before the industrial revolution to today, if you track (as I have) the number of registered and recognised lawyers in the UK’s records, they have consistently been on a growth trajectory. There’s always been a need for the empathy, wisdom and trust that a good lawyer brings to their client. While business has evolved significantly and new models and risks have emerged, while ways of doing business have changed fundamentally and today’s pace and challenges are faster and more myriad than ever, lawyers have adapted and thrived.

So we should feel confident and excited about the future, while taking very seriously, the need to keep up and keep pace.

Do we all need to be an actual geek and start writing code and algorithms on top of the day job?

Of course not. There’s a very good reason that ‘developer’ is a job description in its own right and the same applies to all technology-related roles. Though I can see a point in the near future where globally, our national educational curriculums include coding as a matter of course and tomorrow’s workers will emerge from studenthood a lot more skilled in technology.

I agree with Tellman when he observed that ‘innovation really happens when people with radically different backgrounds come together’. And that’s what’s really key.

It’s about collaboration – hunting the opportunities, finding new solutions, achieving the seemingly impossible, together

My view of the near future is that good law firms and lawyers will simply collaborate far more with (to date) very untraditional business partners: the technological experts and solution providers. These firms and teams will harness these very different skill sets to take advantage of new opportunities to improve what clients already value, and for themselves, to reach profitably, faster, better and more affordable outcomes for those clients. There are some great examples of collaboration and experimentation across the profession already. Leading lights include firms like Riverview Law, Gowlings and Mishcons, there are some fantastic new challengers too – and they clearly have no intention of slowing down, so the race has been underway for some time.

Many firms already have directors of digital, innovation and technology or CTO’s. Those that do will find those roles become even more expansive and prominent in strategic decision making and budget spend decisions. Their value is likely to be equivalent to some of a firm’s top rainmakers and their own black book and network of connections with collaborators will be as valuable as one that lists clients.

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Geeks may well be our new heroes

‘Getting geeky’ will mean not sitting as mini islands in an archipelago of other mini islands all doing law and law alone; waiting for someone else to make the first move before we hunker down and decide whether we should do the same thing, at some point.

Instead, it will mean rolling up our sleeves more and giving ourselves permission, as a profession, to be more creative, even more solutions-oriented, and to collaborate with a number of ‘different’ others who can bring our vision, expertise and efforts to life; keeping us relevant, modern and – with luck – generating a bit of our own ‘wow’ factor, for as long as we can make it last!

Be in the right place to make it happen

Be bold. Embrace your inner geek and get curious again. Start by asking ‘what if?’ and by pretending you have nothing to lose. Narrowing down ideas can come later, if really necessary. Try not to accept compromise. Collaborate and create a bigger community of new and different ‘helpers’ in your mission to be the best providers of what you do. Then splash some paint on the walls together and see what you can create.

It’s a great time to be a lawyer. Just make sure you’re in the right place to make it happen.

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