Collaborative technology platforms

By rolling out a technology platform to help efficiently connect partners with the right opportunities, experts and knowledge, firms can begin to mitigate many of the obstacles that stand in the way of contributors’ getting more involved in cross-practice or cross-geography collaboration.  For example, a client service leader (CSL) might hesitate to bring untested colleagues onto the account team because he’s skeptical of their work quality or responsiveness.  The best IT platform will allow the CSL not only to see their self-proclaimed expertise areas, but also to vet their qualifications himself by reading their responses to others’ queries, examples of work products they’ve posted, etc.  Excellent collaborative tech platforms massively speed up the process of finding the right expert, help up-and-comers promote their ability to add value, and “democratize” access to the firm’s knowledge (possibly overcoming some of the inequities that other researchers have found – ask me for references if you’re interested).

Obviously, technology itself is not a silver bullet; without supportive leadership, some degree of culture change, and close alignment with other areas like the performance management system, it will simply fizzle out.  But a growing number of PSFs have successfully implemented internal IT systems that lower the costs and increase the benefits of collaboration by mimicking the best parts of popular social-networking applications.

The apparent collaboration-related benefits of such systems involve their timeliness (quick access to knowledge exactly when you need it), searchability (much better than email or most KM databases), flexibility (can be used for everything from specific RFIs for client work to advice on travel), customization (users can choose which groups to join/get updates from), uptake (more motivating to post knowledge “just in time” for a specific colleague rather than “just in case” for an unknown audience), and fun factor (can post videos, photos, etc. that advertise the firm’s offerings in a more interesting way than a white paper; can use for social purposes / personal interest groups that help to build interpersonal familiarity & trust), among others.  Am I missing some critical benefits?

The biggest risk seems to be that a firm invests heavily but nobody uses it –but I’m researching some case studies to identify best practices to increase adoption.  Other risks (client confidentiality, security, etc.) are important but seem manageable.  What risks/ downsides am I missing?

Do you use a collaborative technology platform in your firm?  Do you have specific examples/anecdotes about using it to find experts, research the firm’s offerings, conduct business, manage distributed teams, or other collaboration-related activities?  What problems have you experienced?  If your firm offers a platform and you don’t use it, why not? 

As ever in this Idea Space, please leave your comments below.  If you have a sensitive or confidential example that you’d like to share, then please email me directly on hgardner@law.harvard.edu . And please check out prior topics in the Archive section at right.

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2 thoughts on “Collaborative technology platforms

  1. As 12-person IT consulting firm, we we had been using multiple systems to track our time, projects, knowledge management, and collaboration. Some were basic, some had advanced but cumbersome (and expensive) features, but none were sufficiently customizable as an ecosystem to suit our team. Best practices for using these systems were the least of our worries; we needed our team to adopt them into their work routine first.

    Creating this new ecosystem required a significant and sustained commitment of time, money, and philosophical underpinning. Our process evolved as follows:

    1. Identified and prioritized our organizational needs;
    2. Researched multiple full-scale commercial project management and collaboration packages;
    3. Hired a dedicated Program Manager to implement an Agile/Scrum methodology that we could scale to clients and projects of all sizes for our project work;
    4. Identified the software package best suited to our collaboration needs and methodology (we chose Atlassian, a highly customizable open-source product suite) and worked with our Program Manager to transition and implement the software.
    5. Began training the team on our new project methodology (concepts as well as specific processes and desired outcomes);
    6. Implemented Atlassian JIRA and Tempo first. These tools allowed us to begin basic task and time tracking together, and had built-in collaboration features. By combining project task management and time recording tools, we had an uptick in quality usage of both systems. There was a clear time-saving benefit to using these tools together, and time could not be reported without using specific task codes, thus forcing at least a rudimentary adoption of both systems.
    7. Once the kinks had been ironed out of those basic processes (this involved lots of communication with the team about what was and wasn’t working, as well as their wish list of features), we rolled out new tools and features every few weeks or months for three years. These included a knowledge management platform (Atlassian Confluence: https://www.atlassian.com/software/confluence) for meeting notes, requirements gathering, private and public blogs, and best practices; HipChat, an instant messaging platform customizable for individuals and groups that integrates with the PM and collaboration tools; and several other collaboration and CRM tools specific to software development. We are currently adding advanced reporting tools and HR/business management tools (https://www.atlassian.com/software/jira/core) to further enhance our ecosystem.

    We are now three years into the roll-out of our new methodology and associated tools, and the results are significant: We have been able to expand and more easily manage entirely remote teams; our productivity has risen sharply; our contingency risk is vastly improved; project status and budget reporting is now highly automated and much more contextual; security can be managed at multiple levels; clients are more engaged in the process because they can see curated documentation and up-to-the-minute status updates; remote teams feel intimately connected because they communicate organically throughout the day via these systems.

    We still have some challenges to iron out, but we went from working in loosely managed, often poorly documented silos and battling developers to record microslices of time, to full adoption of a new methodology and related tools. It was a painful transition at times, and our clients weren’t always easily convinced to participate, but both our clients and internal staff are now clamoring for more tools and add-ons to make the process even better.

    We’d be happy to speak to anyone who may have questions.

    Aimee Koval
    akoval@metiscg.com

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  2. Since we are a small firm, 9 attorneys, we don’t use specific technological applications for the sake of collaboration. But I see the need of having a good application for file and information sharing when two or more attorneys work for one same client.

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