Book Review of “The Sherlock Syndrome: Strategic Success through Big Data and the Darwinian Disruption,” Eric Hunter

4 Mar

bookby David Hobbie, Litigation Knowledge Manager, Goodwin Procter LLP

Eric Hunter is a legal knowledge management colleague and recipient of ILTA’s 2010 Knowledge Management Champion Distinguished Peer and Innovative Member awards. He is Director of Knowledge, Innovation and Technology Strategies at Bradford & Barthel, LLP (a California law firm focused on worker’s compensation) and also Executive Director of the Spherical Models consultancy.

His wide-ranging report (available at Amazon, Ark Publishing or Amazon Kindle) puts business analytics and the insights it offers at the core of wide-ranging potential changes in legal and other industries. Though future-oriented, it spends most of its time on developments whose beginnings are firmly entrenched, such as video search, wearable tech, big data, and data visualization.

Through my own work I have come to believe that legal organizationss – and perhaps organizations in general – can obtain significant competitive advantage by leveraging analytics and technologies and taking better advantage of our increasing connectivity and ability to share inside and outside the organization. Hunter’s report provides more substantiation for those beliefs, and also projects ahead to suggest how to prepare for the increasingly rapid changes that are coming. I appreciate that Hunter is “walking the walk,” talking about increased sharing while doing so himself through this book and his many presentations at Ark and ILTA conferences (referenced throughout the report).

Sherlock Syndrome

The title’s “Sherlock Syndrome” concerns our increasing ability to observe, sense, cross-reference, and analyze information and trends much more comprehensively than before through data analytics and Big Data. The trend is one of massive increases in the ability to recall, analyze, and leverage information. Hunter posits that, at least with respect to personal preferences and search patterns, “everything is becoming predictable (and therefore marketable) through analytics.” Particularly striking to me is the thought that not only are the abundance of data and power of our computers increasing rapidly, but also the sophistication and availability of easy to use analytics tools are making this information actionable in ways that were never before possible.

I have seen this myself in my firm’s exploration of the Tableau data visualization tool. Business use-cases for Sherlockian advanced perceptions include forensic (criminal) investigations, insurance claim investigations, and, of course, targeted consumer advertising.

Darwinian Disruption

Hunter also believes that “Darwinian data disruption” is affecting the entire business world. It is not simply data—though the scope of data is increasing dramatically every year—but also computational and analytical capacity that is growing so dramatically. Hunter’s disruption is Darwinian because leveraging these changes provides a clear competitive advantage and those organizations and business leaders able to adapt to the new environment will survive. Businesses that cannot adapt to and take advantage of these technologies and changes may not survive. It may have been said many times before, but it is true: as Hunter observes with many examples, we are seeing accelerating levels of market disruptions as companies learn to innovate faster.

The (Edward) Snowden Effect

Hunter spends a good deal of time digging into the “Snowden” effect (not David Snowden the KM guru, but Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor). In Hunter’s view, Snowden’s revelations of widespread government capture of vast amounts of personal information in pursuit of national security encapsulate the inevitable tension among privacy, the right to share, and the (security and other) benefits of access to others’ information. Snowden demonstrated that cross-border information sharing is happening and will happen more and more. The NSA, US government agencies, and other governments that capture and share personal information are in his view just taking to an extreme and for different ends what corporations like Facebook and Google already do to target advertising to consumers.

The Predictive Orchestra

A skilled jazz and classical bass player, Hunter hits my sweet spot with an extended metaphor of a “predictive organization” as symphony orchestra, all playing from the same music and not simply following a leader, but also anticipating the melodies and entrances of other sections. (I would promote leaderless orchestras like New York’s Orpheus chamber ensemble http://www.orpheusnyc.com/ as a better fit for his progressive view than the hidebound, intensely hierarchical traditional symphony orchestra. For instance, in a traditional orchestra, the musicians within a section are positioned on the stage by rank according to purported ability!)

Legal Industry Impacts

Hunter does not neglect the implications of these much broader developments for the legal industry. Within law firms, Sherlockian advanced perceptions aid pricing, methods for doing legal work, internal communications, and understanding and addressing client needs. The new technology, analytics, and cross-border flow of information have the potential to greatly enhance law firms’ understanding of their clients and clients’ understanding of legal issues. The technologies increase the capacity for clients and firms to build “targeted relationships” and provide a continually expanding set of opportunities. And, the same data collection and predictive analytics that Facebook and Bing use to identify our consumer interests also identify our business needs. Analytics technologies can be applied directly to some types of legal issues, such as the likely extent of exposure from a given worker’s compensation claim.

Another example is law firms’ new ability to bring transparency to matter work, including data analytics around pricing and profitability, staffing models, and project models. Hunter spells out how the concept of “velocity billing” combines client-specific account managers, predictive analytics driving client- and firm-appropriate fee arrangements, and social collaboration around matter and client work has affected his firm. In combination, these processes and technologies lead to very efficient and client-targeted legal work.

Another instance of these technologies manifesting in law firms is his own firm’s adoption of Google Plus (“G+”). While much-maligned as the place where only Google employees “hang out,” Hunter sees G+ as a great example of a system that is both inward- and outward-facing and combines search with a designed social platform. Creating a G+ circle is the kind of fluid, effective, searcheable content and process management Hunter sees in the future of legal work. For Hunter’s firm, G+ is both an internal- and partially external-facing social network and platform. He notes that social network implementation and internal change management, like the pricing and client management projects he has had so much success with, involve different change management dynamics needing different approaches.

For law firms and the general corporate world, the technologies, techniques, analyses, and insights gained and shared so rapidly can be applied to not just readily quantifiable attributes of work such as hours, effort, and outcomes, but also leadership and change management at the levels of self, team, and organization as a whole. Hunter’s exhortations on leadership are very similar to what you might hear from many an Eastern-philosophy or martial arts- influenced business leadership book; what differs is the tie-in to his Sherlock/Darwin analysis.

Hunter suggests that people, teams, and organizations should be reinventing themselves through these enhanced perceptions and abilities every 18 months.

Complaints, Conclusions, and Inspirations

One concept that could have been more clearly elucidated is Hunter’s “spherical analysis/spherical modeling.” Google search suggests that these terms are not widely used in the business intelligence or data analytics communities—references to spherical analysis or models typically relate to variogram models that address how distance effects correlation between variables or a method of modeling magnetic forces (see the spherical models Wikipedia article.)

Much of the report is fairly abstract; I would not go to this book for an introduction to business analytics or Big Data. Nor was it entirely easy to read, with a fair amount of repetition and some extraneous quotes from Ghandi, Leonardo Da Vinci, and Hunter’s martial arts instructor. Finally, the size of the book’s print is too small (at no more than 10-point font) and somewhat faint. Perhaps the book is easier to read on-line (admittedly an appropriate production strategy given the book’s topic).

Overall, I found Hunter’s report an intriguing and inspiring application of broad industry, technology, analytics, and behavior trends to the ground level of the key interactions between law firms, legal work, and clients. His predictions about predictive analytics and more are in some cases not predictions at all; he shows how these can play out and have an impact on a legal practice area. They should not be ignored. I would not be at all surprised if many of his other predictions are soon borne out more broadly in our industry.

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One Response to “Book Review of “The Sherlock Syndrome: Strategic Success through Big Data and the Darwinian Disruption,” Eric Hunter”

  1. Patterson March 24, 2015 at 12:36 pm #

    I can’t see myself bothering with this book for the foreseeable. I’m sure Davids done his best, but the review is “not entirely easy to read either”.

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