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Clearspire–A New Legal Business Model And A Leading Instance of Technology-Enabled Legal Collaboration

11 May

Post by David Hobbie, ILTA KM PG  

Clearspire, a combination of a traditional business and a law firm, is an innovative legal startup, which has invested a lot of effort in developing advanced enterprise information systems.   It first received coverage in the Washington Post on Monday May 9, with additional reports in the ABA Journal and the Law Practice Management Advisor, but apparently has been open since October 2010.

At present it is more a platform for legal work than a fully functioning general law firm, as they appear to have no more than 10 lawyers.  Attorneys do most of their work at home, and are not responsible for a billable hour quota or for generating business.

Their basic plan is to hire former Amlaw 200 attorneys, strip out the costs for office space and partner compensation and charge half of typical AMLaw 200 rates, still under a billable hour model but with detailed budgeting and project monitoring.  The ownership structure is unusual in that Clearspire co-founder Bryce Arrowood,  the founder of the LawCorps contract legal staffing firm, runs Clearspire Service Company, which provides knowledge management, IT, business process engineering, and other support, while co-founder Marc A. Cohen, a very experienced trial lawyer and former AUSA, runs Clearspire Law Company, which provides all legal services.  These are not babes in the woods.

From a legal knowledge management perspective, the founders and investors have definitely spent some money (and are highlighting their work) on creating a cutting-edge enterprise collaborative legal technology framework, which they were able to build from the ground up without regard to integration with older legacy systems.

The IT and KM team–which includes CIO Eyal Iffergan,  KM Director Joshua Capy and former ILTA board member Jeffrey Brandt as “Community of Practice Manager”–have done some thorough thinking about legal enterprise information needs.  KM practitioners at existing firms might well benefit from thinking about what one might do if one could “start over” and build something from scratch.

Clearspire claims that their “Coral” Community of Practice system “integrates and packages the best of Web 2.0, social networking, advanced unified communications and legal management technologies.”

Coral include the following elements:

  • Fully capable Enterprise 2.0 / web 2.0 – type intranet platform, including integrated IM, video, and wikis;
  • News feeds of information related to each attorney and their practice;
  • Knowledge management capabilities including search, internal wikis, blogs, and tagging;
  • Transparency to the client including full client access to that client’s documents, with matter dashboards and visibility into attorney availability;
  • After-action performance evaluations including discussions of possible process improvements; and,
  • Social networking including detailed profiles, presence, and chat.

I know of no firm or law department with a comparably sophisticated and comprehensive set of of internal collaboration technologies, and only a few that provide a comparable level of access to attorney availability and work product.

In a whitepaper Clearspire claims that, taken together, these technologies and activities allow “enhanced connection” and”self-determination,” and even, rather than depersonalizing the work environment, let “individual personalities” and “collective energy” come to the fore.

I believe that collaborative technologies and innovative communications can certainly enhance internal knowledge-sharing and enhance employee engagement.  Certainly part of Enterprise 2.0’s promise has been to allow employees to author content, connect and share regardless of geographic location.

It remains to be seen whether the technology, as used by the Clearspire attorneys and staff, will suffice in an environment that decidedly de-emphasizes face-to-face meetings.  Without seeming too much of a dinosaur, I don’t think there’s any substitute for that, as a means for getting to know a person and for building trust.

From the perspective of enterprise information flows, Clearspire also seeks to integrate project staging and management and financial tracking into its offerings.  It is attempting to be transparent to clients about how teams and matters are constructed, with a goal of no “invoice surprises.”  Clients have access to dashboards and a rich array of information about their matters.

The strengths and weaknesses of systems such as Clearspire’s are not entirely apparent from what is publicly available.  Their aspirations and reported capacity for enhanced collaboration and knowledge sharing are impressive, however, and their marketing’s emphasis on the benefits to potential attorney employees and clients of effective internal processes and efficiencies may be a harbringer of changes to come.

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Book Review: The New Edge in Knowledge

5 May

Post By ILTA KM SC Member David Hobbie

The American Productivity & Quality Center (APQC), a leading KM nonprofit consultant organization, has released a new book, The New Edge in Knowledge: How Knowledge Management is Changing the Way We Do Business, co-authored by  APQC President Carla O’Dell and APQC Executive Director Cindy Hubert. The book has its own web site at www.NewEdgeInKnowledge.com.  In my view, this book is a significant development for the field of knowledge management.  While it does not address the legal industry, any legal knowledge management practitioner will obtain tremendous value from this new resource.

It does not focus on any one narrow part of knowledge management activity, such as developing communities of practice; rather, it is a look at strategy, tactics, and execution for enterprise-wide knowledge management efforts.

It moves well beyond old-school KM in that it includes lessons from the related fields of Enterprise 2.0 and e-learning.  In fact, many of the KM successes noted in this book, from companies such as IBM, Mitre Corporation, ConocoPhillips, and Fluor, include use of collaborative technology such as wikis, internal blogs, social networking, social tagging, and micro-blogging.

A work of this scope and scale that fleshes out the benefits of Enterprise 2.0 technology for knowledge management is most welcome (dare I say overdue?).  The authors call this activity “social computing” and suggest that it is valuable because it increases the number of content authors, decreases the time it takes to share information, and greatly enhances intrinsic motivation for valuable knowledge activity through providing employees more control and, yes, more fun.

A wry forward from my favorite KM Guru Larry Prusak lays out three principles of the early knowledge management efforts that in retrospect were flat wrong:

1) Instead of knowledge as a static, measurable resource, it is better understood as a dynamic flow;

2) Working with knowledge is not primarily about technology, but instead is a primarily human activity requiring human organization and understanding; and,

3) As a result, early KM’s focus on the individual practitioner was misplaced, and organizational knowledge should be treated and understood as social, and social and community practices should be a key component of knowledge work.

I appreciate that the authors acknowledge some of traditional KM’s failures in the business world, but still argue forcefully that “organizations still need to get information and knowledge from the employees who have to those who need it.”

The book is based on two decades of KM research and details how to develop a meaningful and measurable KM strategy, starting with 90-day cycles of strategy development, project development and execution. I found particularly helpful the detailed discussion in ch. 2 of how to have a strategic discussion about your organization’s knowledge.  I hadn’t encountered another resource that spelled out what questions one should ask in such detail.

You should ask your attorneys questions such as, what knowledge is critical for your firm’s current competitive advantage?  What knowledge might improve your firm’s position in the future? As they note in the book, getting KM focused on what will provide the most value has the dual benefits of helping establish buy-in (the cart will have horses) and starting projects that will generate meaningful, measurable results, measured through usage, increased efficiency, and enhanced effectiveness.

While there are stretches when the book can be a little abstract, the authors have enough real-life examples of knowledge management solving real-world business problems to keep it concrete, and the steps they propose are sufficiently definite to be immediately actionable, in the way that they advocate all information should be.

In sum, I agree wholeheartedly with one reviewer on Amazon who writes, “I wish I had this book years ago when my program [read:  KM career] was first ramping up.”

Selected other reviews:

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