Legal IT projects to improve efficiency – why you should define success in advance.

Legal IT Projects

It looks like being a busy 2016 for the legal IT community.  Ninety-five percent of law firms surveyed in the Price Waterhouse Cooper (PWC) legal industry survey (October 2015) plan to undertake major legal IT projects in the next 12 months to ‘improve efficiency’.

PWC also noted that

Firms are also starting to invest in technology to address other areas such as matter pricing, resource management and procurement.

This trend for using IT to drive what might be called higher level efficiencies is not new, but it does seem to be gathering pace.

I wonder though, how many of these IT projects will be deemed a success?

 

Identifying Inefficiencies

So much gets written nowadays about the increasing importance of leading edge developments in areas such as ‘big data’ analytics and Artificial Intelligence for lawyers that it’s easy to forget many firms are still struggling to overcome more mundane inefficiencies.  Ironically, the root cause of many of these inefficiencies is often poor planning and implementation of previous IT projects.

It is not uncommon to see law firms where:

  • The same data needs to be typed separately into different systems as matters (cases) progress
  • Producing reports is difficult and time consuming because different systems do not communicate well with each other
  • There is little task automation, which increases the time required to complete standard processes and leaves room for error the next time a process needs to be executed
  • Users put up with poorly performing or poorly designed software, simply because it seems easier to adopt a work around, no matter how inefficient the software and attendant workarounds are.

 

Tolerating inefficiencies

The causes of inefficiencies listed above may appear blindingly obvious, but they are often tolerated.

Its amazing how many of us will put up with a host of minor inconveniences ‘to get the job done’ rather than taking time to fix the underlying cause of the inconvenience.  We come up with workarounds, which in time turn into standard practices.  Until one day someone notices and say’s ‘why do you do this?  It’s so inefficient’.  The same thing happens on an organisational level as well.  Over time inefficiencies become built into organisational procedures and practices.

 

Eliminating inefficiencies successfully

I recommend that all ‘initiatives’ going beyond moderate size and complexity be viewed and managed as ‘projects’. Implementing change of all kinds by means of a well managed project increases the likelihood of success.

An essential part of project set-up is to define project success in advance of project execution and delivery.

 

Why define success in advance? 

Defining what success looks like at project outset has a number of benefits.  It can:

  • Help maintain focus and act as a bulwark against scope creep. (Poorly managed scope creep is one of the prime causes of project failure)
  • Promote transparency and understanding about why the project is being run
  • Provide a target – or series of targets – for all key stakeholders to aim at.

 

Where should success be defined?

Ideally, what constitutes project success should be defined in the Project Initiation Document (PID).  A PID can:

  • Ensure the project has a sound basis before any major financial and resource commitments are made to it
  • Act as a base document against which the project can be assessed throughout its lifecycle
  • Provide a single source of reference about the project so that all project staff can quickly and easily find out what the project is about, and how it is being managed.

 

Creating success criteria

The key point is to identify criteria which can be measured objectively, if at all possible.  So in the present context the steps are:

  1. Identify inefficiencies
  2. Collect data and measure what happens now
  3. Suggest success criteria in light of current data.

Unfortunately this process can itself be a significant barrier to overcome in many law firms.  The thought of having to conduct a lot of data analysis to measure inefficiencies discourages many senior managers, who believe there are more pressing demands on staff time.

Yet in reality there is often no need for detailed, time consuming, stop-watch driven data analysis concerning some of the more obvious inefficiencies.  A short bullet-point explanation of how the IT improvement project could eliminate or reduce inefficiencies, along with relatively high level success criteria, should suffice.  This won’t be particularly detailed and time consuming to produce, but it will certainly be a lot better than not committing to any project success criteria at all.

 

Project control documentation

I would hope the value of having a PID, and reasonably well defined project success criteria, is self-evident.  It is invariably project managers who create this kind of project control documentation.  Unfortunately, most small to medium sized law firms do not have project managers in situ.  In larger firm’s project managers are often stretched so not every project gets the attention – and documentation – they deserve.

 

Plugging the resource gap for legal IT projects

Law firms will increase their chances of success with legal IT projects designed to improve efficiency by:

  1. Engaging someone from outside the firm to conduct a high level process review. A fresh eye will very quickly see the wood from the trees.
  2. Creating a PID and being very clear about what constitutes project success.
  3. Identifying objective criteria by which to measure project success.
  4. Appointing a project manager (on a consultancy or interim basis if need be), and making them responsible for delivering the project successfully.
  5. Setting a date for reviewing project success and keeping to the scheduled review date.
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