When does your firm’s culture trump potential innovations you want to put in front of them?

Idea came from a quote in Craig Roth’s Knowledge Forward post, Technology After Culture? Not in a Million Years.

So basic technology evolved before the basic social construct – the family?  No wonder I still encounter people spending all their time optimizing technology only to find that organizational structure and culture sink their projects. 

The purpose of the Elephant Posts is to ask the same question to professionals from different legal fields, and to encourage guest bloggers to come on 3 Geeks and contribute with a short answer. The idea behind keeping the answers “short & sweet” is to give the reader an opportunity to fill in the blanks, or continue the conversation in the comment’s section (hint, hint!!) This week, we’re taking this question and applying it to Alternative Fees, IT, Library and Records management perspectives. Next week’s Elephant Post question is listed at the bottom of this post.

The Alternative Fee Arrangement Perspective

Culture Rules – But AFAs don’t care
Toby Brown

One of the best pieces of advice I ever heard related to KM was that culture always trumps technology.  The director of KM for ConocoPhillips had a slide showing the Pacman of Culture devouring KM.  His point was that any KM project that ran counter to culture was doomed.  This visual has long echoed my experience at law firms.  Culture is like mud in these places.

That being said – when it comes to alternative fee arrangements (AFAs), culture shows its weakness.  Law firm culture is not compatible with an AFA world, since that world is all about change.  That change is unavoidable and sweeping its way across all practices.  Clients make demands – law firms respond.  AFAs  have a certain power over culture.

What’s interesting is the next layer beyond AFAs.  Here I find an odd, ever shifting battle between culture and change.  For instance, everyone is clamoring for the ideal budget tool (relative to their practice).  Why can’t we just pull that info from the billing system?  Well … we don’t capture the billing information in a way that allows this.

Here attorneys want something desperately, but will only get their question answered if they throw-off the chains of culture and actually make some changes.  That doesn’t go over well.  In the interim there is a lot of gnashing of teeth and pulling of hair.  “There should be a  button we can push that will simply create a budget!”  As they walk down this road, logic takes over and culture is thrust aside.  At some point they see the absurdity of culture’s drag on progress – toss it aside and start making better choices.

I wonder how long this will last.

The Information Technology Perspective

Rip Off That Cultural Band-Aid
Scott Preston

Culture is going to win every time unless the need for change or innovation is clearly communicated and understood.  Human nature craves predictability, consistency and familiarity.  This is true our entire lives.  Some tolerate change more than others but only to a certain degree and the older we get the less we are willing to tolerate change.

Amazingly, it often seems more difficult to make incremental innovative shifts (the phased approach) than to make one big shift, as though there is only so much tolerance for change big or small.  This is the “rip the band-aid off” approach.  Yes it hurts, but the pain quickly dissipates and then we get on with business.  Tolerance for change usually correlates directly to the understanding behind the need for change.  Firms with good communication from management tend to accept innovation more readily because there is an understanding of the direct benefit.  Firms that lack good communication from management continue to look for the magic button to solve the problem.  Why?  Because they don’t want to feel the pain without seeing any direct benefit.

Internet Marketing Perspective

No Innovation, No Sale
By its very nature, if Internet Marketing isn’t innovative, we won’t make the sale. I have to constantly push the envelope to make sure that our message is delivered. This often means I am counter-culture and at cross-purposes. Especially at a law firm.
But I keep pushing, keep trying, keep asking, keep fighting the good fight. Eventually, I get a toe hold. Then, great things can start to happen.

The Library Perspective

Culture vs. Change…  Or Culture and Change?
Mark Gediman

Most people think that the tension between the Firm’s culture and the change needed to remain competitive is one of the few constants in law firm governance.  I disagree. I thought about ending here but didn’t want to face the Wrath of Lambert (Yes, it is a little known fact that he is a distant relation of Kahn Noonian Singh).

In my career as a librarian, I have worked for both corporations and law firms. Law firms have always been for me the greatest challenge.  Only in a law firm do you work with and affect the shareholders on a personal level.  If you start with this in mind, any change can be implemented as long as it is presented in the right way. You need to show the shareholders that it will save them money while still giving them what they need in a usable format and in a close approximation to the way they are used to getting it to have a good shot at success.  My library research portal came about with this in mind.  I was given a mandate (reduce the print collection by moving materials online) and needed to implement this in the culture of a 120 year-old firm.  The only way I felt I could do this and justify the firm’s online investment was to create something that replicated the Attorney’s research process as closely as possible.  I used the Middle- and Senior-Level partners to vet this concept with the idea that an acceptable product to them would be accepted culturally on a large scale.  Addressing their problems and challenges also gave them ownership in the final product.

Culture to me is merely the framework any change or innovation must take place within.  The changes don’t change the culture, they modify how people work within the culture.  Culture does evolve over time but at a glacial pace.  Any changes that are being implemented must keep that in mind or they are doomed to failure.

The Records Management Perspective

When CYA gets in the way…
Janice L. Anderson (Former Records Manager, Corporate Legal Dept.)

While sitting eating a delicious bowl of curry with Greg, Toby and Scott, I listened to the three of them discussing document management and the challenge of records retention implementation.  I realized they were discussing putting into action something that I worked on 5 years ago in the legal department for an oil and gas corporation.   Who knew that we were so ahead of the game?

When you question how the culture of a firm may override the innovation you are trying to implement, I cannot think of a stronger example than the culture of Cover Your Butt.  While trying to roll out a retention policy to a large corporation, we continually ran into folks who did not want to shred a document when they were no longer  legally required to hold on to it.  We always, always were given, “but I may need to cover myself in the future.”

When the climate of a firm puts an employee on the defensive, they do not trust that removing the proof of their work ethic won’t come back to bite them.  Companies store more documents than they need, ignoring the costs of storage, the space on servers, the boxes and boxes of evidence available for discovery.  But their backsides are padded and safe.

Next Week’s Elephant Post Question:

When Does “Great” Get In The Way Of “Good”?
The idea behind this question is whether the pursuit of perfection causes a paralysis in actually getting something accomplished, or as Scott eloquently puts it – “Don’t over think it, stupid!!”

We’ll be out recruiting for guest bloggers this week, so if you want to grab a piece of the elephant and give your perspective on this question, please feel free to email me for more details.