[Guest Blogger Eric Hunter]

Why Google Apps? Why Not.
I know, it sounds a little nuts, but Google is going to take over the world, our collective consciousness and all of us in it, so we might as well just jump on board! Seriously though, from a strategic investment perspective, there’s a lot to Google Apps and competing collaborative cloud hosted applications that should catch the eye of firms of all sizes.
Consider my firm and our move (leap of faith?!) to the cloud as a decent starting point and case study in what collaborative cloud solutions, in our case Google Apps, can offer as well as what they can’t or shouldn’t provide (silver bullets are still tough to find!).
Technology Outsourcing 
All right, so what happens with your Technology? I was told by a good friend of mine recently, and recognized expert in her field, that “I don’t really do Knowledge Management, that my focus is purely on infrastructure.” I told her my choice is actually to outsource the infrastructure and solely focus on KM! Consider it fact, that the more collaborative cloud platforms like Google Apps evolve, the more technology will be outsourced. Both a portion of the humans in your tech departments, and the applications running wherever you currently have them, will be outsourced to Google in this model.
Behavioral Change? 
Yep. We chose to migrate to Google’s browser hosted web app. We wanted the most dramatic shift for our users possible to ensure they would begin altering their day to day behavior immediately. Google’s platform is built to tie in mail, documents, sites (their sharepoint/extranet equivalant), and messaging in ways completely outside the box from a traditional business perspective. Such a ‘shock and awe’ strategy helps users quickly get out of existing behavioral thinking patterns they take for granted, and to do something different, innovative, and evolve with both the business and consumer market. This is good, because when you move your firm to evolving cloud hosted collaboration, it’s going to change, all the time. Of course, the ability to implement such extreme change is dependent on a lot of factors, some behavioral, some business strategy focused. I firmly believe the concept that “law firms do not embrace change” is something that will change to “our law firm demands continual change to stay ahead of our competition and engage in the most strategic fashion possible with our clients.”
This may seem ludicrous to some, but consider the consumer market, primarily social media. How many of your users use Facebook? How many user Twitter? How often do those platforms change, and how much training do your users need in their personal lives to navigate changes with these evolving platforms? These collaborative cloud hosted solutions, both consumer and business, are built to be intuitive and designed to connect people with people and link information among users, including third parties. The platforms that do it the best, thrive. The ones that do not, fall away. In my opinion, the collaboration features in these knowledge sharing social media markets is merging within cloud hosted applications within the business market. These applications drive behavioral change in the consumer. Why not leverage this?
So how do you stay on top of this evolving platform? 
Training and professional development. Senior Management must embrace this behavioral shift to their business, and stay unified. Ensure your committees, practice groups and mid level managers are all part of continual training sessions on the evolving platform and the new ways your firm is utilizing these features. Some of these training sessions will be ‘target specific’ within your firm, and some of these sessions will target all. Granted, most firms have similar training procedures in place. But with a model like Google, the decentralized nature of the system and the continually evolving product demand these sessions to be consistent and innovative. We’ve found our relative knowledge level has risen across all departments, departments are better connected, we connect more effectively with our clients, and our end users are demanding change, faster than Google’s product is developing.
Speaking of that, is Google as a collaborative cloud provider ready for global law firms heavily invested in alternative systems and third party leveraged integration? No, not yet. But Google’s investment path shows they’re well on their way and will most likely move faster than many think. Third party players may be well advised to adapt their systems to offer integration options, and quickly before new players arrive in town.
What about Microsoft? 
Microsoft’s Business Productivity Online Suite is a great product with considerable cost savings in licensing, and is a collaborative cloud option that competes directly with Google. It’s because of Microsoft’s investment path with this product I think Google is going to continue to innovate in this market. It’s because Microsoft has come out so publicly with their “cloud” offerings, that I think Google will continue to emerge as a player, and Microsoft will continue to refine and offer a better competing product. Bottom line, licensing drops across the industry, cloud hosted collaboration products continually improve, and it’s a win for legal and their clients.
Are law firms defined by the vendors they use?
Ultimately as law firms, it isn’t the name of the vendor we choose that makes the difference, nor even the technology, but the business drivers, behavioral change, and competitive intelligence that benefits our firms, our practice groups and our clients. So much focus is on the ‘Cloud’! When considering cloud hosted collaboration systems, I suggest taking away that ‘cloud’ focus from the analysis for a short time. Focus then on the immediate cost savings in licensing. Focus on the benefits of a hosted collaboration system that evolves and is integrating with consumer driven social media applications and enterprise level applications. Focus on the benefits of an emerging Knowledge Sharing platform, collaboration platform, and unified communications platform, and which existing and emerging third party vendors could best integrate with this platform. Consider how your staffing options will shift, how your client correspondence and extranets will shift, how many alternative staffing models become possible, and how your attorneys will rethink how they think! How will your business model shift in this environment, and how will your firm’s culture evolve? Then put the ‘cloud’ back into play and consider your options.
How will it all play out?
Google is still an emerging player, but they are highly innovative, and we are experiencing daily innovation within our line of business and our forward thinking investment strategy. We’re trusting that Google’s continual investments in improving their search and collaboration features and bridging them across all applications and to as many devices and mediums as possible will not only bring them obscene amounts of ad revenue, but will benefit their clients, like my firm, in a cloud hosted relationship. I’m trusting Microsoft will continue to compete in the business arena to protect their licensing revenue in Office, Sharepoint, and related applications. I’m trusting there is too much of a financial and market incentive for Legal’s third party players in business, financial and competitive intelligence to sit on the sidelines and not integrate in this medium. As you can see, I am very trustworthy (or is it trusting) … Stay tuned to see how it plays out.
About the author: Eric Hunter is the Director of Knowledge Management and Technology at Bradford & Barthel, LLP, where he is currently integrating a cloud-hosted collaboration platform within the firm’s 12 office environment. Eric has spoken on collaborative cloud solutions at ILTA’s Insight in the UK, ILTA’s 2010 Strategic Unity conference, and the Chilli IQ Conference in Australia. He is the recipient of ILTA’s 2010 Knowledge Management Champion Distinguished Peer Award. Eric can be reached at ehunter@bradfordbarthel.com.