Technology is cool. There is no disputing that fact. Last month, while travelling for work, I had a video conversation with my kid, while I was 3500 kms away in a relatively remote mountain resort, and he was in a moving vehicle. Last week, while doing some research I came across a data visualization of all of the spells used in all seven books of Harry Potter on a scatter chart, and when you hovered over the data points you learned when the spell was used, by whom and why. That’s cool, that’s technology. Whether we are looking at the vast amounts of data in the world and how we can use that data, make it visible, pretty and useful, or whether we are talking about “smart” technology, machine learning or artificial intelligence as it applies to daily work tasks that can be automated, made better and or make our work lives and products more efficient.

And yet, as I sit here at ARK KM 2016, in NYC, the themes I keep hearing coming out of every session, are around audience engagement, adoption, clarity of purpose, how do we encourage people to share, and clear or shared communication. Fundamentally “soft skills” that technology can’t really impact have been a part of every presentation. Like it or not, while some of us may prefer to engage with robots, as people working in law firms for legal clients, we are dealing with people, clients are people. Implementation of strategically sound KM programs, social for enterprise, efficiency in data visualization, noise reduction, cross firm collaboration, data integrity, whatever it is – people are at the centre and people are necessarily complex. When we talk about getting people to collaborate, share data, engage on client matters together and so forth, we are discussing changing cultures with in individual firms and within the legal industry as a whole. Changing legal and law firm culture, (and related initiatives such as KM – however you define it) start, in my opinion with putting clients first.

I have written here and else where about how clients are or should be at the centre of any significant initiative by firms. Putting clients first to my mind means using a design thinking approach to new initiatives. Design thinking as explained in a recent Lexpert article is “also known as “human-centred design” — an approach that, at its core, is about structured problem-solving with a design flair.” The first step in design thinking that runs through every stage of the process is empathy. Empathy is knowing how someone else feels, whether as a lawyer knowing how a client feels or as an allied professional in a firm knowing how your lawyers feel. Feelings are not always used in the same discussion as law firms or lawyers, but therein, lies the change that needs to happen. In order to successfully innovate and move culturally sensitive initiatives forward we need to think like our clients, we need to feel like our clients. We need to understand our clients pain – their difficulty in solving problems and then very quickly try various solutions in solving those problems or assuage any ill feelings.

Technology can be a tool in helping to achieve resolution, but the tech itself could never replace empathy. The ability to think like others, to feel what they feel and to really understand their challenges and how to address those challenges is really about people connecting with people regardless of roles or capabilities. This is the heart of design thinking – the human element. The EI or emotional intelligence that is required to make AI, KM, BD/Marketing and other projects a success. On the surface it seems simple, and maybe it is, but all too often we are distracted by the technology and the crazy capabilities they afford us. Blinded by the possibilities of the technology, we present solutions to problems people don’t have or we aggregate data sets and taxonomies that make sense to only a few and confuse everyone else. We then push these technology solutions on a varied group of people and expect them to be as excited and ready for the impact of the technology as we are. Who wouldn’t want to know every spell Harry and his friends ever used to defeat He-Who-Should-Not-Be-Named. But if those capabilities add nothing productive to my day, or solve no real world issues, then any real value the technology tools provide gets lost. Tie solutions back people. Start prototying solutions only after actually talking to people, all the people, with all the same problems. Use technology to aid in solving real world issues or frustrations and eliminate the pain that real people are feeling. To do that, we need to be sensitive to the human element every step of the way. Once you can do that, the prototyping and ideation gets far easier, but empathy especially in law firm processes can be a fickle friend.

Who wants to take on that session at ARK KM next year???