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I.T. in practice: Robust systems

Every Issue

Cite as: (2003) 77(10) LIJ, p.99

A “systems champion” is an important member of staff, but practices should be wary of relying too heavily on one person.

A colleague recently recounted the story of a law firm which had appointed its third practice manager in as many years.

With the departure of the previous “systems champion”, the new practice manager had immediately assessed the information systems in place as inappropriate for the practice. The assessment was based on the comments and complaints of staff, many of whom were only recent appointees.

Putting aside the underlying strategic staff hiring and staff retention issues associated with the law firm, there are important technology lessons to be learned from this anecdote.

Systems champions

There are significant advantages to the concept of having a key member of staff who is a “systems champion”. This person acquires default operational ownership of the legal practice management systems in place and knows them sufficiently to either answer peers’ questions on the operations or to be able to work out how to undertake specific functions from documentation or other support resources.

However, there are downsides to having a single systems champion. Quite often, this person holds the mysteries of key practice functions in their head. In this case, the person should be encouraged (or required) to document in sufficient detail these key functions so that others may undertake them without assistance.

Systems champions may also use their knowledge to hold political sway over other staff members, even partners – well short of blackmail, this could be seen as “knowledge-mail”. To prevent this, the practice should encourage an environment of knowledge sharing, organisational learning and cross-training. Over time there may be a reluctance to introduce new initiatives or changes to systems in place. This is typically manifested as a systems champion denying that the systems can do a particular function, when in fact it is just a case of not knowing how to do that function. Practices should pre-empt this by maintaining an open dialogue with systems vendors and consultants.

Over-dependence

A practice can usually identify when it has become dependent on a particular member of staff in the systems area. However, it can be more difficult to tell when that has reached a level of over-dependence.

The key sign that a practice has become over-dependent on a particular person to keep their systems running is when that person takes only short leave periods at a time or, even worse, does not take leave. Another sign is working long hours in a form of self-imposed martyrdom. This will have a consequential negative effect on the particular staff member – the onerous responsibility may cause “burnout”, low job satisfaction and ultimately staff turnover.

Staff turnover

When a systems champion leaves the firm, remaining staff may fall easily into behaviour that is akin to “throwing the baby out with the bath water”.

The work practices of a previous systems champion may mean there is a lack of knowledge of the systems in place. Staff, without an understanding of the history or technical reasons for the current systems, may be critical of the functions available. For example, staff may complain that a system is slow, without understanding that an across-the-board hardware upgrade within the firm would be required for resolution.

Another example is where the system is assumed to lack a particular function, when in fact it is actually a case of insufficient training.

When a new staff member comes into a practice with a brief to review systems, the easiest option is to clear-fell the technical forest and re-plant from scratch. Unfortunately, this appears to be a common tendency among technical systems staff, in line with a technological predisposition to acquire the latest and greatest without assessing the merit of the retention of the current.

A good way that a practice can deal with this is to recognise this behaviour and mandate a period after a new appointment when no changes take place, only a comprehensive systems review acknowledging the history, current practices, and future technology and business strategies of the firm.

Conclusion

Systems champions can be strategically competitive assets of a law firm. They can optimise the efficiency of other staff through systems tools and this can have a substantial positive effect on client service. However, it is necessary to recognise and prevent an over-dependence by the practice on a single person and ensure the systems knowledge resides in the practice, rather than with individuals.

“To do” List

• After turnover of key staff positions, declare a three-month moratorium on significant systems changes.
• Ensure that your systems champion takes regular and full blocks of annual leave.
• Look for “no” behaviour when trying to introduce new initiatives with the systems in place.
• Undertake a continuing education program for all staff on systems use.


ADAM REYNOLDS is the principal of Proficio, an independent consulting firm.

For more I.T. in practice information, see the contributions of the Law Institute Legal Practice Management Committee and IT special projects department at http://www.liv.asn.au/sections/lpms_it

itcolumn@liv.asn.au

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