Turning a Shiny New Toy into Business Success

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By Peter J. Ozolin, CEO, Manzama, Inc.

Every time I see a new buzzword or hot new technology start trending in the marketplace, I cringe a little because I know what’s coming next: everyone in the technology business will start to reframe what they do using that new buzzword. I think they do it because they believe that’s what the market expects to hear — or maybe it’s that the pundits tell them that the market expects to hear it. Whichever it is, it tends to distract us and send certain people chasing rainbows and unicorns –which brings me to the current buzz/trend: Artificial Intelligence or AI. Already in the first three months of 2018, I have sat in at least a dozen meetings with our clients where the discussion turned to the fact that the marketing and technology groups are being asked by partners what the firm is planning to do “about AI” – as though they have magic wands and crystal balls.

All through most of my career as a technology entrepreneur and software executive, I have always considered technology product development as a means to an end, and more often than not I want that end to be defined in advance – regardless of what new technologies have become available. For example, before Manzama decided to invest in AI, we needed to understand what our clients would want us to achieve by doing so. As a technological provider, we are expected to innovate, but rather than develop in a vacuum to emerge with an idea/product that might be super cool but didn’t actually make our clients’ work better or easier, we decided instead to go to a subset of our market to offer up some suggestions as to what we thought would add value and could quite possibly be attainable.  Not surprisingly, while some of our ideas resonated, our clients had different ideas, and their ideas helped to shape and modify our priorities. They told us pretty loudly and clearly that they only care about AI if it is delivered in a manner that helps their business move forward and aligns with their overall objectives. As we continued to iterate and test ideas with them, patterns began to emerge, and we responded by bringing to market Manzama Signals™, now a patent-pending technology/product.

If I were to take on a project as a law firm information professional, knowledge manger, or marketing executive, I would take a similar approach and begin by asking my team and the ultimate beneficiaries what processes they think could be improved using  AI – and I’d spend a lot of time making sure they all understand what AI can and cannot do – before  deciding whether we would go forward. I’d also test more than one business case and have a mechanism for understanding which initiative (if pursued) would ultimately be a higher priority.

Over the years, I have learned that doing what’s cool and new and fun can be greatly empowering when you have found a new way to solve an old problem, or to increase efficiency, or help the firm make more money. However, I have also seen where we rushed in and did not think carefully about the risks versus the rewards and learned the hard way that the risk outweighed the reward.

Now, there certainly are those instances in the course of technological advancement (AI or otherwise), where regardless of the fears or unknowns, that we just need to forge forward – we don’t need to look that far back in time when law firm research wasn’t done on-line, documents were all stored in filing cabinets, and faxes were the hot new way to communicate. As obvious as the changing tide seemed to some and certainly to us now in hindsight, there was more than one law firm that resisted such change, which likely contributed to their demise. (My colleague, Allison, recalls the day when an executive director of a now dearly-departed firm told her that they would never have networked computers there.) Even today, surveys of law firm clients indicate a room for improvement in use of technology, see here, but even with everything I have seen and done in the law firm technology realm, the majority of the time, going through that boring business assessment exercise that feels like it’s slowing you down may, in fact, help you find great success  with that shiny new object.

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