How much IT support should firms provide to users? Many firms answer this question via benchmarking (that is, comparing spending and staffing to comparable firms).
Lawyers are demanding “customers.” They want a lot of support and, when they want it, they want it now. By and large, that is probably a good thing since the opportunity cost (potential lost billings) of slowing down a lawyer is high. And few managing partners or COOs want to hear or deal with partner complaints about lack of support.
But firms may overinvest in support. It may be possible to achieve a high level of IT support at lower cost by applying some market principles. (I am a believer in the power of markets – see my posting The Power of Markets – Is It Applicable within a Law Firm? of 12 Aug 03.) The September 8th issue of Information Week has an article about how Dell runs its business. Imagining What's Possible reports on how Dell runs highly efficient manufacturing. Because Dell manufactures in virtually real time, the company can change the order in which PCs are made to accommodate important or rush orders. Until recently, sales people could expedite certain orders through informal relationships. Now, to expedite, “they can assign a priority ranking from one to seven, but they have only a limited number of those rankings.” Rationalizing how sales people influence the manufacturing queue helps Dell be more efficient.
Law firms could do something similar. Lawyers and staff could get a “bank” of points to use for priority IT service. The bank might, of course, depend in part on how much business a lawyer generates. Such an approach might serve to reduce the number of instances of unnecessary “fire drills.” It might also more closely align support with real business needs.
In most firms, client work always takes priority. That may not be the best rule. Suppose there are two IT emergencies – one for a small client in billing arrears and one for a partner about to do a non-billable marketing activity. The marketing may well be the higher value activity and be more deserving of support. Right now, IT departments have to allocate sometimes scarce support resources based on incomplete information and on who is most likely to raise a stink.
Rationalizing the allocation of support when resources are tight via a point-like market mechanism could lower costs while also ultimately improving performance. A lawyer trying to get support for a low profit client would probably not “waste” points while a lawyer preparing for a meeting with a hot prospect would likely happily spend points for expedited service.
Of course, the mechanics of such a system are probably rather complicated and the effort to adopt a new approach large. But it is at least interesting to think about ways to more carefully and systematically match resources to true needs. [Strategic Legal Technology]