Signs In the Times

Two recent articles in the New York Times caught my eye. The first, by Lisa Belkin in the January 24 ThursdayStyles section, was titled "Who’s Cuddly Now? Law Firms." This article builds on an earlier one by Alex Williams in the Times chronicling the declining prestige of law as a career. Belkin’s article describes a number of radical (by the profession’s historical standards, anyway) steps taken by many law firms in order to make them better places to work, especially for bright young people.

These steps include a move away from the traditional laserlike focus on billable hours as the desideratum for a lawyer who wants to rise within the firm. Some law firms, according to the article, have done away the concept of billable hours altogether. 

My ignorance of law as a culture and profession is almost complete, and I have no idea what the overall impact of these moves will be. They’re still very interesting to me from my perspective as a researcher on IT’s impact on work, though, because they might be able to address one of the challenges around Enterprise 2.0.

As I wrote in an earlier post titled "The Pursuit of Busyness," many organizations emphasize (in ways both formal and informal, overt and subtle) that their people should engage in activities that are directly, obviously, and immediately ‘productive.’ Within law and consulting firms, working billable hours is the clearest example of such an activity. 

So downplaying or doing away with billable hours provides leaders at these firms with an interesting and perhaps unique opportunity to communicate to the workforce what kinds of activities should take the place of billing the client upward of 2,000 hours per year. If these leaders are serious about improving collaboration, knowledge capture and sharing, innovation, and information flow, they can take advantage of both the novel tools of E2.0 and the novel work environment they’ve just created as they de-emphasized billability.

As I wrote earlier this month, building on a very sharp post by Michael Idinopulos, they could do this by putting the use of their company’s emergent social software platforms ‘in the flow’ of work for their people. A major change in corporate culture like the decline and fall of billable hours presents a major opportunity to reshape what the culture measures, values, and esteems. This will in turn, of course, affect what people do during a workweek.

Would a law firm or consulting company be better off if it went from having a standard of 40 hours of billable work each week to a standard of spending half a day (or a day, or whatever) each week helping colleagues and the enterprise as a whole via the modern social digital toolkit of blogs, wikis, mashups, prediction markets, comments, ratings, votes, RSS feeds, etc.? In some law firms at least, it sounds like there’s an opportunity now to answer that question.


The second article, in yesterday’s business section, was by Steve Lohr and titled "Belt-Tightening, but No Collapse, Is Forecast in Technology Spending." It relates how corporations are not slashing their IT spending at present despite fears of a recession and other unsettling economic news. Lohr relates that while US corporate tech spending fell 11% in the two years after the dot-com bubble burst, IDC forecasts that IT spending will continue to grow this year, but at 4% rather than last year’s 7%. 

Belief in the power of technology is nicely summed up in the article by a quote from Monte Ford, the CIO of American Airlines. He states his company’s three biggest costs are people, planes, and fuel and maintains that "Technology remains the best lever for getting more value from all those, making your employees more productive, making better use of your fleet, and increasing your fuel efficiency."

The article corresponds well with what I’ve been hearing at conferences, within companies, and in executive education classrooms. The deep skepticism about IT that was part and parcel of the dot-com hangover has largely passed, and has been replaced by a cautious optimism and sincere curiosity about IT’s power. My MBA course "Managing in the Information Age" has attracted almost 120 students this semester, a growth rate of over 50% from last year. I’d like to attribute this to my "To Sir, With Love"-level classroom abilities, but I think that like so many other things, this is not about me. It’s about an awareness on the part of some smart young people starting their business careers that they’d better add some tech to their managerial toolkits.