Monday, June 15, 2009

Wow… Great Game !!!

You may have heard the expression; “Can’t get blood from a turnip!” It is the very thing some try to do when pushed to the brink. I have seen this phrase played out several times over the last couple of weeks. As the economy continues to sputter, companies continue to seek ways to stay afloat. For some businesses, there is quest for survival, and management tactics have gone from the logical to the completely illogical.

Recently I was talking to Sheila, the CIO of a major law firm. It may have been the executive management pressure or simply the need to shield her from the upcoming lay-offs that caused her to ask me, “How can we use technology to win more business?” It was one of the few times in my career when I was left speechless, probably because I never associated technology and closing a deal. To move the conversation along I threw out a few off the cuff remarks and we continued to discuss current trends in technology. However, several days later I continue to ruminate on the question.

I guess Sheila feels she is under the microscope as she had spent upwards of $750k to bring some of the latest technology to the firm. Now the managing partner wants an ROI, not on paper but in a tangible form. The return, in the eyes of the partner, must equate to landing new business. Equally, she feels a need to contribute to the success of the firm, but she is unsure how this will come about.

After dissecting the question, viewing it from several perspectives and conferring with several colleagues, I don’t believe that one could use technology to ‘win more business’. Technology is a tool to manage and run businesses. It is a tool no different than a photocopier, a telephone or a ball point pen. Technology in and of itself won’t lead to the landing of new business no more than owning a pen leads one to being an author. Instead technology will make the task of business management easier, more cost effective and more insightful. The value of technology in business, I believe, has a tiered effect. Where some technologies are vitally basic, others add tremendous cost savings and others are ‘nice-to-have’.

Very simplistically, a business in any industry needs a basic amount of technology to exist. As an example, every business needs a telephone – a way of connecting with the outside world, without which its chance of survival is slim. Having a basic amount of technology puts an organization in the ‘playing field’ with other organizations. Beyond the basics, the addition of more technology acts to streamline work and reduce costs. With the addition of differentiated technology, organizations obtain more information about themselves and their market, thus providing more insight into better ways of obtaining business. There is a ‘critical mass’ in the addition of technology to an organization. There is a point at which the addition of more technology has little if any impact on the organization’s cost saving.

Going back to my CIO colleague, Sheila, I had to ask: What makes your firm different in your local market? What technologies have you adopted that are different from those firms in your market? I was not surprised at the response I received. As it turns out, Shelia’s firm is one of six firms of comparable size and practice demographics in her area. Further, the technology she has adopted is similar, to a large extent, to that of the comparable firms. What I gleamed from her response, her firm’s market space consists of six firms all competing for the same business. Also, the adoption of technology by Shelia’s firm was a ‘basic’ requirement to keep her firm in the same playing field with the other five firms.

While asking more probing questions, I was not able to get a sense that Sheila could quantify what made her firm unique in their market space. The uniqueness of an organization is its competitive advantage. It is the defining attributes that make customers/clients chose one firm over another. Dialoguing with Sheila, I tried to find what made her firm unique, and I couldn’t. Interestingly this isn’t as rare as one would think. So many organizations, especially in the professional services arena cannot explain their competitive advantage – their uniqueness. With fierce competition and the consumer not conversant with the goods/service, professional services firms have often commoditized their offering. To the client/consumer, the services of law all come down to price. Legal services have become a commodity like, comparable to auto fuel.

In Sheila’s market, the providing of legal services has become a commoditized zero sum game. There is a finite amount of work and it must be shared amongst the six competing firms. Clients will chose the firm based on relationships and price, that is it! Not surprisingly, the price of legal work has become the determining factor in a client’s selection of a firm. Since all the firms have adopted similar technologies, they all maintain the same competitive cost structure. To break out of this lock-step with the competing firms, Sheila’s firm must: (1) determine its uniqueness, and separate itself from the other firms (2) leverage technology to provide the best cost structure possible to providing their services.

I believe that the best way to understand the firm’s uniqueness is to put together the firm’s ‘elevator pitch’, that 100-150 word, 30 second sales statement that makes the firm uniquely different than all others in their market space. The firm’s ‘elevator pitch’ must be the mantra of everyone in the organization. It must be emblazoned in the hearts and minds of everyone’s contribution.

Once the firm can explain their competitive advantage, then they should seek to strategically deploy those technologies that also support the values of its ‘pitch’. In a December 2008 interview, Nishith Desai, the founder of Nishith Desai Associates (Mumbai, Indai), says, “Technology has always been our value driver and has helped make our firm global”. Essentially, the firm specializes in cross-border transactional work with a focus on the financial services, IT and telecom, pharma and life sciences. The firm incorporates technology to streamline the operational and service processes thereby increasing the value (ROI) of the engagements.

As we continue to navigate this economic turbulence, consider ‘what makes my organization unique in the marketplace?’ and it shouldn’t be ‘what technology I have’. Your organization’s survival comes down to its Darwinian Genetics, “What makes us uniquely different than out competitors?” Then as the elevator doors close and all eyes are fixated on that LCD screen of breaking news, look to the person beside you and think can I explain my company’s unique qualities and purpose before the doors open, instead of saying – Great Game…eh!

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