“Management is efficiency in climbing the ladder of success; leadership determines whether the ladder is leaning against the right wall.”- Stephen Covey

Are your ladders leaning against the right walls?

Successfully implementing new technology in a corporate legal department is often about leadership, management and choosing the correct “wall” to reach the desired destination: an optimally efficient office. 

Making technology decisions from the top

For the typical C-level IP executive, making the right tech decisions for the company is necessary and yet increasingly complicated. Technology plays an essential role in doing business today and can provide a much-needed competitive advantage, especially now that the America Invents Act (AIA) rewards companies that are first to file rather than those who are first to invent. Slow and steady no longer wins the patent race.

In the past, top IP officers didn’t need to use technology applications on a daily basis. Today is a much different world. With shrinking budgets for administrative staff and a globally dispersed, mobile workforce that requires data access on the go, no one is excluded from the use of software. Everyone must be plugged in to collaborate efficiently and be productive. As such, senior executives must understand software’s function and value proposition before signing off on its purchase. A cursory understanding is not adequate. And with senior staff on board, IP team members will more likely view the change and use of software as mandatory rather than optional. Due diligence on the part of top executives ensures the ladder is placed against the proper wall so everyone gets to the top.

Considering the move to digital IP management

A number of forward-thinking organizations have recognized the benefit of electronic workflow and have started adopting digital management and collaboration systems for IP. However, despite the availability of proven software, most companies still use a cumbersome hybrid system that combines digital with paper-based workflow and physical file cabinets for document storage. Companies relying on paper will fall behind and be less competitive, especially considering the AIA and demise of paper-based economies.

Digitizing IP information represents a major transition for any company, large or small. Executed properly, it will boost productivity and pay for itself quickly. Handled poorly, it will waste time and money, and there is little tolerance for that in today’s fast-moving economic climate. Choosing the right software for an organization and providing support and leadership so it can be successfully deployed rests squarely on the shoulders of the company’s IP leadership.

Managing change, step by step

To successfully implement a major change such as initiating the move to digital IP management, a leader must follow a proven change management process. First, the leader and evaluation committee must establish clear goals and define realistic expectations for their project. Understanding how other organizations have implemented similar change is a common, and best-practice, place to start. Knowing where others have made mistakes in both goal-setting and execution will provide a great deal of baseline information from which to begin.

Next, it is critical to review the technology options and then authorize purchase of the software that best meets the specific goals of the change process.

Representative stakeholders from legal, IT and the administrative staff must come together to effectively carry out the change management process that will improve buy-in and the success rate for the intended change. The senior executives’ support of the project must remain consistent throughout the process, as their influence gives the project the determination to withstand the inevitable resistance.

Once a project team has committed to the technology rollout, change management steps will facilitate ascent up the ladder. It is helpful to adhere to a change management process that takes organizations through a series of major stages including: alignment, preparation, adoption, training and return on investment (ROI). The top leadership must guide this process so it stays on course and does not lose momentum or direction.

  • Alignment: Alignment entails arranging objects—or people—in straight or parallel lines so everyone is going in the same direction. A good leader will gather input to create a strategy, define the stakeholders and gain their commitment so there is consensus. Stakeholders are ultimately accountable to leadership for showing steadfast commitment to see the project come to fruition. A two-way dialogue between leaders and stakeholders is essential so the accountability is mutual and both sides feel a sense of ownership of the project. It needs to be perceived as a “win-win” proposition.

IP leaders must understand how to motivate people to undertake change, depending on their unique perspective and “pain points.” For example, the priorities of IP lawyers will be different from those of support staff, which will be different still from those of IT. Because of these variables, it is crucial to break complex processes down into simple, clear components that everyone can understand. Stakeholders want technology to deliver accurate and straightforward answers to complex IP processes, but the system must be easy for them to learn and use. To get stakeholders to buy in to the idea of adopting new software, a leader must demonstrate that the technology initiative will help them achieve their goals.  

The entire team needs to be convinced of the software’s ability to deliver better efficiency and collaboration. Problematic issues with a paper filing system may include wasted time, undocumented drafts, waiting in queue for a paper file and quality assurance. Paper files can take days to reach an attorney’s desk, which stagnates progress on a case that can have a negative ripple effect on the whole department and the corporation, too. Management needs to understand where people are coming from in their unique roles and challenges and then demonstrate how the technology will mitigate these pain points so that everyone—or nearly everyone—agrees to go in the same direction. 

  • Preparation: Benjamin Franklin said, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” Being prepared involves understanding your business process, noting objectives that each constituency is trying to achieve and creating a clear implementation plan. In a corporate legal environment, lawyers, paralegals and administrative staff will all derive different value from the new electronic system. When creating the plan, their input is important, so leaders can gather “wish lists” from a variety of people in the department. That way, your resulting plan reflects what people value and prioritize in their daily workflow. 

Categorize your team according to how they will use the new software. Some people may appear in more than one category. Then, outline how each group will use the software and determine what kind of customization and training will be needed by each constituency. Important details to consider are workflow (how the information moves from person to person), file management and hardware considerations such as which devices will be used to access the software. A clear road map to your team’s processes and needs will be extremely useful in the adoption phase.

  • Adoption: The best technology is wasted if it is not properly used. Adoption requires the leader to exert influence by expressing to stakeholders why the software was chosen, when the rollout is happening, when it is going to be accomplished and that they will be expected to learn and use it.

It is important to present the rollout as a positive move that will benefit people by saving them time and headaches. Easing the team into the software adoption gradually by only showing them a few features at a time helps relieve worry for those that seem initially overwhelmed by or suspicious of the unfamiliar technology. Also, people need to be reassured that they will be adequately trained on the new systems so they will be able to maintain productivity despite the learning curve.

  • Training: There are several key ingredients for successful training, including good communication and a desire on the part of leadership to listen to team members’ concerns or worries. Leaders must recognize that there will be different factions, including early adopters who will be eager to learn and use the system, naysayers who will resist and complain about the change, power users who will learn quickly and be able to help teach others, and a larger standard group that will agree, perhaps grudgingly, to learn the software to the extent needed by their job, but not beyond. 

A good leader identifies a few key champions early on and will encourage these players to rally laggards during the training process. The more supporters show their enthusiasm and help the leader engage others, the more effective training will be.

The leader must convey to the team that training is required, not suggested, for all team members and will set an example, especially if they are to have any interaction with the system. Also, it is important to remember that enforcing a clear cut-off date for the training and rollout is vital to light a fire under the team and help everyone participate fully in the process and realize the benefits of the software.

  • ROI: ROI is a magic concept because it helps justify the expenditure of new software before purchase, and then confirms that the right choice was made after the rollout is complete. Documenting how and when the technology pays for itself is a smart strategic move for an IP leader. Using ROI as a measuring stick, leaders can verify the bottom-line value to management who are generally more interested in the numbers than “soft” benefits such as improved morale or streamlined workflow and collaboration.

Using the ROI numbers generated from the subjective benefits post-rollout is also an often overlooked tool that leaders can use to ensure long-term support for the new software. Although initial buy-in and support is necessary to get things implemented, long-term dedication will help ensure that the staff and firm are leveraging all advantages of the software for years to come. It also helps lock in stakeholder buy-in for any future updates that might need to be made.

The view from the top

The IP leader is, by definition, at the top. As such, he or she has the most visibility to see the path to the top of the ladder and to be an effective guide to others.

Corporate IP department leaders must be prepared to oversee an effective change management process. The migration from a paper-based or hybrid paper/electronic model to a purely digital approach has growing pains, but done correctly, any discomfort will be dwarfed by the benefits that result for the department and the corporation as a whole. Famed success writer Napoleon Hill said, “The ladder of success is never crowded at the top,” and if you manage change effectively, your efforts will put you solidly at the top of the right wall.