posted 29 Feb 2004 in Volume 7 Issue 6
Plotting the path to portal success
Appleby Spurling & Kempe (AS&K) was one of the earliest law firms to adopt a more holistic approach to knowledge management rather than simply throwing money at technology and hoping for the best. Christopher Maiden project manager of Pathfinder, AS&K’s portal, offers some insights into the often neglected, softer side of portal development.
When Appleby Spurling & Kempe (AS&K) launched Pathfinder, its enterprise portal, in late 2002, one enthusiastic secretary expressed the general reaction to its arrival: “I use the portal like a lost tourist uses a foreign-language dictionary. It contains everything I need to know or it can tell me where to find it.”
When a portal appeals to such technology-weary and otherwise sceptical support staff, then you know you must have something right. To reach this point, Appleby Spurling & Kempe (AS&K) did some long, hard thinking and widespread internal consulting before embarking on implementing a portal. This is the story of that journey.
Long before portals became fashionable, AS&K recognised that a centralised, web-enabled tool could integrate and simplify access to disparate information sources, using a familiar interface and a single sign-on.
If only we knew what we know
Our problem was not a lack of information. It was the inability to access what was already there on a just-in-time basis, without wasting resources and interrupting work rhythms to get to it.
At its simplest, a portal is just a single-entry point to a vast array of information resources, arranged conveniently and meaningfully for ease of access. Fundamentally, it must make people’s lives easier, by providing a 360-degree view of the daily essentials they need to do their jobs.
Portals broadly resemble a dashboard, with various navigation panels, a sitemap and search facility to help users find what they want, perhaps with the ability to personalise content.
Although company and commercial portals can get much fancier, these essentials characteristics are at the core. Commercial portals, come in two varieties: vertical (tightly focused on specialised content, like the recipe and leisure-based Epicurious.com) or horizontal (covering a diverse range of topics, like Yahoo.com).
Successful portals depend on many factors, including decisions on the content and language used to arrange it (the classification scheme or taxonomy); how to create a well-presented and usable interface (the information architecture); and intangible cultural issues such as people’s preferred working habits and interaction with others when solving problems (the workplace).
The steps towards building a good portal – one that is actually used – cannot be reduced into an oversimplified formula of ten easy, soundbite-sized steps. One size does not fit all. One very good piece of advice is, ‘design twice, build once, which any ‘me too’ organisations ignore at their own risk. After all, you reap what you sow.
Why a portal?
In common with many organisations, AS&K faced familiar workplace challenges:
- Information overload – One of the most persistent problems faced by any organisation in the 21st-century. It has been aptly compared to sipping at a water cannon;
- Integration – Workplaces are riddled with disparate applications that do not talk to each other. Each system has to be interrogated separately with different passwords and protocols, to retrieve a small piece of essential information that is buried inside;
- Information – Failing to find information and wasting time looking for it is expensive. Estimates from various studies reveal that employees spend between 20-30 per cent of their time just looking for information from multiple locations and, more aptly, reinventing the wheel. Organisations squander between eight and twelve hours per week in this way. For larger organisations, this represents astronomical losses each year with the highest figures hovering around $31.5bn;
- Interruption – Attention-deficit disorder afflicts already complex workplaces. Between six-to-ten interruptions an hour is not unusual as people, technologies and information compete for attention and fragment our concentration. Pinpointing what grabs people’s attention and identifying ways to manage its scarcity is a good business discipline that can bring up opportunities for new services or interventions;
- Finding needles in haystacks – A powerful search engine (think Google or Teoma) is essential for separating the relevant from the potentially useful. Search engines are a familiar technology that have become another ‘killer app’ for today’s internet-democratised workforce. They can also help increase serendipity by uncovering valuable material that may not otherwise be discovered, and refine results with additional filters. A portal without a search engine is like a body without a heart;
Knowledge loss or deficiency – Reducing ‘time to competency’ for new hires and minimising the loss of expertise through retirement or turnover affects any organisation’s ability to compete, sustain itself or contain costs. Capturing and baking expertise into people’s routine workflow is part of the solution. A portal may help, assuming appropriate comfort levels with the supporting technologies, such as discussion groups or weblogs;
- Who knows what? - Signposting and connectivity tools help people know who they should talk to, and how to locate the experts or gurus in their networks. Employees need to know how to get answers, and not just documents, to questions quickly. Sometimes, your next-door neighbour may know the answer to the question but you may not even know that you are that close to finding the answer. Incorporating an expertise locator or skills directory in a portal can help. This can be linked to discussion groups or blogging software for exchanging practice know-how;
- Where does it hurt? – Locating ‘pain’ in the company can offer clues to potential new support services. Listening to war stories about problems identifies the attention-grabbing hotspot. For example, a growing compliance burden, increased concern about risk management or emergent cross-disciplinary or hybrid practice areas are usually more knowledge intensive. You can then map the knowledge gaps or deficiencies that exist, or what similar types of knowledge different groups need, and the solutions delivered through a portal.
These are all familiar challenges for organisations but a portal alone will not solve them. Portals do not operate in a vacuum but in the tricky and often unpredictable terrain of human affairs.
Into the wild
This is the realm of resistance to change, adjustment to new work habits and compromises. It is where the real work takes place, despite the formal orthodoxy of organisational charts and impediment of official hierarchies.
Portals must take into account the unwritten rules of engagement in the workplace. Transactions involve conversational exchanges, reciprocity, group loyalties and psychological deals between people.
The trust, mutual understanding and shared values that underpin these exchanges are today recognised as social capital: the currency used to get things done. The management and completion of a project involves much trading on social capital.
If you have fundamental communication problems in your organisation, such as territoriality or poor, unrewarded or under-compensated knowledge-sharing practices, a portal will not resolve them and might even make them worse. This is not a technology issue; it is primarily about the existing habitat and adjusting, or even accommodating, human behaviour.
Appleby Spurling & Kempe recognised and tackled all these issues before taking on a portal. To do otherwise would have been lethally premature. Within the typical structure of a law-firm partnership, this more holistic approach inevitably took longer. It did not guarantee untroubled progress but it generally made for a much smoother implementation with less user resistance.
Building the beast
Before the firm’s senior management, through its Strategic IT Review caucus, officially endorsed the project, we carried out lengthy consultation with stakeholders across the firm. A project team and IT consultant/system designer was approved, and with complementary expertise and a budget, work began on Pathfinder’s planning and design.
Project team members included a partner, the IT consultant/system designer, senior practice managers and representatives from fee-earner and secretarial communities. Other expertise was co-opted on a just-in-time basis, for system security, intellectual-property issues, usability and the development of suitable metrics to gauge projected benefits.
This versatile team communicated openly and collaborated systematically, which is another reason for Pathfinder’s success.
Pilot testing was undertaken in the crucible of the ‘live’ workplace, with a diverse test group of representative employees and fee-earners, whose range of comfort levels with technology varied widely. This ensured that the finished product was robust before being rolled-out across the firm, and that the design and content matched the needs of the users, rather than the other way around.
After brainstorming and canvassing views, a portal name was agreed thereby ensuring strong branding while helping stimulate some pre-launch buzz in the firm.
We also tested a self-help guide, drafted in a frequently asked-questions style, on volunteers in preparation for the launch training programme, which was publicised through carefully sequenced announcements.
By the people for the people
When we launched Pathfinder, it embodied the self-service resources requested during the consultative stage and was arranged around a separate design based on a tab per community. As Knowledge Management goes to press, version two of the portal is on the cusp of launch and has moved to a topic-cluster arrangement, which better assimilates the expanded worldwide office content and utilises screen real estate more efficiently.
Quick links to an array of frequently used resources cover case law and legislation from Bermuda and other jurisdictions, daily newspapers, the library catalogue, official Bermuda websites, engagement and compliance documentation, reliable business information, translation tools and high value, internally annotated know-how.
A grab bag of key marketing-collateral materials is positioned prominently for attorneys in a hurry, preparing for a business trip. We have conveniently clustered together important administrative forms for support staff and department managers, a facility that we have further streamlined and consolidated for Pathfinder version two.
Fast, simplified access to time entry, work in progress and accounts-receivable information is available for fee-earners. Eye-catching pie charts make their rapid assimilation much easier for the busy and distracted.
These simple artifices make Pathfinder ‘sticky’ as they encourage users to be loyal, to return and use further elements by enabling people to discover other goodies in passing.
One busy corporate attorney said that, “There are so many things we have to do and carry in our heads. Everything I need is now in one place, a click or two away at my fingertips. I no longer waste time learning multiple, complicated systems. It is an excellent one-stop shop.”
For people who previously struggled hunting for documents, the search engine has proved popular, so it is being enhanced for version two. One fee-earner said that, “I now use Pathfinder all the time and can find whatever I want quickly, even when the client is on the phone. Previously, it took forever.”
Secretarial staff are another happy customer segment. They are able to access a wide range of forms, fee-related and other financial information that is integral to their work. They also love Pathfinder because they helped design it; for them it is an effective tool for supporting their fee-earners.
Another secretary gave Pathfinder high praise indeed, “In a world of so many poorly designed computer products, the portal is refreshingly different - It actually helps us.”
Pathfinder was not an imposed solution looking for a problem. It was driven and developed by those that would be its beneficiaries. That was, and remains, a key determinant of its success. The frequent use of the feedback button for new ideas, suggestions or complaints, attests to its daily use and dynamic nature. We make frequent improvements, and version two takes the feature set and functionality to an even higher level. We have added more user personalisation, a ‘concierge’ facility, and greater control and automation for content authors.
A usable interface
A centralised visual space lies at the heart of Pathfinder. It is a single, branded focal point and employees come to it for most of their recommended intake of daily information.
Navigation panels and ‘you are here’ trails help people maintain their bearings because they need to feel they are in familiar terrain when they work. Pathfinder clusters their information by community or topic, cross-referenced where necessary to other domains of knowledge, into which they may need to step briefly.
To categorise our content we have applied a taxonomy or classification scheme. As we have discovered, the politics of achieving a consensus on one can be quite a challenge. Our general rule has been to keep it simple and familiar. Terms were used which reflected the everyday usage of the very people who would be expected to use them to search for information on or via the portal.
In a bid to balance flexibility with consistency of language, Pathfinder’s arrangement combined in-house, preferred usage with internationally recognised legal terms. Design was also simpler as it borrowed terms already used for categorising matters in the firm.
Learning and earning
Pathfinder has strengthened AS&K’s capacity for learning and rapid knowledge transfer. By incorporating directory tools for locating in-house experts and their key documents quickly, rookies can accelerate their learning with more focus and depth.
Volatile ‘yellow pages’ type information is available, such as daily announcements that would otherwise congest e-mail applications; policy and procedural changes; worldwide weather and holidays, time zones, currency converters and dialling codes; breaking newsfeeds and investment information from reputable sources.
Client intelligence and their customer touchpoints with the firm are also being built into Pathfinder, although we are at an early stage of development. In time, this information will be mixed and matched with other client-preference data and made available through Pathfinder to support expert teams that straddle more than one practice area.
Pathfinder is therefore part of a coherent attempt to contain or reduce information overload and cut down on distractions. Busy practitioners can concentrate on essential fee-earning activities such as developing new practice knowledge or recombining it.
Pathfinder’s natural habitat
We deliberately structured Pathfinder around identifiable practice communities to support their preferred modes of working. However, we recognise that this is only one tool that people use when doing their jobs and making sense of their environment.
Peer advice, informal intelligence and interpretive know-how can be gleaned or ‘tested’ from other sources, such as water-cooler or kitchen chat, telephone conversations, informal mentoring down the hall, or through formal apprenticeship-style programmes. In other words, from their natural habitat or neighbourhood telegraph.
This natural habitat is the interpretive context for Pathfinder’s content because useful or meaningful knowledge is always situational or context dependent. Different peer communities are stewards and ‘validators’ of actionable knowledge for their transactions or area of expertise. They are the ones that know what they know, or need to know, and how best to interpret and apply the answers they uncover or exchange with peers. Practice groups share differing sets of values, information needs and specialist vocabularies. When problem solving or information gathering, they select their preferred tools from the available range.
Pathfinder aims to blend into this workplace biodiversity rather than disrupt it. We do not impose the portal as a straitjacket regardless of the complexity of context or users’ other information-gathering preferences.
Organisations as ecologies
Pathfinder is part of a diverse, wider ecology, a web of interconnected and mutually interdependent expertise. In the future businesses will be readily seen in this way, and people will recognise the delicate balance of interrelationships. The interaction within and dialogue between various practice communities represents a series of value networks, which are the pulse of innovation and practice development. The portal’s actionable content is fed and sustained by these networks.
If we slice and dice an organisation to death, we lose this richness. Employees should not operate in disconnected, territorial fragments or hierarchies, whose members may not even talk to each other. Cross-selling to clients becomes more difficult and routine but important knowledge transfer, needed just to get the job done, is hampered.
Extending Pathfinder’s reach
Underlying Pathfinder’s development was the key question ‘will it make doing our jobs easier?’ Initial reaction through both formal and informal channels reveals a resounding ‘yes’ from most users.
Despite our success, there are still the inevitable diehards who remain stubbornly disinterested or indifferent to the portal, despite its value and simplicity. People have their own reasons for their choices, so in the interests of biodiversity and the wider ecology of the firm, we live and let live. Sometimes, an information emergency can trigger a resort to Pathfinder, and precipitate a consequent epiphany.
We will soon launch version two of Pathfinder. We continue to shape the portal’s design and content around the working lives of its users, in all the firm’s worldwide offices. Its value as an interoffice tool – that acts like a glue – is now even more critical, given that the firm responded to the demands of globalisation in early 2004.
By involving representatives of key user communities and practice contexts in the design of Pathfinder, we have been able to extend its reach, while ensuring maximum buy-in. Meanwhile, as the firm continues to grow, the project team will endeavour to improve on what we have already accomplished.
Christopher Maiden is project manager of Pathfinder at Appleby Spurling & Kempe. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org