Leslie Perrin is managing partner of Osborne Clarke. He can be contacted on email@example.com.
Living on the edge as we managing partners do, I ventured out recently with the Bathwick Group futurists at The Churchill in Portman Square to talk turkey (or is that turk-e?) on e-commerce. Given Tony's recent cri de coeur on the theme (if you're not in it in three years, yada, yada…), the seminar, shyly named "Land of the New Giants", looked promising. At last, it seemed, the e-go had landed.
There was the usual slight tang of the Temperance Hall about the whole shebang. On stage, a crew of e-vangelists warbling on about the future – and in the cheap seats a slew of e-virgins gagging for news of Java-based mobiles, nanochips and internet access through their fridge. I took deep breaths through my nose and didn't panic.
I awarded catchphrase of the night to Richard Scase, (billed as a "Business Futurist" but in real life, Professor of Organisational Behaviour at Kent), for "The Death of Distance, the Death of Size". It appears that where governments, activists, terrorists et al have tried and failed, the digital revolution will liberate us all. As the saying goes, online no one knows you're a dog. And yet, far from being the great leveller de nos jours, it looks as if the net has quirks and foibles of its own.
For example, compare, as we were asked to, sedate superstore John Lewis with fashion tyros boo.com. What could they have in common? The non plus ultra in streetwear and the store for whom the word hip is usually suffixed with transplant? John Lewis, boo – even the names speak of different worlds. Or do they? The never knowingly undersold one has gone online with a vengeance, and an aim to be the best food and drink e-tailer in town. boo, on the other hand is underpinning its credibility with a string of high street shops.
But this is one of the paradoxes of e-business. No wonder the big boys approach this high risk and unpredictable medium much in the way they might a rabid dog. It's chaos theory, pure and simple. Not for nothing has Bathwick called its follow-up seminar "Nightmare on E Street".
You can understand the caution out there. But the e-vangelists are right. If this is not seen as an opportunity, it will be a threat. As the saying goes: "To those whom the gods would destroy, they send 30 years of success." Or, to rephrase it in a more contemporary form: "A captive market is a death sentence." Are you listening Marks and Spencer?
The real challenge for the business of law, however, lies beyond just mastering the medium. This is not about viral marketing or banner ads. The important thing is to create an organisation which can both make the required commitment for technology to flourish and accept the enrichment that technology can offer. Hierarchies be warned: this stuff is highly corrosive, and rather intolerant of those whose excitement lies in construing an incorporeal hereditament behind closed doors.
For law firms, on line and off, it is the convergence of professional, technological and commercial functions and competencies within a truly inclusive integrated culture that will count for everything.
These days, said our Bathwick panel, technologically creative people do not want to work for Brontosaurus plc. They're not looking for regimes that promise the big time, some time, but shared values, shared ideas and shared profit. They want equity – and they want it now. The death of distance, the death of size. Let's hope so… that's e-biz, folks.