Many general counsels think of digital transformation as a buzzword, but what real progress are we seeing in this space?
There are a group of people and organisations leading the pack and having success, but for many there is still a long way to go because transformation is a difficult and complex process that takes time. An in-house legal department isn’t necessarily top of the list for investment in technology, and the internal skills needed to support transformation are often prioritised to other parts of the business. I think most general counsels would say “we need to change” but not all are sure of the best way of doing this.
Are innovation and digital transformation the same thing?
No. Innovation is about challenging the established norms by rethinking or reimagining how something is done, whereas transformation is an extended process. With innovation, you can experiment without necessarily having identified the benefit or value you want to deliver. You can also try something, test to see if it works, and then build on that. Transformation is about longer-term change that should have a clear return on investment. Innovation can spark transformation; you might experiment with something, realise it can be done differently, and design your transformation programme around that.
Does embracing a digital future always mean implementing legal tech?
Not all transformation needs to be digital; it’s an enabler, not the objective itself. But if you’re embracing a digital future, technology can be the key catalyst for helping you change and deliver on that. You need to understand what you want to achieve from your transformation and what technology is out there. It’s about matching the two. In other words: where do I want my in-house legal department to be in three years and what technology is available to help me get there? Plus, what else do I need to do to achieve that transformation and properly implement that technology successfully?
What advice would you give to a general counsel about to embark on a digital transformation journey?
At its simplest my advice would be to plan, engage and embed.
Before you do anything, plan your strategy. What do you want your next generation operating model to look like? What do you want to deliver and how will you deliver it? How will you add more value to your organisation at the end of this transformation period? Transformation takes time, so you may need to plan for a period of three years.
Then engage with your customers to properly validate their needs. For an in-house legal department, customers will typically be the internal business. Discuss the new operating model you are working towards to meet their needs. Work together with them to deliver it. That way you’re not assuming what the business needs, you know because you asked them. Engage with other senior stakeholders to make sure your transformation is supporting wider business change, and with suppliers too – many will have gone through the change that you’re looking to deliver and can offer support.
Finally, embed. Transformation is a long-term effort and requires determination and persistence. You need a team of people to help you deliver and remember, it’s about cultural change as much as operational change; people have to understand the new vision you’re striving for, believe it, aspire to it, and so work with you to help deliver it.
What skills do general counsels need to successfully lead a change management project like this?
Again, I think three things: leadership, risk-taking, and determination.
Once you’ve painted an aspirational vision of the future, you need to adopt it yourself and be a strong advocate for it. You also need to assemble the right team to help deliver it – not just lawyers, but people with different skills to help deliver the transformation.
Risk-taking is important too: experimenting with something new that doesn’t have a clear return on investment. You don’t know whether it’s going to be successful or deliver greater value, save time or cut costs. If you’re successful, it will significantly move things along. If it doesn’t deliver what you had hoped, you’ve learnt something and can build on that.
Risk-taking can also make the more conservative elements of transformation feel more achievable. When you’re trying to push people towards big change, the smaller changes feel safer in comparison. You need a range of actions to drive the process forward; some are quick wins, others are more genuinely transformative and innovative.
Lastly, determination. For most people this will be a long slog, so keep going at it. It will be worth it.
In your opinion, what is the greatest invention of the past decade?
I would pick video streaming. While video streaming isn’t a new innovation, the end of the decade saw a major shift in how we consume media. Netflix became the clear leader with a new hierarchy of both tech companies and entertainment businesses launching platforms. This change has been further fuelled by the pandemic. With cinemas being closed, a number of distributors are now releasing content direct to video streaming with films being produced specifically for streaming platforms. On demand is something that consumers want, not something the content providers are trying to force on them – and for me, that is transformative in the right way.