Open Business: In praise of lawyers

Lawyers tend to get a raw deal in conversations about digital technology and organisational change.

They’re typically cast as the stubborn naysayers, steadfastly blocking any attempts at change and reluctant to support any initiative that involves the introduction of new technology – especially if it means the business becoming more open.

I’m glad to say my experience is different.

I’ve had the opportunity to work on a number of digital and organisational change projects across a range of industries. In each case the corporate lawyer has been a great ally of change. This even applies in particularly complex and highly regulated industries like healthcare and pharmaceuticals where very real legal risks exist, alongside commercial and reputational concerns.

In each case the corporate legal team was an important ally in helping devise the frameworks within which the change could take place safely and successfully. Safely – in ensuring no external rules or regulations are broken or the position of any employees, partners or customers is put at risk. And successfully – in helping ensure the business’ fundamental objectives are met.

I was reminded of this at the excellent Patchwork Elephant event last Friday, which concluded Social Media Week London. The event hosted a great mix of speakers, all of whom offered contrasting and perceptive observations on the changes being wrought by social and digital technologies on business.

It was IBM’s Luis Suarez though who picked up on my personal interest in the legal aspect of open business in his answer to a question I asked about managing intellectual property. In replying he said (and I paraphrase) that lawyers can be crucial enablers rather than a barrier, because they can help define the intellectual capital within the organisation and where the value lies.

This role – as definers of a value framework within the organisation and the market it operates in – is key.

By creating a framework for change, the business can resolve the tension between traditional models and practices, and the organisational, behavioural, technical and cultural changes needed to achieve a more open environment and realise all the benefits that promises.

In effect, the framework provides a means to hold the plan accountable against the core objectives of the business. It can determine where, how and in what aspect open practices can deliver value and therefore how intellectual property is defined, created and managed. In doing so it also ensures the plan is of genuine strategic value rather than an end in itself. This applies for the business and all its stakeholders in equal measure, because unless the value proposition is clear to everyone concerned, the plan will struggle to succeed.

But arguably most importantly, this approach gives a much more solid basis to evaluate success. With a plan in place geared  towards the delivery of strategic objectives, the business can quantify the success of its changes in terms of clear, meaningful outcomes. These might include:

  • Generating more sales
  • Increasing the value of existing customers
  • Accelerating the R&D cycle
  • Increasing the volume of new product/service initiatives
  • Increasing customer retention
  • Enhancing customer service efficiency
  • Reducing employee churn rates
  • Recruiting quality talent in competitive disciplines
  • Addressing specific reputational issues

With clearly defined goals and the discipline to guide organisational change, the business has a far greater chance of achieving its goals. For me it’s telling that some of the oldest and most established organisations with rich heritages, culture and ways of working, like IBM, Shell*, or P&G, are considered leaders in innovation and progressive business practices. Sometimes it’s the ones who appear the most cautious and conservative who are the true agents of change.

*Shell is an Edelman client.

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2 thoughts on “Open Business: In praise of lawyers

  1. Pingback: What next for Social Business? Patchwork Elephant Event Report : Enterprise Irregulars

  2. Pingback: Agile Elephant – What next for Social Business? Patchwork Elephant Event Report

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