MyFondia VirtualLawyer
March 26, 2015

On Work, Resilience and Intent: The Changing Legal Environment

You have work to do you don't have time for? Ask TaskRabbit, a US-based company, that provides task performers called 'Rabbits' on demand. Through their online platform, four million USD worth tasks are offered each month, and the demand for their Rabbits, including an Elite service, is growing fast.

Task performance is increasingly automated, and platforms for ever more sophisticated problem solving are emerging. Kaggle, for example, invites those scientifically inclined to compete on solving tough problems related to ocean health, flight paths or malware with predictive analytics. Kaggle partners with many leading companies to address issues of strategic importance to them. GE Aviation for one, learned how to save millions in engine fuel through a Kaggle competition.

Such innovation is accelerating. For more than ten years Fondia has been changing legal industry rules and ways of engaging clients. Digital channels (virtual lawyer services) and novel pricing models have been introduced that allow professional law experts to focus on proactively contributing to business decisions.

Inspired by the example set by Fondia, I reflect on some observations that may have bearing on future innovation.

First, as business environments are becoming open in terms of the flow of ideas and innovations, legal astuteness is needed. It is not enough to have a lawyer on the other end of the telephone but employees need to be more skilled in continuously coping with sharing and protecting knowledge. In an article with prof. Sirkka Jarvenpaa (California Management Review, Fall 2014), we identified a number of such interactive revealing practices in an opportunity creation network. These sharing and protecting practices allowed the network participants to innovate together. I suggest legal astuteness is of increasing importance as employees work together across company boundaries. Much like quality became 'everyone's job' in the 1960's, using knowledge to innovate is now 'everyone's responsibility' but it will require astuteness to do so: Know what to share and what to protect, and how. Experienced legal professionals may be good teachers of such astuteness.

Second, business risks are harder and harder to manage in any planned way. New strategies are emerging that suggest continuous testing of company defenses to reveal their vulnerabilities. Cyberattacks exploit such weaknesses. The vulnerabilities are exposed only after someone has managed to breach through. There may be an analog to law here. How resilient is the foundation on which the company builds its legal defenses? Similarly as in cybersecurity, constant testing of the foundation may be needed to find the vulnerabilities before someone is able to exploit them. Perhaps lawyers - on your side – increasingly provide the smart evaluation of such potential exposure?

Third, strategy literature knows the term strategic intent that suggests a direction the company is heading. Strategic intent also describes the ambition that the company sets for itself, perhaps a stretch target or a visionary goal. A few decades ago Canon sought to beat Xerox (and did). More recently, Toyota – before (ironically) succumbing to quality problems, became a larger car manufacturer than the-then-world-leader, GM.

I suggest companies would do well to reflect on their legal intent. In a competitive business environment that challenges companies to consider their innovation strategies, from open to closed, it seems legal intent, or the company's direction and ambition in terms of sharing and protecting its knowledge base, is important. In business models that build on freemium-pricing or that provide the code free, service on charge, or that include a free product in a package of services, or that uses fluid resources from outside the company to perform work, legal intent may increasingly be the most important component in the company's strategy. How do we enhance our competitive edge while building our ability to continue innovating and engaging customers?

Making the client as an effective co-innovator, partnering with competitors or outsourcing key tasks means opening the company's knowledge resources and sharing them with others. The legal intent ought to guide those involved in their engagement and ensure that the company is able to innovate faster than its competitors or otherwise protect its future business potential.

In the world where work is splintering and being shared around – TaskRabbits, Kaggle data scientists and others performing tasks and solving problems and perhaps even finding the soft underbelly for attack – it is easy to lose sight of the big picture.

The big picture starts with: 1. Ensure legal astuteness as a widely-shared skill among employees; 2. Support resilience by exposing business vulnerabilities before they have been exploited by less than friendly parties; and 3. Develop carefully thought out legal intent for guiding business development and partner engagement.