General Tech Show Musings
Although it has been some time since this years ABA TechShow, my mind and my reference materials will keep taking me back to the show until I have the opportunity to attend another, possibly in the fall. But, I like so many others, have a stack of things that I brought back that I want to read thoroughly and demos of products that I still need to send for as well as products that were in the development stages and havent shipped yet. So, the meeting and the observations made at the meeting continue to resurface. And, as I think about it I smile.
It is just so much fun talking to people about one of my favorite things, technology, and checking out all of the new "toys" at the "toy show". (Just an aside - for any of you vendors who might be reading this - there are those of us who value the time and effort that it takes for you to come to the shows. And those who "know your stuff" are very much appreciated as you serve to supplement the general knowledge provided during the seminar tracts. We thank you. For those who described themselves to me as "just a salesperson/account rep", I have one piece of advice. Take a techie with you. You cant sell a product that you dont know. At least not to the people responsible for implementing whatever it is that you are selling.)
Although I have attended many tech shows over the years, this year I was afforded the extraordinary opportunity of covering various aspects of Techshow 98 as part of this newsletter crew. I had a wonderful time, extended my network of contacts and learned tons about what is available and what other firms/companies are doing, and why. In addition, I gathered a tremendous amount of information from the vendors in the exhibit hall. The sessions I attended provided both interesting and useful information, but I learned the most from my interactions with various end users and other IS professionals.
Being the "sharing" person that I am, I thought I would share my observations with those of you who were there (so you can compare) and try to share a sense of what tech shows are really all about for those of you who have thought about but not attended a tech show of this kind.
The nuts and bolts of the ABA Techshow were generally well managed by the ABA staff. There were the usual complaints about things being so spread out etc. But that can be expected with the need to accommodate so many people from such diverse backgrounds. Everything was pretty much where it should have been and started as well as ended within acceptable parameters. The sessions were "tracked" and generally covered a wide variety of topics of interest to both the technologically adept and the neophyte.
The primary criticism I heard related to content not matching the advertised level of expertise and/or not providing the information promised in the course summary. Those who were disappointed left the sessions early. But, even in that there was a learning experience. It seemed that those of like mind on the issue wound up meeting and talking with each other about the seminar topic. Those who were bored because they already had the knowledge being imparted seemed to wander into the conversations of those who felt the session was way over their heads and wound up helping. Sometimes, in a group that diverse, the learning takes place outside the seminar rooms and one on one. It is inevitable at these kinds of productions that each will interpret the brochure differently and have different expectations.
I personally, was disappointed in one particular session that I would like to see revamped and repeated at the next TechShow or some other similar event. The session which had such promise and finally got to the point about the time that it ended was the transaction oriented presentation entitled "Winning Transaction Case Study". That session had a great deal of promise supported by some serious expertise, but got bogged down. The basic point, however, did come across. Computers can be a tremendous tool for any kind of legal application. In my humble opinion, having done both litigation and transaction work, computers should and can be judiciously employed in most kinds of matters. They are of most benefit when the tool is brought in and used early in the matter. I was appalled to hear from several fellow attendees at that presentation that "only the litigation department attorneys and paralegals" were "allowed" "given" PCs on their desks. Secretaries took care of everything else for all the other departments. Fortunately, that was not true for everyone. But for those who did not have PCs, the general consensus was that everything moved too slowly and they were bogged down and overworked. After the session they, at least, had a vague idea of what a computer could do to help them. I think so much more was there to say, show and share. But that, as they say "is another story".
I was part of a small group discussion after the session and as I described how I have used computers in various business transactions, I saw faces light up, imagination take hold and even a little relief on some faces. Several e-mails followed.
I was also privileged to participate in a number of informal discussions regarding problems with IS/IT departments at several firms and companies. I say, "privileged" because they LET me sit in, even knowing that I am one of THOSE people, but also knowing that I am also one of them, a user.
IT/IS Departments Take Note
Users are UPSET. Although the sessions didnt focus directly on IT/IS problems for concerns relating to growing technology use, almost all discussions contained some comment or conversation relating to the control that IT/IS people had over attorneys practices and their lives. While talking with users (mostly managing partners and users depending on their IS departments for acquisition, implementation, training and day to day "help"), I discovered a "feeling", "perception" that senior IS people dont know what they need to know to do their jobs, (including what the practice of law is all about). Many complain that their departments wont provide the desired level of support, wont let them do whatever it is they want to do etc. This is NOT a good sign. It hurts me to have my profession and fellow professionals perceived in this fashion. On the other hand, I must admit that there are an awful lot of IT/IS professionals who come from other industries, really know their technical "stuff", but have no idea what is needed to support the practice of law. It is NOT like every other profession. At least not all of the time.
Tools or Toys
Another really interesting observation made at both past technical meetings and at this years ABA show, was the delight that many users take in a new tool (read toy). This years must see and play with toy was one that attendees could play with for the entire time they were at the meeting and even after, if the user wished to purchase the toy and take it home. The Palm Pilot was a GREAT HIT and my hat is off to the 3Comm people for their innovative marketing strategy. Even if the user didnt take the Pilot home, that user has had the experience. Just think, there is a whole new group of users out there thinking about what one of those could do for them. And, my guess is that at least some of these users will purchase a Palm Pilot or another hand held device somewhere along the line.
I guess the thing that I enjoyed the most, was seeing people who have "never put their hands on a keyboard" play with the Pilot and find that it "wasnt so hard after all".
Not to take away from the presentations, but when people lost interest, you could see these users pull out their "new techie toy", sit down somewhere and play No directions, no help desk, NO FEAR. They knew if they did something bad to it, they could return it at any time, no questions asked. They also knew there were dozens of people, like themselves, who had never put their hands on this type of device before and that they would not feel silly asking somebody for help. IT WAS MARVELOUS.
My most enduring memory of the seminar was a gentleman of advanced years taking one of the Pilots to one of the little tables nearby, opening it up, looking at the instructions and saying "forget the instructions, I can do this" and he did. Although I didnt know the man, I watched as he "did it", tucked it away in his pocket and walked away with a happy smile. But is it a tool or is it an unnecessary toy? In my opinion, if it teaches and performs a useful function for the user, it is a tool. If it distracts or takes away from productivity, it is a toy. So, I dub it both.
There were other hand held devices at the seminar - some brought by users, some brought by vendors. Several people allowed me to play with some of them. I was most fascinated by the hand held "computers". I love the idea that I can carry a computer along in my purse instead of my briefcase. I see it as the future. Unfortunately, I did not have enough time to really test the systems, but the concept is "just my style". I would love to get my hands on one or more and give them a real run for their money. I can think of all kinds of useful things for them to do. As a paralegal, an administrator, a trainer and professor as well as a parent and very involved in the community, I would bet that if it suited me it would suit everybody else I know too. Think of the market!! Maybe I better design my own.
Did you know that techies, academics, and real world people all have at least one thing in common? Training. Giving or getting, too much, not enough, inappropriate, not enough bang for the buck - you name it. I couldnt believe that it continues to be a real hot button for most organizations and users. Being both a trainer and a "professor" (which are not the same), I got it from all sides. One group wants to be educated about computers - concepts, trends, technological theory, uses, planning - the "why", the big picture. Another wants to know what specific keystrokes are needed to get the job done. They do NOT care how it works or why it is important. They want to sit down in front of a program and have somebody tell them which button to push to get what they want out of the machine. It seems that we, as yet, have not created a balance in the industry, although some firms such as ours try to accomplish both in our training. Not only can our people actually perform the necessary functions, but they know how it works (in case it doesnt one day), why it is necessary, and where it fits into the grand scheme of things.
Imagine my surprise when I was told that this IT department or that training center or a specific persons office could or would not provide certain information because it was on a need to know basis and they didnt need to know. Remember, I am talking with managing partners, senior members of firms and departments and academics. I was also surprised to learn how many firms and corporations have turned to the "help desk" either staffed internally or externally and how unhappy many users were with the telephone or on-line general help. Not all disliked the system, however. Some said that the calls for help dropped dramatically after instituting the help desk although others offered some impolite suggestions as to why that might be. I like help desks and on-line help. But, I generally know what question I am actually asking. Not all users do. And, I expect, people who dont know any better or have never experienced the one on one learning experience that face to face help with a significant problem can provide. Notice, I said significant. The "little stuff" is certainly best handled by a help desk or lower level support person. But for application design and other related functions there is still, in my opinion, no substitute for real people working together over the same project.
As I put away my notes and toys, I keep coming back to one thought. Users are becoming more aware. They are beginning to know what THEY want and what they need and are looking to us in the IT and management world to provide it to them to assist them in the way that they practice. Although they may make some small changes in how they think and do their work, generally, they are not interested in having us tell them how to do their jobs. GOOD FOR THEM.