CIO100 2017 #27: Nick Whitehouse, MinterEllisonRuddWatts
“Market forces across the global legal industry have turned technology into a competitive weapon for law firms to use in what I call a digital arms race,” says Nick Whitehouse, chief digital officer at law firm MinterEllisonRuddWatts.
“We need to transform or risk being overtaken.”
Thus, every major programme he and his team have rolled out have been towards sharpening the technology tools for the business to remain competitive.
In a first in New Zealand, MinterEllisonRuddWatts has entered into a joint venture (JV) with Goat Ventures to explore, and capitalise on, the application of artificial intelligence (AI) for legal services.
The JV did not come about overnight, says Whitehouse, who led the initiative.
It all started back in 2015, and the board asked “How are we innovating?”
This led us to create a lab to curate and prioritise sustaining and disruptive ideas, says Whitehouse, who joined the firm that year.
Using the lean startup methodology, we built a minimum viable product from one of these disruptive ideas, he says. It was this idea that acted as the catalyst for the resulting engagement with Goat Ventures.
Whitehouse met the executives Goat Ventures when he joined the NZ innovation mission in Israel led by Spark CEO Simon Moutter.
As a law firm, neither the technology nor the commercialisation of technology are our core strengths, he says. “Goat was more than capable in these areas, bringing together a wealth of technical capability to create what is arguably one of the strongest seed phase AI startup’s around at the moment.
“This marriage of legal, technical and commercial really allowed us to change our thinking. It was no longer about addressing a small need in our market but looking at ‘What we could do to reshape the market?’"
When Whitehouse joined MinterEllisonRuddWatts, he prepared the groundwork for the law firm to become a market disruptor.
“At that time, our firm’s technology environment wasn’t great, providing little ability to pivot if needed, and we were being outpaced by competitors,” he says.
“I developed a technology strategy to transform our IT infrastructure into a platform for innovation,” he says. The programme focuses on sustaining activities to improve the firm’s existing performance and disruptive innovations to maximise future opportunities.
They launched a transformation programme that consisted of three timeframes or horizons. ·
Horizon 1: Stabilisation – ‘Don’t let technology interrupt the work day’ (6 months)
Horizon 2: Optimisation – ‘improve our people’s working day’ (9 to 12 months)
Horizon 3: Innovation – ‘Business agility through smart technology’ (12 to 24 months).
“We have made fast progress,” he says with Horizons 1 and 1 largely completed, and a number of horizon 3 activities well advanced.
He says the operational efficiencies achieved through Horizon 1 and 2 initiatives reduced their opex costs by 35 per cent, allowing the firm to accelerate through initiatives which would have taken several years otherwise.
“We have also freed ourselves up to focus on innovation. While there’s a need to do the basics well (60 per cent of our time), the team now spends a large part of their time working innovatively with teams and individuals to do things differently, whether through automation, process improvement or new tech.
“At the same time, the partnership has worked through some of the more heady challenges of our horizon 3 initiatives.”
Tradition and ideation
Achieving all these was not straightforward as Whitehouse observes, “Within the legal industry, hierarchy and tradition are inculcated.”
“There’s a lot of inertia - lawyers are great at what they do, but are risk-averse and detail-orientated – even if a firm wants to change, it has to do so in an environment where change isn’t necessarily wanted or thought needed.
“To generate good ideas, we needed to eliminate operational and structural barriers and cultural behaviours that discouraged innovative thinking.”
To speed up the process, he introduced a number of initiatives to nurture ideation.
One of these was the creation of an “innovation fund”. By creating a dedicated fund outside the annual budget cycle, the firm could allocate funds to good ideas throughout the year, allowing us to rapidly progress to a minimum viable product or on-board a new service, he states.
An innovation lab was created using a lean start-up methodology to speed up the assessment, creation, testing and promotion of ideas. Those which are disruptive are spawned off into ventures to ensure speed-to-market, he says.
The firm also invites commercial and academic experts to speak in workshops around creation of ideas. A recent workshop had speakers from Bitcoin and AUT’s Cloud Lab talking about smart contracts and blockchain.
The firm has also taken on IT interns to work on disruptive innovation projects. “They bring fresh ways of thinking that help us learn and adopt new skills,” he says.
“Although it’s early days, by building on our influencer base and innovators across the firm, we have increased the number and quality of ideas generated.”
Whereas the firm acted on a handful of ideas in 2016, he says both the quantity and quality of the ideas have increased dramatically in 2017.
Whitehouse is a member of the leadership team, so has direct and ongoing channels of communication with the board, the CEO, his management peers and other key stakeholders.
“I use a variety of approaches to communicate with the leadership team and ensure these stakeholders each participate in and influence my plans and activities, although it doesn’t always seem like it, continuous feedback is our lifeblood.” he states.
These include monthly meetings with the Board, ongoing meetings and communication with our CEO (his manager) and directors on the management team, team meetings with divisions and subgroups as well as continuous surveys.
“As my role has evolved from a focus on pure operational excellence to innovation, I have expanded my networks externally and towards the future.
“They are an important mechanism for influencing our organisation and leadership team, by providing independent and expert third-party validation to support more disruptive thinking,” says Whitehouse. He also speaks at industry events, writes for business and ICT publications as well as provides mentoring and advice.
We need to transform or risk being overtaken
Leadership and career
Whitehouse proudly notes how the IT team is now considered the “most engaged” across the firm. “We achieved an engagement rating of 95 per cent, a dramatic turnaround from the un-engaged team I encountered when I arrived in 2015,” he states.
As well, the 12-member IT team is the most diverse with ages ranging from early 20s through to late 50s, and upwards of seven different ethnicities. His direct reports are 66 per cent female, and he aims to achieve a 50/50 gender target across the entire team by 2020, up from the current 36 per cent.
Succession planning is a key focus of his leadership strategy. “To ensure ‘redundancy’ in my role, I am developing the skills of the team and the responsibilities of my second-in-command,” he states.
“We keep continuous lines of communication and daily meetings. I’ve transitioned from a manager to a coach, where I ask more questions and spend more time listening and less time talking and directing. I identify special projects that allow the team to demonstrate their leadership skills.”
Whitehouse says three of the biggest challenges his team faces are meeting the changing needs of the business in particular, delivering reliability; cultural; and enabling firm lead disruptive innovation.
As to how he manages these, he cites three basic steps:
· A clear strategy: “People need to be bought into the strategy across the entire organisation, from the top levels (ie the Board) through to the most junior levels, so that it pervades across the middle.
· Visibility: “Live and continuous visibility of what’s going on.”
· Communication: “Engaged relationships across the business.”
“By leading the way in making innovation part of the firm’s lexicon, we have spearheaded the transformation of the firm and achieved new levels of innovation, creativity and resourcefulness.”