Back in 1977, the Nobel-winning economist Herbert Simon warned about the dangers of a looming information-rich world in which “a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention”. Another variation of this warning is “we are data rich but information poor” – or as my old Granny used to say, “You can’t see the wood for the trees.”

All true, but how do we reconcile such homilies with the enormous explosion of information we have seen, not just in business but in the world generally over the past 5 years? In fact, as long ago as a conference in August 2010, the Google CEO Eric Schmidt said, “Every two days now we create as much information as we did from the dawn of civilization up until 2003.” That’s something like five exabytes of data every two days although obviously this includes instant messaging, Facebook, video and pictures.

And then we have the mantra, which became very popular in the second half of the 1990s when websites were starting to bloom everywhere, that “content is king”. More content on law firm websites and intranets. More content in law firm HR, CRM/marketing, knowledge management, email and document management repositories. And, of course, more content in law firm practice management systems.

We even have a scary new name for all this information: “Big Data”. We also have a situation where law firms are either clueless about what is going on beneath the surface in their firms or else are swamped with reports and spreadsheets that merely confuse matters further. Back to the wood and the trees.

Solutions? They exist. They go by various different names – business intelligence – KPI (key performance indicator) systems – data mining – even “listening platforms” such as (which is already very widely used by large US law firms and which I predict we’ll hear a lot more about in the UK during 2014) but essentially they all boil down to content curation. That is process of collecting, organising and displaying information relevant to a particular topic or area of interest.

Or, to put it another way: the key is not what you tell people but what you don’t tell them. Eliminating all the verbiage and duplication so the recipient can cut to the chase and immediately see what the big issues are.

Now, as it happens, I’ve been banging on in my writings about this topic – particularly business intelligence in the CRM and financial management arenas – for a very long time and largely to no avail because the default setting within in most law firms is to spend the absolute minimum on legal technology. Speak to any legal software supplier and they will all tell you the same sad tale”¦ they sell a practice management system to a law firm and they say “Oh, we do like the KPI report generator, we’ll buy that next year in phase 2 of the implentation project.”

But they never do because there never is a phase 2. They’d rather save their money and continue to stumble along in a clueless haze. So is there any hope they might change now? Yes, because of the advent of ABS legal service providers, who come from a commercial background, where business intelligence and the mining of Big Data has long been an accepted part of the business development scene.

If you have a Tesco loyalty card, you will have probably received a set of money-off vouchers very recently. Look at them carefully – they are money-off vouchers for items you purchased on a recent shopping trip and which they expect you to soon repeat. They know your consumption habits as well as you do. Which is in sharp contrast to the situation prevailing in many law firms, where they don’t really know who their clients are, let alone whether they are as profitable as they should be or whether they might have other legal business needs the firm might address.

The challenge for traditional law firms then is that if they don’t get a grip on all the information at their disposal – if they don’t curate their content – they risk losing out to more clued-up legal service competitors.

Charles Christian is a legal IT commentator and speaker with over 30 years knowledge of the industry. He is publisher and editor of the Legal IT Insider global legal tech industry newsletter. Twitter @ChristianUncut.

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