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SLA Report: Susan Charkes
Emerging Technologies Breakfast Roundtable
If there was a common theme among the speakers at this year's roundtable, it was that technology must be implemented with human factors in mind. Moderator Nathan Rosen, of Credit Suisse First Boston, opened the program by describing how he produced a biography of his mother as a family resource. Having scanned some 1,200 items to create a Word document, he needed to decide how best to provide the biography to family members. After considering such factors as size, resolution, durability, and accessibility, he selected a format for the product. And that format? A spiral-bound book. The print format turned out to be the one that provided universal access and to be the most likely to last. (He also produced a CD-ROM for a few people.) While he noted the irony of producing a low-tech final product, Rosen also pointed out that it is high technology that enabled him to undertake this project in the first place. "Ten years ago, it would have been difficult for one person to do this."
Shonna Froebel, manager of the Knowledge Center of the Toronto Stock Exchange, spoke on moving the information center from a print-based to a primarily virtual environment. Although this subject has been covered elsewhere, and Froebel provided no startling new insights, nevertheless the presentation was well organized and cogent. Froebel emphasized the role of continuous training in the successful migration. At the time of the roll-out, groups received targeted training in use of the online services now available to them. Each new staff member of the Exchange receives individualized training. The information center engages in continuous marketing of new services. The replacement of library-based print resources with electronic ones accessible from users' desktops has not decreased the need for information center staff; on the contrary, the professional staff doubled (from one to two) as a result of the migration. Perhaps the emphasis on human factors underlies this strong staffing demand.
Nancy Lemon of Owens Corning also spoke on migrating to a virtual environment. Because she was unable to attend in person, Lemon spoke via telephone while the moderator ran her PowerPoint slides. Much ado was made about the appropriateness to the program of using technology to deliver a presentation remotely, but in the event, this proved neither particularly interesting nor particularly distracting, once one had adjusted to the incongruity of hearing a female voice while seeing a male advance the slides. Lemon's presentation was, however, notably riveting, certainly the best of the roundtable. While her topic sounded drearily familiar (see above), the sophistication of the approach set it apart as a resource for others in similar situations.
Lemon moved her entire operation to a completely virtual environment. Lemon's management told her, "We love you but we can't afford you. Fix that". In taking on this challenge, her guiding principle was that the role of the information center staff is to provide value. Key changes that resulted from the migration were, first, that the information center staff got out of transaction-based activities, and, second, that staff focus on core competencies.
Lemon presented a "timeless strategy for success" based on the knowledge continuum (client's knowledge of location of information resources) represented by a four-quadrant matrix. The x-axis measured knowledge of the resource and the y-axis measured location of the resource. The least favorable quadrant, where the information center provides least value, is the upper-right-hand quadrant where the client knows it exists and knows its location; this is document management service. Just slightly less valuable is the document delivery service, where the client knows the resource exists but not its location. For the information center, the most strategically valuable place in the matrix is that where the client is unaware of the resource's existence and unaware of its location. (Lemon characterized the upper left quadrant, where the client is unaware of a resource but knows its location, as "data mining"; her information center does not play in that arena.)
She noted that, in adapting to emerging technologies, there is a conflict between the human need for face-to-face interaction and the ongoing shift to nonphysical resources. Lemon identified a number of lessons learned from the migration, including the following:
It is the people, not the technology; seek a balance.
Telecommuting is not for everyone.
Link your mission to your organization's mission.
Maintain high visibility.
Adapt to constant and major change.
Ultimately, she said, "The information center should be the last place people go when they want to find something". This provocative statement encapsulates Lemon's approach perfectly.
Denis Hauptly, vice-president of Technology Development at West Group, showed off an array of new products under the rubric "WWW: a Wee Wireless World". Hauptly, always an entertaining speaker, covered the lectern with devices that are moving the technology center of the universe from the PC to the handheld wireless information appliance. These included the Palm VII, which provides wireless network/Internet access, has a collapsible full-size keyboard, and still fits in a shirt pocket; the Jornada pocket-size PC from HP, with wireless access forthcoming in August; the OmniSky Minstrel modem for the PalmV; and the RocketBook ebook reader. Hauptly noted that a growing sector of emerging technology is that of connected applications for these small wireless devices. Examples include palmgear.com, a source for free Palm Pilot software; and AvantGo, which enables one to download content to various handheld devices. All of these gadgets have specific functions. According to Hauptly, the ideal device will combine all these functions; while Jornada comes close, we are still several years away. Furthermore, the USA is way behind Europe in wireless culture; 25 per cent of five-year-olds in Finland have cell phones.
Finally, Tom Fleming, of Piper Marbury, presented a two-minute overview of trends essentially a teaser for his presentation later in the week. Time compression in the curve of technology adoption makes it very difficult for people to assimilate new technologies. One response to this has been the emergence of application service providers (ASPs) to host data and software over the Internet. ASPs reduce the need for IT staff in specific applications, but do not eliminate the need for staff entirely. Fleming also highlighted wireless devices. In this area, note the emergence of WAP (wireless application protocol) and the Bluetooth standard, which enables devices to uses radio waves to set up ad hoc wireless connections.
The objectives of the annual roundtable, to set a tone for the conference to come and get people excited about applying about new developments in their organizations, were only met in part, perhaps because these days it is so easy to spot emerging technologies just by reading mainstream newspapers. It was somewhat disturbing as well, that there was an apparent gender divide among the topics assigned to speakers, emphasizing "process" for the women and "products" for the men. Nonetheless it was a worthwhile session, and well attended (and, thankfully, housed in a much larger room than last year, when the extreme shortage of seats nearly led to fistfights among those attending).
Distance Education in the Legal Environment
Distance education in the academic and corporate areas is exploding in popularity, but how applicable is it to the legal environment? This session purported to address the question.
The session was moderated by Donna Duff Lenfest of Schiff Hardin & Waite.
Anne Abate, of govsearch.com, acknowledged that she had no experience in applying distance learning in the law environment, but nonetheless her presentation contained some worthwhile insights. Abate drew from her experiences in distance learning both as an instructor and as a student, at Nova Southeastern University. She began by noting that distance learning's most obvious benefit, at least for the adult student, is that it is easier to schedule. Also, for the course designer or administrator, access to subject specialists is easier and cheaper than it is in the classroom setting. In addition, distance education affords the student a deeper understanding of the subject. This last point is not as intuitive as the first two. Abate argued that because in distance instruction it is harder to measure whether everyone in the class "gets it", the instructor ends up testing understanding at a deeper level than the face-to-face instructor.
One of the problems often cited by skeptics is the possibility of educational fraud. In Abate's view this exists in the traditional setting as well, but we have found ways to ignore it as something that come with the territory. Another problem is the increased impact of technology failure. This calls for greater flexibility on the part of the instructor and students, and also requires that the instructor develop a full back-up plan for carrying on in the face of disaster. Other problems include the impact of time zone differences, especially for asynchronous courses; security and privacy issues, the importance of which varies greatly from person to person; and continuing legal education (CLE) requirements, which may not permit distance courses.
Abate had several suggestions for potential distance education instructors. First, she said, "Do not experiment!" That is, do not be the first to try something; research the field and find out what has already been done. Second, "Prepare, prepare, prepare!" The materials that you provide students are critical. The more you can provide at the beginning, the easier it is for students to go through the course at their own pace, which is a key factor in the student's satisfaction with the course. Third, "Do not underestimate the time involved". In addition to the materials preparation, expect to spend more time on grading than in a face-to-face classroom, and anticipate spending a lot of time on e-mail communication. Finally "Remember your audience". A course must be tailored to the technology comfort level of your students.
The second speaker, Charlene Cunniffe, of Boult Cummings in Nashville, discussed distance education primarily from the point of view of creating CLE courses. Cunniffe was enthusiastic and clearly experienced in the field, but the presentation suffered from disorganization and lack of content. The most interesting observation that she made was the emergence of a species of applications service providers which produce and host CLE content. She estimated that it costs $400,000 to set up an online CLE course. These ASP/outsourcing entities can be expected to leverage their investment by re-packaging content for other jurisdictions. Several examples of such emerging providers are elearnx.com and lawyerslearn.com.
Cunniffe also addressed the issue of educational fraud. She agreed with Abate that fraud goes on in the face-to-face setting but it is accepted; in the case of attorneys there is the additional assumption that one should make that attorneys are ethical.
The limitations of bandwidth mean that courses must usually be text-based. Although larger firms may have high-speed access, many people do not, particularly when they access the courses from home.
Finally, although time flexibility is typically cited as the key benefit to distance courses, Cunniffe remarked that most access to the Tennessee Bar Association's CLE Website is during the last two weeks of the year when attorneys realize they have to fulfill the yearly CLE requirement.
Neither of the two speakers was the one originally announced for this session. Possibly both were late substitutions, which would explain why one presentation did not really address the announced topic, and the other seemed a tad insubstantial.
The session was sparsely attended. No doubt this reflects the standard two-year trend lag in the legal field. Those who did attend can consider themselves on the cutting edge. "Do not experiment!" is one suggestion that they, and this reviewer, will be happy to ignore.
Susan Charkes is Systems Librarian at Dechert Price & Rhoads, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. firstname.lastname@example.org