It’s the Workflow, Stupid

It’s a rare information business these days that doesn’t have a mantra about embedding its services into its customer workflows. Providers of information content, applications, and services rightly recognize that facilitating more of their customers’ critical tasks increases their value and often makes them difficult for customers to replace.  For all its importance, however, information businesses’ actual progress in developing and deploying workflow solutions has been uneven, and few have yet achieved the strategic benefits of workflow solutions.

One of our favorite examples of a successful workflow application comes not from an information company but from a law firm, Littler Mendelson, the largest labor and employment firm in the U.S. with over 850 attorneys.  One of its bread-and-butter services is handling “administrative charges,” employment complaints filed against companies. (There are over 100,000 such claims filed by employees with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission each year and probably an equal number with state agencies.)  Late last year, the firm launched Littler CaseSmart, a workflow solution which has dramatically changed how the firm interacts with its clients, how it delivers its services, and how it charges.  On the surface, the Littler CaseSmart is a technology platform through which it can manage the full lifecycle of a matter, including processes for interacting externally with clients and internally to maintain the firm’s quality assurance controls.  Clients can monitor the progress of individual matters and access statistical reports through a client dashboard.  What underlies the system, however, is just as important as the technology. One of CaseSmart’s key selling points is its ability to deliver work at a predictable fixed-fee per matter.  To make this possible, Littler established a team of flex-time attorneys, employees who wish to work on a part-time basis (typically for work-life balance) and who are paid a fixed fee per matter.

Littler CaseSmart is a compelling case study of how workflow solutions can transform – not just automate – a client relationship.  It offers several lessons for other anyone thinking about deploying workflow solutions:

  • Re-engineer the organization, not just the workflow.  Littler Mendelson could have satisfied itself by simply applying technology to the process of managing cases. Instead it realized that it couldn’t transform its underlying economics and enable the fixed-fee pricing model that drives the whole CaseSmart value proposition unless the firm developed an alternative organizational structure.
  • Change the rules of engagement with clients.  Just at CaseSmart has transformed Littler’s internal operations, it has changed how the firm engages with its clients.  Much of the interaction is now mediated by technology and requires changes in how clients manage their own internal staff and processes.  These types of changes aren’t easy to effect without a compelling value proposition and strong client relationships.
  • Disrupt your own business.  Professional services firms fear nothing more than the demise of the traditional hourly-billing model.  To its credit, Littler recognized that model could ultimately be challenged by competition and client pricing pressure.  In opting to proactively disrupt this model, Littler has been able to implement an alternative model in a manner and on a timetable of its own choosing – while simultaneously putting pressure on competitors who are less prepared to change.
  • Derive extra value from information.  Littler Mendelson falls into the category we call “inadvertent information companies.”  Its business is law, but the capture of statistical information about its cases creates opportunities to deliver new value to its clients in the form of business intelligence.  Previously unavailable, such information is typically highly appreciated by clients and is likely to improve as Littler aggregates more data over time.

There are many different kinds of workflow solutions and all of these lessons won’t necessarily apply to all of them, but they do illustrate the complexities and value of devising workflow strategies that go beyond merely trying to automate a set of tasks.


About Lee Greenhouse

Longtime strategy consultant focused on the business of information content, applications, and services.
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