January 2013 | Collaboration
Thirteen Mobile Collaboration Tips for 2013
“Mobile collaboration” is the combination of two of the hottest trends in technology and law practice – mobile (smartphones, tablets and much more) and collaboration (better and smarter ways to work together). In this case, the whole, arguably, is even greater than the sum of its two parts. Mobile collaboration could be the one legal tech trend you can’t afford to overlook in 2013.
Our mobile work environment is changing rapidly. The typical lawyer will have several mobile devices – laptops, tablets, smartphones – and sometimes more than one in a category. Some busy lawyers even use them simultaneously. In this article, I want to define “mobile work” as work that you can do on a device while away from your main office computer, whether or not you are actually “mobile” or moving at the time. For example, I consider the computer you use at home as a mobile work device, even if it is not a laptop computer.
This definition might still be too limited. One of the most interesting developments in our use of technology is the tendency for people to use several mobile devices and computers at the same time. It is not unusual for someone to access the Internet or check email from a smartphone while sitting in front of a desktop computer. It’s important to think of the mobile platform in an expansive way and not to limit your thinking to smartphones and mobile apps, as important as they are.
Collaboration is an essential part of every lawyer’s day. Lawyers collaborate daily with a wide variety of people – colleagues, staff, opposing counsel, experts, clients and many others. In each case, we use technology to work together and to communicate.
We also can and do work together anytime and anywhere, with ready access to the Internet. Probably everyone has seen some of the extreme cases of this – someone sending emails in church or participating in a conference call in a public restroom. What’s shocking is that these things no longer seem shocking.
The app ecosystem for smartphones and tablets also is changing how we think about and use mobile devices. Thousands and thousands of apps can turn your smartphone or tablet into a highly useful, connected and powerful computer. These free and inexpensive apps provide you with many ways to communicate and collaborate with others. It’s not just email anymore, although there’s no question that email is still the most popular mobile collaboration tool.
Most important, even if you are working from a plain old desktop computer out of your office and don’t consider yourself “mobile,” the odds are great that someone you are working with might be using a mobile advice at some point in the process. You need to know your audience and how they are working. If you know someone will be receiving your email on a BlackBerry, you need to think about whether she can read or work with the attachment you send. You’ll also want to think about where people are, what device they might be using, whether you will be working synchronously or asynchronously, and what common app, software or platform they might be using. It can get a little complicated.
All of which leads me to what I call the “Golden Rule of Mobile Collaboration” – collaborate with others as you would want them to collaborate with you. A foundation for that will be making the effort to get better at mobile collaboration yourself. In other words, you want to make it easy for people to collaborate with you. It’s better to drive your mobile collaboration efforts than to react and go along for the ride with what the people who work with you might force you to do.
The following 13 tips give some approaches that will help you get better at mobile collaboration. It’s 2013 already, and we’re getting even more mobile. Make sure you move ahead of the crowd.
1. Audit Your Current Collaboration Methods and Tools. You can’t improve unless you have a good understanding of where you are. Carve out a half hour to an hour and make a simple list with four columns: (1) the people you collaborate with most often, (2) the work that you typically collaborate with them on, (3) what tools and methods you currently use, and (4) a column for notes and ideas. By “tools,” I don’t necessarily mean technologies. Postal mail, dropping by someone’s office and scheduled in-person meetings might all be important tools for you. You don’t have to capture everything – just the most common and important items on your list. Use the notes column to identify approaches that you know could be improved and where mobile might come into play.
2. Determine the Job to be Done. Clayton Christensen, Horace Dediu and other business authors have recently begun to popularize a very useful way to think about using technology that they call “job to be done.” The simple version of this framework is that you want to determine what job you need to get done by the technology. Another statement of it is to ask, “What are you hiring [the tool or technology] to do?” For example, if I think I want an iPad, I should ask what am I hiring the iPad to do. If you pursue this question, especially on the basis of your collaboration audit, you should be able to determine whether the iPad actually will get your job done, whether a better tool is available, and what other of your collaboration needs it might meet.
3. Consider Security and Confidentiality Early and Often. Security and confidentiality are huge issues for lawyers, especially in the mobile context. Too often, lawyers jump into using tools – email is a great example – without fully understanding security and confidentiality issues. They later go back and try to fix problems that they could have avoided at the beginning. As you begin to move into mobile collaboration tools, you will benefit from taking on the security and confidential issues from the beginning. Also think about how your collaborators will be working and their security issues. Good security is an ongoing process and should be revisited regularly.
4. Use What You Already Have. Many lawyers like to get new gadgets. Mobile collaboration gives you great new excuses to buy gadgets like iPads. However, if you take a clear-headed look at your audit results (Tip #1), you will undoubtedly find that you can make great progress by using existing tools better. For example, improving your skills with Outlook and Track Changes in Word can enhance your collaboration abilities greatly. You might find that you can use your current texting and instant messaging tools to great effect. Better use of Adobe Acrobat might help you send documents in a format others can better use. Your current smartphone might have capabilities you don’t use. Taking a look through the Help menu in the programs you use and, even better, getting some training on those programs, can open your eyes to ways to better use what you have.
5. Adding Necessary and Appropriate New Tools. If you’ve been patient and used the previous tips, you will now be ready to determine what new tools and technologies you can add. Best of all, you will be able to articulate convincingly why you need to buy these new things. Make use of the “job to be done” framework (Tip #2) when making your decisions. I also recommend that you imagine how you will use your new tools on a daily basis before buying them. How will you carry an iPad? Where will you be using it? How often will you use it in the typical day? Will an iPhone essentially accomplish the same things? Then, do your shopping.
6. Select Your Apps Thoughtfully. There really is an app for almost everything these days, many of them free or low cost. Many apps also fall into the mobile collaboration category – communications, calendaring and scheduling, document transfer and sharing, and much more. Books like Tom Mighell’s iPad Apps in One Hour for Lawyers and David Sparks’ iPad at Work will open your eyes and point you to apps that can address your collaboration concerns. Apps will help you get work done and work with others in mobile scenarios. They are the building blocks of our new mobile ecosystem. Well-chosen apps will help you enhance your collaboration efforts, often with a very small capital investment.
7. Choose the Minimum Tool Necessary. While it’s tempting, especially for large organizations, to want to implement all-in-one “collaboration platforms,” it’s better for most of us to take a diversified approach and give collaborators several ways to work with us. Apps tend to have limited features, but do what they do really well. Keep that perspective in mind when thinking about mobile collaboration. Consider the job to be done and choose the minimum tool to get that specific job done. For example, if you simply need to let your secretary know when you are done at court and on your way back to the office, texting will accomplish that simply (“Leaving courthouse now”), while an elaborate check-in or tracking system might be overkill and fall into disuse. Keep it simple by focusing on the work and making the tool seem natural and all but invisible.
8. Re-evaluate the Email Platform. Without question, email is and will remain for quite a while the main collaboration tool for lawyers. However, we see every day how email is often not the best collaboration tool. Spam filters, limits on attachment sizes and jammed inboxes all can make collaboration by email problematic. Take some time to think about how and when your recipient will receive your email. Improving your subject lines can be a big help. Another series of many emails trying to set up a time for a conference call should convince you of the benefit of the simple online tools that let people select available times and pick a time that works for everyone. You will want to both learn to use email better and look for alternatives, such as texting, that might work better than email for certain tasks.
9. Consider Texting and Instant Messaging. As lawyers and others continue to adopt texting and instant messaging, these applications are emerging as highly effective and simple collaboration tools. I find that I’m often instant messaging people to ask, “is now a good time for a call (or stop by your office) about Project X?” rather than playing voicemail tag or interrupting someone who is busy with something else. These applications also can be great for “back channel” conversations during a conference call, asking “quick questions,” delegating simple tasks, and checking status of projects. I’ve noticed that people tend to be more responsive to texts than they are to emails.
10. Be a Good Document Sharer. For the most part, lawyers send documents by mail (delay, not easily editable) or by email (instantaneous, but attachment issues). Some still use faxing. Each of these approaches can raise issues in the mobile collaboration context. Documents might not be readable on a small screen. The recipient might have difficulty with the document type or format. As documents become complex and we exchange audio and video files, the files might be too large to be received by a recipient or blocked because of file type. You want to develop a toolbox to help you to share (send and receive) documents. Tools and skills include PDF creation, reducing size of PDFs and other files, and use of services like YouSendIt and Dropbox for large files or large numbers of files.
11. Make Documents Editable . . . Or Not. In collaboration, it’s essential to know when documents you share need to be locked down and when they need to be editable. More important, you must also follow through and lock them down or make them editable. Locking down documents requires that you know how to create and secure PDFs, password protect documents, and scrub metadata. For editable documents, having solid Track Changes skills in Microsoft Word has become a must. It is also essential to send people documents in a usable format. If real-time document collaboration is wanted, services like Google Docs offer a good platform, if you can get comfortable with confidentiality issues. For example, Google Docs works well for preparing articles and marketing materials with others, but would not be an ideal platform for the most sensitive legal documents.
12. Manage Projects. The biggest benefit of mobile collaboration might be how it enables you to manage projects involving workers who are widely scattered, often in different time zones, and even on the move. Hosted platforms like SharePoint and BaseCamp offer a variety of tools to assign and calendar tasks, communicate with others, share documents and keep track of status. Participants can get alerts, access the same documents and keep up-to-date on developments. Because people can access and use these platforms with mobile devices, time and geographic differences become much less of an issue.
13. Take Small Steps Rather Giant Leaps. People often talk in terms of technology “solutions.” They want to find a silver bullet approach that solves every potential problem. Even if such a solution existed, the effort of searching for it often delays simple, quick answers that can provide real world benefits. Go back to your collaboration audit (Tip #1) and look for quick wins and easy fixes that provide significant benefits. Don’t make the effort harder than it needs to be. Often, simple efforts to open remote access to parts of your office system can make life easier and provide big benefits for your people.
Conclusion. Mobile collaboration is not just another current trendy item in technology. It’s a place where you can find substantial benefits for you and all of the people you collaborate with, including your clients. Get a solid understanding of where you are, find ways to help others work with you using a variety of tools and giving them multiple options, and make yourself someone people look forward to working with, no matter where you are or they are.
Dennis Kennedy is a lawyer and legal technology author and speaker.
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