By Justin Hectus
Our firm, Keesal, Young & Logan continues to make significant investments in technology and, more importantly, in assessing effective behavior and building our technology initiatives to support and enhance those behaviors. As with most firms, though, our training efforts have been met with mixed success.
Earlier this year, we made it our goal to improve the impact and effectiveness of these efforts, and we made a number of adjustments to our approach. Based on user feedback, we made a shift to shorter classes, focused on very specific topics. We also sent a clear message that we would support “just in time” training, letting our folks know that if they had a problem and didn’t know how to best solve it, we would bring training resources to bear immediately so they could apply new skills at the exact moment that they needed them.
We built a framework to support these initiatives, adding a section to our intranet that contains self-guided training sessions, a tips “vault” and a schedule of upcoming classes as well as a list of standard curricula so that users can request sessions on any topic at any time.
As with earlier efforts, however, we experienced a phenomenon where many of our staff users thought that they didn’t need additional training, and often those who needed to hone their skills the most would not attend. Others were too busy to attend training, or felt that there was no need to expand their skill set, or worst of all, they didn’t want to be exposed as not having a specific skill that others had possessed for years. The uneven participation in earlier efforts, and even in this revamped training initiative, left us with a support network that was incredibly effective, but uneven in its methods.
DEFINING THE SKILLS GAP TOGETHER
We needed to address the proficiency gap in order to improve skills firmwide, but first we needed to get a comprehensive picture of our collective strengths and weaknesses.
We researched certification and skills assessment programs offered by training companies and we really liked some of what we heard. A trainer in the Los Angeles office of an AmLaw 100 firm that certified all of its staff told me that there was “an increase in the consistency of support, an increase in skills and an increase in confidence across the board.” When I asked about the downside, however, I was told that users complained that “40 percent of what they had to learn did not apply to their daily work.” Likewise, many of the most comprehensive programs out there do not cover the non-Microsoft programs that are part of our daily practice. Other software-based competency assessments analyze work-product and provide objective evaluation of ability, but without proper context, these metrics can provide a skewed view of a user’s effectiveness. And, again, these assessments only cover a segment of the applications used in law firms today.
For these reasons, few firms (less than 13 percent according to the December 2008 ILTA User Support Survey) take on the task of assessing the skills of existing staff. Recognizing that taking the road less traveled could make all the difference here, we set out to build a program that had the best aspects of existing “out-of-the-box” programs, but could be customized to our suite of applications, our user population and the activities that were most critical to the efficient and effective support of our daily practice.
This was an ambitious endeavor, and we knew that we needed some support, so we enlisted the help of outside advisers with the right balance of broad industry experience, familiarity with our firm culture and a practical approach to technology. Over the next few weeks, our “advisory team” — made up of Judye Carter Reynolds, VP of Client Experiences for Esquire Innovations; Peter Zver, founder of PensEra Knowledge Technologies; and Rudy DeFelice, founder of Practice Technologies — helped us formulate a strategy that would serve us in the short term and allow us to scale assessment and training efforts to new applications, new vendors and new employees.
A POSITIVE APPROACH
For the first section of assessments, we took a broad-strokes look at work-product to provide perspective on the most glaring skill gaps and to identify experts in our midst. Then, with the help of our advisory team and led by our trainer, Ivys Caldevilla of Computer Concepts, we constructed assessment instruments that covered the features that have the most impact for our most universally used applications: the Microsoft product suite, OpenText’s DM5, Compulaw Vision, TimeKM and iCreate. This first set of seven assessments was designed with activity-based exercises that cover core competencies and touch on some advanced skills. When running through the assessment, we make subjective observations on not just whether the user accomplished the task, but how he or she went about it. Did they use the most efficient path? What is their level of comfort with the application?
We also built in a few important messages into the one-on-one assessment meetings. First, no one will be judged on his or her performance in the assessments — “I don’t know how to do that” is a perfectly acceptable answer at this stage. Second, the firm is committed to removing any barriers to improving the skill level of our staff — if scheduling is a problem, we will be flexible and assessments or training can be held in the early morning or after hours if necessary. Third, we expect everyone to engage in this process. This program only works if everyone buys in. And, finally, we want to be assessed in our efforts as well. We are developing and refining this program in a manner that is collaborative — feedback is encouraged and appreciated.
This spirit of collaboration was most evident at our launch event, an all-hands meeting where staff from all offices had the opportunity to weigh in on our plans. We presented the training initiative in an open forum and then broke up into groups to allow for frank discussions on what they liked about the program and what they would like to see approached in a different manner. We even held a contest to name the program (the winning submission was “KYL Keeps You Learning”). Secretaries and other staffers presented their respective group’s viewpoint and nearly everyone who participated seemed to have a genuine sense of ownership of the effort.
For the second section of the assessment, which is underway now, we have extended the invitation to vendors of other software applications utilized at KYL. Inviting these outside experts to “plug in” to the training program allows us to maintain consistency on training and assessment of skills on applications that are highly specialized, and the vendors benefit by using our firm as a “lab” where they can determine how to effectively engage users, a critical component to maintaining and gaining customers.
IN THE END, A STRONG BEGINNING
As we near the end of the assessment period, one thing is becoming apparent — opening the dialogue on learning and encouraging feedback has spawned an environment where users are active participants in the learning process. Positive feedback and even the few critical comments are indications that KYL’s staff is engaged.
Even before any post-assessment training, the outreach and collaborative dialogue surrounding the skills assessment has started creating positive effects commonly associated with an effective learning environment. Peer-to-peer training instances have increased, staff has become more aware of the need for proficiency, and accountability to an acceptable level of competency is spreading throughout the firm.
All indications are that the skills-assessment effort will deliver not only the obvious result of providing the firm input necessary for the construction of a focused and tailored training program, but it will also prime the pump for a receptive audience. In the end, the training program should be recognizable and appreciated by all KYL staff. After all, it was created by them.
Justin Hectus is a member of the Legal Tech Newsletter’s Board of Editors and the Director of Information at Keesal, Young & Logan, a 75-lawyer firm operating in five offices around the Pacific Rim.
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