“Innovation platforms” and matter management systems

Tim Wu, in his stimulating but scary book, The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires (Knopf 2010) at 112, makes much of the term “innovation platforms.” The Internet is certainly one of the latest and greatest in a line of innovation platforms: it provides an open structure on which tens of thousands of entrepreneurs and citizens have hung applications and built businesses.

On a much smaller scale think of a matter management package in a law department as a potential platform. Now, they usually operate all by themselves, a “point solution” in some current jargon. But let third party developers have access, such as with APIs, and then appear bolt on e-billing or report writers or graphics capabilities. Voila! – a platform. If the data collected by the software finds its way to those who spin benchmarks and analytics, that extends the platform. If data flows into the software’s database from external sources, such as social networks or evaluations of law firms, or if data flows out to accounts payable systems, more platform characteristics become apparent. A platform becomes a commercial network, a symbiotic core that makes it more valuable to the market.

Currently, matter management software has closed itself off to most add-ons and new features. There is no Linux for legal departments or open source applications that can grow as many law departments pitch in to push it along. Perhaps SharePoint, however, is proving to be the exception: a platform for development of all kinds of legal department functions. One vendor, DataCert, has positioned itself explicitly as a platform.

“All of us know more than any of us,” a view I learned from Kent Walker, Google’s thoughtful general counsel, speaks to the greater flexibility, faster growth, and more creative development of platforms. We are far from platforms in the legal industry, but economic and technological forces will drag us toward them.

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