Tom Koulopoulos #ILTA11 Key Note: IT-Based Innovation

Tom Koulopoulos (“TK”) is an ILTA Conference favorite. He is the author of nine books. (His energy is much appreciated for flagging conference attendees.) [Please take the time to listen to a recording of this talk. I’ll be capturing as much as I can, but I’ll need to leave early to moderate an educational session. That’s ILTA — too many educational choices, not enough time.]

[These are my notes from the International Legal Technology Association’s Conference 2011.  Since I’m publishing them as soon as possible after the end of a session, they may contain the occasional typographical or grammatical error.  Please excuse those. To the extent I’ve made any editorial comments, I’ve shown those in brackets.]


  • What’s the Secret of Life? To find the one thing you’re really good at and then become the best at it. This is your core competency. (TK showed a clip of City Slickers in which Jack Palance explains this key principle to Billy Crystal. Palance says that the major task is to figure out your core competency and then master it.)
  • What’s is Core Competency? It is the place where your abilities “meet the market.” It’s where your organization’s core competency meets the market.
  • What is the Core Competency of It? The ability to take the complex and simplify it. Simplicity ultimately defines the success of your organization. The more IT can reduces the complexity around us, the more successful your organization and your life will be.
  • What’s the problem?Geeks have an uncanny ability to complicate life. The next challenge is for geeks is managing the complexity surrounding risk. TK cites Paul Strassmann who said that while only CFOs are liable to go to jail today for false reporting, CIOs should be subject to jail time for failing to ensure the security of knowledge assets.
  • What was the Knowledge Management System of Ephesus? According to TK, it was the communal toilets directly across from the Library of Celsus in Ancient Ephesus. That was where people could share what they had learned in the library and in the town center. Today, he believes that our “communal toilet” is the Internet.
  • What’s Today’s Challenge? To simplify work.The doubling of the rate of change can make work extraordinarily complicated. The advent of semantic networks has the potential to complicate life exponentially. (TK says that all IT personnel need to understand the concepts and impact of semantic technologies and semantic networks. The Department of Defense is working on this now.)
  • What’s the key to IT Success? Master semantic IT. TK belieeves that the first organizations that master this will have an enormous competitive advantage.
  • OnStar OnStar is the single business asset of General Motors. Yet, it was the part of the company on which GM spent the least money. Initially, no one at GM wanted OnStar. However, it was critical to building a relationship of trust between GM and its customers. TK notes, that OnStar was a “weed” in the GM garden. They didn’t want it; they tried to kill it. Nonetheless it was a powerful idea that built success over time.
  • Are you a failure at failing? You have to become better at failing. The key is to fail faster. Another important component is to give your employees the freedom to experiment. This freedom let 3M change from a company focused on abrasives into a company focused on adhesives. Now, we can’t imagine life without masking tape and post-it notes. The moral of the story is that once you create a culture of fast fail, you can become an engine of innovation.
  • How Should You Manage Innovation?In addition to creating a culture of fail fast, you should calibrate your investment to the associated reward. In the beginning, use free or nearly free resources at the experimental stage. Once you start getting results, ramp up your investment so that you can generate more return. The key is to calibrate this carefully.
  • Disrupt, Don’t Destroy. In a process of constant innovation, you improve through manageable, incremental improvements without sending everyone into a panic.
  • Use Scenario Planning to Build an Agille Group. TK used a “morphology matrix” to show how complicated various processes can be. Scenario planning involves taking random elements from across the Morph Matrix and then figure out how to solve problems using the “market” problem presented by those elements. If you repeat this exercise regularly, you build a team that is flexible, agile, and confident in its ability to conquer any challenge presented by the market.
  • How to you keep Star Players on Your Team? Recognize that the main problem is not the situation their are facing, but the “background noise” that affects their view of the situation. The best way to key star players on your team is to get them past the background noise by focusing on ambition and purpose. Give them aspirational goals — stretch them — and the revelations AND innovation will exceed your expectations.


5 thoughts on “Tom Koulopoulos #ILTA11 Key Note: IT-Based Innovation

  1. One point that stuck in my head relates to the rate of change you mention.  I believe Tom said that, every eighteen months, with the effective doubling of computer power under Moore’s Law, the rules of the game change entirely.  He said that part of IT’s function is to buffer enterprises from that change, a thought I haven’t yet wrapped my head around as it applies to legal IT.   

    1. That’s an interesting thought, David. Although, I’m tempted to take it in a slightly different direction. I wonder if Legal ITs role is not to buffer, but rather to help the law firm adapt to this rate of change as rapidly as possible without causing undue stress?

      – Mary

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