The printed description of a software application’s capabilities is no substitute for interaction with the people who are selling it, just as the bare record of historical narrative without people does little to bring a subject alive. People buy from people, not companies, and that means getting out and about. It is not a contradiction to say that a disparate group of people or businesses can best become a cohesive selling proposition by using a web site.
We may look back on the first few years of this century as a short period when international inter-personal communication was at its best. We can cross the world more efficiently and more cheaply than at any time in history, but electronic virtual communication is also extremely sophisticated. From now on, I suspect, we will see physical travel move further out of reach and electronic connections become so advanced that it will be hard to justify actually going to meet the people you do business with. We will lose something as a result – a personal element in business which is valuable.
The thought was prompted by a conjunction of flying visits. Jo Sherman was with us at the weekend. Jo is the founder and CEO of eDiscovery Tools, an Australian software company which specialises in electronic data discovery for litigation and similar purposes. It is quite a feat for a relatively small Australian company to sell software to major UK and US clients. The secret lies in personal relationships which may make use of electronic communication to some extent but which must be kept warm with face-to-face meetings. Her apparent ubiquity – this is the third time I have seen her this year, here or in New York – must be hard work, but it seems to generate business. Looking at other suppliers, I wonder sometimes if the slashing of travel budgets in this industry is being done for the right reasons – a lot of it seems to me to be more a matter of creating a perception of frugality than part of a coherent plan. Marketing people seem to think that their carefully-drafted prose will do the trick on its own. People buy from people, not flyers and brochures.
Jo Sherman’s other hat is her role as Program Director of the Future Courts Program in the Queensland Department of Justice and Attorney-General, and in other business change initiatives in Federal and State Courts. That obviously overlaps with my own interest in court and case management. Jo was en route to speak about this in Montreal, as I noted in Not going to Canada for the second time this month.
I took Jo on a tour of Oxford – I often go months without going into the city, ten minutes walk away, which others cross the world to see, and it is good to have the excuse to wander. She said something about being able to feel where previous generations stood, and I took her into the University Church. There you can see a ledge cut into a pillar, where rested the stage on which Thomas Cranmer stood on the morning of 21 March 1556 to be told in a sermon why he must die – as he did, in flames, round the corner in Broad Street later that day. You can book-learn all there is to know about the Reformation and not get closer to it than you get by standing where Cranmer stood that day. A trite analogy perhaps, but it is the same as the difference between reading the brochure and meeting the people.
A couple of days later, another visitor dropped from the sky. However good international travel may be, UK domestic journeys are a nightmare of over-priced, unreliable trains and clogged under-invested roads. Joel Tobias, Managing Director of digital forensics company CY4OR solves that one by using his own helicopter to get between meetings. It took him 58 minutes to get from Manchester to Oxford Airport and, unlike me, he did not have to run the gauntlet of a large squad of policemen pulling in drivers doing 51 mph on a dual carriageway – more fun and less effort than tackling crime, I suppose (says he bitterly, his son’s bike having been stolen in Oxford’s unpoliced streets the previous night).
Although the helicopter is used for business meetings rather than for racing to jobs, it is not a bad accoutrement for the MD of a forensics company. There are many aspects of electronic disclosure which you can spend time thinking about, but collecting data which is required as evidence is not one of them – that is, you do have to think about it, and often have to involve several people to do so, but often there is no time to waste going through the Yellow Pages looking for someone to do the job. It is a subject I am keen on: the idea for a project dedicated to spreading understanding of electronic disclosure came to me after hearing Mark Surguy of Pinsent Masons speaking about the need to line up at least two collections experts – to know them personally and to have agreed the terms on which they do business – against the day when you need a collection done urgently. It is not an accident that the original sponsor of the e-Disclosure Information Project was a forensics company, FoxData.
It is very much part of my job to get to know people in the industry, and to have them drop in by helicopter is much better than flogging up to London in a suit and on a packed train.
I will be on a rather more interesting sort of train on Friday, going by Eurostar to speak in Paris on Saturday. The audience is an international group of law firms, and although the subject is not e-disclosure for a change, it has elements in common with my day job. Groupings of this kind are not the same as international firms. They have no physical core, and their web site is simultaneously their rallying point and the shop window in which they display their common, as well as their individual, wares. That has parallels with the role of the e-Disclosure Information Project, and my aim is to encourage the group towards a similar model – not just an electronic address book, but descriptions of the people who comprise the businesses and a repository of information about the sectors in which they practice and the work which they do.
The purpose, obviously, is to get to two audiences – those who keep coming back to see what is new, and those whom Google brings in thanks to the body of material built up on the site. The challenge is twofold – to keep up the flow of information coming in from the component parts of the group and, if you are successful at that, to be able to capture it as it flies by. This emphasis on a virtual existence does not contradict what I say above about personal contact, but you can only set up meetings with people who know you exist.