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Practice Innovations

Volume 2, Number 2
June/July 2001


Practice Innovator Profile: Stephen E. Arnold, Arnold Information Technology

By William P. Scarbrough and Stephen E. Arnold

Stephen E. Arnold is president of Arnold Information Technology, a consulting firm he founded in 1991. He provides a broad range of services in electronic publishing, system design, development and testing, strategic and tactical information planning, and database design.

Scarbrough: Many of our readers are involved in web portal development for large law firms. We are challenged by the technical and cost aspects of these projects, but the cultural and political issues tend to be the most challenging. How do you help your clients deal with these issues?

Arnold: We are now working currently with the National Institutes of Health and the National Cancer Institute to create single point, public access to 170 sources of cancer information. There is modest coordination among the various agencies and institutes collecting and disseminating this information. There is no single screen from which most data are accessible. Each source is managed by experts, often widely recognized experts. In a situation like this, a top-down approach to creating a database or portal system is hard to make work. Instead, it is critical to create an environment where access to all of the information makes life easier for each participant.

Scarbrough: What are your objectives for the project?

Arnold: The objective is to establish a single point of access to information on cancer and to create a manageable, easy way for people to do their jobs and the public to access this important information. Many portal projects focus on the features of a particular software product rather than on the information users need and how they work. If a doctor tells a patient he has cancer, how would the patient look for information? If a researcher has a research grant to investigate a particular idea, how would she begin the research process? A portal must conform to user preferences, not attempt to change those preferences. User preferences and patterns also evolve quickly. Two years ago 90% of web users accessed information and sites through 50, maybe 100, major portals such as Yahoo!, America Online, Excite, and others. Today only about 44% of Web users “click through” the top 100 portal sites. New users come to a portal because it makes them feel comfortable. Once saturation occurs (and this can happen quickly), more than half of users do not find a single point of access necessary. Lawyers will behave this same way. Portals in law firms will have very high usage at first and with saturation, usage will decline. A portal is the first step toward slipstreaming information into a user’s workflow. A portal is not a final step. It is an early step.

Scarbrough: What types of services does Arnold Information Technology provide?

Arnold: I am the reality guy. I help clients assess the risks and costs associated with particular technology paths. I focus on business processes as well as information access. I help the starry eyed twenty-year-old put a great idea into context for its best application. I work at most on two or three projects at once. We have a very diverse client base and offer different pricing for different types of clients. We have done work for the government, for investment banks and for Indian tribes. I am not Zorro. I am Zorro’s stable hand. I do not sell comprehensive turnkey solutions for huge problems. I bring reality to bear on targeted IT problems.

Scarbrough: I first met you at the Information Innovators Institute in Florida this spring. You were the keynote speaker and, in my mind, raised some very interesting and provocative ideas. I sensed that some participants in the Institute might not have responded to your views the same way I did. You mentioned afterwards that you felt like you failed to get your ideas across effectively during your address. Things actually got a bit tense when you described portal technology as “yesterday.” Can you elaborate on what you meant by that statement?

Arnold: A portal is one step down the path to an information access solution, it is not the solution. Software and a service contract do not constitute an information access solution. The mental process that sees an intranet or portal as the next best thing or an overall solution is flawed. Do not talk in terms of knowledge management. Talk in terms of what we want to accomplish with a return on investment or specific business-critical information. Identify key sources of content and create conduits for moving that content to solve specific problems. Lotus Notes and the Domino server, for example, gives you virtually nothing without figuring out what you want to do with it. With focus, Notes and their partner Research in Motion’s wireless server is a killer product. Law firm partners see outlays for software primarily as money out of their pockets.

Scarbrough: Another highlight of your III presentation for me was your discussion of portable and personal computing. You brought an array of gadgets with you to the Institute such as the latest Palm, a Blackberry, a fold-out keyboard about the size of a wallet, and a tri-band, worldwide mobile phone. Can you talk about how you see these types of devices changing the way professionals access and use information?

Arnold: Seasoned professionals and young kids want one small device which is persistently connected and provides access to what I call just in time information. It is often people in the middle (e.g., IT people, librarians, technology committees) who are Luddites on this issue. My view is that they are not always focused on meeting the needs of their most valued professionals. A silent, wireless messaging device may be much better in a courtroom than a slow to boot up, bulky, noisy laptop.

Scarbrough: How will lawyers in large law firms use these devices?

Arnold: Where does the lawyer work? How does the lawyer work? What does the lawyer need? For lawyers who need to work in the office, a personal computer will be a base device. If the lawyer is mobile, and I would argue that more and more lawyers are, handheld devices, not just notebook PCs, will be increasingly critical. The Blackberry is prime example of such a device. Solving information problems for clients and constituents is the key to success, not chasing fuzzy buzzwords around a conference table.


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