New technology enables better ways to complete tasks. Greater efficiency. Better visibility. Tighter security. But how can you streamline the colossal effort involved with implementing new practice management software? Here are the critical success factors I’ve gleaned from my years as a software implementation project manager, including being the original project manager for 3E when I was employed by Elite.
1. Form a core team and get management buy-in
Pursuing a major software implementation is a two- to a three-year project for a large law firm. While some of the top decision makers at the firm may realize the scope of what’s to come, not everyone in the firm realizes the effort and time commitment involved with this undertaking.
Firms that establish a core team management group that is responsible for all decisions related to the new software experience a smoother rollout. This group needs to have a solid understanding the firm’s current processes and procedures as well as a clear vision of the desired future state that it can communicate to everyone in the main office and satellite offices.
Implementation projects are most successful when they have the buy-in of management and having a core team helps establish this top-down management approach. The firm’s leaders can drive home the importance of the project and each person’s contribution to its outcome like no others in the firm. Having their involvement helps to not only kick-off the project, but helps keep the momentum going throughout its life.
2. Perform a self-assessment
Moving to a new software system is your firm’s opportunity to take advantage of new features and retire processes that have become archaic.
Every firm that goes to a new software platform is looking to streamline how they distribute information to their back office and their front office. Your core team should be asking questions such as: “What information do our attorney’s see? How do they get that information? Can we take advantage of dashboards? What can we give our users that’s shiny and new and really cool to see at a finger touch?”
The role of the core team is to flush out these variables across all of the firm’s work streams, including reports, integrations, templates, processes, and procedures. Underneath each of those streams are different modules such as client matter intake, billing, accounts payables, general ledger, and so on. Who owns those processes? The core team identifies those roles and responsibilities and establishes subject matter experts who really understand what it the firm is trying to accomplish and how the chosen software can help reach those objectives.
3. Identify a subject matter expert
As you approach a new software implementation, there are a lot of unknowns. Everyone is learning about the software and what it can do. Eventually, members of the core group or extended team will become the subject matter experts for specific work streams. However, I find it works best when there is someone who can help the firm evolve to where it wants to go.
People within the firm have become accustomed to the way things have always been done. It can be really difficult to decipher which software options can improve processes. A lot of firms will bring in outside partners that really understand the new software to assist with the subject matter expert role and help guide the firm to get to the desired end result.
4. Understand the software to minimize customizations
Very few firms will implement software without making customizations. Minimizing the customizations, however, streamlines the project timeline and is friendlier on your budget. Take the time to understand what’s possible with the software and determine if your firm can adapt its processes rather than change the software. Doing so helps minimize initial work and ongoing updates and maintenance.
Our team begins new implementations by demoing what the software can do as is. This helps to determine if the existing functionality is sufficient or can work for the firm with a minor tweak. We encourage our clients to take advantage of what’s out of the box and then only customize when a minor tweak can’t meet that gap.
5. Keep the communication lines open
A strong communication plan is very important throughout the life of the project. In the beginning, it helps to communicate to everyone what the firm is trying to accomplish. Some firms that have a lot of users in outer offices will embark on a roadshow. As you get closer to go live, it helps to do a countdown and explain what to expect. Some firms will also prepare a FAQ document. The implementation touches everyone in the firm. Even attorneys are going to be impacted in the sense that maybe their time entry’s going to change or they’re going to access different information in a dashboard, for example. Let them know what to expect.
6. Engage in thorough testing and training
Another critical success factor – and the most important one from an application perspective – is user acceptance testing (UAT). UAT equals success. Period. There’s just no other way around it. You have to test the new system. You have to validate your data when it gets converted and you need to test it thoroughly. You need to make sure all processes and procedures are working. Testing doesn’t stop with the application. You have to test the templates, reports, integrations, etc. It requires testing the software landscape. If you don’t test, then the go live can be compromised.
The idea behind the UAT is to be able to have as smooth a go live as possible. You iron out all the kinks and define all the new processes and procedures. You get to really understand what your data set looks like and your people can understand how to do their work in the new environment, which is a critical part of the user training stage. Once your data is loaded into the system, that’s when training should begin to give ample time to master new processes and procedures before the go live.
Our team has different tools that help streamline each phase of testing and training, such as user testing script guides, conversion validation guidelines, and ways to capture the issues and how to process them. But the system needs to be tested by the core team and users in the firm who know the data the best, who can then share their knowledge with others in the firm.
7. Choose an experienced implementation partner
Hands down, one of the most critical success factors in streamlining your implementation process AND ensuring that the software meets your long-term needs depends on who helps you implement the software. Working with a partner that has experience working with firms similar to your firm’s size, scope, and software environment saves untold hours throughout each phase of the project. Do your homework and choose a partner that has experience and also meshes with your corporate culture. Ask for references and ensure the core team reaches a consensus on who you’ll work with, even if it requires some additional time and legwork at the outset. You’ll gain that time back over the life of the project.