When you run a $50 billion (US) business with 170,000 employees scattered across multiple countries working in global teams, it pays to make finding the right people easy. Global law firms are much smaller but face similar challenges. 

In Moving from Expertise Location to Expertise Deployment (28 March 2005), I described how IBM was developing an experience location system. International Isn’t Just IBM’s First Name (Business Week, 28 Jan 2008) provides an in-depth update on IBM’s success with experience location. The money quote:

“Professional Marketplace… lists more than 170,000 employees along with their skills, pay rate, and availability… managers monitor the database and serve as matchmakers between jobs and people. The databases have shaved 20% from the average time it takes to assemble a team and have saved IBM $500 million overall…. By sifting through several personnel databases with sophisticated software, IBM’s top managers can quantify the skills they have on hand worldwide and compare them with projections of what people they’ll need in six to nine months. When they spot a coming shortfall, managers coordinate with colleagues in other countries to recruit or train people. “

$500 million is real money and a 1% increase in revenue would is a big deal in most businesses, especially such big ones. Partners who can continue raising billing rates 5% per year, however, might look at this and do a shoulder-shrug. So they may not rush to buy IBM Atlas, the commercialized version of IBM’s experience location product.

IBM’s achievement though goes beyond cost saving and revenue enhancement. It’s really about client service and how best to operate globally. CEO Samuel J. Palmisano on the challenge of managing a global workforce: “The big issues for us are: Where do you put them? How do you retain them? How do you develop them? How do you move work to them or them to work?” The software developed is a big part of how IBM answers these questions.

If the theory about large law law firm mergers is to offer clients a global delivery platform, then law firms need to be taking steps similar to IBM.