Cowen Cafe: Budgets in the time of COVID

On Thursday, July 30, 2020, 45 participants gathered for another invitation-only 75-minute Cowen Cafe call, sponsored by IproNightOwl Global, and Onna, examining the essence of resilient leadership. A vibrant discussion about budgets drove this call (no – that is not a contradiction in terms) and speculation about GTP-3 sparked thoughts about the future that might be.

Budget season has arrived, with twists

Budgets were top of mind this week as many begin the budgeting process for the coming fiscal year. While timing is the same as in past years, the focus has shifted. The CIO of one firm said he feels COVID has put the nail in the coffin when it comes to the traditional approach to budgeting. At the same time many of us have to sharpen our pencils more than ever, we also are being forced to collaborate to a greater degree than ever.

Needs, not wants. More than ever, attention is focused on what organizations truly need to work on as opposed to what everyone thinks should be done, remarking a participant from a law firm where there are trying to prioritize important initiatives while avoiding taking on pet projects. Another member chimed in to say that “[it] completely does not surprise me that firms are looking at budgets now. There will likely be more rounds of cuts and negotiations than usual.”

Focusing on needs, not wants, also can mean turning outward. For one participant, dealing with scarce resources has meant spending a lot of time on partnerships where she seeks comparative advantage. For her, this means letting everyone do what they do best, even when – or especially when – this approach calls for her to pull in folks from other organizations.

Data-driven. This budgeting process this year seems to be more data-driven and less siloed in the past, noted one law firm leader. Another, who heads up knowledge management at his firm, commented that as they work on their innovation budget and plan, they are trying to use data analytics to drive how they measure progress. A provider participant said she too has been hearing that companies are make more budgeting decisions based on data – “great to hear!” At the same time, a corporate participant warned against heedless reliance on data alone: “Sometimes data can drive you right off the cliff, sometimes the data is not right.”

New this year: serious top-level interest. The CEO of one law firm has gotten involved in the technology budgeting process for the first time, a positive outcome from the perspective of that firm’s chief technology solutions officer. Others saw new interest from top-level management in legal tech and similar budgets, signaling a rise in the stock of chief knowledge officers, chief legal technology officers, and others holding similar positions.

GPT-3 starts making waves

These discussions keep returning to innovation, which this week meant a discussion about GPT-3, a language model first described earlier this year.

We could quickly go down a deep rabbit hole trying to define and explain language models. For these purposes think of them and with respect to GPT-3 in particular, think of language models as AI tools that enable computers to generate stories, some, press releases, technical manuals, and more (for one discussion about GPT-3, see Will Douglas Heaven, OpenAI’s new language generator GPT-3 is shockingly good—and completely mindless, MIT Technology Review).

One corporate participant remarked, “GPT-3 is amazing!” A law firm CIO added, “Several articles about GPT-3 were written by GPT-3 itself – very crazy.” A couple of service providers already are using GPT-3, another participant noted, so expect to hear more on this topic in the days, weeks, and months to come.

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