In a recent discussion regarding the rapidly changing understanding of “documents,” I flashed on one of my favorite scenes from a Disney movie that was popular when my children were young. While it was never one of my favorites, The Lion King resonated with a lot of people. I guess I just didn’t have quite the right perspective.
In the scene in question, the Father Lion is explaining “The Circle of Life” to his son. As I remember it, he says something like, “Everything is part of it — us, the plains, the sky, the antelope…” To which the lion cub responds, “But father, don’t we EAT the antelope?”
The father’s reply begins in a very deep, sonorous, serious voice, “Yes …yes, son, we do.”
There is more, but I could never get to the rest. My family could not understand why I found that passage so humorous.
The discussion that caused me to recall this bit of cinematic history involved the morphing of documents from being triggers and receptacles and holders of information, to being data input sources. Documents are rapidly becoming more and more involved as not just artifacts created in and moved around the court and justice system processes. They are becoming a vital and incredibly powerful part, not just of the workflow, but of the entire active information universe.
For quite some time now, the value of metadata associated with documents has been recognized and increasingly leveraged. eFiling systems routinely utilize metadata to populate Case Management, inmate tracking, ECM and countless other systems. Indeed, to be acceptable today, an eFiling System must be able to automatically extract close to all, if not all, structured data contained in the document and make it available as appropriate to all related systems. That moves the documents up quite a bit in the process “food chain.”
In some respects, automatic data entry, while admittedly more efficient, secure and error-free when effectively implemented, is like automating the process of unloading cargo containers from a ship to a train car. Yes, that’s a significant advance, but it turns out, there’s more to come.
The current evolutionary step, now underway and gaining speed, involves more extensive use of the semi-structured and unstructured contents of the documents. An eFiling system integrated with a full-featured ECM system now permits much deeper exploitation of document contents. For example, modern tools can locate information that may not be in the expected place in the document (because the document creator has used a new or different format or template). And, they can remember that format and use it again when and if they encounter similarly structured documents.
Even more powerfully, the tools available not just in ECM, but more and more to business productivity and line-of-business applications, can locate and exploit unstructured information with individual documents and across document collections both temporally and spatially, at times far removed from their creation and filing. Provided, of course, that they have been properly received and stored in a robust ECMS.
The discussion so far has covered documents created off-line by a third party and submitted to the court through a secure eFiling portal. We refer to this as document-centric eFiling. Another trend that’s going to further this evolution is the concept of data-centric eFiling. Data-centric avoids off-line document creation and provides online electronic forms as part of the eFiling system for most types of transactions. (An analogy is the way TurboTax evolved from a tool that would simply print your tax return to a completely electronic portal for submission of your tax return.)
Most modern eFiling systems have some mix of document-centric and data-centric capabilities, but the promise of the data-centric model provides the most benefit to all parties. A lingering question is: Is there really a “document” in the data-centric model? The answer is “if required.” If required, the eFiling system will create a document for the electronic case file when necessary to support the needs of downstream users and systems.
In the informational Circle of Life, documents have moved beyond being static, passive repositories of information that are received and (maybe) read once or twice. They have evolved and continue to evolve into being active elements of the court and justice system information infrastructure. As such, they will receive more and more respect as time goes by and their importance grows.