Bippity Boppity Boo – ECM, Workflow, and Magic

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“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable for magic.”
Arthur C. Clarke

Walt Disney was a man way ahead of his time. Yes, long before anyone coined the term, ole’ Walt managed to embed a major plug for advanced Electronic Content Management with configurable workflow into his 1959 classic, Sleeping Beauty. This feat was remarkable, even for Disney, considering that it would be decades before ECM would be invented.

Don’t just take my word for it; go watch the movie. Now, I’ll grant you he didn’t use the terms “ECM”, “configurable”, or “workflow”. No, futurist that he was, Walt cleverly used code words and allegorical situations. But, when you see the scenes in which the Fairy Godmothers try to manage their “household” WITHOUT workflow (they use the code-word “magic” instead; but, clearly, it’s configurable workflow), things are a hot mess. Once they return to using workflow – ok; call it “magic” if you insist – everything settles right in and works like, ahem, a charm.

Yes, the dishes put themselves away. The cake not only puts itself together, but it’s quality is without compare. That doesn’t mean the ladies don’t create the cake. They decide what the result should be and fashion a masterpiece. But there’s no muss, no fuss, and absolutely no wasted effort, duplication, errors, or sloppy work. Materials, ingredients, pots and pans, utensils – all arrive just when needed, then clean themselves and put themselves away.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a practically perfect illustration of the power of ECM with workflow. For those who have implemented it, the thought of doing without it, however briefly, is no less terrifying than the thought of cooking and cleaning without magic was to the Fairy Godmothers. For those who have not implemented it, the purported benefits sound like, well, magic.

Consider: Not only did the cake get baked; but all the ancillary prep work and cleanup were automatically executed as fully integrated functions. Suppose holding a court hearing operated the same way. No gathering documents and files; that’s done. No arranging the materials for the judge; that’s done, too. The judge can hold the hearing, the output (order, hearing, warrant, whatever) can be generated with a flick of the wand — uh, or the proper command issued by the proper person (there’s a difference between this and magic?).

Afterwards, the files and documents can hie themselves to their proper next places, be it “storage” or the next step in the process; notices can generate themselves, and so on. Moreover, for those who like to keep track of what’s been done (that is, every court manager who ever lived) all the proper recordings of what has been done, who was involved, and so on will be made without even asking. Want the answer to  any type of statistical or historical question? Just ask.

Walt even foresaw one of the less obvious considerations with using magic; at least, less obvious until the first time you get burned. That is, the need for security. Fortunately for today’s courts, they’re not the first ones to try using magic in the heart of the woods with Maleficent on the prowl. Today’s systems come with robust security; and staff awareness and training are among the highest priorities of professional court managers. Courts have gotten very good about keeping their windows and chimneys shut, so to speak.

And then, there’s the final scene. As the Princess and The Prince dance into Happily Ever After, the Fairy Godmothers each change the color of the Princess’s gown to conform to their different fashion tastes. What a concept: Configurable display, to suit the needs, wants, and preferences of each particular user. Guess what? Your wish is granted.

Bippity Boppity Boo.

Confronting Court Document Retention Policy in the Era of Electronic Content

88_document retentionIn Animal House (one of my favorite movies), the trial scene has its own instructive moral. The Dean, through his smarmy hench-students, hauls the fun-loving and rule-oblivious Delta brothers into Student Court to answer for their “too numerous to name” peccadillos. The allegations are (or would be, if allowed to be heard) supported by extensive evidence, for the simple reason that most are true.

The “defense,” if it could be called that, consists of asserting that the charges REALLY constitute an attack on the American way of life.

Sounds ridiculous; and it is. Except… who hasn’t been involved in a discussion where, just as the group begins to close in on a solution, someone attaches an almost completely unrelated set of concerns and insists that those must be resolved before moving forward?

This principle came to mind as I listened to an excellent presentation at a court conference on revising and implementing policies and procedures for purging documents and files as courts move to paper on demand.

Consider: Most “legacy” record retention policies (and most record retention policies today are legacy) were promulgated at a time when the primary concern was storage space, or more accurately, the cost and lack thereof. The policies were primarily intended to make sure that records that might one day be needed again not be prematurely discarded. Indeed, most policies required that important records be indefinitely, if not permanently, retained.

Also, there is a stark difference between records retention in the commercial world and the courts, and the lines are often mistakenly blurred. In the commercial world information can be a discoverable liability, and in many cases should be purged as soon as possible. In the courts: justice, public safety and service are the primary goals, and purging is often an inhibitor.

Tellingly, there was little or no “requirement” to purge (absent case-specific court orders).

Most courts, in my experience, only embarked on purging documents when space constraints forced the issue. Otherwise, little, if anything, was ever actually destroyed. Instead, documents and files were moved into increasingly difficult to access deep storage. Generally, the difficulty was thought to be the effort required to actually go through the documents and files, identify (and confirm) what is eligible for purge, physically remove them and then securely dispose of them.

Fast forward to the present. For starters, the question of physical space is no longer an issue to paper on demand courts. Granted, there are cost and process issues with long-term content storage; but they are most certainly NOT the kind of current constraint and the level of expense providing physical space to store paper.

More importantly, using paper on demand with configurable workflow, all the identification, verification and actual purging problems can be managed in a relatively straightforward, efficient, flexible (in case rules change) and economical manner.

So, problem solved, right?

Hah! If you believe that, then I’ve got this great deal on Alaska gold mining stock, if you’re interested….

Thanks for solving the problems; but it now turns out those aren’t the problems that are at the top of anyone’s list these days. What do you MEAN you can afford to keep everything forever? People have a RIGHT to have old matters go away…

In fact, one of the many consequences of loss of the “effective inaccessibility” of paper documents is a fundamental conflict between those with an interest in keeping access to everything permanently and those with an interest in making the information as inaccessible as possible, as soon as possible.

One (fairly standard, I’ll bet) interim policy is to “publicly” delete, but internally retain (for those with authorization). Let the Rule Drafting begin for THAT one!

So, on this subject, I line up with the Deltas: We’re probably having the wrong discussion. Document “retention” and “purging” are really anachronistic concepts in an era of electronic documents and ECM. What would be far more constructive, in my humble opinion, would be to discuss how to appropriately manage all aspects of content lifecycle – including the “post-active” phases – in a paper on demand world, develop appropriate policies and design the enabling systems to allow ongoing management of content lifecycles using modern tools.

 

 

Armor Up: Electronic Court Tools for Judges

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Recently I saw an exhibit of a fully equipped Roman Legionnaire from the early Roman Empire. All that stuff – armor, sword, shield, spear – sure looked heavy. Interesting enough in itself; but later that day, I happened to see a picture of a fully outfitted American soldier in battle gear.

And I thought, “Hmmm…”

So I did some Googling and came up with an interesting little factoid. The average weight a Roman Legionnaire carried two thousand years ago was about 80 pounds.   A modern day American soldier carries — you guessed it — about 80 pounds.

A pessimist might say, gee, all the advances we’ve made; but the poor foot soldier is still carrying the same load. What a surprise.

But what matters is that the 80 pounds should be the best equipment for the mission. And what is the best available equipment for the mission has changed plenty in two millennia.

Which brings me to an observation concerning the current move toward Enterprise Content Management (ECM)-enabled judicial workbenches. Judges need tools and supplies in the form of information to accomplish their mission. They need access to information about the matters before them and to related matters; they need access to the applicable legal authorities and so on.

What is true with judges, just as with foot soldiers, is that there is a limit to how much they can carry and still operate. The advent of judicial workbenches powered by ECM with configurable workflow is fundamentally changing how much and what kind of work judges can accomplish during their limited available time. Because what has NOT expanded is the amount of time available to a judge.

Judges have always needed access to information. In paper-based systems, either the judge or someone on behalf of the judge had to locate the information in paper documents and files. Their instructions and decisions had to be committed to paper documents, which had to be routed and physically transported. To be signed, documents had to be physically available to the judge.

When legal authorities were cited, the judge had to access the appropriate volumes of statutes, case law or other authority, so physical proximity to these (often voluminous) sources was a real advantage, but it came with great overhead. Likewise, access to related files and documents, often necessary, required physically tracking down, pulling and delivering the appropriate paper files.

Today, a judge can use an electronic or paper-on-demand judicial workbench that uses ECM with configurable workflow to streamline and integrate all these activities and more. Such a workbench can integrate the court’s documents and files, case management systems and related agency systems, such as inmate tracking and warrant tracking, into a single, easy-to-use tool for the judge. Such a tool can provide, for example,

  • Intuitive, multi-touch interface with gesture-based commands
  • A docket-based system that is both judge-driven and clerk-driven in the courtroom
  • The ability to view relevant documents specific to a hearing
  • Easy-to-use electronic case files with colored-coded folder tabs
  • The capability to securely sign documents quickly and easily
  • Include judge’s notes, permanent markups, under advisement

and much more.

Just as with the foot soldier, none of this should be expected to make a judge’s life easier in the sense of working less hard. Eighty pounds is eighty pounds. However, with tools such as these at their disposal, judges can accomplish far more than in the olden days, with the same amount of effort; generally, everything they’ve got.

A Horse is a Horse, Of Course, Of Course…Unless It’s an Electronic Document

When the locomotive first appeared, and for some time thereafter, it was commonly called “The Iron Horse.” The use of “horse” certainly helped cast the new technology in terms people who had grown up in a horse-drawn society could understand.

85_horseHowever, while locomotives performed functions once performed by horses, they were not, in any sense, mechanical horses. To the extent the terminology suggested that the new machines were simply faster, stronger, more efficient versions of horses, that terminology interfered with clear understanding of the transition and its future implications.

I wonder if the domain of content management is not currently experiencing a similar sort of language-induced interference with clarity of vision. Specifically, I am more and more seeing the term “Electronic Document” in about the same way as I see the term Iron Horse. Why would one try to make a locomotive look, act or operate like a horse? Why would one try to make electronically managed information look, act or operate like a piece of paper?

I recognize the obvious reasons: People are used to it; existing laws, procedures, standards, practices, etc. are built around it; and there is a huge, existing infrastructure and legacy. OK, but we’re rapidly working our way through and past those challenges. The fact is, those are transition considerations, not fundamental aspects of content management.

As Electronic Content Management (ECM) with configurable workflow rapidly permeates society in general, and courts in particular, it is becoming clear that we are in a major transitional period when it comes to documents. Documents are not simply being transitioned from paper to electronic form. More accurately, and far more important and profound, documents are being “unbundled.”

For those not familiar with the term, unbundling in a process sense refers to separating previously connected services, products or processes. Paper documents historically bundle numerous separate, although often related, functions. A few of these include:

  • Carrying information –– For example, a pleading or a grocery list.
  • Preserving information –– For example, a judgment, a receipt or a historical account.
  • Triggering action — For example, a notice or an order for action.
  • Acting as a token –– For example, a plane ticket, a Release Order or a Warrant.
  • Possessing an existential value –– For example, a $100 dollar bill, an original will (because of its direct physical link to the decedent) or an original manuscript (because of its direct link to the author and its historicity).

In the new ECM world, best practices now “decouple” information from documents. Documents, whether paper or electronic, are no longer essential to carrying information, preserving information or triggering action. Rather, well-designed ECM with configurable workflow works far better, with far greater control, at far less cost.

Creating electronic versions of documents ancillary to, or after, these processes is totally feasible; and most, if not all current systems can do it. Yet it is becoming increasingly clear that such artificial documents, whether rendered on paper or maintained electronically, are simply superfluous. The image of a horse attached to the front of a locomotive may look impressive, but it doesn’t do a thing to improve the locomotive’s operation.

While many documents are rendered unnecessary through ECM with workflow, some still serve other purposes. Despite smartphone and wearable technology that can render most tickets unnecessary, there will be need for tokens for a long time. And, some documents will always have an existential value.

Nevertheless, just because this is so does NOT mean that the old rules, practices and infrastructure relating to documents in general should be merely adapted to assume that previously paper documents may now be electronic. Just because we still have horse shows, riding clinics, and cowboys does not mean that every city street still needs hitching posts and water troughs.

From here on out, courts will be managing content, not documents per-se, electronic or paper. The Post-Document era is upon us.

When E.T. Can’t Phone Home

82_etAs court implementations of Enterprise Content Management (ECM) systems move past installation and into maturity in their lifecycles, the “Give A Mouse A Cookie” syndrome gets stronger and stronger. That’s because as a robust ECM system with configurable workflow can do so much more, we feel entitled to EXPECT it to do more.

Today, let’s consider a subset of “Access”– the ability to get to documents. Few will disagree that Internet access to electronic documents is much more convenient and easier to manage than paper documents. People can view documents and files remotely; there’s no need to transport them, etc.

So we’re all happy, right? Well, sort of…

Actually, No.

Granted, remote access via the Web beats having to retrieve things from the file room. It works whenever there is an Internet connection. However, there are some big caveats when away from the court or office.

Think of judges who need to have access to not only read documents, but who need to work on, edit, create or sign them from home, from another court, from an airport, from the beach, and so on. Working on the documents across the Internet has some real limitations.

For starters, Steve Jobs’ vision of universal, 24/7, free access to the Internet notwithstanding, access is NOT always available. E.T. can’t always phone home and when he can’t, he’s stranded.

Second, even when Internet access is available, download speed for documents and files can be painfully slow.

Third, for various reasons (which I won’t go into here; but you can find a lot of court folks who will attest to it), if there is no persistent connection, managing the documents and the workflow becomes significantly more difficult and adds some major layers of complexity for the user to deal with.

The answer to this challenge is to utilize application sets that allow users to have access to and to work offline with the documents they need, then to be able to effortlessly sync the documents back to the ECM system when connectivity becomes available. Such applications effectively provide an electronic “briefcase” to users who must utilize and work with court documents and files while away from their court or office.

Unlike a paper-holding briefcase, these applications, when integrated with workflow, can automatically load and remove some or all of the necessary documents with as much or as little involvement as the user wants to have in the process.

So, for example, a judge can have the files that are on his calendar for the next day automatically stuffed into the electronic briefcase each day. The judge can then work on them at home, on a laptop or on a tablet. If the judge wants other files on an ad hoc basis, those can be easily added. Furthermore, the applications can also automatically empty the briefcase contents, sending the processed documents to whatever, wherever and whomever they should go.

Mobile access continues to grow in importance. Easy manipulation of remote documents was never a problem when documents couldn’t be remotely accessed. Now that ECM enables remote access, courts are, and should be, demanding that such access comes with the tools and power to maximize effectiveness. Fortunately, with the right ECM system and applications, E.T. can continue to get work done even when stranded in a backwater part of the universe.

 

 

Who You Gonna Call?

Some people are do-it-yourself-ers. My brother-in-law, for instance. He can do anything from replacing a bumper on a kitchen cabinet to gutting and completely remodeling the top two stories of a three-story house while still living comfortably on the ground floor. He’s good at it and likes doing it. And, being retired, he has the time.

78_who you gonna callNot me. Maybe if I were any good at it, I’d like it too. I, however, need a manual and video in order to grab the correct end of a hammer, and even then, I get it wrong about half the time. Yes, I have done do-it-yourself projects. I’d say my average is re-doing the project 2.8 times. That doesn’t count the times I eventually give up and either buy what I was trying to assemble or pay someone (or beg my brother-in-law) to do it.

Back in the 1980s, there really wasn’t anyone who was in the business of or selling products that worked well for court information systems. As a result, courts had to develop “in-house” capability in IT systems development and implementation. Many courts and court systems did a pretty outstanding job, all things considered.

As exciting as it was for those of us involved, the cold business fact is that IT development and deployment is neither a core purpose nor a core competency of the justice system. It’s way too expensive, and at best, courts are just able to get by. Fortunately, the wheel has turned; and today most courts either do the equivalent of going to Lowes or Home Depot, acquiring the necessary systems and attempting to assemble and deploy them themselves; or engaging a partner who has business expertise in that arena.

I’m not saying that no court can successfully go the Home Depot route. But my guess is that most are more like me than like my brother-in-law. I’m good at some things, home improvement is not among them. Courts may be very good at judicial processes; that’s a long way removed from systems development.

While I think there are some very good reasons why courts today should engage an experienced, well-qualified partner to assist in acquisition, development and deployment of paper-on-demand systems, I’m not going to catalog the reasons here. To those that try to go it alone, I say the same thing I do to my brother-in-law: “Good luck. I look forward to hearing how you did it.”

For those courts who are past the “Let’s do it ourselves” stage, I have a couple observations.

First, unlike “The Old Days,” there are already a number of products and product suites both available and in use. When talking with providers, courts will hear of a number of them. When they start to hear the same products suggested by multiple integrators, that’s a good indication that those components are “Best of Breed.” Likewise, when they see and hear of the products being successfully used by their peer courts, that’s another real good indication.

Second, it’s best to find a partner who knows the products, the business of the courts and perhaps most important, the process of helping the court and its stakeholders successfully plan and implement migration to paper-on-demand. Given the complexity, uniqueness and absolute need for quality and security of the court’s document-related workflow and processes, the partner should be able to demonstrate a history of creativity, trustworthiness, measurable valueadded and an understanding and improvement of the processes of the courts it serves.

When it comes to home improvement projects, I’d like to:

1)   Not smash my fingers,
2)   Not have to do it over,
3)   Have it done with quality materials that will last,
4)   Have it do what I need it to do (even if that’s a little different than anyone else),
5)   Be assured I’m getting a good return on my investment, and
6)   Have the confidence that whoever does the work is as good and trustworthy as my brother-in-law.

Courts should ask no less of their IT business partners.

 

 

 

Gazing Into the Crystal Ball, Part Three: Waving Goodbye to Documents

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In a recent post I set forth some predictions of the longer-term consequences of moving to paper on demand, I posted that in the future, “Courts will handle only a small fraction of the number of documents they do today.” Here’s why.

The first stage of implementing a paper-on-demand justice system involves the very profound shift from processes that rely on physical documents and files to processes that utilize electronic documents. Not surprisingly, during the first phases, a significant portion of effort involves trying to make the electronic documents useful within the context of their predecessors, paper documents. (Yes, people tend to cling to the old ways. To quote Jefferson (out of context), “…all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.”)

Of necessity, this transformation takes time. Eventually, as fingers loosen on the tightly held habits of the past, previously unseen factors begin to emerge. One of the earliest, and now well accepted, was that robust, configurable workflow capabilities are essential to making Enterprise Content Management (ECM) effective.

What ECM with configurable workflow increasingly demonstrates is that in many, if not most, cases “documents” are merely containers for information. Consider, for example, a typical Motion and Order for Continuance. Once upon a time the Motion document fulfilled the essential function of carrying the request to the Court, and the Order document provided a place for the judge (or other acting official) to memorialize approval. Today, neither document is necessary or desirable, as more effective, easy to use and safe mechanisms exist for accomplishing both objectives. Moreover, when a document (even an electronic document) is used, it has to be managed. And even if that management is done electronically, it creates overhead.

Think of making an online application for something that will require approval — say, a credit card or a loan; or, in my case. Medicare. The information (data) elements are critical to the process. There must be trustworthy authentication of the applicant’s identity. And, of course, the applicant must be bound by his or her assertions. But no one argues there has to be a document to accomplish any of these. Using some form of identifying security (today, email address and password are common, but more robust mechanisms exist), the applicant enters the information, acknowledges the terms under which the application is made and submits it.

Even with no document, the applicant should, at any time, be able to access the application information and see the status of the request.
In exactly the same manner, the “Order”, or approval/denial, has the requirements of containing the necessary information. If the decision/authority emanates from a particular person, that person must be held to have made the order. Again, absolutely no document is required.

While I could make similar arguments concerning more substantial, as opposed to ministerial/procedural, documents — things like pleadings, judgments and so forth — there is no need. Just the volume of ministerial/procedural documents in courts is so heavy that their elimination or substantial reduction will constitute a major change (for the better) in court operations. After they are gone, we’ll see about those that remain.

In this evolution, configurable workflow is THE key ingredient. The ability to move information based on rules, integrating the ECM system with Case Management system for courts, or Inmate Tracking System for jails, and so on, is the capability that can make many processes independent of documents altogether. Without it, some form of documents will still be necessary to provide conduits and containers for the information, albeit at a significantly greater cost.

The First Law (and How To Overcome It)

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With the advent of summer, I look at my garage and contemplate the inexorable truth of Newton’s First Law of Motion, holding that An Object At Rest Tends to Remain At Rest (until and unless acted upon by an external force).  Ah, yes… that certainly explains the clutter.  Why won’t someone just put all that stuff where it belongs?

It probably ALSO goes a long way toward explaining one of the key reasons that Electronic Content Management (ECM)with workflow has such a large impact on court operations.  In my experience, documents are even more resistant to moving on their own than most objects.   Overflowing In- and Out boxes, cluttered desk and counter tops, files on chairs – you name it; we all know it.

Interestingly, it turns out that the attribute of being physical is NOT the only cause of the clutter.  Consider: when I don’t want to deal with an object in the house, I stick it in the garage (just till I figure it out what to do with it), where more often than not it finds a semi-permanent home.  Likewise, moving to electronic documents, in itself, can turn the system into one big garage.  MAYBE things get put where they should be.  MAYBE someone retrieves them and processes them in a timely manner.  MAYBE someone notices if they don’t get processed.  And MAYBE my garage will clean itself up.

More likely, of course, they simply languish in the system.  Indeed, that has too often been the experience of courts that initially move to imaging primarily to free up physical space.  And the resultant problems tend to sour staff, judges, attorneys, and partner agencies on electronic documents.

For these reasons, if for no other (and of course there are MANY other), any justice system planning to implement ECM must include a robust workflow component.  Workflow will make sure that documents get routed to where they need to be.  Moreover, workflow and the attendant reporting, will:

  • flag and report to the proper person (and escalate if necessary) instances where a document has NOT moved as it should;
  • or where, even though it was routed correctly, it has not been processed in a timely manner;
  • or when a process is awaiting a document that never arrived.

Early court and related justice system pioneers of workflow learned that the effort to design and implement workflow as part of their ECM system paid enormous dividends.  In those days, the workflow tools were pretty generic, and the early adopters each had to essentially start with the raw tools and “roll their own”.   The advent of configurable workflow has increased ease and economy considerably, well beyond anything the early adopters had available.  Workflow can be configured and reconfigured as needed to accommodate changes, without the need for expensive programming.

In addition, implementations for courts and related justice agencies can take advantage of “pre-configured” workflows for all courts, case types, and case-specific processes that can be quickly tailored to the unique needs of the court to automate repetitive tasks and standardize processes across multiple departments. In other words, the great bulk of initial development of court and justice system workflow is already done; all that is left is site-specific customization.

To paraphrase Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz after the Scarecrow’s dance routine,  “If my junk back home could do THAT, my garage would be clean as a whistle!”

Look At All Those Trees

As TQM (Total Quality Management) guru William Edward Deming famously observed, 85 percent of an organization’s dysfunction is caused by its systems, and only 15 percent is caused by the people doing the work.  Yet all too often it’s the trees, not the forest, that catch the eye.

A number of years ago, I was talking with a successful and admired Trial Court Administrator (TCA) shortly after he retired.  He was helping his judges select and train his replacement, just as the court was approaching a major technology upgrade, and he related to me the advice he passed on to his successor (here I paraphrase):

 “Every new TCA can come in to any court, look around, and see dozens of things that could benefit from change.  I know you will see those things here.

 “Your instinct is going to be to start to tackle those things, because in many ways, they do need changing.

 “Nevertheless, my advice is, ‘Don’t do it.’  You need to step back and see the forest before you start dealing with the individual trees.  And you will only get one chance to deal with the forest as a forest (the court was on the cusp of a major technology initiative).   Because the real problem, and thus the real solution, has to do with the underlying systems; not the disfunctionality you are seeing at first blush.

 “When the court undertakes implementation of major new technology, which it only gets to do once in a generation, it should be concentrating on the larger system issues, not the surface-level.  If you do it right, you will find that when you have implemented the new systems, most of the existing dysfunction will disappear.  But if you concentrate on the ‘small stuff’ – the list of problems that you see – you’ll end up with the same problems you’re seeing now, only with new and expensive technology.”

 In courts, it’s easy to spot the “trees” because ironically they often show up in paper form, such as filing, storage, data entry, file movement, and so on.  The natural reaction is to address these inefficiency quickly, and with the tools at hand.  Sometimes a partial technology solution is implemented, such as imaging a particular case type, or e-filing a high-volume area, without a well-prepared vision for the “forest”.  But as too many courts have learned to their disappointment, dropping systems into place without first looking at The Big Picture is often expensive and frustrating.  On top of that, it often makes things considerably worse and sours the staff to the technology.

A forest really IS more than the trees.  There are hills and valleys, rivers and streams, animals and plants, and on and on.  It is a giant, intimately connected ecosystem.   If you focus on just the trees, your forest management is not going to be too successful.

Likewise, court document management involves a whole lot more than the documents themselves, whether physical or electronic.  Every document is involved in numerous processes, some simple, some highly complex, and almost all interrelated in myriad, and not always obvious, ways.

The term for this is “workflow”.   Experience shows that attempts to implement  Enterprise Content Management and its components – electronic documents, e-Filing, e-Signature and the rest – without carefully considering the workflow component will, at best, fall far short of expectations and need.  In many cases, it can amount to “automating a mess”, which, as we all know, results in having an automated mess.

Courts should obtain and utilize expert help to carefully map the forest of court processes and “as-is” workflow.   The courts should select “configurable” workflow tools that the court staff can maintain and adapt in the future, so that processes can be changed and the court is not completely dependent on vendors for those changes.  Then decide what the newly re-vamped forest should look like; which streams and valleys should stay; where paths and bridges should be placed and how best to manage the trees.  Finally, determine how a new system will assure realization of the desired to-be forest.

48_look_trees

 As my friend so accurately pointed out, taking care of the forest level will generally work out just fine for the trees.

Avoiding a Stroll Through the La Brea Tar Pits

The La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles consist of areas where oil seeping to the surface causes the ground to be the consistency of a tarry asphalt. Because it often looked and felt like solid ground, unsuspecting animals (back as far as the dinosaurs) and perhaps some humans, have wandered in, only to become terminally stuck. Why did they wander in? I’ll bet it was because the most luscious plants, fruits, and flowers were right, smack dab in the middle.

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I was reminded of this fascinating and macabre natural phenomenon the other day during a discussion of systems as they impact operational design over time. One of the most powerful advances in justice system technology today over the technology originally deployed in the ’80s, 90s, and even early ‘2000s is also one of the most overlooked: the configurability of Enterprise Content Management (ECM) workflow.

Back in the “old days”, the processing and business rules of the enterprise were largely hard coded into the automated systems then being deployed. At the time, there was a stark tradeoff, often not fully understood or appreciated, but as inexorable as the Tar Pits. On the one hand, having the system do as much of the processing as possible tended to maximize efficiency: all those luscious savings and efficiencies beckoning to be realized. The tradeoff was that any changes to the business rules were at best costly and time consuming, requiring high-priced programming and software upgrades.

In many cases, change was simply not possible. Once I had to explain to a group of legislators why the legacy court automation system could not accommodate a proposed policy change. They were puzzled and upset – the change seemed, to them, to be a small thing. In fact, in some ways, it WAS a small thing. Unfortunately, not all small things were easy. For example, moving the Capitol Building a foot to the north wouldn’t be a long move, but it sure wouldn’t be easy.

Generally, tradeoffs were made by balancing the best guess of what would be the long-term business environment and practice with “externalizing” much of the operational rules (in today’s parlance, that is “workflow”). Thus, the systems did as much of the heavy lifting as was thought to be unlikely to change; while much that could have otherwise been automated was still done by people in order to retain some capacity to change when the environment, needs, laws, personnel, etc. changed.

For this reason, the advent of configurable workflow in ECM systems has changed the game. No longer do the alluring benefits of standardizing and incorporating business rules and processes into the system have to “trap” the justice system, and its constituent entities (courts, prosecutors, law enforcement, jails, corrections, etc.) into immobility. Workflow redesign necessitated by both internal changes (say an expansion or move of a courthouse or implementation of a new jury system) and changes by another agency (say the way a new jail inmate tracking system interacts with the court’s calendaring system) can be handled through configuration updates performed by trained court staff, as opposed to major systems changes.

In the earlier stages of ECM penetration into the justice system, workflow was perhaps the most overlooked and underrated benefit; while more obvious hard savings, such as storage, security, and accessibility were relied upon for much of the up-front business justification. Even though the understanding of the benefits from workflow implementation is growing, it is important not to lose sight of the concomitant strategic power of and need for configurability. Otherwise, an inflexible ECM system without robust, powerful, and easily managed configurability will be like an unpaved path into the middle of the Tar Pits.