Hacking Outside the Box

I think it was Arnold Palmer who remarked that beginners often find golf easy because they haven’t had time to learn how hard it is. That’s essentially the sentiment that drives the “Hackathon” mentality. At e-Courts 2016 last month, the Court Hackathon sessions were among the most interesting and the most eye-opening.


I didn’t know, going in, what a “Hackathon” is. I assumed it was a bunch of real-life Big Bang Theory young techies trying to break court enterprise systems.

It turns out I was half right. It does involve a bunch of BBT young techies. However, rather than breaking things, they are building them. Hackathoners enter a convention hall-size room filled with tables, chairs, computers, and various forms of highly caffeinated beverages and high caloric-content junk food. They are tasked with conceiving, designing, and creating a working, useful application. They have something like thirty-six hours in which to do it. They form teams and have at it. At the end, they show what they’ve built.

The really exciting part is that these folks, being not only young, but also largely unencumbered by any idea of the internal operations of the justice system in general or the courts in particular, are literally unaware that certain things JUST CAN’T BE DONE.

At one session, the Grand Prize winners presented their winning solution (their presentation, along with the others from the conference, is available online).

In many ways, the actual solution took a back seat to the attitude, approach, and world view of the “Hackathoners”. These young people view courts and the justice system from the perspective of people who have never, since the time they were slapped with GPS bracelets in the hospital before they were all the way born, known a world without the Internet, Google, Amazon, smartphones, and so on. When they have a question, they expect to be able to ask in normal language and to instantly get a straightforward, relevant response.

When describing how the team determined what “problem” to solve, they told a very non-flattering (to the justice agency) story of trying to report a theft. The online interface consisted of a half-dozen or more text-packed screens requesting myriad information, almost none of which seemed (to the victim) to be even slightly relevant to his attempt to report the crime. (The victim’s date of birth? His employer? Really?)

Now, from an internal agency standpoint, the question would be, “Well, what’s wrong with that? We’re on the cutting edge – we’re actually using Form-Driven E-Filing. Not only that, the citizen (to whom we have outsourced our data entry) can access it online. You mean you’re not thanking us for this?

The team decided to attempt to develop a more friendly experience for the user. They selected a court application: responding to an eviction (FED) notice. To see how it works, watch the presentation, which includes a demo.

Here’s what I think is particularly important: The key to the solution is what is known as Natural Language Processing (NLP). You know it as Siri, Cortina, Alexa, Echo, and so on. As the team pointed out, only now is the processing power becoming available to make NLP a part of practical solutions.

So here’s the punch line insofar as it relates to ECM and E-Filing. Remember the Six Building Blocks of ECM?  (Feel free to go back and review… ) Well, Number One is Capture. And Capture is starting to move to interactive, NPL interfaces: the next evolution beyond form-driven data capture.

The data so captured from natural conversations will feed into the Workflow engine. And the results will in turn be consumed by, among other things, the NLP itself as it hones its ability to effectively interact with users, making sense of what it hears and giving appropriate and meaningful responses.

Really, really exciting stuff. At least to a geek like me. The Hackathoners, not knowing any better, gave us a glimpse of where we’re all headed. Seemed to them to be the right thing to do.


Bippity Boppity Boo – ECM, Workflow, and Magic

“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.

Black Belt: Learning to Learn

113_black-beltThe term “Martial Arts” may seem strange to those who have never pursued them. To those who have, however, the term makes perfect sense. Karate, judo, tai-chi, kung-fu, and myriad others, are indeed arts, requiring years of dedicated study and practice to master.

That’s not to say that there is no benefit at the front end. Beginners can pick up the rudiments of self-defense in a relatively short order. Indeed, a lot of folks look no further, in the same way that tourists can pick up enough of a foreign language to get by on a vacation, although they cannot be said to “speak the language”. And, there are a lot of benefits that accrue at the outset: improved fitness, enhanced self-awareness, increased self-confidence, and so on.

Most of those reasons are why people take up a martial art in the first place. When they start, even achieving Green Belt status seems almost impossibly remote. Mastery requires internalizing a complex and non-intuitive set of reflexes that permeate every action and every thought. And there’s just no way to do that without investing a lot of time and effort. Thus, to novices (White Belts), the Green Belts appear to be outstanding, the Brown Belts appear to be perfect practitioners; and the Black Belts are practically gods.

So, here’s a bit of a surprise: A First Degree Black Belt, achieved after years of effort, does not mean that the person has learned all are there is to know. Yes, he or she has become highly proficient, both in the Martial Art and in life in most aspects of life in general. But achievement of First Degree Black Belt status means, within the Martial Arts community, that the recipient is finally qualified and ready to begin learning.

In that regard, the recent announcement that Macomb County, Michigan Circuit Court now processes more documents through its E-Filing System than are received in paper format caused me to reflect that Macomb County and others who have been diligently working on ECM for years are approaching new thresholds. Yes, the ECM systems long ago began providing significant savings, efficiencies, and improved customer service, much as a White Belt realizes great benefits from the first several years of training. But as the courts leave the old paradigm behind – shedding its old skin, as it were – after significant time, effort, and learning, they are positioned to begin leveraging ECM by fully shifting to information management paradigms unencumbered by the limitations of the old world. Things like automatic redaction, fully automated document lifecycle control, rich and detailed metrics of all kinds, real-time data aggregation, and much, much more will be just the beginning.

In fact, no one knows the nature and extent of the capabilities that will be emerging, because unlike martial arts, there are not generations of high-level Black Belts who have been here before. The currently emerging ECM-cognizant courts are the first generation.

The next several years will be interesting and fraught with possibility. Organization, including courts, have to “learn to learn”, just as people do. Many of those who embarked on the ECM journey years ago are, after years of effort and experience, becoming comfortable with Change Management at levels never before possible or even contemplated. For adults set in their ways (and courts, as we know, have been very set in their ways), learning a second language is usually pretty challenging. But learning a new language makes learning yet another language much, much easier. Likewise, fully internalizing a new technology paradigm such as ECM makes identification of and transition to even better operations significantly smoother and less traumatic.

Macomb County Circuit Court and its peers have come a long ways. More exciting, they are in much better position to move forward with each passing step. Tipping to a majority of e-filed documents is a big one. Moving up to the darker-colored belt. Congratulations; I look forward to watching as the journey continues.


Going Beyond your CMS with ECM

112_bucketMany CMS systems come with some form of a “bucket” that holds documents that can be attached to a case file. These folders of attached case file documents are a great resource when looking at a specific case. However, they leave a lot of the real value contained within and about the documents themselves.

An integrated ECM (enterprise content management) system can provide far more benefit than a simple bucket because it’s able to unlock:

  • The content of those documents
  • Much more detailed information about each document
  • Rich information about the documents and the information within them in aggregate form in ways that are helpful to the court

Courts love the benefits of the full text searching capabilities provided by an ECM system. Full text searching allows you to search using a combination of metadata and text search criteria, the contents of a document, an entire case file, a group of files, or even the global case file spectrum for information of value that would not appear as data in your CMS. Judges will find this capability can be particularly helpful when rendering a decision in regards to a motion, evidentiary hearing, or final judgment.

Documents have metadata associated with them. For many CMS, if you wanted, for instance, a list of all judgments on a particular defendant or case type, or to see all complaints filed by a plaintiff, performing this kind of search would be quite cumbersome, if indeed it was possible at all.  In comparison, with an ECM system, searches across documents and cases are quick, simple, and may even be set up to be automatic.

With a CMS, viewing multiple documents side-by-side, particularly if they are from different cases, is problematic.An ECM system makes side-by-side viewing simple and clear.

Another advantage is that some ECM systems, such as JusticeTech by ImageSoft, allows case file to be displayed differently to different groups of people. A clerk and judge may want to look at a case file set up differently because they have different functional needs. A modern ECM system can provide that flexibility without having to re-arrange, develop a “compromise” arrangement, or, worst of all, duplicate a file. Furthermore, documents that only the judge should see, such as medical reports and confidential information, can be made available only to authorized judges and staff.

To obtain the full benefits of an ECM, It is vitally important for the court that the ECM system have a seamless integration with the CMS. For a quick overview of some of the reasons, see the blog post Deja Vu All Over Again.Well-designed integration will make the overall system feel natural to users and be easy for the court to maintain, thereby helping with user adoption and the long term viability of the solution.

Justice Summit Reflection: From Case Management to Information Management

Experiencing June’s Justice Summit in Grand Rapids as usual felt like drinking from a fire hose.  Sadly, I have yet to master the trick of sitting in on three sessions at once, so will have to content myself with reviewing the materials and watching the videos of the sessions I missed when they are posted to the conference website.

IMG_1273I chose to follow the Case Management track, which Jim McMillan set up with his keynote on current developments in utilizing the plethora of data flowing from all forms of Electronic Content Management systems to enhance Case Management and Decision Support. From the fire hose I came away with, among other things, the following observation.

The justice system, often led by the courts, is approaching or at a “tipping point” in the management of information.  As I listened to how modern systems incorporate, integrate, and internally leverage the three traditional informational pillars – Case Metadata (Case Tracking Systems), Content (Document and Content Management Systems), and Process (workflow) – I realized that the improvements have gone beyond evolutionary to revolutionary.

Here’s what I mean.

The original electronic Case Management Systems (CMS) automated the systems previously kept in large files or books, typically called The Register of Actions, The Judgment Docket, and The Court Docket, or some similar terms.  Thus the DNA, or “lizard brain” of even the most sophisticated of early CMS were electronic “direct descendants” of the old, physical record. As such, they are of course “case-based”.

Likewise, Electronic Document Management Systems (EDMS) automated what had previously been physical case files. Again, they were direct descendants. So, for example, the electronic documents “of course” had “page numbers”, for instance.  And perhaps “Title Pages”. And, also of course, they tend to be very “document” and “file based”.

Workflow systems were a little different.  While their antecedent was written or institutional process information, generally they came into being either with or following implementation of EDMS and began with “smart” routing of documents through the process cycle. As such, they really were not different just in form (electronic versus paper based), but also in function, from their great, great grandparent, the Routing Slip. From the start they were able to take advantage of the electronic information contained in or accompanying the very documents they were tasked to route.

As time has gone by, Electronic Case Management, Electronic Content Management, and Electronic Workflow have become more tightly integrated and cross-leveraged. This trend has led to much of the almost incredible new capabilities of modern systems to impact

What I began to notice, from Jim’s Keynote through the various sessions on Case Management, is that the newest systems are starting to leave some of the old DNA behind. Instead, they start from ground zero and are designed to capture, store, utilize, disseminate, exchange, secure, manipulate, manage, and control information electronically from end to end, without resort to “lizard brain” limitations imposed by the physical limitations of previous ages. Concepts such as “case”, “file”, “person”, and so forth can be dynamically formed and utilized as needed, without imposing design or performance trade-offs necessary in bygone days. Furthermore, they are not so much “integrated” as they are reformed into a new, more complete, flexible, and robust whole.

What is emerging is a new type of system that is designed, from the ground up, to holistically handle all types of information – meta data, content, institutional knowledge and rules, security – without regard for system boundaries imposed by either information type or historical format limitations.

For those aficionados of Arthur C. Clark, what I think we are seeing is a Childhood’s End moment. The first wave of automated systems got us to where we are today. Now courts and the wider justice system are poised to move to a new level of Information Management, the successor to Case Management.

eFiling: Audit Trail and Confidentiality

This is Part 10 of 10 in the eFiling Blog Series, check out Part 9 here.

To conclude this eFiling series, let’s look back at a few pieces posted in the past that dealt with the enhancement of both the audit trail and the control over confidentiality offered by eFiling.

Audit Trail

One of the fun pieces I wrote, inspired by a presentation David Slayton, included an explanation of the audit trail provided by a good eFiling system.

[David] says … “… I know EXACTLY where the document came from, and whose profile was used to send it.” Knowing that a document has come from the right place, and knowing whose secure profile was used to send it, constitute security orders of magnitude greater than a written signature on a piece of paper…

Taking David’s point a step further, in an appropriately implemented Enterprise Content Management (ECM) with workflow system, not only do you know where the document came from, you know where it’s been and where it’s supposed to be going. It’s like Billy’s trail in the Family Circus: it leaves its tracks. It keeps track of who has looked at it and when. It keeps track of what was done to it, by whom, and when. And, unlike Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumb trail, it doesn’t disappear.


…. [I]n a properly implemented ECM with workflow system, not only do we know that the document comes from who it’s supposed to; we know whether or not it’s been altered since it was sent, who has touched it, where it’s been, where it’s heading, whether it’s behavior makes sense, and if not, what would make better sense.

Stalking the Wily Electronic Documents, January 12, 2015

In another piece, I got to use one of my favorite pieces of doggerel (“Last night I saw upon the stair/ A little man who wasn’t there…”) to illustrate how a well-designed ECM system provides auditable Record Integrity:

A reliable document Chain of Custody in the paper world is merely a means of attempting to protect the Principal of Integrity. (Albeit an expensive, labor-intensive, highly unreliable, almost-never-completely followed means). Even with special viewing areas and monitors, do courts control ALL access by ALL staff, ALL attorneys, and ALL judges, not to mention cleaning and security staff? Not usually.

ECM provides a built-in mechanism for maintaining an audit trail of the Chain of Custody for court documents, providing end-to-end assurance of document integrity. ECM users view documents on screen and don’t come in contact with the physical file. From identity and signature authentication (when needed) at the front end, through tracking who accesses each document and when, to ”locking out changes” to prevent tampering, ECM absolutely protects document integrity…

Proving the Negative, October 3, 2011


Confidentiality has several aspects. There’s things like judge’s notes, intended only for the judge or designated persons. Then there’s confidential information, like Social Security Numbers, minors’ names, abuse victims’ addresses, and so on, contained in otherwise public documents. There are totally confidential documents, like Secret Indictments. There are confidential case types, like some juvenile matters or adoptions, where the entire case is confidential.

eFiling and ECM provide greater control of confidential information, at all levels of granularity – from individual data element to entire case. Who can see what can be tightly controlled and administered. So, for example, attorneys on confidential juvenile cases can see their clients’ files, but no others. Court employees and judges with clearance can see confidential data that has been redacted using automated, workflow-enabled tools making it invisible to unauthorized persons.

However, as I noted in the March 14, 2012 posting,

This does not mean courts should not carefully review and, if required, modify rules and statutes to make certain there are no unpleasant surprises … The paper-on-demand court environment IS different than the hard-copy environment. The area of Public Records discoverability has wrinkles in the paper-on-demand environment that never arise in the paper world…

… Recommended best practice:

1) Ensure that disclosure rules call out both electronic and paper work product as their own non-disclosable category of information;

2) Maintain the non-disclosable work product documents in separate document types from formal court records, with security configuration that prevents viewing by unauthorized system users; and

3) Support electronic document annotations that don’t technically alter the original document and have their own security distinct from the document

Assuring Judicial Work Product Confidentiality in a Paper-On-Demand Court, March 12, 2012

While the business case for eFiling generally emphasizes the savings, convenience, work process streamlining, and quality improvements, the benefits of having a robust, easily managed audit trail and greatly enhanced control over confidentiality certainly should not be overlooked as additional “low-hanging fruit” when moving to eFiling and ECM.

eFiling Bind-Overs and Appeals: Harvesting Some Low-Hanging Fruit

This is Part 8 of 10 in the eFiling Blog Series, check out Part 7 here.

In the standard model of eFiling, a litigant (whether private or public) initiates a case by eFiling with the court. Another, sometimes overlooked, opportunity to harvest some low-hanging fruit involves court-to-court eFiling. Using eFiling to transfer matters from a trial court to an appellate court, as in appeals, or from an initiating court to a trial court, as in a bind-over, offers efficiencies, savings, and process improvement.

104_casebindConsider first appeals from a trial court to an appellate court. Preparation of the Record on Appeal (RoA) is a strictly rule-driven process requiring the transfer of a broad but defined subset of the trial court’s data, metadata, and documents related to the case. Manually selecting what to send, packaging it with the prescribed order, format, and organization, creating the necessary indexes to documents, and transporting it to the appellate court consumes considerable time from one or more highly skilled knowledge workers.

On the receiving end, the appellate court must review the package for completeness and accuracy, re-enter the data and metadata on its own systems, and create its own case files. If the appellate court has its own Electronic Content Management System (ECMS) it may need to scan in the documents and enter the necessary metadata, duplicating entry again.

Appellate court implementation of eFiling for litigants continues to advance at an accelerating rate. However, many of the same appellate courts courts handle data and document intercourse with their originating courts in a fairly primitive manner, which is to say, with paper or static image documents and forms utilizing little data centricity.

By extending eFiling to the courts from which it receives appeals, the appellate court can greatly streamline its case/file setup process, as well as its interactions with the trial courts during and at the conclusion of the appellate phase. It could assure getting well organized, complete, and compliant Records on Appeal from all its constituent courts, while greatly reducing the time spent reviewing RoA’s by some of the court’s most highly skilled staff.

On the flip side, the benefits to the trial courts would be equally significant. A court with its own ECMS could configure its workflow according to the specifications of the appellate court to automatically generate the RoA. Acknowledgements, requests for further information, and case disposition (judgments, remands, etc.) would loop back to its ECMS and workflow from the appellate court.

Many of the same considerations apply in the case of moving a case from a lower appeal court to a higher level, or back again, or both. In many ways, bind-overs would be a lot simpler to configure than appellate RoA’s. Of course, what they lack in complexity they make up for in volume. Streamlining the bind-over process offers great efficiencies to both initiating and receiving courts.

In both the case of Appeals and the case of bind-overs, the filer/receiver model is usually many-to-one. That is, a trial court generally sends appeals to one appellate court (with some exceptions for appeals direct to a higher appellate court), while an appellate court generally receives appeals from many trial courts. Bind-overs likewise typically follow a similar many-to-one model.

In many, if not most places, the “sending” or “originating” court may not be responsible to the same political and/or funding authority as the “receiving” court. This reality causes the Three Rules of Funding eFiling to rear their often unbecoming heads: 1) It isn’t free; 2) Someone has to pay for it; and 3) The chosen strategy has implications. In short, a solution that should be win-win may not be considered because no one wants to pay for the whole thing.

Five years ago that might have been a persuasive argument. However, today the answer should be different, because the world is a different place. eFiling has penetrated all levels of courts. Probably the most direct strategy in this instance is to have the “receiving ” courts extend their eFiling systems to their “originating ” courts. The marginal cost to the “receiving” court would be more than offset by the resulting savings.

It sure looks like low-hanging fruit.

Coming up next: Blog 9 of 10: eFiling Blog Series – Law Firm Considerations

In Praise of Tortoises

Jeff is currently on vacation and the eFiling series will resume upon his return with part 2 – Electronic Court Filing Standards.

98_tortoiseReading U.S. supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts’s 2014 Year-End Report on the Federal Judiciary I am reminded of an episode from my parenting years involving my youngest daughter. Trying to get her to do something she didn’t want to do was like trying to get a tree to dance. (On the other hand, standing in her way once she decided to go after something has always been a good way to get run over.)

One year we signed her up for the city’s spring youth run. Great fun, good exercise, flashy medal…. The only problem was, she didn’t feel like running that day.

Now, most kids, surrounded by several hundred OTHER kids, not to mention countless adult supervisors, would have at least tried to keep up with the pack to avoid being identified as the one slow-poke. Not my daughter. In an impressive display of disregard for peer pressure and fear of public humiliation, she strolled. By the end, the adults around her were imploring her to pick up the pace; all to no avail.

Meanwhile, the audience, the other runners, and the subsequent heats all waited. And waited.

My daughter has since grown up to be a formidable, high-performance, successful professional. Interestingly, she uses BOTH traits to her advantage. So maybe she knew what she was doing.

But the wait was STILL frustrating.

With these fond memories in mind, I consider Chief Justice John Roberts’s Report, wherein he discusses the nature and change of technology, particularly Electronic Case Management, Electronic Document Management, and Electronic Filing, in the Supreme Court and in the courts in general. He unabashedly acknowledges not only the usually slow pace of court adoption of new technology, but that the slowness of the pace and resistance to change is in many ways intentional.

“[T]he courts will often choose to be late to the harvest of American ingenuity. Courts are simply different in important respects when it comes to adopting technology, including information technology. While courts routinely consider evidence and issue decisions concerning the latest technological advances, they have proceeded cautiously when it comes to adopting new technologies in certain aspects of their own operations….

“…Federal judges are stewards of a judicial system that has served the Nation effectively for more than two centuries. Like other centuries-old institutions, courts may have practices that seem archaic and inefficient — and some are. But others rest on traditions that embody intangible wisdom. Judges and court executives are understandably circumspect in introducing change to a court system that works well until they are satisfied that they are introducing change for the good….

“…The sculptures that adorn the Supreme Court provide a reminder of that resolve… The often overlooked east pediment, installed on the rear portion of the building, features images of historic lawgivers and other symbolic figures. It is flanked by imagery drawn from a well-known fable: A hare on one side sprints in full extension for the finish line, while a tortoise on the other slowly plods along. Perhaps to remind us of which animal won that famous race, Cass Gilbert placed at the bases of the Court’s exterior lampposts sturdy bronze tortoises, symbolizing the judiciary’s commitment to constant but deliberate progress in the cause of justice.”

Notwithstanding that the Chief Justice articulates that the courts may not move as fast as other institutions and society in general, he clearly declares that change will eventually come, saying

“As technology proceeds apace, we cannot be sure what changes are in store, for the courts or society generally. Innovations will come and go, but the judiciary will continue to make steady progress in employing new technology to provide litigants with fair and efficient access to the courts.”

OK. Some are waiting. But more and more courts are past waiting. ECM and eFiling have in fact become mainstream and of proven reliability. Most courts and their constituents simply cannot afford to eschew their clear advantages. With all due respect to SCOTUS, the courts serve the people; and next race to meet the increasingly complex and pressing societal need for judicial services is well under way. The tortoise never wins the race without pressing deliberately forward.

The Art and Folly of Prediction

Go to any court conference these days and you’ll find that a main topic, if not THE main topic, is “change.” In my previous post, I discussed my sense that the rate of change occurring in the courts surpasses almost all current expectations. A part of me hopes I’m wrong. However, I’m keeping that part of me well away from my wallet.

What this means to making predictions about the future of the courts is that it’s far less likely to be anywhere near as correct as predictions from 1960 could have been for the year 2015. Historically, virtually all attempts to predict the futunwo xanderre err on the side of being way too conservative. In 1960, no one was predicting most of the things that define our world today, such as instant world-wide communications; immediate access to virtually all facts, written information and other forms of content; and the ability to store, access, and interpret all that information, just to name a few.

Nevertheless, there are some extremely valid reasons for looking toward the future and making predictions. That plans will have to change and adapt is no reason not to have plans. Indeed, the reverse is true: the more that change is inevitable and unpredictable, the more important it is to put significant effort into making the best predictions possible and making plans for dealing with them.

Therefore, in a demonstration of my complete fearlessness of being completely wrong in public, in my next few blogs, I plan to offer predictions of what may lie on the path ahead for the courts. With each will come some thoughts as to the role and effect Electronic Content Management might have should such changes come to pass.

Here are a few ground rules for long-range prediction.

  • Choose what is meant by “long range.” Is it five years? Fifty years? In the nineties, 25-30 years was standard for long-range planning. Moore’s Law suggests that technology alone will advance through 15 doublings, which is a factor of over 30,000 times what it is today, in 30 years.
  • Be aggressively original. You’ll still end up being too conservative.
  • Try not to bet the farm.
  • Be strategic. A classic organizational strategic map includes not only the enterprise, but suppliers, customers, competition, distributors, market, regulators and business environment. So, what changes will be affecting courts’ suppliers, such as the Bar, Law Enforcement, etc.? How about its customers, including what kind and their demographics?
  • Identify what is highly UNLIKELY to change. Death and taxes are good bets, and both have implications for court futures planning. There are others.
  • Eschew wishful thinking. Note that this rule does NOT mean to be pessimistic. It DOES mean to avoid assuming that things the courts hold dear – a public desire for impartial resolution of disputes or guaranteed respect for judges, for example, will endure like the Law of Gravity.
  • Really look at trends. DO NOT assume they are fads that will slowly abate. Rather, assume they will accelerate.
  • Assume that everything will scale to infinity. How much information storage space will a court need? How long will court information have to be kept? How secure does court information have to be (in all dimensions)?

Applying these principles, the next several posts will identify what I believe are “megatrends” that will affect the courts well into the future and beyond. Each one has implications across many dimensions.

So off we go – perhaps over the deep end; but hey, it ought to be fun. The trend to be examined in the next post is

Access to specialized knowledge, information and expertise is heading toward ubiquity.

Stay tuned.

Still Want Those Printers? Ask Benjamin the Donkey

“Benjamin the donkey… would say … that God had given him a tail to keep the flies off, but that he would rather have no tail and no flies.”

From Animal Farm, by George Orwell

A friend complained to me about the succession of problems with her printer. It was when she started telling me how important her printer was to her that I began to reflect on the insightful, if cynical, observation by Orwell’s donkey. Who knew he was a systems analyst?

When dinosaurs roamed the earth and I was a young systems analyst, courts were just learning that unless printers were made readily available, users simply would not use them as intended. Eventually, courts figured out that if people had the choice of electronically creating their output, followed by having to leave their desks to go to a printer down the hall to retrieve it, they’d simply write it out or type it instead. Thus court management (reluctantly, in view of the price) purchased and installed a lot more printers because of the strategic importance of getting everyone to maximize use of the systems.


Now, every tech support person knows that printers, however necessary, are the Devil’s work. Trouble tickets regarding printers are probably more frequent and more frustrating than just about any other kind. But, thank heavens everyone has those printers.

Because they need those printers for… for… Well, yes, there are some things they need the printers for; but they sure aren’t the same things they needed them for 20, ten, or even five years ago. The fact is that managing content electronically changes both the tactical and strategic importance of printers. Courts should give some attention to both.

Tactically, it’s almost like Benjamin gets his wish for no more flies. Or at least a lot fewer of them. Thus, every printer acquisition and placement should be made in view of the need to print in a court with fully implemented Electronic Content Management (ECM). Analysis will probably show need for fewer, less powerful (at least locally), and less expensive printers. Acquisition and maintenance cost of printers should be expected to drop.

Strategically, the objective should be to have the minimum possible distribution of printers. Simply stated, minimizing the amount of paper documents goes a long way toward maximizing the effectiveness of ECM. In instances where printing a document may appear to be a better, faster, easier or more efficient, the court should stop and more carefully analyze the situation.

Pete Kiefer, of Maricopa County Superior Court and leader of NACM’s Court Futures project, reminds me that that in cases such as this, application of The Five Why’s would be in order: Asking iterative questions to get to the root reason(s) for the perceived situation. For a first iteration I suggest, “What causes printing a document to seem a better solution in this case?” Almost always, upon consideration of all factors, printing paper documents turns out more expensive, less efficient and disruptive to the overall process.

Whether, in the face of a 95% plus drop in the fly population, Benjamin (curmudgeonly cuss that he was) would actually have had his tail bobbed, one will never know. If he resisted for fashion reasons, absent other consequences he could be given a pass. But if it markedly impacted his personal hygiene, bring on the clippers. Likewise, if the only consideration with where and how to use printers were people’s comfort with paper, so be it. But, really, the stakes are much more strategic.