Wine, Cloth, Carpentry and Court Automation

By Jeff Barlow, Justice Consultant, ImageSoft

It’s pretty intuitive that when it costs less to acquire and run an automated system than to pay people to do the same work it makes financial sense to implement the technology. However, what is a lot less intuitive, but, paradoxically, a lot more true, is that it can make more financial sense to implement technology even if people could do the tasks for less.

140_competitve theoryWhile reading William Berstein’s A Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped the World (a fascinating and incredibly timely read), I had one of those “Aha” moments (either an epiphany or an unscheduled, age-related loss of brain cells, I’m never sure which). This one related to the international trade economic Theory of Comparative Advantage, first promulgated in the early 1800s, and how it might apply to the business case for implementation of automated systems in the courts.

In terms of international trade, the intuitively obvious conclusion is that if one nation (Country A) can produce something for less than another nation (Country B) can produce it, Country A should never buy that product from Country B. That’s what’s called The Principle of Absolute Advantage. Very obvious. Very simple. And, often, very wrong.

The key factor is Opportunity Cost. In the classic example, assume Country A can produce wine for half as much as Country B and cloth for one third as much as Country B. Further assume, in the perfect world of the theoretical economist, that any resources (labor, equipment, land) devoted to production of wine will reduce the amount of cloth that can be produced. In that case, Country A makes out a lot better buying wine from Country B in order to maximize production of the higher-margin cloth.

The part that got me thinking about the technology business case was a non-international (and for me much more understandable) illustration. Assume a highly specialized, very skilled and experienced attorney in high demand can bill $1,000 an hour. Assume also that the attorney is a very skilled carpenter; so much so that the attorney can do in half the time the same quality work as a master carpenter, who charges $100 an hour. As a strictly financial or business proposition (leaving aside personal satisfaction), should the attorney do or not do a DIY remodel job? Clearly, to the extent the time remodeling reduces legal practice billable hours, the attorney is losing (by not earning) money. That’s Opportunity Cost.

Now look at the business case for court technology. Suppose the acquisition and ongoing operational costs, for whatever reason, appear to be greater than or not significantly less than using staff to perform the same functions. While the Principle of Absolute Advantage (the obvious answer) would suggest that it would be more cost effective to forego the technology, such a conclusion may well overlook substantial Opportunity Costs. Simply put, what AREN’T those staff doing when they are manually dealing with those physical documents? What ISN’T the file storage area being used for while it houses all those files? What could those resources be better spent on? And so on.

While not the only question in the business case, how much is “being left on the table” should absolutely go into the calculation. If every staff person were capable of transporting, filing, or tracking documents and nothing else, perhaps the Opportunity Cost would be low. But that’s rarely the case. Those folks could be, and should be, and would be happier doing so much more.