To Wade In Or Jump?

“Big Bang” Or “Staged” Change and the “Open” Versus “Closed” Technology Ecosystem

Everyone who has ever approached a cool lake, stream, surf, or pool knows the conundrum: Enter the water slowly to get acclimated; or take the plunge and endure the shock. Is there a “correct” answer? Maybe; but the truth is, there are disadvantages to each.

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Courts face the same dilemma when it comes to embarking on change, which often includes the prospect of immersion in some new technology. As the desired end-result is to be “in the water” no matter the technique used to get wet, the decision may be reduced to a basic tactical question, “What’s the best way to get the new technology in place?”.

I confess that I may have taken that position on occasion. Yet a strong argument can be made that the decision on how to get there is more strategic than tactical. Consider this statement from a recent Forbes article:

Smart organizations learn quickly enough that if they place efficiency above a smooth organizational transformation, they may find their automation efforts fail to improve their companies’ performance.

My take on this observation is that in this era of constant disruption, the ability of an organization to handle change (including introduction of new technology) constitutes a strategic imperative; not just a tactical choice.


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Given that many courts have a finite capacity to absorb change without breaking some really important things, the “Big Bang” approach may have the dual unfortunate consequences of failing to achieve the objective and unintentionally degrading (or missing an opportunity to improve) the court’s capacity to constructively embrace change.

Moreover, in some ways, these considerations permeate the current discussions in court technology circles regarding the relative advantages of “Open” versus “Closed” technology ecosystems.

At e-Courts 2016, in the session Good Public Policy for Innovation: Open vs. Closed Eco-System , California Court of Appeals Justice Terry Bruniers, Orange County Superior Court CEO Alan Carlson, and Santa Clara County Superior Court CIA  Robert Oyung discussed the plusses and minuses of each approach.

The “traditional”, which is to say, legacy, approach using a “Closed” ecosystem was, to a great degree, forced upon courts in the early days of court case and records management technology. Through the ’70’s, ’80’s, and ’90’s, there was little in the way of standards, the consequence of which was that a system developed for one court could rarely be ported to other courts. The overall large court and state court market was, in a business sense, not large enough to attract big players to develop systems that could be built once and resold (usually after expensive rewriting and customization) many times.

The panelists identified a number of advantages of the “Closed” model, based on their experiences: Ease of management, level of control, easier (and more local) governance, and the ability to “have it my way”. And, since many if not most larger courts and systems “grew up” with the “Closed” model, they are at least culturally used to it.

Nevertheless, the panel unanimously concluded that, on the whole, the “Open” ecosystem model today provides considerably greater advantages. Today’s technical landscape, in contrast to the relatively monolithic and sparsely populated landscape of decades past, provides courts with much greater choice and flexibility across CMS, DMS, e-filing, workflow, judicial workbench, cross-system integration, etc.

Panelists felt that “Open” ecosystems offer increased nimbleness and agility to deal with the rapidly changing environment in which courts must operate and plan today. They spoke of the increased power through availability of “Best of Breed” solutions.

And, in line with the strategic nature of the organization’s ability to adapt to and embrace change, they spoke of the advantages offered by partnering with vendors. One observation was that vendors in many ways are more public-facing, and may know and understand the court’s customers in ways that the court itself does not.

Whatever the choice – staged versus “Big Bang”; “Closed” ecosystem versus “Open” ecosystem – courts should base their decisions on more than what, in the moment, feels like the best tactical reason. The changes involve the body, heart, and soul of the court – so the decisions should be strategically aligned with the court’s longer term considerations.

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.