Progress

One of the interesting factoids about progress is that in the nineteenth century, ninety-seven percent of the population was engaged in producing and distributing food for everybody.  By the mid-twentieth century, the figure was down around three percent.  Note that the population during that time had more than quadrupled.   However you look at it, an enormous amount of resources have been re-directed from the basic task of feeding the population.

There are many ways to look at and value (or decry) this phenomenon.  Here is one:  Those resources have been freed up for other things, including space exploration, medical advances, increased education, individual family housing, more flavors of ice cream, and on and on.  Granted, the world today faces serious challenges.  Nevertheless, it is indisputable that overall quality of life and standard of living have improved during that time across the board.  And, we don’t have ninety-seven percent of the population as unemployed farmers.

I make this observation as I consider today’s courts and related justice systems as they move toward transformation from physical documents and manual record management to Electronic Content Management (ECM) and a paper-on-demand court model.

Historically, a huge proportion of court resources have been dedicated to document and record management.   There have always been many more record clerks than judges in most courts.  Skill requirements included document processing, file creation and assembly, file storage, file retrieval, file transportation, copying, file security, etc.

As courts move forward, they are finding less and less need for those basic, manual skill sets.  More and more, ECM systems free up the resources to undertake higher-order tasks such as direct judicial support, customer service and specialty court functions.  As time goes by, this trend will only accelerate.

None of this is to say that the path is either straightforward or easy. Generally speaking, when courts make the transformation from paper documents to ECM, they must initially do so largely within the context of existing resources and infrastructure.  That means that the courthouses, offices and often related justice agencies, are usually designed and located with physical document management in mind.   A significant number, if not a majority, of the support staff are primarily trained and experienced in dealing with and managing paper documents and files.   While internal processes can often be adjusted as part of the implementation, in many cases inter-agency or customer-facing processes must remain or at least “imitate” the old, paper-centric processes.

Following initial implementation, however, these “legacy” resources and infrastructure will, over time, give way to resources that are positioned to fully utilize the capabilities of the new systems.  Staff previously trained in processing of paper documents and files will be re-trained and re-assigned.  Work spaces and physical plant will be re-located and re-furnished; and eventually, as new facilities are built, they will be appropriately designed without the encumbrances of the old systems.  Newly recruited staff will bring skill sets directed toward the higher-order activities.

As any veteran of paradigm-changing technology implementations knows, the down-stream adjustment is neither straightforward nor easy.  As much as it seems that once the seriously challenging effort to implement a new system is completed the organization should be able to sit back and coast, that just isn’t the way life works.

So, for those who expected all rainbows and lollipops, sorry to disillusion you.  But I don’t bring this point up just to be a “Debbie Downer”.    The point is that it is really easy to get caught up in the intensity and immediacy of implementation and be sorely tempted to use whatever workarounds are expedient, without considering the longer-range world into which you are moving.   When planning for and working through initial implementation, time and effort taken to look beyond the immediate “sturm und drang” to plan for the future, when the relics of the old paradigm have finally been replaced will pay big dividends.

Once this process has run its course, the level of service provided by the courts and wider justice system will be considerably greater than anything possible in the old, paper-centric world.   Future generations will be astounded when they stumble across figures showing the percentage of resources courts used to devote to document management in “the old days”.

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