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.
However, 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.