By Jeff Barlow, Justice Consultant, ImageSoft
Once upon a time, along roads and highways, there existed establishments known as “service stations” or “gas stations” where one could obtain fuel, have maintenance work performed and get the windshield washed. All these services had to be performed by a qualified service station attendant. No attendant, no fuel.
The stations often had one or two vending machines. One for drinks (at one time, exclusively Coca-Cola) and perhaps a second with candy bars. The machines required coins to disgorge their respective products.
Today, the descendants of the old service stations provide groceries, meals and sit-down dining. (The Coke machine has evolved a long way.) In addition, an array of other services and products, communications facilities, and entertainment options are available. Such facilities are now called travel centers or convenience stores.
Granted, fuel is often (but not always) available at these establishments. Yet it seems an almost vestigial line of business. Rarely does an employee do the refueling; and mechanical work is virtually unheard of, having been outsourced to a totally different type of enterprise, generally known now as repair shops. As more and more of the fleet goes electric, fueling itself is being migrated to homes, businesses and parking lots.
The evolution of service stations and vending machines is like the transformation of documents and workflow. Not so long ago, and indeed in the present for a shrinking, but still significant, number of courts, the wheels of justice were almost completely document-driven. Documents (originally paper and later some electronic) were created by the processes, memorialized the results and carried communications within the court and out to the near and wide world in which the court operates.
An enormous proportion of court effort and resources were, and in some cases still are, devoted to the management and storage of the documents. Electronic document systems and eFiling certainly have helped.
The advent of workflow has made the management of documents more efficient. Many folks involved in court document management have regarded workflow primarily as a way to manage the documents.
But an interesting thing happened; and virtually all who have implemented workflow have seen it: The power and impact of workflow vastly exceeds document management in scope.
Sort of like the vending machine taking over the gas station.
Documents are rapidly approaching the time when the vast majority of them will no longer be produced. The reason is that a huge percentage of court documents function as triggers, carriers of meta-data, communications vectors, compilations of information from multiple sources or tracking devices for other documents.
Workflow, when tied into enterprise data, communications systems, logistics and business intelligence fulfills all these functions, much more efficiently and effectively and generally doesn’t require documents much anymore. Consider, for example, a Motion to Continue. Why do we need a document for this? When I want to change my seat on an airline reservation, I change it. The system decides if the change is allowable, keeps track of the change, when it was made and that I made it. The record is duly stored and accessible if and as needed. The “document ” is non-existent.
As of now, courts are going to have to deal with documents for some time as the new order gets sorted out.
But if I’m even close to right and documents are in fact becoming vestigial to court processes, the real focus ought to be on workflow. Today, workflow helps handle a lot of documents, however, the reduction of documents will not diminish the need for workflow. The incidence of document generation, transfer and storage can’t be reduced without well-designed, smoothly-functioning workflows.
What do you think of courts using meta-data instead of documents to trigger actions?