On hearing of a particular court’s experiences with implementing a new information system recently, I was reminded of a scene from Carl Sagan’s science fiction classic, Contact. In the story, an advanced civilization has sent specifications for construction of a craft to permit communications. The specifications call for a sphere, the interior of which is to be empty of everything except the human operator.
The humans figure out how to read the plans, and they understand them well enough to build the craft. The one thing they think they have to add is a safety seat for the human operator. Against the strong objections of some of the team, a sturdy, padded seat, complete with seat belt, is bolted to the center of the floor.
The operator (in the movie, Jodie Foster), is strapped in. As the final countdown proceeds toward its climax, the craft begins to shake violently. It shakes so hard that it seems the craft will be destroyed. The mission controllers are on the verge of aborting the mission.
Finally, the shaking becomes so severe that the bolts attaching the seat to the floor break loose. Instantly, once the seat dislodges, the shaking stops. The craft proceeds to function smoothly as it had been designed to do. Turns out that the designers knew what they were doing: Not only didn’t the craft need the “safety seat”, but its presence introduced critical disequilibrium into the system.
Many (if not most) courts, when it comes time to implement Electronic Content Management (ECM), have a hard time resisting the temptation to install “safety seats” on top of the new paradigm. Sure, the documents are electronic, but we’ll just require paper copies as a backup to be on the safe side. Sure, we’re keeping the documents electronically, but we’ll insist on printing documents to be signed, having them signed manually, then re-scanning them into the electronic system. Oh, let’s leave electronic filing to be discretionary so that those who are still uncomfortable with e-Fling can continue to file in the traditional manner.
While these “safety” measures are usually intended to be (or are at least alleged to be intended to be) “temporary”, the problem is that they can create critical disequilibrium. If the court is not careful, it may conclude that the new system itself is unstable and not workable, when in fact the problem lies with attempting to build in remnants of the older systems for the perceived comfort of familiarity. The real danger is that, instead of jettisoning the “safety seat”, they will curtail their migration to the new systems.
There is no question that some interim dual systems and temporary processes are helpful and necessary to facilitate smooth implementation. Indeed, the very term “Paper On Demand” is an acknowledgement of this important reality. In many ways it’s like kids using training wheels to learn to ride their bikes: it helps at the very outset. However, once the kids want to get out of their own driveways and start actually using the bikes, those training wheels are in the way, limit what can be done, and can be dangerous. They should come off at the earliest possible moment.
Likewise, a court ECM implementation plan that envisions putting interim, dual-system, backup processes in place during the implementation should include a tight schedule for phasing them out or cutting them off altogether. Furthermore, counterintuitive though it may seem, if things seem not to be working as smoothly as hoped during or immediately following implementation, attention should focus on accelerating the abandonment of such processes, rather than attempting to enhance or expand them (tightening the bolts, as it were) and pull back from the new system. Chances are excellent that they are what is causing or exacerbating the disequilibrium and that, once they are removed and the system can function as designed, the ride will quickly become a lot smoother.