The La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles consist of areas where oil seeping to the surface causes the ground to be the consistency of a tarry asphalt. Because it often looked and felt like solid ground, unsuspecting animals (back as far as the dinosaurs) and perhaps some humans, have wandered in, only to become terminally stuck. Why did they wander in? I’ll bet it was because the most luscious plants, fruits, and flowers were right, smack dab in the middle.


I was reminded of this fascinating and macabre natural phenomenon the other day during a discussion of systems as they impact operational design over time. One of the most powerful advances in justice system technology today over the technology originally deployed in the ’80s, 90s, and even early ‘2000s is also one of the most overlooked: the configurability of Enterprise Content Management (ECM) workflow.

Back in the “old days”, the processing and business rules of the enterprise were largely hard coded into the automated systems then being deployed. At the time, there was a stark tradeoff, often not fully understood or appreciated, but as inexorable as the Tar Pits. On the one hand, having the system do as much of the processing as possible tended to maximize efficiency: all those luscious savings and efficiencies beckoning to be realized. The tradeoff was that any changes to the business rules were at best costly and time consuming, requiring high-priced programming and software upgrades.

In many cases, change was simply not possible. Once I had to explain to a group of legislators why the legacy court automation system could not accommodate a proposed policy change. They were puzzled and upset – the change seemed, to them, to be a small thing. In fact, in some ways, it WAS a small thing. Unfortunately, not all small things were easy. For example, moving the Capitol Building a foot to the north wouldn’t be a long move, but it sure wouldn’t be easy.

Generally, tradeoffs were made by balancing the best guess of what would be the long-term business environment and practice with “externalizing” much of the operational rules (in today’s parlance, that is “workflow”). Thus, the systems did as much of the heavy lifting as was thought to be unlikely to change; while much that could have otherwise been automated was still done by people in order to retain some capacity to change when the environment, needs, laws, personnel, etc. changed.

For this reason, the advent of configurable workflow in ECM systems has changed the game. No longer do the alluring benefits of standardizing and incorporating business rules and processes into the system have to “trap” the justice system, and its constituent entities (courts, prosecutors, law enforcement, jails, corrections, etc.) into immobility. Workflow redesign necessitated by both internal changes (say an expansion or move of a courthouse or implementation of a new jury system) and changes by another agency (say the way a new jail inmate tracking system interacts with the court’s calendaring system) can be handled through configuration updates performed by trained court staff, as opposed to major systems changes.

In the earlier stages of ECM penetration into the justice system, workflow was perhaps the most overlooked and underrated benefit; while more obvious hard savings, such as storage, security, and accessibility were relied upon for much of the up-front business justification. Even though the understanding of the benefits from workflow implementation is growing, it is important not to lose sight of the concomitant strategic power of and need for configurability. Otherwise, an inflexible ECM system without robust, powerful, and easily managed configurability will be like an unpaved path into the middle of the Tar Pits.

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