The farther we’ve come, the farther it seems we have to go. It wasn’t all that long ago that the people in your print operations couldn’t tell exactly how a specific document would look until they printed it.

You don’t have to trust me on this–you can ask them. Just make sure it’s someone with at least 25 years of experience. They’ll tell you that there was a time when proofing a document required printing it. No online viewing. No PDFs; no electronic proofing; nothing.

Worse, they really couldn’t tell you whether or not a critical customer document (such as a bill or statement) had actually been printed. They could look at a report from a mainframe system called Job Entry Subsystem (JES) that would tell them that the host computer had released the job to the printer. But in reality, JES had no idea if the printer actually printed anything–all it knew was that the job was no longer in the print queue.

It took years of effort on the parts of companies, like FormScan, Johnson and Quin, IBM, Xerox, Bell + Howell and others, to rectify these problems by developing and maturing the concepts and technologies we now call Automated Document Factory (ADF).

Today (assuming your operations/production staffs have taken advantage of current technologies), people throughout your organization can view proofs before documents are printed. And you can get accurate reports that identify the status of each document in any given job–whether it was printed, if there were duplicate or missing pages and, in some cases, whether the data included in the document (this pertains mostly to transactional documents) was accurate.

This seems to indicate a return to the days when document design, approval, production and distribution were solidly in the hands of IT people. This flies in the face of current movements to reduce IT’s role and put business users–the folks who actually own customer communications–in control of the process.

So, you probably have a good handle on the management of your print operations just in time for things like web, email, smart phone and mobile delivery to come along and present new challenges.

Just like in the “good old days,” it’s great to be able to deliver documents via these various channels. But it’s quite another story when you need to know with absolute certainty that the documents were done right, contain accurate language and data and also project the exact same messages across all channels.

Let’s face it, consistent, coherent messaging across all delivery mediums is a critical concern of your marketing department. But have you considered the importance of ensuring accurate language in documents that have regulatory implications? Do you have processes and procedures in place to absolutely insure that these documents are being reviewed and approved in an audited and controlled way? And do you have real-time insight into the process? Do you know the status of each form or document–whether it’s under development, in production or being delivered? In our on-demand, the consumer-wants-it-now world, a batch report that you can see tomorrow might not be good enough.

So where do you begin? As Glinda told Dorothy, “It’s always best to start at the beginning.” I’m not saying that it’s best to begin building your customer communication infrastructure again from scratch. But it might be advisable to start at the point where all the channels you use (as well as future ones) converge. Back where the data is and where the document is created.

This seems to indicate a return to the days when document design, approval, production and distribution were solidly in the hands of IT people. This flies in the face of current movements to reduce IT’s role and put business users–the folks who actually own customer communications–in control of the process.

And another thing, addressing customer needs is paramount to effective communications. This adds considerable complexity to the situation. You not only have to make sure the data and content your documents deliver are accurate, you have to deliver them via whatever channel and through whatever medium each customer demands.

So at the front end of the process, you have the requirement of putting business users in control of the design, data and content of your customer communications and ensuring that it’s all correct, while at the back end–the delivery–you have to provide data and content according to what the recipient demands, be it hard copy, email, web, smart phone or mobile device.

But I’m not quite through. We all know that documents can serve multiple purposes. Some just deliver information. But others both deliver information as well as request the recipient to supply additional information. This is obviously the case with most forms.

I’ve talked with lots of folks who claim that their process is “completely digital.” But when you dig a bit deeper, you find that their “completely digital” process ultimately depends on paper.

A common example of this is found among insurance companies. They routinely make various forms available for download on their website. In some cases, the forms are fillable PDFs. In many of these cases, filled forms can be printed but cannot be saved. In other cases, the forms aren’t fillable and have to be printed. In either case, the forms have to be printed in order to be signed.

The data on these “completely digital” paper forms is col
lected via a scanning process. Unfortunately, in many cases, the scanning technology employed can’t read the form and rejects it. Rejected forms then have to be “re-digitized” via a manual process.

Obviously these “completely digital” processes are, in fact, only half digital. And a lot of time and effort is lost supporting them. Needless to say, the proliferation of mobile technology offers a dramatic new way of approaching this entire part of the process.

Luckily, we live and work in an era when technology has made for dramatic changes throughout the entire customer communication continuum–inception, design, approval, multi-channel delivery and data collection via a fully digital process. Even better, we live in a time when it’s possible to have real-time insight into every aspect of the process.


Scott Bannor began his career in digital communications in 1980 and has held sales, marketing and product management positions with a number of industry leaders. He joined OBRIEN in December 2012. Contact him at

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