By Gordan Stanley March 22, 2004 - As new companies start up these days, they have the option of building a digital communications strategy from the get-go. They can implement enterprise content management solutions, electronic forms, Web self-service for employees and customers, and a whole host of other paperless alternatives to conventional ways of doing business. But for established companies, especially those who have grown through mergers and acquisitions, implementing a digital communications strategy can be a significant challenge. They have a myriad of different paper-based process; they have warehouses full of printed inventory; and they have an information distribution strategy built around the need to handle all of that paper as efficiently as possible. To complicate things even more, they often have multiple disparate IT systems deployed around the enterprise. In many cases, companies simply live with the status quo rather than taking the necessary steps to build an integrated and holistic approach to business communications. And they do so at great—and ultimately unnecessary—expense and the risk of compromising their ability to rapidly react to today's competitive landscape. Stepping Up to the Challenge - or Not I did some work with a large super-regional bank in the Midwest a while ago that had grown through mergers and acquisitions. At one point in time, this bank had six major processing centers for check and statement processing. Its six centers ran on six different sets of software using six different processes. The bank was convinced that it was too expensive and too complicated to consolidate the systems. But the truth is that the world was passing them by. Smart banks are investing in making these types of changes in order to gain the organizational flexibility required to meet the future head on. They may not know what they will have to face next, but they certainly can predict that things are going to change again. They know that the best thing they can do is to bite the bullet, clean up their own house and be ready for the next set of business challenges that comes along. A West Coast insurance company I worked with faced similar trials. Back in the 1980s and 1990s when times were good—remember those days? —this company, like just about every other insurance company at the time, had no motivation to change. Remember that at this point in the insurance business, the insurance itself was almost a loss leader. Insurance premiums paid up front were invested in the stock market, which was delivering unbelievable returns. Companies could afford to write policies at less than cost because they were making so much money in the market. Needless to say, these businesses had a rude awakening with the onset of the recession and the rapid deterioration of the market. Their first reaction was to cut staff and cut expenses. But at some point, they also realized that there was a desperate need to clean up their systems and databases, and to reduce the number of different types of documents they were dealing with. Taking people resources out of the business processes reduced their cost base, but was in a way a double-edged sword. With less people, they didn't have the resources to do the required process reengineering work, and even if they had kept the people on, they most likely would not have had the right skills mix necessary to make the changes. Advice to the Enterprise There is no better time than the present, as we begin climbing out of our economic woes, for document-intensive companies to take a deep breath, look around the organization, and begin assessing how best to build a structured vision for a digital communications strategy that will guide them into the future. If I were speaking to the CFO or the VP of Strategic Sourcing at one of these document-intensive companies struggling to bridge into the digital world, here are a few things I would advise them to do: Lower your costs and reduce your resources as much as you can so they are variable and flexible. Keep fixed costs to a minimum, and don't maintain a portfolio of skills that bears a risk becoming rapidly outdated. At the same time, it is important to be very careful to preserve critical corporate knowledge and skills needed to reengineer business processes Follow the lead of the manufacturing industry, where flexible manufacturing strategies are common. Build a flexible communications strategy that utilizes on demand production of multi channel communications, customized and personalized to deliver the right message to the right recipient at the right time—in effect, just like the manufacturing industry long ago moved to just-in-time manufacturing strategies, we must structure our processes to get to the delivery of just-in-time customized communications. Look to the outside to augment the skills and resources internal to the organization. These resources then become variable—rather than fixed—costs and can be harnessed to accomplish specific objectives. These resources should have document-specific expertise and should be well grounded in the needs and requirements of your specific industry. There is real value in working with a professional services group that has a depth and breadth beyond the delivery of consulting services—that is, that is comprised of a team of experts who have actual work experience within your industry. Don't depend on a Request for Proposal (RFP) process to seek these external resources. While a Request for Information (RFI) might be helpful in narrowing the field, your best bet is to work your personal network. Call on your peers. Ask who they have worked with and why they felt good about them. Ask about results and creative solutions. Some of the best professional services firms are fully booked and generally do not respond to RFPs which they consider may offer low potential. Thus, you may not get the best resources or responses using this process. In specifying the work you want a consulting partner to accomplish for you, be careful not to be too specific—after all, you should be engaging a consulting partner based on a level of expertise that goes beyond what may be available internally to your organization. Leave them enough latitude to create a customized, creative and forward-thinking digital communications strategy for you that can help you leapfrog the competition. Consultants positioned to deliver the types of document-related services we are discussing here come in two basic flavors: Equipment manufacturers or distributors, and equipment-agnostic organizations. In the process of engaging consultants to assist you in reengineering your document processes, it is important to understand the underlying objectives of the consulting group—are their services tied to a specific set of products or services; are they truly agnostic in terms of their ultimate recommendations; who is their parent organization and with whom are they affiliated? These are some of the questions you should ask as you select a consulting group that can best meet your needs. Determine up front whether you are simply looking for recommendations, or you are looking for a partner than can not only recommend, but execute. Be careful if you are selecting a firm that only gives advice and doesn't have the experience of actually implementing its suggestions. In either case, your consultant partner should be able to provide you with a detailed implementation strategy that includes metrics against which you can measure your success. Finally, it is important to keep in mind that a good consultant or professional services firm serves in a position of the utmost trust. Careers have been both made and broken through decisions made in this arena. It is hard to ensure the integrity and trust these relationships demand through an impersonal RFP process. So do your homework; talk to your peers and associates. But most importantly: Get started on the process. There is not a moment to waste because your competitors are already moving to bridge from the gap between paper to electronic document processes and are implementing their own flexible just-in-time solutions.