Digital first

Paper is losing its significance, although it will not disappear completely. Document and output management businesses need to be prepared.

 

Keypoint Intelligence (formerly Infotrends) expects that by 2020 more people will have a mobile telephone than electricity in their home. According to a current US market survey, companies view the Web portal as the most important communication channel, followed by the smartphone, tablet, etc. Yet the study also cited the continued use of email and even traditional mail. Ubiquitous digitization notwithstanding, most recipients still prefer receiving invoices and account statements via the traditional postal service.

Nonetheless, digitalization of business communication is proceeding apace, which naturally affects document processing. Data streams originally generated for print only are now needed not only for written correspondence, but must be available for every conceivable type of communication, namely all of today's physical and electronic channels, and in a distinct and highly individualized form.

PDFs, of course, have long been an alternative to printed correspondence. But strictly speaking they are nothing more than a picture of the print version. The future lies in abandoning format specifications in favor of “responsive” documents, that is, content that can be displayed on any end device and still be printed.

In fact, paper will increasingly be replaced by electronic documents. If most customers had their way, even more communications would take the digital route than is currently the case. Yet many sectors, especially finance and public administration, often face strict regulatory requirements (data protection, compliance). Paper remains mandatory for most of their correspondence. Bank loan documents, for example, must still be in written form. There is no getting around a qualified signature. Certificates might be the solution, but they have yet to be universally implemented.

What good is digitalization if it all ends up on paper anyway?

Banks and insurers, on the other hand, are in search of new ways to further digitalize communication. The Bayerische Landesbank, for example, sends account statements to its business customers in PDF form. The bank maintains its accounting data online anyway. The credit institution also has a Web portal where customers can deliver documents to the bank. This example illustrates that paper is on the decline even in more conservative industries. Yet many companies are still in their digital “infancy.” Many are in uncharted territory, especially when it comes to proof of delivery and documentation compliance.

The fact is that media discontinuity dictates customer communication today. The process to generate the document is digital, but it still ends up printed on a piece of paper destined for regular mail. Attachment orders, for example, must still be delivered in writing. Imagine how much easier it would be if such documents were available digitally. But changing that practice is a complex task that can only be addressed legislatively. It is not enough to simply digitalize the correspondence. It involves the entire process, from document generation to delivery. It has to be traceable and legally “water tight.” 

Countries like Denmark and Sweden are leading the way. The governments there have issued legally binding e-mail addresses to every citizen. There is also a comprehensive system in place that citizens use intensively. In Germany, on the other hand, there are any number of technologies and services (E-Post, De-Mail, Regify, etc.), but no one really knows what they are to be used for.

There is still a certain reluctance to use Web portals, especially in Germany. One reason is certainly that most customers do not want a personal mailbox at every retailer or financial institution. Managing all of these portals is simply too time-consuming. Most people have accepted the banking portals, particularly because documents are exchanged with relative frequency there. But now that every insurer or public agency offers an online platform that requires users to register, it's just too much for most people.

Legacy systems complicate the transformation.

One thing is for certain. We just don't know today how communication will function in five or ten years. Today we talk about print and e-mail, but what about media such as WhatsApp and the like? Who can say that they won't establish themselves as serious business communications channels? Of course it is still hard to imagine exchanging contracts or other business-critical documents over these channels. But communication starts long before such transactions, as with advertising. Couldn't advertising information be distributed over all available digital media now?

Many companies remain unsure. For one thing, there are few basic unanswered questions. How is the data handled? Where is the dividing line between advertising and contractual information? How can such information be documented to avoid any legal issues?

The other challenge is technical in nature. Many companies work with legacy systems that were not designed for integrating new channels. Some data centers are running print applications based on software from the 1980s. For all intents and purposes, structuring the data for XML would be enough.

HTML5 has certainly paved the way toward modern document processing. The text-based markup language is already setting the tone on mobile end devices – HTML5 readily supports preparing content for all electronic media. Print remains an option nonetheless, as does conversion to PDF. HTML5 still remains the most intelligent format for the creation and display of documents, regardless of size or output channel.

The silver bullet: one central output instance for output on all channels.

So far, so good. But what do you do if you don't want to completely replace existing structures from the ground up? They are often very robust, extremely reliable, and hence proven. Help is certainly available from suppliers of document and output management software who specialize in bridging the gap between the old, print-centric world and the new, multi-channel-capable world of document processing. With its omnichannel solutions based on the digital-first approach, Compart is certainly one of the pioneers in this field.

The basic idea is to enable the use of modern technologies without interfering with legacy systems. Often it's the seemingly minor things that deliver a new level of quality in customer communications, such as displaying an account statement on a smartphone or tablet. A PDF doesn't work so well. The data need to be available in HTML so the document can be adapted and displayed in high quality on the device the customer is currently using.

The ultimate goal is to separate document generation from delivery, and outside the confines of the specialist application. That means selecting the page size and output channel much later on in the process than is customary – ideally in a central output instance that uses defined rules and criteria from the different departments to determine the data, layout, format and output channel. A central output management system such as this has yet another advantage: It cuts the number of interfaces and hence potential avenues for data loss, inadequate traceability and poor compliance with regulations. The OM system as the common gate through which all documents flow: That would be the real silver bullet.

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