Communication on all channels - bridge builders between tradition and modernity
Interview with Harald Grumser, founder and CEO of Compart
For an IT company, a 25-year history is not the norm. Globalization and internationality keep management on its toes. As Ovid put it, times change and we change with them. Compart AG founder and CEO Harald Grumser discusses the company's 25-year history.
1. Congratulations, Mr. Grumser. Compart AG has made it 25 years in a fiercely competitive market – how did the company become what it is today?
Harald Grumser: I think of us today as Compart 3.0. It has been an intense ride, with lots of twists and turns, and we had to make decisions along the way that did not necessarily hold great promise. In the beginning, we founded the firm with the intention of conducting IT projects, emphasizing OS/2 from IBM. We did get great projects, including from the European Patent Office and BASF. But early on during one project, we began working with scanning and image processing. So we built our first product in 1993, for image processing with OS/2 that could also be used for scanning. Then luck kicked in.
2. But it wasn't just luck, was it?
Harald Grumser: Well, at that time – in the mid 1990s – archiving was the big thing. No matter what got scanned, everything was flattened into pixels and packed into the archive. The first converters we built then all worked towards archiving. Until the end of the 90s, we mostly helped our customers archive their print data. At some point we were asked – since we could convert print data for archiving – couldn't we go in the other direction and generate print data. So by the turn of the century, we shifted our focus to help customers retrieve archived data for printing.
It was then that I probably made my most important business decision – to evolve from a project house to a software manufacturer. And we did something that a young software startup normally doesn't do: We invested in marketing and sales. By 2005 we had turned the company into a real software producer. Compart 2.0 was born.
We then wanted to expand geographically and set our sights on establishing subsidiaries in the US, France, and Spain. Our current export rate is over 50 percent, making us a typical German mid-size company that contributes to Germany's export quota. Well over five years ago we noticed something in the wind regarding print and paper. We had already starting sending initial invoices in PDF back in 2002, but that developed slowly over time. Many were still extremely hesitant. But after 2010, it was obvious that things were happening in digitalization.
3. So was digitalization a catalyst for you?
Harald Grumser: Today digitalization is a hallmark at Compart. We help our customers to digitally send documents they used to print. Five years ago we were deliberating paper versus PDF. But today the discussion revolves around A4 or not A4. Many people still don't understand that digitalization also means getting away from A4. We have to design communications so they are device-independent, which doesn't necessarily mean digital equals PDF. We have to be able to display content in a wide variety of formats. Displaying a document on a smartphone is not so trivial. Specialized applications now need to transfer data to an output system, not pages. I think of it like this: you can make a tiger into fireside rug, but it's infinitely more difficult the other way around.
A document is nothing more than a way to display data for use by people. But computers don't like exchanging documents, they like exchanging data. That means the systems producing output or external communications need to work more with data rather than a display for human consumption. We do still need to retain a display copy, because in a court of law, a judge wants an A4 printout, not something displayed on a smartphone.
Think about Siri; at some point we may express things in speech only. And in future we'll have to cope with radically different channels of communication, light years away from DIN A4. Fifteen years ago, we understood digitalization as the desire to make documents available electronically. We used to joke about which would come first: the paperless office or the paperless toilet. Today we want to process entire business transactions and processes electronically. A service invoice from an insurer is a transaction of computer systems that jostle data in the end. Everything else, like account statements or policies, is secondary
4. You are a product manufacturer, so tell us something about your products. What do you offer?
Harald Grumser: We always find it a little difficult to label ourselves with one of the standard acronyms from the IT world. Customer communication management somewhat describes what we do, because our work revolves around customer communication and customer contact. We are strictly a B2B supplier that serves customers that run a typical B2C or government-to-citizen business. And marketing particularly stresses that customers should always be served through their preferred channel. For the most part, companies are not in a position to respond to customers via the same means as the original query. Up to 90 percent of outgoing communications are sent on paper or via PDF at best, whereas more than 50 percent of incoming communications are electronic.
Now one of our core competencies is displaying the numerous file formats like HTML, CSS, XML, AFP, and so forth, on the right channel in the right format. That is why we developed solutions and components such as DocBridge Impress to format documents for displaying data on a specific channel. A second product, our DocBridge Pilot, is practically a document hub, a system that intakes everything I want to communicate and prepares it correctly for the right channel. These hubs can be downright major projects that involve hundreds of person-days.
5. But you surely have other, lighter-weight solutions?
Harald Grumser: Yes, of course. For example, we have one really nice product that takes a document that would have been printed on a local workstation printer and sends it electronically to the mailroom or central processing for further handling. The results are cost savings, significantly higher process reliability, higher quality, as well as the ability to ensure that the document is actually archived.
6. What does that look like in practice?
Harald Grumser: Let's take a customer who wants to submit an invoice for services to a health insurance provider. If both he and the insurer are very modern, there is an insurance app for scanning and submitting a physician's bill via the customer's cell phone. The insurer benefits because the customer bears the digitalization costs, not the insurance company. The customer benefits from significantly shorter processing times. Then again, there are customers that send their documents via less than state-of-the-art means, such as e-mail and the like. In that case, DocBridge receives a frenzy of TIFF, JPG or other HTML formats that first need to be normalized. Typically they end up as PDF/A documents, suitable for archiving.
We have customers that normalize 200,000 incoming e-mails per day so they can be processed electronically. Ideally, an electronic processing clerk would then take over. In future, a human being would not even look at claims for minor losses. Once processing is complete, the data is transferred to DocBridge Pilot, where the correct channel for the customer response is chosen and the document is sent. A process that can be done in minutes.
7. So you convert the incoming data and documents into formats that verification processes can handle?
Harald Grumser: Yes, we exclusively handle standardizing the data; extracting information is no longer our domain. Data standardization should not be underestimated. There are those who work with one or the other exotic system, and even though the data formats are completely unpredictable, they still have to ensure the highest level of operational reliability. Of course, we would prefer it if all data were delivered in XML. But a thirty-year-old COBOL program can't deliver XML; back then people couldn't even spell COBOL.
Legacy systems are another issue we tackled head on. We help our customers to tie in and maintain legacy systems. As it turns out, we can, in a way, turn the fireside rug back into the tiger – by accessing old print data from the 70s and converting the text into HTML.
8. So you're making legacy systems sustainable?
Harald Grumser: We see ourselves as a builder of bridges between the traditional and the modern. There are some great examples of rendering things from yesteryear compatible for today. For instance, the gauge of an ICE train track can be traced all the way back to the 17th century – it's equal to the width of a horse's hindquarters. The first tracks were wide enough to accommodate a horse, and that width is still in use today.
9. Is your software designed for specific business sectors?
Harald Grumser: The typical branches are banks and insurance companies, but we also have a lot of cross-vertical customers. They include print or service providers who in turn offer their services to other customers. Outsourcing isn't quite as widespread in Germany, but in England and the USA, nearly everything is outsourced. Insurance companies in the USA no longer do their own printing. They outsourced that to service providers long ago.
10. What are your current and future challenges?
Harald Grumser: We want to improve the exchange of documents between people and computers. One major struggle for us is making it clear to companies that they have to change their interfaces and processes or they will miss the boat. Digitalization means massive changes especially in technology and business processes overall.
There will always be the interface to the physical world. But it will shrink in terms of volume. There will be fewer printed documents, but the complexity will persist. Even though I send a document via e-mail to someone's cell phone and adjust the size accordingly, someone else will still want a paper document to punch holes in and store in a binder at home. Shedding 3,000 years of papyrus and cuneiform isn't so easy.
11. What are the Compart developers focused on?
Harald Grumser: In the end, it's about providing data in a form that can be output over a wide range of channels. That is our creed. We are currently well positioned in terms of modularization, but we want to make our products even more modular, so we can offer them in smaller bite sizes. Workflow and automation will play a much greater role in the future, because electronic processing can only take place if everything can be replicated technically.
And we have to build a world in which we make exchange possible via open standards. Only then is there true interoperability. People always believe that if they just climb one more mountain, they will reach Nirvana. But we'll never make it to Nirvana because the mountains just keep getting bigger. That's why Compart invests heavily in research, and we know we can never rest on our laurels. There will always be something new, and the trick will be to follow the right track.
Thank you for talking with us, Mr. Grumser
Volker Vorburg conducted the interview
Quelle: manageIT (AP-Verlag), Ausgabe 3-4/2018