I told myself that I wasn't going to write any more articles about the dismal state of the economy. You're probably as tired of reading that kind of nes as we are of writing about it.

But I'm concerned about how companies in the document business are approaching the recession. I'm just not convinced that the steps that are being taken by the companies I talk with are the right ones. We seem to be trying to deal with a brand new set of problems with strategies that were developed in entirely different circumstances.

Hardware and software vendors have seen their sales cycles lengthen and have even had some orders get cancelled. So they've cut back on expenses like participating in trade shows, sponsorships and advertising. They've reduced travel authorizations and have made staff cuts in various parts of their organizations.

In-house document production centers have made some tough decisions too, because of the overall financial condition of their companies. Common tactics include cutting training, scaling back on equipment maintenance and making staff cuts of their own.

This is not the time to be passive
What worries me is that there is very little effort spent on preparing for the future. It's as if everyone expects things to return to "normal" and the best strategy is to just hunker down and wait for that to happen.

I've got news for you. Things are never going to be the same as they were in the first part of this decade - especially in the document business. Just as the 9/11 terrorist attacks changed our political environment forever this unprecedented world-wide financial crisis will result in an entirely different kind of economy. Coupled with rapid technological advancement in the document industry, the new economy is going to require businesses to make some fundamental changes in order to be successful.

Although we do our best to encourage our clients to use this time to prepare, I don't see many organizations doing much of anything that could be characterized as long term or revolutionary. I think this is dangerous.

We all know that some organizations just won't survive. How many in-house document print and mail operations will get outsourced because they are still providing a product that is viewed by executive management as just an expense - a commodity that could be done more cheaply by someone else? What about small- to medium-sized service bureaus? When some of their customers go out of business, will they be able to survive by selling their traditional low-margin laser printing and inserting services?

An unprecedented cooperative effort is necessary
There's a ripple effect when a document processing operation ceases to exist. Hardware vendors and third party providers lose service contracts, suppliers of materials like paper, toner, ink and envelopes lose accounts, software vendors lose maintenance agreements and opportunities to sell upgrades, and even local the local post office can be affected by a sudden decrease in volume. Trade associations lose members and experience lower attendance at their exhibitions and conferences. The list can go on and on

One group can't be looking out for their own future without considering the well-being of others in the document industry. If we've learned nothing else as a result of this financial mess, we should at least be aware of how connected our businesses are to each other and to the economy as a whole. The vendors need to help their customers prepare for creating more complex documents, the consultants and trade groups need to help both the vendors and the end-users with best practices, the document and mail production centers need to educate their customers about the value they can bring them through customer communications, and the postal service needs the support of the mailers and vice versa.

The post-2010 document business is one that is likely to include an emphasis on highly personalized and relevant content, an environmental emphasis, coordinated and comprehensive customer communications strategies across all channels, new postal regulations and rates, print and electronic distribution channels as partners not enemies, government regulations, and more.

The silver lining in the recessionary cloud - a little extra time
Right now is the time to start developing plans for implementing the processes, training and technology that will be necessary to support a revolutionary shift away from the traditional document workflow that has served us over the last couple of decades. Waiting until business picks up is a mistake. By then companies will be trying to hire new people and rapidly implementing the document changes they feel are necessary to be competitive. There won't be a lot of time to carefully consider wide-ranging strategic directions, do research, or test products and methods.

Why not do that higher-level planning now, when you might have some idle time on third shift to try out some new processes or materials? Right now, vendors should be happy to work with you and give you the support you need to assess your needs, investigate new approaches or do some testing for you. That may not be the case later on if they've got customers clamoring to place orders. Remember, they might be understaffed for a while too.

Judging by the lack of activity I've seen lately, many in-house document and mail production centers are risking not being ready to adequately support their company's future customer communications needs. If they fail, the communications business, particularly the print channel, will continue to suffer while the rest of the economy moves forward.

So start doing research, call your vendors, call your trade associations, call us! But do something today to take advantage of what little opportunity this recessionary time provides. Make sure that your operation emerges strong, contemporary and competitive.

Mike Porter is an expert in Print and Mail operations and President of Print/Mail Consultants, an independent consulting firm that helps companies nationwide be more productive, adapt to changing requirements, and lower costs in their document operations. For more information on training, Green Assessments, or other services, visit www.printmailconsultants.com or email Mike directly at mporter@printmailconsultants.com