In this global economic downturn, expected to extend well into next year according to recent forecasts by the Federal Reserve and United Nations, companies are scrambling to cope with current conditions and position themselves for a strong recovery.

Cost cutting is a top priority, and every company is taking a sharp pencil to all of its line items â¬" increasingly those items traditionally dismissed as fixed costs. Among them is the set of processes around managing documents. Once viewed as mere overhead, documents actually have a lifecycle â¬" creation through disposal â¬" and the process is ripe for streamlining. Moreover, documents are assets, not liabilities. With better management of their lifecycles, documents can dramatically improve business performance.

Mail/shipping is just one of these fertile document processes. Opportunities for process transformation also exist in the four other major document areas: enterprise-wide print/copy, document imaging (paper-to-digital conversion), records management, and fleet management (print/copy/fax fleet).

Against this backdrop we recently took a close look at document strategies for the tough economy. A total of 227 surveys were completed by executives responsible for document management processes in a cross-section of industries and company sizes (42 percent work at organizations with annual revenue under $100 million, 26 percent have revenue between $100 million and $1 billion, and 32 percent have revenue of over $1 billion). Respondents included chief administrative officers, mid- and upper-level operations managers, and chief information officers.

Survey says⬦
The survey produced some compelling findings:

Seventy-four percent of respondents indicate their company is outsourcing at least one of the five document activities. Mail and shipping is the most common document process to outsource, with 18 percent of the respondents saying they do so.

One in three respondents indicates his or her organization plans to outsource more document processing functions in the next one to two years with the top reasons being cost reduction, added concentration on core business, and improved operational performance.

Of the five document management activities, document imaging was seen to have the strongest positive impact on an organization, resulting in improved operational performance, lower costs, reduced paper consumption and enhanced regulatory compliance.

Key finding: measurement matters
The survey also revealed a significant opportunity in the underappreciated field of document process performance measurement. Most survey participants (55%) indicate that their company does measure document process performance in some form. And more than two in three (67%) say their metrics for document performance are aligned with their business objectives, e.g., increasing customer satisfaction.

Measurement, however, is a very big subject, and it ranges from the simplistic⬦ how many copies did that machine pump out last year?⬦ to the sophisticated⬦ That amber light on my computer screen indicates an emerging quality concern somewhere in our global organizationâ¬s mail processing system. If it didnâ¬t have implications for customer satisfaction, we wouldnâ¬t be tracking it. Letâ¬s drill down and nip it in the bud.

The latter, more sophisticated brand of measurement is possible with new advanced document performance management systems that offer in-depth, near real-time insight to transform handling, improve efficiency, and drive positive return on investment. These measurement systems also help reduce the potential risks of outsourcing. With adequate measurement, a client can base service provider compensation on service level agreements (SLAs) and hard metrics.

The state of the art in document process management does for business what an electrocardiogram does for the heart â¬" monitor current performance of the organism and report potential problems as they occur. In business, this best practice is called business performance management (BPM), and itâ¬s a methodology to monitor â¬" in real time or nearly so â¬" every key performance indicator (KPI) connected to the volume, accuracy and timeliness of document processes. Every KPI is tied to specific strategic company objectives.

All this information is rolled up in an intelligence-packed dashboard that lets executives manage aggregate document performance 24 x 7 x 365. They can drill down to the device, staffer or mail package level, and drill horizontally back and forth through time. Printer/scanner/copier fleets, mail systems, and couriers⬠barcode scanners provide data for BPM software to consume, enabling companies to monitor and continuously improve their document process performance.

If performance in a particular site shows up as â¬Å"blueâ¬â or excellent on the dashboard, the company can replicate this best practice across all sites and functions. If, on the other hand, one site or process is struggling in the red zone, the company can pinpoint the problem and launch a quality initiative â¬" anything from a short staff meeting or revision to a form to a full-fledged Six Sigma project â¬" until the process meets standards.

On the right track, but⬦
The good news is 68% of the survey respondents say they have taken the first step in BPM â¬" aligning document performance metrics with business objectives. Unfortunately, less than one in four measure document process performance with the latest approaches in data analysis and reporting â¬" such as a Web-based business intelligence dashboard that incorporates KPIs. Instead, most (56 percent) use traditional reporting applications such as Excel spreadsheets, PowerPoint slides or Web-based reports using static, fixed metrics. Thatâ¬s a lost opportunity for optimizing performance.

In a competitive environment where virtually everyone is scrutinizing strategies for even moderate business gains, alert organizations can drive surprising improvement in their document processes, including the five specified in this survey as well as document performance management.

If your company is like many others, it spends an estimated one to three percent of its revenue on activities related to printing, copying, scanning and faxing. Because these document processes are a central element of your organizationâ¬s success, failure to manage them correctly can be costly, especially in this economy. From a positive perspective, managing documents across their lifecycle using innovative approaches and technologies can position your company to not only meet â¬" but exceed â¬" the challenges ahead.

Ken Neal is a Certified Enterprise Content Management Practitioner and Director of Corporate Communications, for Océ Business Services. Océ provides document management and electronic discovery services to law firms, corporations, and the public sector. Ken can be reached at