A story in the news recently caught my attention. Carnegie Mellon University apparently mis-communicated the admissions status of several prospective students. 800 people thought they'd been accepted into the university's Masters of Computer Science program only to find out later it was all a big mistake.

This isn't so unusual it turns out. Similar errors have occurred at prestigious institutions such as MIT and Johns Hopkins. A common fact unified all these mistakes - the universities delivered the notifications by email. The email channel is not the culprit, but the ways some organizations execute email messaging might be a factor.

Switching from print to electronic documents makes a lot of sense in many instances, as long as organizations implement the same types of controls they've used for decades to generate high-quality printed materials. In this particular case, it doesn't seem those controls were in place.

Did choosing email contribute to an embarrassing error?
I was thinking about this particular error and wondering how things might have turned out differently had the school decided to mail the admission notices on paper instead of relying on email. Here's what I came up with:

1. Instead of the Computer Sciences department handling the notification task themselves they would have likely turned the project over to some printing and mailing professionals, such as the university print center or an outsource service provider.

2. A job ticket submitted by Computer Sciences would list the expected quantity of notices as 108.

3. The print department, processing the mailing file through postal software, probably would have noticed there were 800 records instead of 108. They would suspend processing until resolving the discrepancy.

4. If not caught during postal processing, there is a good chance the print operations people would have noticed the job had produced 8 times more pages than anticipated. They would have halted processing, requiring a confirmation of accuracy from the submitting department before printing the job.

5. If the job actually got printed, the quality control person referring to the job ticket would likely have eyed the large stack of paper with suspicion and initiated an investigation.

6. Mail inserter operators would wonder why the supply of Computer Science envelopes they requisitioned was grossly insufficient to complete the job. They would start asking questions.

7. If the job somehow went all the way through the shop unchallenged, the Computer Science department would see the postage charge for the job and realize something was wrong.

Even if the errors were discovered after the notices were mailed, the university would have had time to contact the affected students before the erroneous information arrived.

8. The chances of this mistake ever being reported on national news programs would have been significantly reduced.

The Difference is Experience
The important distinction here is that people who routinely process high volume printed communications have long-standing procedures to prevent or catch errors. A division of duties where multiple individuals interact with the work increases the chances of someone noticing circumstances out of the ordinary.

In contrast, almost anyone can send emails. One person may handle the entire process on their own. Individuals handling the tasks may not have a background in document distribution and may not work under a system that includes balancing and quality control inspections. With few visual clues that something could be amiss, and virtually no time between clicking the send button and completing the distribution, there are few opportunities to detect an error, much less take corrective action.

Would these types of errors become less common if the universities put the responsibility for electronic communications back into the hands of document professionals? I think yes. I believe the structure and discipline of seasoned document experts would contribute greatly to a higher degree of accuracy and fewer embarrassing mistakes - regardless of the communications channel of choice.

Mike Porter is President of Print/Mail Consultants. He writes about topics of interest to the communications industry. In April, Mike will be speaking about why print is sometimes the better choice at Xploration 15. To keep up with Mike's tips, trends, and commentary visit www.printmailconsultants.com and sign up for Practical Stuff - a free newsletter for customer communication professionals.