Over the last couple of years, analysts and vendors have written much about workflow systems. Software vendors refer to these solutions as dashboards or integration platforms. This is software that combines the functions of an entire document workflow in a single interface. But is an investment in an integration platform the best move for everyone in the mail business?

It sure sounds good. Who wouldn’t want a tool that tracked all your jobs, letting you know which ones were in the postal processing step, document reformatting, printing, or finishing? That’s great information to have! It allows managers to switch priorities, allocate resources, or inform customers if something unexpected has happened. Such software also eliminates the time-honored tradition of scurrying around the production floor to answer customer questions. Reporting on the status of customer work or the disposition of a particular document can be accomplished immediately while customers are on the phone. Rapid response improves the customer experience and contributes to customer loyalty.

Integration platforms can send you alerts when something is late, such as when a data file hasn’t arrived in a designated folder. It can let you know when production equipment is idle or has stopped working. It can improve productivity by eliminating delays between steps. This software also typically accumulates data for making informed decisions about staffing, equipment upgrades, or load balancing.

Integration Platforms Not Plug and Play

Production print and mail management platforms can provide lots of benefits, but your operation must commit to making it work. Software venders usually include professional services to help customers get their first jobs up and running on the new platform. Are you ready to tackle the remaining work once you’ve used up the professional services hours? Many shops discover they don’t have the expertise in house to do it themselves. They end up paying for long-term professional services support. If they don’t have the budget dollars for ongoing support, companies must settle for realizing only a portion of the benefits they expected from their software investments.

Decisions about implementing integration platforms must also consider production environments, mail volumes, and job complexity. If your jobs require lots of steps where applications hand work from one system to the next in the workflow, or the volume is high enough that any disruption would cause a major SLA failure, then a document workflow dashboard is a worthwhile investment.

Matching Software Capabilities with Requirements

Managers in simpler environments might serve themselves better by installing one or two independent systems to automate, control, and track their work. Though they won’t get the comprehensive, all-on-one-screen experience, they can still address the biggest pain points or riskiest portions of their workflows. Shops lacking automated document integrity, for instance, might concentrate on hardware and software upgrades allowing them to track every mail piece and ensure all pages and inserts enter the envelopes.

This week, someone on LinkedIn asked me if I considered mail piece integrity a must-have capability. I answered “Yes.” Once required only for transactional applications like statements and bills, direct mail buyers now expect mailing service providers to support mail piece integrity. Marketers spend extra money to include direct mail in their multi-channel campaigns. They don’t want to waste it on poorly assembled mail pieces or items that never make it into the mail stream. If a service provider lacks the ability to account for every mail piece as they process them through their shop, customers will contract with a competitor that has invested in this technology.

My advice about integration platforms for smaller print and mail operations is to weigh the investment cost in dollars and time against the likely benefits to their operation. If the jobs they run call for a high level of control and accountability and they’ve already invested in non-integrated components, then a dashboard-like solution may be the best fit. If the demands are simpler and you are managing operations with only manual methods, it may be too soon for an enterprise-wide solution. Take action to automate the most troublesome parts of the workflow, but wait until customer requirements or job characteristics call for a more comprehensive integrated solution.

Mike Porter at Print/Mail Consultants helps document operations build and implement strategies for future growth and competitiveness. Learn more about his services at www.printmailconsultants.com and www.pmccontentservices.com. Follow @PMCmike on Twitter, or send him a connection request on LinkedIn.