Corporate Mail Centers Take an Expanded Role

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Since October 2001 and the threat of anthrax-laced letters, the mail center has become much more visible and important to businesses large and small.


Much like corporate America's reliance on a secure information technology infrastructure, the time has come for businesses to ensure that a company's mail center effectively supports and protects critical documents. Thus, the evolution of the mail center looks similar to that of IT and its progression during the past 30 years in corporate America. And like IT, the life cycle of the mail center's evolution is much shorter than it used to be.


Business managers are recognizing that the mail center is a strategic part of a company's management life cycle and not just a necessary evil relegated to the back office. They now ask the sort of questions that IT managers have been asking themselves, such as, "How do I make the mail center a part of knowledge deployment and enhancement in my company?"


How an organization answers this depends on its corporate culture and how receptive it is to new ideas, whether these ideas are broadly communicated and whether the company has a formal method to validate ideas. The mail center is merely a tool.


A mail center manager needs a variety of skills today. Some CIOs are creating operations-focused deputy CIO positions for managing daily activities and putting out fires, thus enabling the CIO to focus on business strategy. Similarly, the expanding scope of the mail center manager has made it tougher to run an efficient mail center while also focusing on mail center strategy.


Lessons from IT. The shift from the mainframe and minicomputer systems of the 1960s and 1970s to the personal computers of the late 1980s was an evolution and convergence of three elements: thought, hardware and software. By the late 1980s, corporate America saw the computer as a serious business tool. Businesses hired technicians and programmers to write operating programs and software, fix the equipment and manage the operation of their computers.


PCs started ap-pearing on desktops in companies large to small to produce work schedules and payrolls, write letters and memos and generate budgets. Software was written to enable businesses to do more in less time. The 1980s brought furious change in the computer industry. The creation and success of the PC would have been impossible without the elimination of the concept that a computer was only a large, centralized data processor and number cruncher. Today, the PC is more a communication channel than a computational tool.


Likewise, desktop software tools are creating a sea change in the mail center. Historically, mailroom equipment has been a hardware-based tool that helped bring automation into the back-office function of sorting and processing business mail. Improvements to this equipment included mostly minor changes to the hardware, with some electronics and mail processing software coming along in the early 1990s.


Today, software-based tools developed for the mail center have elevated how companies view these centers. Soft tools such as software and process improvement systems are letting companies achieve even greater efficiencies. A higher level of production has been made possible. Companies large and small more readily can budget mail center costs, take advantage of discounts and process more mail for the organization.


As a result, many mail center management functions are moving out of the back office and into executive suites as the mail center manager's job grows more focused on security, technological innovation and budget forecasting.


But even as mail center managers are charged with showing the way toward new uses of the mail center, they remain responsible for the daily functioning of internal and external delivery, operating systems and cost containment. This has made their job exceedingly difficult and has forced them to wear both a strategy and a technical or operational hat. Like the IT executive, today's mail center manager needs to spend a greater percentage of time on strategy and less on operations.


Having an operations-focused mail center staff that works with a strategy-focused manager overseeing daily execution, maintenance and budget is ideal. The manager must develop a new architectural framework for the mail center that provides flexibility and cost savings for the company while the mailroom staff runs daily operations. Also, the manager must build relationships with other senior executives to ensure that the evolution of the mail center from a back-office function to a strategic business unit is understood.


Manage from within. As we have developed more advanced software tools, corporations realize that they have increased flexibility in mail centers. No longer do they need to outsource certain mail center functions such as folding and inserting invoices and direct mail pieces, sorting and presorting as well as addressing. Companies now can establish a full-service mail center internally, eliminating the risk of leaking proprietary lists and information.


In addition, with many software-based tools now available to the mail center manager, he must think about the company's mailing preparation needs and operations differently. As software tools evolve, the manager will be able to use new tools to expand and improve processes, which will demand a better assessment of how to train and manage the staff.


The mail center manager now can promote employees. There once was little room for mailroom employees to advance within that area of the company. You might start in the mailroom, but advancement opportunities came outside the mail center. But now that we have more complete tools that generate automated reporting and workflow, opportunity for advancement exists within the mail center based on skill sets and different work activities.


Benefits of an elevated mail center. Applying strategic thought to the mail center and treating it as a critical function helps management create a knowledge-based center that safely and efficiently handles anything from invoices to marketing campaigns and beyond. This will lead to benefits including:


o Staffing/succession planning. Because all staff are trained, any staff member can step in and run the mailroom if the manager or other members leave the company.


o Employee turnover. An inclusive management style and education of all staff promote team building, encourage employee feedback, create a more challenging environment and increase employee satisfaction.


o Return on investment. If given sufficient staffing, a mailroom manager can improve efficiencies, focus on strategic projects and enhance the overall functioning of the mailroom, solidifying ROI.


o Securing proprietary information. Critical information such as business contracts, client databases and sensitive corporate information flow through the mail center and will be secured when managed in-house.


o Physical site security. Many tools are available to protect a corporation from attacks through the mail stream. With these tools, the mail center manager is more capable of handling all of the incoming and outgoing mail, administering the security aspect within the department.


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