Even organizations with cultures built on electronic communication can still process large volumes of physical mail. Handling and delivering this mail is expensive and inaccurate delivery can significantly impede productivity.


Now, large organizations are able to enhance mailing efficiency and accuracy by combining physical delivery techniques with electronic mail management tools. These technologies have potential for broad applications in businesses, universities, government agencies and other entities with large staffs of knowledge workers. The experiences of large companies demonstrates that e-commerce and communication are not destined to eliminate significant use of physical mail in the foreseeable future.


Microsoft Corporation, for example, has an ingrained e-mail culture, yet still receives an average of almost one piece of external mail per-employee, per-day at its campus in Redmond, Washington, home to over 20,000 workers. The company is now pilot-testing mail management technology aimed at improving efficiency and accuracy in handling external as well as internal mail.


Creating linkage

The linkage of physical mail with electronic communication can add significant value to large mailers' operations -- reducing delivery errors, saving labor, cutting postage costs, improving cash flow and enhancing overall workplace productivity. Besides furthering these business objectives, the new mail management systems meet knowledge workers' rising expectations for accuracy and speed. The key to achieving these gains lies in electronic and physical processing technology deployed in a coordinated manner under a sound business strategy.


All mail communication requires an infrastructure, be it an electronic network of computers, servers, routers and hubs or a physical system of readers, sorters, trays, carts and trucks. The electronic infrastructure readily supports the physical by helping direct mail reliably to employees even as their physical addresses changes. A key advantage to new mail management technologies is the ability to create a link between recipients' physical and virtual addresses. In fact, a significant share of savings results not from reduction in physical sorting and handling labor but from the availability of up-to-date directories that automatically direct mail to recipients' current work addresses without manual look-ups.


Tracking mobile employees

In a typical large enterprise, an average of three to seven percent of employees change work locations in a given week, moving to different offices or taking temporary assignments. To deal with this mobility, mail centers have a choice of two approaches:

  •            Proactive - Look up current addresses in the company directory for all mail.

  •            Reactive - Attempt delivery to the address on the mailpiece, then redirect pieces that are returned.


    Either approach has built-in inefficiencies. The reactive option uses less labor but results in lower-quality service. Under the proactive approach, service accuracy is limited by the frequency of directory updates -- even in companies with relatively sophisticated information systems, directory updates may lag by two days or more.

    In effect, new mail management schemes deliver the best of both worlds. Meta-directory technology automatically updates employee work addresses, usually on the same day they change locations. There is no separate employee address database to create or maintain. The electronic meta-directory receives information from all the existing databases, which can include:

    1.         The central human resources database,

    2.         Databases of employee locations maintained by facilities staff and

    3.         Databases of temporary employee assignments.


    The meta-directory takes data feeds from these sources and applies business rules that dictate, for example, how often to refresh and if two sources are in conflict, which source to accept as correct. Besides the meta-directory, components of a modern mail management system include: employee interfaces at each work station, a management interface through which operations personnel direct the mail process and track performance, traditional mail center functions of address reading and sortation and the electronic tracking of mailpieces. Interlinking and directing these functions is an enterprise-wide software system.


    The flow of mail

    This general mail management approach adds many user-convenience features while smoothing the flow of mail throughout the system. While configurations can differ, here are a few examples of exactly how the system can function.


    Internal mail An employee wishing to send a piece of internal mail looks up the recipient using his or her own address book or a global directory in the same way as if preparing an e-mail message. The employee selects from the menu to instruct the system to initiate a physical mailpiece. The system prints a cover sheet bearing both the recipient's address and a barcode. The employee attaches the cover sheet to the mail item, places it in a reusable window envelope through which the address and barcode are visible and enters it into the internal mail system.


    At the same time, the system generates an electronic record of the transaction and transmits it to the management software. If the sender so desires, the system can generate an e-mail to the recipient saying a mailpiece is en route. Meanwhile, the sender can verify the piece has been sent and track its status. When the piece reaches the mail center, the camera on the automated sorter reads the barcode, then automatically consults the meta-directory for the recipient's latest address and directs the mailpiece to that location. Thus, the item arrives at the correct location even if the recipient changed offices between the time the mailpiece was initiated and the time of sortation.


    Outgoing external mail For outgoing external mail, the system can manage expedited pieces such as overnight packages. The sender may be asked to specify a level of service how quickly the piece needs to reach its destination. This step counteracts the tendency of senders to over-specify the service such as shipping overnight when two-day delivery would suffice. In this way, the system can reduce both postage and shipping costs substantially.


    When the sender initiates an external mailpiece (in the same manner as for internal mail), the system generates a cover sheet. The sender attaches the cover sheet to the item and enters the piece into the external mail system. When the piece reaches the mailroom, its barcode is scanned. The system then generates a label for the appropriate mode of shipment and charges the correct account for the postage.

    External incoming mail For a piece of external incoming mail, the sorter reads the address, consults the meta-directory, finds the recipient's latest address and directs the piece to that destination. The pieces the sorter cannot read are sorted manually. Because the human being sorting the mail has access to the meta-directory, delivery accuracy is maintained at the same high level as the mechanized sorter.


    Accurate measurement

    Besides direct cost savings, modern mail management technology delivers the benefit of accurate performance measurement. Continuous collection of data on the process enables process improvement. In addition, the technology offers potential for expansion to other applications such as:

  •            Tracking important paperwork through an approval chain,

  •            Tracking incoming expedited mail all the way to employees' desktops,

  •            Presorting outgoing mail to realize postal discounts and

  •            Execution of bulk internal mailings.


    Mail management technologies that connect electronic communication with physical mail flows present a powerful opportunity to add value to an organizations' mail operation. Integrated systems with open and scalable architectures for future expansion can measurably reduce mailers' expenses while increasing delivery accuracy and making the entire workplace function more efficiently.


    William Terry is technology director for Lockheed Martin Distribution Technologies in Owego, New York. Carol Kerins is a United States Postal Service Account Manager with Microsoft Government in Washington, D.C.

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