The phrase ‘from the mailroom upwards’ was often used in the past to indicate the lowly role of the traditional mailroom as little more than a physical logistics hub. But as many CIOs have discovered, elevating the mailroom to an automated, digital information hub offers huge potential benefits, not just in boosting efficiency and productivity but to the bottom line too.

One of the key drivers of the evolution in the way businesses manage the flow of information into, through and out of their organisations has been the need for fastidious compliance with ever more rules, regulations and laws. Innovations in document management technology now produce a virtuous triangle of achieving internal and external regulatory compliance while delivering cost-savings and better access to information.

The advantages in terms of productivity, efficiency and cost savings of digitising the activities of the mailroom are now well understood. They include:

- Improving business process and staff productivity
- Faster and more accurate routing of documents
- Raising customer satisfaction
- Reduced costs associated with moving, processing and storing physical documents
- Demonstrating a clear commitment to the environment.

Better filing and archiving disciplines that become possible with mailroom digitisation have a close connection with achieving compliance objectives, for instance those relating to the US Sarbanes-Oxley Act 2002. The greater visibility of information from receipt right through to destruction helps to limit the compliance risks that come with poor controls on information storage and retrieval.

Data protection issues can be identified and dealt with from the outset, as information enters the business and documents are first archived after being digitally recorded. A centrally managed archiving system can monitor compliance with a company’s retention policy and minimise the risks of any sensitive information, which may need to be destroyed, from being mislaid or filed elsewhere.

What's imperative to understand is that it's not scanning on its own that will deliver results, it's how that information is handled and incorporated into the business workflows that matters. When organisations reduce their reliance on paper-based documents by converting information entering the business into electronic formats, the transformation enables them to leverage the value of their corporate data through integrating it into their normal workflow process.

With the mailroom elevated to digital information hub, companies can begin to realise the full benefit of digitisation. But to be truly effective, it must be combined with a clear approach towards corporate information management; information logistics as a whole should be considered.

A particular appeal of the digital information hub to larger companies is the ease with which it can be rolled out across business units and countries, providing a consistent level of service and improving the customer experience. It can be managed centrally with just local process variations to support any regulatory or other local demands.

The key is to design the infrastructure from the outset as a corporate-wide solution, not just there to support a single department or function.

Digitisation and centralised processing allows remote or home workers, and staff who travel regularly, to have mail and other business-critical documents delivered on a daily basis, and to the same service level as staff working from the main business site.

Web-based records management solutions are available, which are designed simultaneously to enforce policy, ensure efficient records management and provide compliance.

The value of a live filing and archive management system in delivering compliance is demonstrated in the case of its adoption by a major international bank. The UK arm of the bank developed a problem with its records archiving system, which was not compliant with bank policy or procedures, thus placing the business in an exposed position.

Concerns were also raised about compliance with external regulatory and legal requirements for archiving, such as the European Union’s Markets in Financial Instruments Directive and Sarbanes-Oxley. Furthermore, there was a risk to data security arising from the fact that the storage vendor held both the archived boxes and the data about their content.

Over a two-year period from inception to sign off, the bank built a detailed, highly controlled, but also flexible records management solution that controlled the movement of records and files. Compliance with the bank’s security and audit systems was checked and a standalone server for the application was set up, with a backup in the USA in case of internet problems in the UK.

Access requests, collection scheduling and retention periods are now all managed from the user’s desk through a single user-friendly interface.

The future for the mailroom as digital information hub lies in the hands of CIOs and will depend on the extent to which they choose to exploit its huge potential. The speed and volume at which information flows into a business and its importance to fast and accurate decision-making makes the mailroom operation the ideal nucleus for optimising workflows, improving decision support and business intelligence.

The days of dark and dusty mailrooms doing little more than deal with post items as they arrive at and leave your building are as distant as the days when regulatory compliance obligations could be met simply by keeping an orderly filing cabinet. By implementing faster, more efficient and better-value digital solutions to information flow and retrieval, CIOs can improve their ability to deliver not just on compliance but also the cost-savings and productivity gains that their CEOs demand.