Why Data Management Should Drive your Document Automation Vendor Decision

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By John Toepfer

Data Accuracy in Documents can be automated

One of the criteria often overlooked by asset managers during the vendor evaluation process is data management.

The urge to minimize the data problem during these discussions is understandable. Document or website production is the marketing team’s goal.  Data aggregation and quality control shouldn’t really even be a notable part of the marketer’s life, but very frequently it is . This is a challenge that should be addressed clearly and up front in evaluating document automation options.

In conversations with investment marketing professionals who are looking to automate their collateral or sales presentations, the first thing we try to find out is how their firm is currently handling data. We do this  because data really lies at the heart of the communication problem; the question of how to clean up your communication effort goes hand in hand with the question of how your data process will be addressed. Thus, as you’re defining your document automation requirements, it’s wise to look at your data management scenario to determine whether you have the bandwidth and skills in-house to implement quality data feeds and controls or whether outsourcing is the better or more realistic option.

In this blog we are going to discuss why your data process should drive your automation vendor decision. As there are a variety of different kinds of vendors who can automate your marketing documents, you’ll want to determine whether you want a vendor/product that requires internal data source and process management (we’ll call this a Do-It-Yourself approach ) versus a vendor who will take responsibility for creating and supporting a quality data process.

What is your current data management situation?

The truth is that most firms still rely heavily on Excel to manage data, which can be problematic. In our work with client automation projects we see a high correlation between negative document production results (errors, poor timelines, inconsistencies) and the use of manual data sources and ad-hoc processes.   You may take a certain level of comfort in knowing that nobody has this problem 100% figured out or perfect. One IT manager told us in an interview, “It was nice to hear that other clients were in the same situation that we were in. It seems crazy, but we’re almost embarrassed about how our data is set up.”


The reason for the frequency of this problem is usually quite simple;   the data source and quality scenarios for many companies is really complicated. We see companies requiring dozens of data sources  to support the reporting on even a small number of products.  This challenge does not go away just because we want it to or via a magic pill.  The accounting group, product group, performance and analytics groups, and reporting team are all doing real hero work to create and verify the numbers that go into the documents.

Unless you already have a great data management solution in place serving the specific and ever-evolving needs of the marketing department, this issue be a key criteria in your planning for communication automation.

It takes a considerable amount of effort to get the data prepared for automation, and your final strategy may depend on your firm’s resources and propensity to insource or outsource these types of projects. It deserves to be repeated here that ineffective data management is the #1 bottleneck in the marketing production process. High quality data management processes are your ticket to competitive advantage and risk management, and should not be minimized when selecting the right automation partner.

 

In-house data management and DIY solutions

Out-of-the box or do-it-yourself (DIY) document automation products typically require you to normalize your data and then map the data yourself using a field-to-field mapping process. This can be done successfully, but a company choosing this round needs to be aware that this requires real and ongoing support to ensure the source files are right, consistent and perfectly formatted every time.  Solutions based on this prerequisite will only be as successful as these inputs and your internal data support efforts allow.  Even minor issues or changes will become real document problems and you’ll have to ensure that the right people are available at all times to detect and solve data problems.  If the data file formats or fields do get slightly altered unknowingly, it will be on your marketing and data teams to figure out the root of the problem and keep the document process on track.   

So, if you find yourselves leaning toward a DIY solution we suggest getting your data teams involved early and plan for the resources needed for initial setup and implementation as well as ongoing support of data loading and troubleshooting. Make sure they know that your reporting business problem is not static and you’ll need support for changes and issues for the lifetime of the initiative. If your IT team has a solid data warehouse, make sure they are prepared to deliver quality data in the format required every month and quarter, and to support your needs as your documents and products change.

Make sure you really analyze the time and resources needed from both the marketing and data teams to support a DIY implementation. We’ve found that firms with the skilled internal talent, resources, and a solid data management system in place often lean towards the out of the box, self-service solutions. We’ve also found that many firms tend to overstate their ability to support these processes for the long term, or under-estimate how specific and ongoing the marketing group’s needs are.  The risk is that every hour you save in “document production” is mitigated by a hour spent preparing or troubleshooting the data enabling the automation.  

We’ve also observed that that DIY solutions often take longer to implement than an outsourced solution as described below.  The reason for this is that the whole process is being done for the first time and there’s a real learning curve. You’ll have to give your timeline an allowance for this learning curve and the occasional misstep. In one DIY case study we observed, marketing leadership at the investment firm described their DIY implementation process as an 18-month project requiring 25 people. Once implemented, they estimated needing a support staff of 15.  This is likely an extreme example of the cost of a DIY data and document automation process, but it clearly illustrates that achieving real results with these internal projects is not an overnight affair.

Outsourcing data management to a vendor

We’ve found that firms who recognize that achieving a good result in automation requires real knowledge, time and expertise (that they may not have lying around) lean toward vendors with more comprehensive service offerings and real data management expertise. The complexity of the data also drives this decision.

Vendors with deep data management functionality can take spreadsheets from disparate sources and formats and database them, so that no matter how wonky the data is from month to month, it can be normalized and validated as part of the automation process. They should also be able to plug into existing data warehouses and third party sources and act as a data mart to provide exactly what the marketing team needs… including calculations, transformation and formatting. When something does change in a data file (data was deleted, moved or truncated) a validation report will catch it during the loading process and kick out an error. This data validation feedback loop has two benefits: It keeps the process in motion to help ensure you get your fact sheets out on time and it cuts down on the manual QA required. A quality vendor of this nature will also have a support staff monitoring, checking and fixing errors and problems proactively.  It’s their job to do this and to do it well.

The real benefit to a solid data aggregation and warehousing solution should be that there is a clearly defined process to provide, test and track the data.  Sometimes a data approval process is even included.  The goal is to avoid or remove scenarios where the marketing department is taking responsibility for data collecting and checking and replacing them with clear and auditable processes.  Similarly, there is a party (which could be internal or external) who clearly takes responsibility for the process and has the time and incentives to continually work to keep the data humming.  Separating this data responsibility allows marketing teams to focus on more value-added projects rather than just getting documents out.

 

The takeaway

Thoughtfully consider your true data situation and let that guide your automation vendor decision. DIY solutions will require more effort on your part to prepare, implement, and support the data. If you can’t sustainably support this effort in house, there are vendors that can support you and do the lion’s share of the work. It’s important to solve the data side of the document automation equation proactively, otherwise your automation solution will never be as successful as economical as hoped for.  As one IT manager put it, “Every time we’ve done automation projects with vendors, it’s always been spreadsheets and it’s always been a nightmare for the reasons that spreadsheets are difficult to code to. If the vendor’s done that and been successful in it, that’s a nice thing to know right out of the gate.” Understand your data situation and how the vendor’s data expertise matches your needs. This is probably the most important factor in making your decision.

Thank you for reading this post. If you’d like to learn more, I’m happy to talk with you about your data situation and automation needs. Feel free to reach out to me directly by email.

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John Toepfer is CEO and Co-founder of Synthesis Technology. He is a technology entrepreneur, investor and business owner with a 25-year background in building and supporting communication solutions for the financial services industry. He lives in Chicago with his wife and two sons.

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