Myths and Reality
At my first job, I was a programmer for an insurance company. While there, my first boss told anybody who would listen that the Internet was "just a fad." As you may be aware, his assessment was slightly off-base.
We live in a world where everything is constantly in transition. In this ongoing cycle of change, we strive to make things "better" or more efficient. Unfortunately, trends often appear hollow, unless you understand what is meaningful about them.
Some trends have been lingering for years and never lead to the changes we expect. So, let's get real about some of those, and then talk about what to expect in the future.
Myth Trend #1: Flexible End-to-end Automation is Here…or Near
The principle of Web-to-print and MIS automation mirrors the old promises of variable data printing. Both are possible in technical terms, but they often don't match up with real world products and customers. Repeatable print jobs with a precise set of characteristics can be automated very easily from order to production, even when the content within is different. However, the idea that orders can simply flow in and be produced automatically without error for a range of products is currently a pipe-dream.
Myth Trend #2: Bulletproof System Integration Exists
Printing is an incredibly complex process. Each order requires a lot of information and specificity to get it done right. Products are custom produced from a dizzying array of options provided by the customer.
Ordering print is like going to a restaurant with your own ingredients and being able to order anything from a menu using them. Now imagine that, after ordering from that restaurant, they take your order and ingredients to another one next door to have it created. It's inevitable that things could be "lost in translation." The end result could still come out fine, but that isn't a guarantee.
This example strongly parallels the Web-to-print/MIS software landscape in our industry. Nearly every Web-to-print storefront and management system existed in its singularity before connecting with other solutions. Holding the expectation that they will act as one is somewhat reasonable, but not entirely practical.
For example, changes to a print order often have to be done within one of them, or even both. Print software companies are struggling, and they don't have the resources needed for a major rewrite or do-over. Even products from the same company struggle with this, but you shouldn't stand still until it is perfected.
Myth Trend #3: Print is Going Away
There is no question that print volumes have declined. But many people have trouble differentiating between information and communication as they predict the eventual demise of printing.
Print applications that focus on information are easily moved into the digital medium. When one examines reference materials, the online or offline digital format is incredibly effective.
On the other hand, print applications that focus on communication have a goal of inspiring and exciting readers, while conveying ideas. We are seeing growth in print spending with this kind of print as it is being doubled down on in order to impact people's thoughts, ideas and actions, and to reinforce other mediums and channels that are reaching customers. Our industry often puts a "marketing" tag on this, but the concept is much larger than that.
Now, let's look at some very real trends that are certain to impact your operation. Understanding these will have you much more prepared for the future of the printing world.
Future Trend #1: Macro Management Will Win Out Over Micro Management
Getting the details right matters, but huge gains are made when orders, tasks and jobs are managed as part of the big picture. Many providers are clinging to the belief that a system cannot be successful without supporting both the details and processes of their particular operation.
Meanwhile, others have stayed focused on the big picture and implemented solutions that create a high-level structure, effective in linking people and processes together in such a manner that it produces a successful overall solution. Relying upon the technological aspect to create a process down to each fine detail can fail. Instead, it's best to take ownership as the technology becomes interchangeable.
Future Trend #2: Print Software Will Do Less, and Do It Better
It has been said that one can't be all things to all people, and software definitely could be characterized this way. Increasingly more vendors are deciding on whose problems their software can solve best, and focusing nearly everything into that. Instead of attempting to create a platform that can do it all, they instead zoom in on how to solve only specific problems and not the majority.
Print software will increasingly focus on only the print-specific issues and piggyback onto other solutions for the general business type of issues. Echoing this, outside of the print industry, the number of companies making simple products that are effective is huge. This isn't new; just about every successful print shop I've been in was using a program or tool that I'd never seen to do something interesting. Odds are your shop might be too, so share that with your peers.
Future Trend #3: Measurements are King
Data is the new currency of success or failure in today's business world. Nearly everything can be measured and reported against in our completely connected organizations. In the past, anecdotal stories and institutional experience carried significant weight. In the future, stories will be crafted around data points and information. Print spending will be more tightly managed, customer service metrics will be specific and your customer's experiences will be measured and acted upon.
At the same time, your customers and organization will want a higher level of visibility into the key characteristics of your operation. Today's Internet companies operate almost exclusively under the guise that every feature and service is an experiment to be tested, measured and adjusted. Note that I did not provide any examples of speeds, feeds or products offered—things easily outsourced or replaced. What you measure within your operation should support the metrics you've established for defining what you want for your organization. Web sites and software solutions are fantastic for capturing data, but the use of human beings can be effective too.
For example, if you survey every customer for each order and ask them questions like these, you can start to build real customer-driven data:
- How much time did we save you?
- How easy were we to work with?
- How would you solve your problem without us?
- Would you recommend us to a co-worker?
Perceptions are destroyed by data, and the great news is that you can easily start using it, not only to make your operation stronger, but to tell its real story.
So, what's vital for the future? Becoming more flexible, as well as making sure you continue defining and measuring progress. You can't rely on the way it's always been done, nor can you predict what works best until you try many approaches. The days of taking a long time to aim and pull the trigger on initiatives won't work in the future. If you can try something and measure the success, you don't need to be as worried about whose opinions and ideas are best. They reveal themselves.
So go, experiment and win.
Related story: Web-to-print: Avoiding Typical Missteps
Heath Cajandig is VP of Product at Mimeo (Mimeo.com), an innovator of online managed content distribution and printing. Prior to joining Mimeo, he served as the global Web-to-print Product Manager at NowDocs and Electronics for Imaging (EFI). Before focusing on Web technologies, he gained operational experience as a workflow consultant for Xerox and was the digital production manager for University of Missouri Printing Services. Connect with Heath at firstname.lastname@example.org.