What will the print industry look like after we emerge from the global pandemic? News outlets are framing it in terms of “recovery.” According to the Wall Street journal: “...U.S. quarterly economic output isn't expected to catch up to previous projections until the end of 2029.” That’s a dreary picture; it may take us 10 years to get back to where we were at the end of 2019 as it pertains to real GDP.
I don’t believe we should think about post-COVID-19 as a recovery. We are not going to recover to some previous norm. We are going to emerge to a very different set of norms. The experience of this global pandemic will change the print industry forever; some changes will be judged as positive, others will be judged as negative. One of the primary forces behind these changes is what I’ll call the weakening of the “this is how we’ve always done it defense.” I am seeing it in printers of all shapes and sizes. Business processes that involve a lot of human touch, lots of face-to-face interaction, and too much time and labor are being replaced. The simple fact that front office employees are/were working from home in almost every state in the country forced this new reality on print businesses of all sizes.
I see this as having a very positive impact on the industry because it will accelerate the digital transformation of print businesses to catch up to the expectations of 2020 and beyond. It's such an interesting psychological experiment. You take a business where everyone is packed together in the same space (an open office) only because some tech geek thought that was how to get people to collaborate (I never thought this was a good idea) and then you send them home. Are they more or less efficient? I’ve been in these print businesses where the culture is all about interruption. I leave after spending one day in that environment wondering how anyone gets anything done, especially tasks that require uninterrupted focus (e.g. complex estimates, production optimization/scheduling, and collaboration with clients).
Now these production planners, customer service representatives, estimators are at home—where they can (hopefully) control their work environment. Where they don’t have to commute or go out to lunch. Where they can decide when they need to focus by turning off digital devices that interrupt. Think about what fewer interruptions does for your overall productivity. Also think about how this kills off all reliance on paper-based workflows. You can’t go out onto the production floor and look at the printed job jacket. The whole business has to rely on what is entered into the Print MIS. This is exactly the value of “digitizing your job controls.” The minute you print out a job jacket, the information is a snapshot of the job at the specific time you printed it (just call it outdated). If your whole team is entering information about the job (e.g. shop floor data collection, raw material inventory availability, change orders) into the Print MIS and everyone has access to the Print MIS, you have exactly one version of the up-to-date truth. This one version of the up-to-date truth can be viewed, managed, monitored, and edited by people from home!
Even when your employees return, this evolution can make them so much more efficient. When you don’t have to walk through the production floor to see the job’s progress, you get more done at your desk. The post COVID-19 printer will have to operate this way as the competitive pressure on price and turn times has to drive all the inefficiencies out of the workflow.
The downside of the weakening of the “this is how we’ve always done it defense” for the print industry is that print customers will be assessing their business processes under these new “norms.” We have been experiencing this transition from print communication to digital communication for the last several decades. COVID-19 will accelerate it further. I interact with printers and am shocked when I ask what their most common print products are because many of the products listed (e.g. pocket folders) I assumed everybody stopped printing some time ago. Living in San Francisco for the last several decades greatly skews my sense of technology adoption rates across the country. I think COVID-19 opens up all parts of business processes to be reinvented. The downside of this is that print could be discarded for digital communication alternatives during this “reinvention.” We all see it when the next generation of leadership slowly takes control of marketing budgets—they think online first, second, and third and then often have to be taught that there is a print option.
Think of post COVID-19 as a new print industry, not one that’s trying to recover from a global pandemic. The market conditions will be un-comparable to 2019. It isn’t a recovery; it's a reinvention. There will be upsides and downsides. Each print business will be faced with strategic decisions on how to minimize the downsides and take advantage of the upsides. Of course, you know my take on this: your success will depend on your ability to deploy, implement, and optimize your use of software in the digital transformation of your business