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Economics & Research Blog

The Other Diversity and Furrowed Brows

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By Dr. Joe Webb
Published: May 13, 2010

I've been on the road a lot these last few months and I want to thank all of the companies and organizations who made it possible, and all of the readers who came to the numerous events. There were also many in the various audiences who were new to whatever it is that I do. One person came up to me, smiled, and said "I thought I was in for a dull economics presentation." "Is there another kind?" I asked. There are others who talk to me about a column I wrote... months ago. They're so hard to remember because I'm focused on the next one, but some readers are rattling off details about veru specific items in columns that appeared months ago. It's humbling to think that they are doing that. When I consider that in 2002 I told Randy Davidson that I would work with WhatTheyThink for one year (and that's it, I mean it) and now we're in our eighth, I wonder where the time went and how I dumb it was to forget put a reminder on my calendar that would tell me when that year was up. The old saying "the days are long and the years fly by" has to be what everyone feels as they look at the industry and wonder how it changed so much. You best notice how quickly time passes as you watch children grow up. But if you're always with the same adults, it's hard to grasp the constant passge of time. I have been very concerned about this in our industry. As we must now compete with a range of digital media, there are few people in most print businesses who have direct experience with new ways of interacting with information. Other than anecdotes about their teenage children and technology, few discuss their direct experience. It's part of human civilization for older people to teach younger ones, but it is essential for adaptation to new situations for older people to learn from younger ones. This came to mind as I recalled the many events I was at as I remembered the audiences and some specific faces I saw there (yes, I can see every one of you, and I make it a point to look at each and every person at least once if the room allows it). There was one thing in common among enough of the attendees to make them memorable: furrowed brows. All speakers wonder what a furrowed brow in the audience means. You usually hope the furrow is that some of the presented content is being mulled as it is received, but you always fear it might be "I could be getting so much done if I wasn't here." As I had a chance to chat with people after events it was actually "this is the first time I heard something like this." Uh-oh. They must not have teenagers at home. This is part of my campaign to be sure that with all of the interest in organizational diversity that we do not neglect the importance of age. We have to find ways of getting our companies to be younger, even the small ones. It's not just employees, it's whomever we interact with in the conduct of business. One of my fellow consultants, for example, went to a social media business event in their city. "I was the oldest person there," I was told. It was always a rush to say "I was the youngest executive at the meeting," a sign that you were rising in the ranks. Now to say you were the oldest one there is probably a good sign. Every printer should have been a buyer of one of the million iPads sold last month. Every printer should have an iPhone (Apple sold more than 8 million last quarter). Right now, these are the two devices most undermining print; they are also the two devices that are most essential to our future communications market opportunities. Yet, as I went around the industry this spring, they were hard to find among the audiences. (The test was my slide with the QR code that linked to my site. Usually only one person in the audience had an iPhone and would show everyone how it was done). Younger people in organizations are critical because of their demonstrable lack of business experience. They don't know what can't be done, and are not bound by constraints like procedure and tradition. New media are all they have known. In three years or so, the first workers who have no experience in an unconnected world will be entering the workforce and be making decisions that affect all means of communications. What we have seen in the print-traumatic last three years will play out in aggressive fashion in the next decade. Not just because technology keeps changing in that direction, but because the people who will be making decisions about communications have these in their communications DNA. Getting young people in the business can be done in many ways. Providing internships. Working with colleges on social media projects, with marketing departments on direct marketing projects, with IT departments on any number of projects. If you have young people on staff already, good. Not every young person is qualified to work in a printing business, of course. Look for curiosity and an ability to communicate in all kinds of media, especially the written word. But this brings me to another point. The theme of Graph Expo this October is "The Next Generation of Print." I'm sure that the idea behind it was more in line of seeing the latest and most revolutionary printing equipment. More important, however, is cultivating the next generation of managers and marketers of print who are natively immeresed in digital communications. Many companies limit their attendance at trade shows to top executives. This saves money in the short term, and wastes money in the long term because only one level of management gets to see what is at the show. Younger workers might be better adept at seeing what is not at the show, and starting to see new connections of print with modern communications. Depriving the "Next Generation" of a chance to see the depth and breadth of our business first hand is a mistake. The idea that the next ten years will be more turbulent than these past three, can make one furrow their brow. We don't know what those changes will be. But it's important for us to get into the thick of it and cultivate talented people today who can aid in the transition tomorrow. Furrowed brows? It must have been something I said.

Dr. Joe Webb is one of the graphic arts industry's best-known consultants, forecasters, and commentators. He is the director of WhatTheyThink.com's Economics and Research Center.

What do you think? Please send feedback to Dr. Joe by emailing him at drjoe@whattheythink.com.

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