by Noel Ward, Executive Editor June 16, 2003 -- I'm told that in written Chinese the same character is used for both "change" and "opportunity." This certainly says something about the way the world's largest market approaches business and is a lesson to which companies around the world should remember, regardless of the vagaries of the economy. While changing business and economic conditions may limit your options, the point is to look for places where your business can adapt to markets and technologies. I just came back from the annual conference of the Imaging Network Group, an international affiliation of service bureaus and direct mailers. Most have been printing and mailing bills, statements and direct mail for a couple of decades. Others are direct mail mavens who produce "third-class opportunities" for customers ranging from banks to casinos to commercial roofing contractors. These guys know how to make data, in any format, do whatever they want, know the chapter and verse of mail regulations, and are intently focused on keeping their businesses moving forward. But changes in printing technologies, customer needs and shifting markets put a lot of pressure on these companies. Being monochrome guys, one of their key challenges is digital color. At the same time, commercial printers, like one I spoke with last week, are seeing customers coming in asking them to use variable data and digital color. And they're really not sure what to do. To them, the learning curve of digital color is not all that intimidating, (except maybe for the cost of climbing it and getting a reasonable ROI). But working with databases, handling multiple datastreams, and the minutia of postal regulations are daunting challenges. While some printers are adding finishing and mailing capabilities, these are only two legs of the stool. The third is color and monochrome offset printing (done in-house or outsourced) and the fourth is variable data color printing. Successful print providers are coming to need all these legs. And to be kind, there are a few too many stools out there with only two or three legs. Anyway, the difference between the service bureau/direct mail guys and a surprisingly large number of commercial printers is how they see change. Most of the service bureau and direct mail guys see the changes in the market as opportunity. Too many of the commercial print guys still see the changes as a threat. Three years ago, there were two or three digital color presses among the 25 or so service bureau and direct mail firms in the group. Now, it's over 60%, with more about to pull the trigger and some now having multiple machines. They see color as the next change in a business that has been shifting steadily for twenty years. They're technically competent and see the evolving market demand as a way to service their customers better and get a larger share of each customer's wallet. Too many commercial printers, by comparison, are frankly intimidated by digital color printing, especially if it involves variable data, and are hesitant to take the plunge. And because they don't see change as an opportunity, some of them won't be around a lot longer. Also in the mix are print providers who are exclusively digital. They went out, bought digital technology and went looking for customers. Nervy early adopters who like the adrenaline rush of life on the edge, these guys thrive on opportunity and are beginning to eat the lunches of more than a few commercial printers--while competing with direct mailers and some service bureaus. The point of all this is for you to ask yourself how you see change. Is it a barrier, or worse, an excuse? Or do you see it as an opportunity to further evolve your business and broaden what you do and how you serve your customers. Your answer--and your actions--have a direct effect of where you'll be in five years. Digital printing, while far from perfect, is no longer a smoke and mirrors routine. It is a real and dynamic part of printing and will continue to change and shape the industry for some time. Whether you embrace it as an opportunity is your choice.