Special Report by Cary Sherburne October 12, 2006 -- In a survey of its members conducted in August 2006, the IPA, The Association of Graphic Solutions Providers, asked respondents from leading graphic communications enterprises to rank a number of issues with respect to their importance to their business as well as to list the top three issues affecting their business today. The survey results provide an excellent insight into our industry's most important issues and also provides a call to action for Graph Expo exhibitors and attendees alike. Free Ghent Workgroup Seminar at Graph Expo: How to Ensuring Workflows for Succesful Print Production Tuesday, October 17th, 10:30-12. Find out more. Attend Event. In order of importance, respondents ranked the issues as follows: 1. Color management 2. Workflow automation 3. Standards/best practices 4. Proofing 5. Linking creative to prepress 6. Application software training 7. Data asset management 8. Network/information management 9. Variable database management Survey Analysis Color management and workflow automation ranked top on the list. While workflow automation is still evolving, especially integration across the prepress, production and business silos, color management technologies have been in the field for some time. Based on the results of the last Color Proofing RoundUP at the 2006 IPA Technical Conference, color management and proofing are relatively mature technology areas with current systems handling these issues well. It is therefore a little surprising that color management would still be perceived as the "top issue" facing graphic communications service providers today. At the other extreme, variable data, which is a market area still evolving and often touted as a high growth opportunity, ranked at the bottom of the issues importance list. Respondents may be waiting for customers to approach them with the need for variable data work rather than taking the initiative to lead their customers to the new future of business communications. Leading versus Following There are certainly a number of companies that are achieving tremendous success with variable data printing--though granted, it is not necessarily a service that everyone can and should provide. But for this issue to appear last on the list indicates that perhaps respondents are simply waiting for customers to approach them with the need rather than taking the initiative to lead their customers to the new future of business communications. Too many companies, it appears, are staying in their historical comfort zones by continuing to address the more mundane problems associated with the delivery of conventional day-to day products and services, all of which are being more commoditized every day. Adding advanced services, whether it is variable data, digital asset management, or even mailing and fulfillment, is critical to future business success. As an industry, we should be positioning ourselves as the business communications experts, helping customers clearly understand the role print plays in an effective multichannel business communications strategy. Without that type of leadership emerging from the ranks, we run the risk of seeing print diminish in importance as marketers and creatives depend more heavily on new media. Training: Easier Than Ever Before Several survey respondents bemoaned the fact that today's competitive pricing structures do not allow for financial investments in training about new technology. This is an approach that could lead to a downward spiral as these businesses move into the future. With today's myriad new technology and business challenges, there has never been a greater need for effective employee training to address the more complex customer projects many graphic communications service providers are being asked to undertake. With today's myriad new technology and business challenges, there has never been a greater need for effective employee training And in today's virtual environment, training for both the leadership team and the entire organization is easier to acquire than ever before. Today's on-line training resources, including IPA webinars, coupled with supplier training programs and industry conferences, provide a wide range of training and educational opportunities at low cost and with great time efficiency. JDF – Get an Expert and Get Compliant Many respondents complained about cross-platform incompatibilities and the inability to enter information once and use it across prepress, production and business systems. This indicates that while standards such as JDF are positioned to take care of this problem over time, today's implementation has not met the expectations of graphic communications service providers. Nonetheless, every graphic communications service provider should have an in-house JDF Expert to ensure that they are as prepared as possible to take advantage of the automation JDF is bringing to our industry. This does not necessarily mean a new hire; the requisite education is available online as well. At the same time, industry suppliers should be focused on implementing JDF in a manner that is truly standards compliant--meeting CIP4's ICS standards and obtaining ICS certification through the GATF certification process so that users can be confident in their ability to operate cross-platform in multi-vendor environments. Daily Routines versus Long-Term Thinking The survey highlights a significant disconnect between what industry suppliers are bringing to market and what is actually being implemented by the market. Many graphic communications service providers are still struggling such basic as, color management and customer and employee education. While vendors are focusing on advanced technology and more bells and whistles--as they should be--it seems that many graphic communications service providers are still focused on--and struggling with--the basics, including color management and customer and employee education. Thirty percent of respondents to the IPA survey expressed concern about customer knowledge levels, including lack of knowledge about printing and related technologies, inability to prepare files properly, lack of ability or willingness to submit PDFs instead of native files, and too much focus on price over value. Our associations and various private entities are providing a wealth of information to help graphic communications service providers educate customers, and they should be taking advantage of these resources as well. Solutions clearly exist to these issues that at least some leading service providers are successfully implementing. Is it just that the respondents to this survey are not investing in the right things? Do we need more aggressive market education on the part of the suppliers to the industry to help service providers understand where best to place their investment dollars? What role can suppliers to the industry play in helping to educate customers about the benefits of new technology and the importance of tightly linking the creative process to the production process? And how can we transform our industry into a thought leadership position that places us squarely in the middle of our customers' business communications challenges? How can we transform our industry into a thought leadership position that places us squarely in the middle of our customers' business communications challenges? While larger companies are not immune to these issues, they are generally farther ahead in the implementation cycle for technologies that can--and have--addressed many of these critical issues. It is the vast number of smaller to mid-sized companies that are struggling with the exigencies of managing their business day to day. They appear to have difficulty surfacing long enough to do the type of strategic planning that is required to stay on top of rapidly evolving technology, to prioritize investments appropriately, and to take the time for employee and customer education. These are all important investments that contribute to--and thus streamline--workflows, eliminating redundant work. And these investments are often more about reallocating resources than about coming up with new ones. One small service provider I spoke to recently had upgraded from a film-based platemaking process to chemistry-free metal CTP. He made a comment that hit a chord with me, saying, "About three weeks after the install of [my CTP system], I had an epiphany. I suddenly realized that purchasing the [CTP system] was not about cost savings. We were already spending the money between chemistry-related costs and production inefficiencies. The acquisition was, in a sense, reallocation of resources already being consumed with the added benefit of increasing our overall capacity and throughput." This "epiphany" applies to many of the advanced technologies and solutions available in the marketplace today, and it seems so clear from the outside looking in what the return on investment would be. Yet it is difficult to rise above the day-to-day firefighting that many of the businesses in our industry are consumed with. Suppliers to the industry should be thinking about how they can accelerate the education process, especially for the smaller businesses, giving them easy and concise access to information and tools that can help them more efficiently address the future needs of their businesses. Suppliers to the industry should be thinking about how they can accelerate the education process, especially for the smaller businesses The Graph Expo "Call To Action" Graphic communications service providers attending Graph Expo should be looking, as always, for product or point solutions to address their everyday workflow challenges. But equally, if not more importantly, they should be thinking about how to educate and inspire their organizations and their customers by delivering the marketing, project management, and workflow efficiency required to be successful in this new world of graphic communications. Suppliers and associations are spending a tremendous amount of time, dollars and energy on developing the solutions graphic communications service providers need to profitably take their businesses into the future. Graph Expo is an important venue for learning about these many opportunities and beginning to plan how best to incorporate them into a business model designed for future success.