In our high-tech graphic communications world, it can often be difficult to find the time to learn anything that isn’t essential. Yet with today’s challenging economy and advances in technology, graphic communications service providers continually need to reassess what they are doing and how they are doing it. Think about all that has happened in our industry over the past 20 years (sometimes I am reticent to admit that I have witnessed it all). We saw the introduction of Xerox’s DocuTech product in 1990, direct imaging and computer-to-plate technologies emerged, digital color became a reality at quality levels that rivaled offset, standards like JDF evolved to automate print manufacturing plants, concepts like “green” and “sustainability” became important driving forces, one in two individuals in the world now have a mobile phone, and Internet usage across the Americas and Europe has surpassed 40%.

This week, WhatTheyThink has asked its contributing columnists to share their perspectives on education. With all the dynamics taking place in the market, owners, managers, and employees in graphic communications firms need to commit themselves to lifelong learning.

In a book entitled Self University: The Price of Tuition is the Desire to Learn, author Charles D. Hayes states, “Most of us conduct our lives as if we were walking on a high wire far above the ground. Once we gain our balance, we are afraid to move. We are continually kept off-balance by a lack of self-knowledge and the inability to reconcile what we think versus how we feel. A self university is a state of mind based on objectivity and the desire to learn. Free of learned limitations, the ‘self-educated’ person is capable of meeting uncertainty with confidence.”

For everyone reading this column, my challenge for you is to set up a “self university” for yourself, while simultaneously building the right infrastructure for your employees. My top 10 recommendations are provided below.

1) Always have a business book to read.

It doesn’t matter if it takes you a week or a year to finish, but you should be in the process of reading a business book at all times. Whether it’s Who Moved My Cheese?, The Millionaire Mind, or A High-Tech Start-up, business books can help you gain insight into better techniques and ways to run your business. Wherever you go, take your business book with you so you can read it when you have time. Just by shaving off a few minutes between activities in my day, I am able to read about a book per week. This works out to be at least 50 books per year.

2) Keep a “to-learn” list.

We all have to-do lists of tasks that we need to accomplish. In addition to this, make an effort to establish a “to-learn” list. Do you want to learn about target market applications, marketing strategies, Web-to-print, variable data printing, multi-channel communications, lean manufacturing, or “green” initiatives? Put it on your to-learn list!

3) Build new business associations that are aligned with where you want to take your business.

Not all good ideas come from your peer groups in the graphic communications industry. If you want to build out advanced capabilities in marketing services, join the local chapter of the DMA or the American Marketing Association and more importantly go to the meetings. If your focus is lean manufacturing go to the local chamber of commerce meeting and talk with other manufacturing organizations that have implemented lean processes. To build out management skills for yourself and your people, get actively engaged in the American Management Association.

4) Put it into practice.

Skill-based learning is useless if it isn’t applied. Reading a book on C++ isn’t the same thing as developing a software program. Studying painting isn’t the same as picking up a brush. If you want to get engaged in marketing services, practice them with your own business. Read books on lean manufacturing—there are a lot of them! Deploy some of these principles in your organization. Consider how your business can be environmentally friendly and take action. If your knowledge can be applied, put it into practice.

5) Teach others.

You learn what you teach, and you have personnel that can benefit from your knowledge. If you attend a conference or tradeshow and gather new information, build it into a presentation and share it with your staff. If you have developed a creative new manufacturing technique, marketing program, or business management idea, share it with your peers, start a blog, or mentor someone. I am always looking for good ideas and presenters for Webinars. If you have something you want to share, call me! A Webinar is a great opportunity to teach others.

6) Clean your input.

Make sure that you identify the information you want and the best sources. You can’t read everything in the “self university.” You need to prioritize against both your business plan and your strategy, and then focus on the best sources. Associations provide great content and there are a number of terrific industry periodicals as well. Publishers are making Webcasts and podcasts available on their Web sites. WhatTheyThink has a bookstore with rich content from InfoTrends and other industry analysts. InfoTrends is also working with WhatTheyThink on e-learning initiatives that provide interactive, self-paced tools for learning about concepts like customized communications.

7) Learn in groups.

Lifelong learning at the “self university” doesn’t mean condemning yourself to a stack of dusty textbooks. Join a peer group, participate in an association that teaches skills, or bring your team together to listen to a Webinar. It takes about an hour and everyone benefits.

8) Unlearn your assumptions.

Because you can’t add water to a full cup, try to maintain some distance between yourself and any idea. Too many convictions simply mean too few paths for new ideas. Actively seek out information that contradicts your view of the world.

9) If you want to learn something, try it!

There is really only one way to learn how to do something, and that’s to do it. If you want to learn to throw a football, drive a car, build a better mousetrap, design a building, stir-fry, or be a management consultant, you must have a go at doing it. Throughout history, youths have been apprenticed to masters to learn a trade. We all understand that learning a skill means eventually trying your hand at the skill. When there is no real harm for your business, you can simply give it a shot. If the risk is too great, set up a simulated test—help a knowledgeable expert in the field in a project as an active participant, or leverage e-learning environments to try a new concept.

10) Find “the morning fifteen.”

Find fifteen minutes every morning and set it aside as time to go to your “self university.” If you are too groggy first thing in the morning, wait a short time. Just don’t put it off until later in the day when urgent activities will likely push it out of the way.

In Conclusion…

Few external forces are going to persuade you to learn. In a dynamic economy, the only way to grow and change your business is to develop yourself and your people through learning. The desire has to come from within. You prioritize your time, and being successful in establishing your “self university” needs to be at the top of your list.