Digital Darwinism is the phenomenon when technology and society evolve faster than an organization can adapt. Virtually every industry in the world that services a connected employee, customer, and market is experiencing Digital Darwinism. The print industry is no exception and is even more impacted as the digital alternatives to print communication further impact our industry.

The outcome that we all want is to end up on the survivor side of Digital Darwinism. Our industry is moving incrementally in the direction of adapting to the new digital realities. The incremental approach is not surprising, print’s dominance as the primary communication vehicle for decades has made us a risk-averse industry, radical change is not a natural part of our DNA. There are exceptions and there are of course new entrants to this market who have exploited the slow adoption rates of the digital world to build large companies and consolidate markets by leveraging technology to service connected customers in a brand new way.

The secret sauce of leveraging technology is what you bring to the project, not what the technology and/or the technology vendor brings. You are your own secret sauce!

How hard are you pushing your organization to adapt? Are you trying to maintain some level of comfort or you setting a new normal of uncomfortable pace of change to catch up and keep up? I had a wise mentor tell me once, if you change half-way (partially holding onto the legacy way of doing things while trying to grasp the new way of doing things) you are setting yourself up to fail on all fronts. During a recent customer visit, the print owner explained why he transitioned from offset to digital technology via one decisive decision – he removed all offset equipment and installed a new digital press. There was no incremental transition of keeping one offset press around for a while until people got used to it and they understood better how to decide between the technologies. For most printers, I’m sure this sounds insane.

How did this radical transition work out? The offset press operators moved to operating the digital press and of course there was a steep learning curve. Do you think they would have learned nearly as fast if they could have retreated back to offset when they couldn’t get something to run without any troubleshooting on the new digital press? No way. This was an abrupt and big change but it forced everyone to adapt because it left no other choice. When you can retreat to the old, comfortable way of doing things because it’s where you feel confident – you don’t prioritize around learning the new way because you don’t have to. As leaders sometimes we have to put our people in a position that adaptation is the only choice.

Change is uncomfortable so we think if we make changes slowly it will decrease the pain. I find this to be just the opposite, it’s like being sea sick on a ship that you know won’t be in dock for another couple days. I would rather be violently sick for one hour than feel seasick for days. If the change is going to be hard why not limit the time that it is hard and provide a path of no return? In a sense you’re forcing adoption and you’re accelerating it. Yes, this will be disruptive and probably a bit stressful but comfortable is not an option anymore in the face of Digital Darwinism – adapt or die off, it is that serious.

One of the biggest differences in culture between the print industry and the technology industry is our perspective on change. Because of prints long-term past dominance, we collectively want it to be like it used to be – where orders flowed in; growth was predictable, new presses meant differentiation and profitability, etc. The print industry therefore sees change as a threat to the former dominance (good old days). The technology industry sees change as an opportunity. If Google is on top today, they can be knocked off tomorrow just like Microsoft. Change creates constant disruption in the marketplace which opens up opportunities for new players even in areas where we once thought market dominance was impenetrable (e.g. Google Docs moving in on Microsoft Office for example).

What does a survivor of Digital Darwinism look like in the print industry? Your organization needs to go through a digital transformation; faced with this many of us reflexively turn to investing in technology – believing that simply buying new technology will ensure our survival. Yes, you do need technology but technology alone will not deliver the digital transformation required. We have seen similar organizations buy the exact same technology, one struggle with it for a year and then throw it out and sue the vendor, the other implements completely, are in a partnership position with the vendor that includes driving future software functionality, and are phenomenally successful with the tool. This is the exact same software sold to very similar businesses! The secret sauce of leveraging technology is what you bring to the project, not what the technology and/or the technology vendor brings. You can create massive differentiation in the marketplace with technology that hundreds of printers also have.

Digital transformation is about you and your people and how they utilize the tools to drive the business results you desire. It is your job as a leader to bring context to the organization so everyone understands “why” all these changes are required to survive. When your people understand why – they are much more likely to not only accept the changes but fully engage in the adaptation. You can’t do this alone, you need your people to engage with you and assist with becoming a data-driven organization (one who can monitor, manage, and evaluate your business from all angles) because you’re leveraging software systems to run your business. Bring context to all levels of your organization; make sure everyone can answer the question “why” in a manner that validates alignment – when you have alignment at all levels of your organization you’ll end up on the survivor side of Digital Darwinism.