It’s user group time, last week we attended EFI's Connect user conference in Las Vegas, in April I will be presenting two great sessions at Dscoop in San Antonio. One session is on video content marketing, we have incredible content, a very compelling example of how any company can create great content that educates, entertains, and generates real business results. The second session is the result of a week I spent taking the Executive Program at Singularity University which is all about how exponential technologies are disrupting virtually every aspect of our lives and our businesses. Software is now as strategic as your plant and manufacturing equipment. In the Information Age, your ability to differentiate is dependent on your ability to leverage software tools, protect your company from Cyber threats, and adapt to the growing use of mobile devices as your customer’s primary connect preferences evolve.

I love user groups because it gives us a chance to collaborate in real-time with lots of customers and the vendors who supply the technology. One of my goals at EFI Connect was to dive into a specific integration between two technologies; find out what the current functionality supports, what versions of the software are required, and then most importantly what I could do on behalf of the customer who has the required technologies to push the integration further (APIs, customization modules, etc.).

This kind of project can drag on for months over endless conference calls, lots of misunderstandings, digging around to find the right resources at both vendors, etc. In one twenty minute period, I spoke with two experts from one company, three from another, coordinated with three customers who were all looking for the same solution — all without moving from about a five foot radius.

You can't get more efficient than that!

I left EFI Connect with an accurate understanding of how these two technologies integrate today, what the roadmap plans are from both vendors, and clarification on what a small sampling of customers are looking for in the integration. This was all on behalf of my customer, who was unable to attend EFI Connect. 

What can we all learn from this experience?

First and foremost, user conferences can be incredibly valuable. Don't expect all the value you get from a user conference to be in the educational sessions, create your own value by proactively meeting with product experts and most importantly meeting other printers who share your technology stack that you can collaborate with.

We talk a lot about collaboration between print business owners; I'm talking about building collaboration with people at the functional levels of your company. Send your accounting lead to the user group of your Print MIS/ERP solution. Send your web-to-print lead to the user group of your web-to-print solution. Send your technical lead to Dscoop so they can meet other technical leads who are facing the same challenges they are (mobile support, cyber security, integration of a complex technology stack). Don't simply sign them up for a boondoggle trip (all fun), sit down and create an agenda and specific goals.

The #1 goal for a user group is to meet other printers like you who are not competitors so you can collaborate with them on the use of your technology stack. The best place to learn about how to optimize a print software package is from others like you who are trying to do the same thing. We all take a different perspective when we implement software, we all have different experiences with the vendor, these different perspectives, create different results. I introduced two printers at EFI Connect, one was convinced that their Print MIS could not be configured to support their business; the other had been operating their business on the same Print MIS exactly how the first printer wanted it to work for years.

Establishing relationships with other printers who share your software toolset provides you another life-line rather than relying solely on the vendors support services. Successful printers figure out how to creatively get past obstacles and find creative answers to their challenges. The success of your print software (Print MIS, web-to-print, production workflow, etc.) is highly dependent on your ability to find solutions. Successful printers are self-learners, creative thinkers, and collaborators who rarely rely solely on a customer support line because their implementation of the software pushes its limits beyond simple help desk issues.

User groups also give you access inside your vendor's organization that is typically walled off by sales, professional services, and customer support. For software products it's always nice to meet and talk directly to the product manager who has the perspective of all feature requests and is the ultimate holder of the product roadmap. Don't be afraid to reach out to speakers and proactively schedule time with them while you're at the event; don't leave it to chance to meet up after sessions. I love when printers reach out and schedule time with us before the event with specific questions. Often a brief conversation can solve troubling challenges that have been nagging businesses for months. I’ve personally witnessed my colleague Jane Mugford; unravel years of confusion around a Print MIS solution over a few sips of coffee.

Take advantage of these events to build collaboration in at all levels of your organization. Nobody in your business should feel isolated under the conditions of constant technology driven change. Your challenges are shared with others, often you'll find other printers who have already solved the challenges you face and then you'll also have the opportunity to lend a helping hand when you've solved challenges they face in the future. The printers who are thriving in this sea of disruptive change are not going it alone, they are reaching out and sharing knowledge in a way that propels all the participants further than they could get in isolation.