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En route to the digital world you need a travel guide

The printing industry is on a journey – away from traditional craftsmanship to more industrial structures. In other words, print businesses today must be able to process a large number of small jobs in high quality under great time pressure. If administrative and production processes are not consequently trimmed for efficiency, profitability quickly falls by the wayside.

This challenge cannot be mastered without a powerful IT environment. It's not about a new software here, a new program there – that no longer works today. The decision to replace the old MIS, for example, with a modern application for print business management is usually a good idea, but if you only make it because the old system is too slow, then the leap will be too short.

Print businesses should now take a holistic approach, an approach also known as digital transformation. While digitization deals with individual processes that are being transferred from analog to digital, digital transformation involves analyzing all processes for their future viability and aligning them with the business strategy. Ultimately, the point is that print shops are now laying the foundations for their secure future – a future that is based on the possibilities and capabilities of modern and innovative IT technologies.

This is still a bugaboo for many print shops in a variety of aspects. For example, there is often a fear of a loss of the traditional values of the printing craftsmanship such as competence and quality.  Another common concern is that people could be replaced by machines. These and a number of other prejudices against the digital transformation are the hurdles in the mind that need to be overcome.

Whenever you are dealing with IT projects, one phrase comes up quickly – the functional specification. The term comes from the field of project management. It describes a document in which the requirements are recorded, for example, what a new IT environment should be able to deliver. Functional specifications were often requested by classic vendors enabling them to tailor their offers accordingly.

Functional specification are out

Functional Specifications may have been a good basis for the development of rather static projects. But if you google the term, you will find that it can easily take two to six months to create a traditional requirement specification document.

This is exactly the crux of the matter. The technical advances, especially in the digital world, are progressing so fast that a classic functional specification document is likely to be outdated before you even start implementing the project. Today, nothing is set in stone, nothing is done "forever". To stay in the more appealing vision of the travel guide: Even on a journey, you may have to or want to deviate from your plans once made because of the weather or new, undreamed-of possibilities.

Moreover, functional specifications documents are all too often created from one point of view only. This is usually your own, based on your own experience. Then it is often focussed on specific problems in processes. 

But it's much more important to be clear about where the strategic journey of your print business is supposed to head – what should your company look like in five years? Do you want to enter the web-to-print business or focus on high-quality print products? Do you want to retain offset printing or rely entirely on digital printing? Do you want to tap into packaging printing, which is growing in contrast to commercial printing? Which (IT) services do you want to use to better serve your customers and increase customer loyalty?

Once you have outlined these goals, you can start analyzing the current state. Check what can be maintained in the context of the business strategy, what should be optimized, replaced or eliminated without replacement. The important thing is to do this not alone, but to involve all employees and utilize their experience. 

You should also talk to external partners such as software vendors on an early stage – this will help you tap the "swarm knowledge" of the industry that such partners have acquired in their projects. Try to be as open-minded as possible and not shy away from changes.

Often there are some surprises, unexpected insights into the processes of your daily business – here you should really be honest and not gloss-over anything (in large IT projects there is the so-called "cold eye review", the unbiased look of outsiders who put their finger in one or another wound). 

You need a "living document"

You summarize all this in a "living document", your travel guide. It describes the starting point of the journey and, in terms of time and quality, the intermediate destinations. Discuss with your team and your external partners what the milestones are and what is necessary to achieve them.

In order to be save from surprises, hold short meetings at short intervals, in which all those involved report on the current state of play, any problems or unexpected opportunities – perhaps there is an alternative route that is worth taking. Then update your travel plan – that way you keep your project under steam and on track.

Also define when the "minimal viable version" is reached for you, with which you can already transfer your daily business into the new environment. You can already reap the first fruits of your initiative and further perfect your processes.

You should also rethink the traditional view that your project will be 100 percent finished at some point and "forever and ever". Driven by constantly new technical capabilities, the digital transformation will never come to a complete end.

This may be unfamiliar at first glance, but it is actually an opportunity to continuously optimize your processes and to adapt flexibly to new conditions and possibilities. You wish for a higher efficiency in shipping logistics – go ahead. You want to expand your print shop into a "Smart Factory" – that's no problem either, the technologies are available. 

All this is made possible by software and hardware and machines with open interfaces for data exchange between applications and devices – and in fact a travel guide for the further digital transformation of your company.

In our next blog post you´ll read how the technology behind another "buzzword" of the digital world can benefit you – the SaaS approach.

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