Managing Changing Technology: Strategic and Tactical Lessons, Part One

Explore impact of new technology and the benefits of timing its implementation properly.

I usually try to gear Prepress Wire toward discussions that focus on the technical aspects of prepress. There are plenty of opportunities for that, and it's easy to find some interesting aspect to highlight. But this month begins a two-part segment on managing changing technology around us, specifically the strategic and tactical approaches to implementing technology and innovation.

A significant disconnect often exists between what managers feel they need and the reality of the employees who implement our grand schemes. No matter how innovative or productive the technology is, the workers must ultimately make it happen—if it happens at all. Let's talk about some of the common situations to keep in mind. To begin, we'll take a look at the typical prepress scheme. The art department will be our first subject.

The art department

The art department is usually made up of creative art and production art. The creative artists normally have little to do with how the jobs are prepared and printed. Their job is to come up with the content that creates value in the eyes of the customer. Management commonly treats creative artists as prima donnas with an attitude. Management tolerates the artists and issues them a set of objectives that is different from the rest of the company's goals.

A huge divide sets apart throwing out ideas and concepts and actually making them printable. Making them printable falls on the production artists. These are the guys and gals who make it happen. They are often faced with the daunting task of making the unworkable workable. Production artists are vastly more technical in their understanding of the reproduction process, but they're often seen as overhead. Customers are rarely willing to pay for their time, nor are they appreciative of the production artists' knowledge and understanding of how the job will print. After all, the client is buying the complete package and has little interest in the mechanics of how the job actually gets done. Printers find it difficult to get customers to pay the full value of creative art because clients consider the step between the final approved art and the printed product as part of the deal.

Creative artists rarely have the stomach for the level of detail and technical understanding reserved for production art. It doesn't help that the creative guys usually get paid more than production art. I've visited dozens of shops in which production art is assigned the responsibility of cleaning up after the creative guys. Production artists are faced with impossible deadlines and files that are a nightmare to prepare. They have no choice but to bite down and grind out the work.

This deadline-driven, high-stress, under-appreciated workflow is precisely what makes the production artist reluctant to undertake new, challenging technologies, software, or a different workflow. These people are all about getting the job done the first time with no surprises. New ideas and methods imply experimentation, adjustment, and compromise. Translated through the eyes of the production artist, it means working late again.

Here's another dimension to consider: Most production artists have little formal education. They may have a couple of years at a junior college, but rarely will they have a four-year degree in commercial art, graphic communications, or graphic-reproduction processes. Most of those grads end up in management or creative positions. The guy in the trenches usually gets his education from on-the-job training, learning by doing the day-to-day production jobs that are his craft.

When it comes to production artists, knowledge is their value to the company. If they're asked to change, more often than not the anxiety alarms go off and the brakes slam down on forward progress. Fear of the unknown is the biggest obstacle we face when implementing new ideas. The production artist is all about protecting his position, income, and value to the company. If we put him into the position of having to risk, learn, and demonstrate new, unfamiliar skills, we have a recipe for disaster. Anything new is a disruption and threat to what production artists know and do well. Nothing indicates to them that innovation will make their lives better. Quite the contrary; they are viewed as overhead, so anything new usually means downsizing and replacing those who can't make the grade. In addition, pressure to be productive is there from the outset. Everything about this is a negative for them. The downside is large, and the upside speculative.

Some production artists feel it's in their best interest to sabotage or cause the new methods to fail. They want to stay in the comfort zone where there are no surprises and everything is a known commodity. It's hard enough to keep up with the impossible deadlines, let alone take on new responsibilities and unknown processes. So where does all this leave the managers and owners faced with making change happen in order to maintain a competitive position in the market?

When to adopt new technologies

Let's set aside the underlying employee issues for a moment. Strategically, our primary objective is to balance new technology, innovation, and methods with economic productivity. We want to be ahead of our competition, but with technology that is mostly stable and reliable. Knowing when to jump in is just as important as recognizing a breakthrough technology.

Any new technology comes with implied bugs and unreliability. The earlier we adopt, the more unstable the technology and the more work falls on us to achieve a successful, predictive outcome. Early adopters are true partners in the process and have a responsibility to the manufacturers to let them know what failed and why. Additionally, they need to be in a position to understand the concepts and exactly how the technology works.

When things break, or fail to function, we need to be able to diagnose and correct, or at the very least provide constructive feedback. Naïve early adopters are under the impression the latest, greatest technology will work right out of the box. That almost never happens. This false sense of reliability is one of the main reasons technology fails to be successfully implemented. When unreliable or unstable technology is thrust upon the unprepared, undereducated, deadline-driven organization, it's a formula for failure. If we are not in a position to accommodate these factors, we should not adopt at this point.

Implementing any new technology implies change. An organization must be fundamentally poised to be receptive, adaptive, and willing to make the necessary adjustments to current practice. This is a very big deal. Change-driven organizations are fundamentally different in their core thinking and behavior from companies that are primarily driven by standard operating procedures and practices. Rapid change is the opposite of the slow-moving, traditional organization. We have to think about what kind of companies we have today and how new technology will either fit in or create conflict.

The better we become at making change happen quickly and permanently, the stronger our position will be. I've been involved with many cutting-edge technologies over the years, so I speak with considerable experience here. Being on the bleeding edge is generally not the place to be—unless a company has is an extremely well-developed organization that thrives on innovation. Most commercial operations should not overextend themselves. Be patient and wait a year or two. Be vigilant by looking to the innovators and becoming keen observers of their experience.

Rarely are the innovators highly profitable. Rarely are they competition to a well-managed, traditional company with an established marketing approach to business. Innovators are seduced by newness. Organizational profit takes a second seat to making technology better. This may be one of the reasons the hot, new companies are usually run by young, inexperienced entrepreneurs who are willing to take big risks to make their dreams come to life. This makes them financially weak, and they often struggle before going out of business. It's not uncommon to see the "flash in the pan" or "shooting star" effect.

Strategic positioning is key to success. I can't tell you the best place to be. Every company is different and has a different capacity for change and adopting new ideas. Having a solid understanding and acceptance of where the company stands is critical to successful introduction and implementation of new technology.

In the second installment, we'll look at the specific tactical methods and tools that can be used to overcome the obstacles and inherent friction outlined here. Change is inevitable, and the more prepared and positioned for it we are, the greater the likelihood we will be successful in moving from the status quo to faster, better, cheaper finished products.

© 2005 Mark Coudray. Republication of this material in whole or in
part, electronically or in print, without the permission of the author
is forbidden.

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