People Drive Technology
Technology has matured, offering communications and business-building solutions like never before. But great technology is of little value without great staff to propel it forward. To be fully effective, it must be expertly driven by people - people who will define and articulate its benefits - people who will keep data-driven resources in top producing form, as well as providing robust and unique solutions to fit your evolving business.
This was the theme of PrintLink's recent presentation to the IPA Technical Conference in Chicago, an annual forum offering attendees a comprehensive, innovative look at graphic production workflow. Conference organizers invited PrintLink to participate to complete the human side of the equation for companies embracing technology - recognizing there are many new issues facing hiring managers in the industry's present climate of rapid technological change.
Organizers were interested in how techniques for hiring technologists might differ from hiring other staff. The short answer is they don't. Each staff function within an operation is of equal importance to its overall success, so hiring with appropriate care should be done for all positions.
However, there ARE special considerations that must be exercised when hiring for technical roles. The following are questions and issues that can emerge:
To what extent is IT converging with the other technologies that graphic arts service providers encounter today?
Lots - with more to come! With at least a couple of thousand print-related IT or MIS products available on the market, their developers can't all be wrong. Definitely this industry stands to benefit substantially from many of the new technology offerings.
In fact, most companies have already embraced some form of new technology - even if it's just utilizing an Excel spreadsheet for estimating. Technology applications have the ability to plug into a fully integrated workflow, forging solutions that are both simple and complex: simple because they streamline data entry, and complex because of the multiple choices companies need to make concerning their own implementation. So now success is not just about how good your ink looks on paper any more, but also about your ability to optimize servers, internal workflows and integrated systems. JDF, for instance, continues to be a hot button within the industry - and it starts with an integrated IT system.
At PrintLink we are also seeing employers put increased emphasis on lean manufacturing, process control, and statistical process control. Because the technological tools exist to facilitate all these initiatives, companies are beginning to look for this knowledge in combination with graphic arts experience. And we are seeing candidates who can offer both.
In a closed loop workflow, you need specialized staff who not only understand computer science and networking, but also the specific digital requirements of the graphic communications world. As a broad definition, IT is PC-based technology, whereas graphics are Mac-based. Today's printing workstations are still mostly Macs but are supported by PC systems in the background, with both systems doing what they were designed to do best. Thus we are beginning to see what we have coined an "IT hybrid position" that integrates both PC and Mac-based technology. Companies are starting to look for tech support people to service everything - AND they want someone who also understands how prepress or premedia workflow integrates into a larger automated loop encompassing business management, resource management, and production to boot.
So, how do managers who are not technology experts address the challenge of hiring technology experts?
The challenge owners and managers face is at least threefold: first, they must navigate the available technology; second, select resources that best assist their business; and third, choose people to drive their initiative forward. For support with these steps we recommend that companies retain the services of a bona fide consultant - someone well versed with technology for graphic communications specifically. It is also important that consultants offer solutions to augment your particular business, so they need to be independent - not tied to a capital equipment or vendor company. (Vendors can be a resource as well, but keep in mind that they are only representing their own product line.) PIA/GATF is a broad-based independent resource, or look for industry-based consultants in your geographic area. We recommend you exercise due diligence in selecting a resource to maximize the benefit to your organization.
Appropriately qualified consultants can evaluate your operations and objectives and make recommendations concerning both business-related and manufacturing-based technology. They can also help define job functions and provide further expertise on staffing decisions. Additionally, we suggest that the consultant assist you in the actual hiring process by helping to screen candidates.
Of course, hiring solutions is PrintLink's expertise and we can work with your consultant to introduce appropriate candidates. We use our inside knowledge of the industry to identify the viable contenders-those with either directly related experience, or with backgrounds and aptitudes that will enable them to be trained rapidly. We are not technology experts: we are people who have a foundation in the industry, have taken appropriate steps to stay current, and understand how technology works to augment productivity. This background, as well as familiarity with many of the companies for which candidates have worked, gives us appropriate insight to support hiring managers in making sound staffing decisions.
Also, a new employee will need to interact effectively with other key members of your staff - the people in the trenches. So pick one or two staff who are technically savvy to participate in the interview process as well, first making sure those people understand your hiring objective. This hiring strategy will also assist in confirming the depth of a candidate's exposure and practical grasp of current technology.
Can companies pay job candidates less if they offer state-of-the-art technology?
Technology experts, like all experts, expect to be appropriately compensated and rewarded for the value they contribute. It is true that technology experts and wannabe experts will chose to work for companies that embrace current technology over those that don't. But the perception that they will work for less money in exchange for the educational value of exposure to the latest technology is false. In fact, we feel as an employer you should beware of anyone who would just consider your company a place to learn, because those candidates will likely absorb all they can as quickly as possible and then move on. More properly, hiring objectives need to be focused on sustaining cost-benefit analysis.
To determine their technology directions and investments, should companies hire a director of technology on contract or in a permanent capacity?
It depends. Some may need to. But not all companies need a dedicated staff person to perform these functions alone. In job descriptions and job information from candidates, we frequently see these roles assigned to someone in conjunction with other job responsibilities.
Also, determining the technology directions and investments for any company involves complex decisions that should not be made unilaterally. So even in a small organization, it is important to charge not just one individual but rather a whole team of people with making these determinations - along with establishing a defined protocol and schedule for them to follow.
Moreover, ALL staff should be encouraged to keep pace with technology and to make recommendations for related improvements to the company. In fact, we know of one mid-sized Canadian company that fosters such staff recommendations via a well-communicated company policy. As a result, the company's very wise technology decisions have made them an acknowledged innovator. Additional benefits of their approach are that their staff feel valued, are motivated to remain current, and are very likely to exhibit long-term loyalty and become company evangelists.
And here is another interesting dynamic we've observed: companies who successfully embrace technology want employees who can evangelize the technology, particularly to their clients.
This strategy is based on the premise of solution selling - marketing solutions instead of your production tools or products. Solution selling means becoming a strategic partner with your clients - not focusing on how many units you can sell, but rather what you can provide that will grow the client's business. It is not just the function of your sales staff. Many employees have direct contact with clients either on the job or at industry-related functions. So everyone within your company has potential to evangelize your services.
How can companies retain valued employees when so many tempting opportunities abound for technologists?
For one, by being a good company to work for. This not only entails paying an appropriate salary, but also treating staff well. It requires line managers, senior executives, and owners to communicate their intentions for the business to staff openly. It also helps to provide recognition programs to acknowledge staff who innovate process improvements or venture out of their way to assist co-workers. There are lots of ways in which a company can recognize such staff contributions that are low in cost but extremely high in employee-retention value.
Additionally, potential employees are not only attracted to the companies that embrace current technology and value the employees who facilitate it, they are also are more likely to stay there. To some extent, it's still true that, in order to move up in this industry, people often need to move on. But today's technological revolution has also provided the means by which employees can stay with a company and progress within it, not only via advancement, but also by building on their skills. Hence the importance of continually investing in your employees by offering them access to training, educational seminars and trade shows.
Just how can companies properly train staff members when technology continues to change so rapidly?
First of all, managers need to discern the desire and ability of each individual employee to be trained. There are also excellent resources to assist you with staff-training initiatives, including professional organizations like PIA/GATF, conventions such as the recent IPA Conference, and industry trade shows. Vendors offer training with their product as well as providing technical support lines. Another excellent learning tool is the webinar; WhatTheyThink and IPA are just two providers of such programs to the industry. Additionally, many local programs can provide the grounding employees need to apply new technology effectively.
The most important thing is to have a training policy, select programs and participants diligently, and develop a way to measure and reward their implementation of their newly acquired knowledge. It's not as hard as it sounds. It just means that training should be a structured discipline, supported at the senior levels of each organization; and that someone needs to be specifically appointed to research and select programs, select staff members to enroll in them, and monitor the payback on training to the company.
Often we hear a reluctance from employers to train staff for fear they will leave the company and provide the full benefit of their training to a competitor. But there are many fallacies in this line of thinking: One is that staff are actually more likely to stay with companies that support their advancement and career development. Another is that it only makes sense that, for as long as staff are with your company, they are as capable and qualified as possible to do what you ask of them. And, ironically, sometimes the people who stay are the ones who don't have the qualifications or abilities to be hired by anyone else!
Now is the time for printers to take the driver's seat, to select the technological innovations that will benefit their company most, then bring staff on board through hiring and training to drive them. Then once on the road, printers need to sustain the momentum. Of course, this whole process will require an astute management outlook to fuel and steer the initiative - and that prerequisite is people driven as well.