Digital transformation: the first step is always the hardest


Major players in the online print business do it “automatically” – small and mid-sized enterprises see themselves confronted with a whole host of digital transformation-related problems. Do you have an appropriate strategy?

The issue of digital transformation has been causing plenty of confusion in the printing industry for some considerable time now. At the moment it seems to be a booming topic – at least that is what the increasing number of consultancy inquiries that we have received is telling us. The fact that digital transformation requirements apply to all companies operating in the printing industry – not just online print providers – is not new. So this is reason enough for me to up the ante once again and arouse a few decision-makers from their state of semi-consciousness.

And to put it clearly and unambiguously: transformation in a business environment means replacing an old, out of-date model with a new one. Not “working things out” somehow! And another thing: please get used to this process, because as soon as you have initiated a process of transformation, it will never ever stop – the Internet and our digital society will see to that.

Anybody that wants to set the right course for the upcoming 2018 fiscal year needs to tackle this topic anyway – full on and fast. Don’t imagine that all you have to do is purchase a new, more efficient printing press. In fact the key to a successful digitalization strategy is the decision-maker having the right mindset. My formula in this respect is: “realization, commitment, definition, mobilization, understanding and implementation” – perhaps this will help a few decision-makers to get on track.

Realization: The fact that even old-established printing businesses are being compelled to digitalize their operations is obvious. Therefore the question that every entrepreneur should be asking themselves is: “Where am I at – and how are my competitors positioned?” You can ascertain the first aspect internally, while the second can be derived from analyzing industry developments and trends. In both cases the following applies – if I can’t do it myself then I need to enlist help (more about that in the next item). It doesn’t always have to be a professional consultant (well now, I personally don’t think that’s a bad thing), it could also be entrepreneurs from other industries, with whom you are on friendly terms, that have already undergone the process of digital transformation. To start off with, you need to do the analysis: who is successful? And how does your competitor do that? Several major players in particular (more or less) skillfully implement digital strategies – so it isn’t a bad thing to take a closer look at what they do and learn something. But transformation is exactly the same as other undertakings – copy-and-paste seldom works. There are, for example, print factories that are leading the way in terms of digitalization and can therefore handle commodity print efficiently. For customers that means inexpensive prices. But that only works because the requisite structures were to some extent put in place long ago by visionaries and that process involved a lot of effort and expense. That increases the probability that other entrants to the online print market are unable to position themselves in ways that make commercial sense. The financial and human resource effort and expense are simply too high. My impression is that smaller print providers in particular still have major problems in terms of realizing they need to take action. But it all starts with “recognition“– so the foundation of any digital transformation undertaking is first of all smart analysis. But remember: you can’t do it on your own … which takes us on to the next aspect of the formula.

Commitment: If in Item 1 you already had problems with gaging where you are at, let alone coming up with the relevant action to take, then you are probably in genuine need of real experts with up-to-date offline and online knowledge and skills. As 2016 transitioned into 2017, nearly one fifth of print companies complained about a shortage of skilled staff and considered this shortage to be responsible for negative impacts on performance, production and ultimately sales. Don’t bite off more than you can chew – that slows you down and is more expensive than recruiting IT specialists! Especially when time disadvantages arise that you can’t make up for. I don’t want to coerce you here into purchasing consultancy services; I merely want to highlight the necessity of having an intact and multi-professional team. That’s because the CEO can’t achieve transformation on their own, although some decision-makers might think they can. You need a team and a group of personal advisors that can occasionally see things from a different angle (e.g. from a customer perspective)!

Networking and teamwork are called for if digital transformation is to be successful; Source: zipcon consulting

Definition: Once all team members are on board, you need to develop a shared vision that is focused and yet at the same time can be adjusted in the light of market requirements. It needs to be to the point and be clearly communicated so that the shared idea and vision has a distinct profile of its own. But be careful: many people confuse a vision with an “ought to-would have-should have appeal” to team members. That’s not the issue. In fact an objective needs to be defined that sets out where you as a company want to be in 4.5 or 10 years’ time. It should be as exact as possible and even involve a bit of lateral thinking! Defining this vision against a backdrop of continuous market change also takes longer than just going out of an evening for a civilized drink or than a meeting with only a box of old cookies as sustenance!

Once the vision has been defined, you need a master plan, an implementation plan. What needs to happen when and how; when do we need to reach which milestones; who is going to help us and how. It’s not a bad idea to put this all in writing, or even better: create a mind map.

Mobilization: When vision and master plan match, then the roles played by all team memebers can be formulated as part of the strategy. Every member of the transformation team needs to develop the appropriate mindset, so to speak. That doesn’t happen overnight either. And although you might not really believe it, one thing does help above all – talking, talking, talking – and if possible with companies that have already undergone transformation, with influencers, at conventions, trade fairs and even in digital networks if you like. Perhaps the boss also needs to be persuaded occasionally that something works better somewhere else – “short official channels” and candor are more than conducive to mobilization.

Understanding: Once you have got this far, then you need to abide by digital business rules. A change of thinking and transformation are not a short-term affair, but require teamwork and if necessary collaboration with other resources. Feedback doesn’t cost a lot and always pays dividends. You must also understand your customers, because even regular customers change their preferences – sooner or later. Therefore request them to provide feedback. This makes you aware of their expectations and allows you to factor these expectations into your strategy. Get your staff to see things from a customer perspective. Are offering, service and webstore usability (if relevant) fit for purpose?

“Why not learn from those that have already undergone transformation by partnering with them instead of just copying and pasting. Firstly both sides benefit and secondly cribbing rarely works, while learnings from a partnership do indeed. I have frequently come across such cases – for many it is the origin of future success.” – Bernd Zipper

Implementation: Even if things seem to be getting more challenging at this stage, implementation is “merely” the extension of planning. Here real teamwork is called for and this is the time to turn the master plan into a project plan, because you will realize that plenty of problems/challenges will emerge that you need to master.

Unfortunately I have to disappoint anybody who’s thinking “I can take my time – the whole thing won’t happen that quickly”. It takes a fair amount of time before your own strategy really bears fruit. And for all those that nevertheless “know better”: the competition will be delighted, because as we all know, it never rests and carries on in the meantime! Be focused and above all resolute in your approach. Anybody that disappears more slowly, because they didn’t tackle the job in hand properly, disappears nevertheless.

My take: sustainable concepts – that’s what matters. Entrepreneurs don’t develop concepts on their own as a sideline – that process involves real teamwork and must be based on a shared vision. Digital transformation is not an easy issue to define in brief – in fact it is a complex web of market requirements, mentality and implementation. It is reflected in all aspects of the entire business process and confronts smaller players especially with major challenges. So stay intellectually mobile to ensure you are able to react to shorter innovation cycles and don’t be afraid of beefing up your team by adding further skillsets. And once your digital strategy has been drafted, it takes a bit of time to achieve quantifiable results. Then the thing to do is stick with it; the next milestone for those willing to transform might be 2020. Make sure at regular intervals that you are still on the right path – even by talking to critical industry insiders. If you and your team discover that this is not (no longer) the case, then you need to change course. Although sunk costs hurt – if a strategic adjustment becomes necessary, you must nevertheless not hesitate to reinvest or invest in other ways.


Oh yes: and if you were now expecting a “general formula” for digital transformation, then I am going to have to disappoint you, because there isn’t one. Not even in exchange for money from a consultant you can trust – the strategic focus of various companies is so different, the characteristics and mentality of team players are so different and the various approaches taken are so different as well. Unfortunately. But to finish off with, I can give you one tip… Helmut Schmidt, former Chancellor of Germany, hit the nail right on the head when he said: “You need willpower – and cigarettes”.

Founder and CEO of zipcon consulting GmbH, one of the leading consulting companies for the print and media industry in Central Europe. The technology and strategy consultant and his team actively support practical implementation in a wide variety of customer projects. His work involves developing visions, concepts and strategies for the players active in the print production process across a wide range of industries. His areas of expertise include online print, mass customization, strategy and technological assessment for print, and the development of new strategies in the print and media environment. Bernd Zipper is the creator and chairman of Initiative Online Print e.V. and, in addition to his consulting activities, is an author, lecturer and sought-after speaker, orator and moderator. His visionary lectures are regarded worldwide as trend-setting management recommendations for the print and media industry. (Profiles also in Xing, LinkedIn).

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