Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing
Several years ago, when I managed the in-plant for a large public university, I had the good fortune of working for a VP who was a forward thinker. Ron was responsible for all of Information Technology at the university, including print. Unlike many IT leaders he was willing to try new things and allowed us, his staff, to do the same. He led us into new areas of personal and managerial growth, and, most of all, he allowed us to fail.
If you have had the opportunity to work with IT leadership you may have noticed that they tend to be conservative. That’s understandable. Sometimes an unexpected glitch, an unauthorized scanner connected to the network for example, could bring the entire network to its knees. That is one reason IT execs tend to err on the side of caution.
So when I approached him with what was, at that time, a revolutionary idea, consolidating the management of all copiers and printers (inkjet and laser) into a single service managed by printing services, I fully expected him to have questions, and he did. Lots of them.
In the end, he agreed that the idea was a good one and we started one of the first all-inclusive copier management programs in higher-ed. We had several hundred distributed copiers/MFDs, all connected to the network. We had a copy center in the main print shop and satellite centers in the College of Business, the Health Sciences Center, the School of Education and the Law School. We took over what had previously been mainframe printing: admissions letters, monthly bills, checks and the like. We moved jobs electronically between copy centers to accommodate demand. We had cost-per-copy pricing for the distributed fleet. We had complete control of the copier space and could document significant savings.
And we accomplished this, in large part, with the help of our vendor. We thought we really had a strategic partnership.
The Vendor Returns
Imagine our surprise when a different division of that same vendor approached our administration with the news that we had too many copiers, too many printers, too many copy centers. We were hemorrhaging money, the vendor claimed, and they offered to do a “study” of our printing and copying production to identify ways to correct the problems. The study would result in a dramatic reduction in our operating costs. And, of course, their recommended changes would require significant capital investment in the form of bigger, faster and more expensive equipment. But hey, you have to spend money to save money, and we’d save money in the end.
Let me reiterate: The same vendor that helped us design our fleet and copy center strategy, the same vendor that recommended machine replacement and deployment, the same vendor that helped us configure our copy centers was now telling us we had too many machines and were spending way too much on them.
Yeah, that vendor.
I’m not making this up!
Fortunately, and unbeknownst to the vendor, the VP they approached to promote the study was the same VP that had participated in our study and approved the decision to create the copier program in the first place. So, when the vendor criticized the current setup, they were criticizing the guy who had helped design it. That was a lucky break. Needless to say, the university declined to participate in the vendor study.
Now here we are, 20 years later, and nothing’s changed, at least not from a management perspective. Machines are faster, per copy costs are down, quality is up and machines have more features, to be sure, but vendors are still actively selling us equipment on the one hand while trying to convince our bosses that we’re inefficient, costly and wasting our parent organization’s resources on the other. And it’s not just the public sector. I’ve worked with private sector organizations that are facing the same pressure.
The bad news is that administrators often feel obligated to at least consider the vendor proposals. They have no reason not to. Resource management is a significant part of stewardship. Besides, these guys are the experts, right? Universities, schools, hospitals and government agencies aren’t in the printing business. We need to listen to these guys. They know their stuff! Or so the story goes.
Think your vendor won’t use the same tactics on you? I know of at least five schools where an equipment vendor was able to convince administration that it could do a better job than the in-plant manager and her/his crew.
A few years ago I wrote a blog, “Answering the Outsourcing Question,” in which I argued that if you wait for someone to ask the question “Should we outsource printing?” you probably waited too long. Check it out.
A Rebuttal Strategy
My point — and the current round of vendor-driven closings is just another example — was that we need to have a rebuttal strategy in place right now. We need to have identified the elements of our own performance that resonate with upper administration and develop ways to share our successes. We need to constantly show how we add value to our organization. We need to be constantly telling our story.
IPMA agrees and has asked me to lead the development of a self-assessment tool, a tool to help in-plant managers explain their value to the folks in the head shed. The challenge is identifying key components of an assessment strategy, understanding that different types of organizations value different operational characteristics differently. What’s good for the goose may not be, and probably isn’t, good for the gander.
To that end, I’ll be contacting many of you asking for information on the performance measures you use and what your boss wants to see (these may not be the same). The goal is to develop a tool that helps demonstrate your expertise and that you should be considered the on-site expert in all things related to document production. If you’re interested in contributing to this project, leave a comment on this blog or e-mail me at email@example.com
Be sure to reference IPMA in the subject line. Otherwise I might miss it.
I’m looking forward to hearing from you.
Related story: Oops! There Goes Another In-plant
Ray Chambers, CGCM, MBA, has invested over 30 years managing and directing printing plants, copy centers, mail centers and award-winning document management facilities in higher education and government.
Most recently, Chambers served as vice president and chief information officer at Juniata College. Chambers is currently a doctoral candidate studying Higher Education Administration at the Pennsylvania State University (PSU). His research interests include outsourcing in higher education and its impact on support services in higher education and managing support services. He also consults (Chambers Management Group) with leaders in both the public and private sectors to help them understand and improve in-plant printing and document services operations.