The days when printing was a dark art, full of mysticism that only the high priests of the presses could interpret, are long gone - if indeed they ever existed in reality. The modern print industry is all about hard facts in the form of minute-by-minute data about every element of a business, presented in an easy-to-understand way. If you want to make a profit, you need to react to what your business is telling you.
This is why management information systems (MIS) are a must-have. The trouble is, it’s not exactly an easy area to understand. While most people have a working knowledge of software, MIS is not in the same league as opening an Excel spreadsheet and popping in some figures.
So, for PrintWeek’s latest ‘Webinar’ last Thursday, we got two battle-hardened MIS veterans – Alison Branch, managing director of Park Communications, and Anthony Thirlby, managing director at ESP Colour – into a room with PrintWeek online editor Matt Whipp, to talk about the best practices for getting the most out of your MIS.
Here’s what happened.
When 3pm, Thursday 1 December 2011
Matt Whipp (MW) What is your first step to setting up an MIS?
Anthony Thirlby (AT) You have to be very clear what you want to do with the system. I found it frustrating in the first couple of years of development (we have been talking to MIS vendors since 2006), as I felt that the vendors did not fully understand what we required, and we had to really push them to get the message through. You do have to be forceful. Over the years, the understanding has increased and that has brought us closer together. When you are trying to take a system that attempts to appeal to the broadest set of businesses possible, and mould that to fit the bespoke requirements of your company, you are taking the vendor into an area they are not necessarily comfortable in, as you are pushing the system into an area that it was not built for. As such, the process was initially – in my view – unsatisfactory. Now, though, it is good; they are finally understanding what we want to achieve. I think one of the things people have to realise with MIS is that it takes a long time to get what you want. Patience is absolutely vital.
Alison Branch (AB) I agree. You have to start with the basics. What is your MIS for? What are you trying to achieve? Once you have a list of what you want to get out of the system, prioritise that list, because it is very easy to spend time and money cracking a problem that does not have a big impact. When we were going through our change of MIS, we had to be very clear about what we wanted and push that through, rather than have the vendor design it. Every business has its own needs and the systems are (at a basic level) built to fit all, so you do have to tailor it.
MW So, would you both say that you can’t just take something off the shelf and expect it to work perfectly for your business – that you have to tailor it?
AT Definitely. And this is not purely through the vendor – you have to engage third-party programmers as well. When we were not getting the reporting structures we wanted, we engaged a third-party software company. The vendor has to sell a product that is relevant to today’s market, but for us it was only doing a part of what we wanted. Over time, this need to do bespoke programming continues, so we have hired a full-time in-house programmer. I would not be surprised if we had three or four on our books by the end of next year.
AB At Park it was the same, but all the programming has been done externally; some by the MIS vendor, some by third-parties. In some ways, the support isn’t quite so strong from the MIS vendors if you want to develop functionality away from updates and installation. Our experience is that we have to lead that and really push for it. Maybe it would be helpful for the vendors to push a bit more.
AT That said, for a lot of people an off-the-shelf product might work – it just depends on the business. If it requires KPIs and bespoke information, you will not get it with an off-the-shelf product. They will cover a lot of things and enhance the business, but not do all you need.
AB This is true. If you are a small printer, you may find that it does not necessarily do everything you want it to, because of the cost attached. Sometimes that cost will not justify the outcome, or it will simply not be possible to spend that money. But it is more beneficial to have an MIS that doesn’t do everything, rather than not have one at all.
MW Installing and developing an MIS sounds like a massive undertaking, then.
AB In practice, we underestimated the upheaval and the amount of management time that the process required. The bespoke programming, of which there was a fair degree, is very difficult for programmers to get right the first time around; it takes a fair few reruns. In fact, it has taken us a couple of years to get it right. Hence, it is essential that you have a champion to lead and manage your MIS; whether you are moving supplier, or upgrading, or starting from scratch. There has to be one person, someone who has adequate time and authority to push through the MIS process. I recently met with a customer who is a production manager, and he has to upgrade his company’s MIS as well as do his day job. I simply don’t believe he will have time to do that properly.
MW And what about the costs?
AT You have the initial consultation, then work out the fee according to how many users the MIS will be installed for. You then have the ongoing maintenance fee, which I don’t necessarily agree with, as sometimes it is not justified. For instance, I didn’t feel we were getting a lot for the cash in the first stages of having the MIS, though this has improved over the past 12 months. You also have to make sure you don’t get sucked in by expensive bells and whistles, which – in my opinion – don’t tend to work.
AB We made a detailed assessment of the business case for the MIS and found that it would enable us to, in effect, handle 25% more than we could before. The system cost £250,000 – that is a significant investment and there is an ongoing maintenance fee on top of that. Then you have other associated costs. For example, when you have an upgrade, you have to spend money training people for that upgrade.
MW On that point of training – just how important to a successful MIS is the training of staff?
AT Training is imperative. You have to be very clear about what you are doing and ensure that the staff have the adequate time to train to use it. We don’t do complete upgrades overnight, for example. We do it module-by-module, to ensure continuity, and to ensure that staff have time to get used to new elements. The training is so crucial to make an MIS work.
AB I agree with Anthony. However good your system is, you have to put good data in to get good data out. Staff have to follow the agreed process, or you get confusion down the line. There’s also the fact that staff can manipulate the data, so it is important that they know an MIS is not a threat; that it is there to help them and that they have to work with it accurately and properly for the good of the business. You do this by talking to staff and briefing them about what you are trying to achieve. We also use the information coming out of our data-capture to analyse individual performance, which has helped the staff and has certainly improved productivity.
MW Is that not a bit Big Brother?
AB Not at all, and it won’t be seen that way if you get across the benefits of productivity and communicate the aims properly.
MW Communication with staff is important, then. Is it as important to build open channels from the company to the MIS vendor as well?
AT The relationship with the MIS vendor tends to be very up and down. One day you are best of friends and the next you are fighting like cat and dog. My advice is: don’t stop pushing them. If you push them to evolve the product, it is for the good of the industry, as well as your own business.
AB We have invested in building a good relationship with our provider and that works from the top down. It is important to ensure that those communications channels are open.
MW What would your main tips be for those looking to install, change or upgrade their MIS?
AB Start with the basics. Engage staff, understand your market and, most importantly, review what you are doing. In hindsight, we did not do enough hard testing, which could have taught us what would work and what wouldn’t work, and where the pitfalls were. We didn’t talk to other people who had been though the process, and if we had, that could have minimised complications.
AT Ensure that the MIS vendor understands your vision and requirements; customise and evolve the MIS to suit that vision; use the data thrown out by the MIS to adapt your business; and then start the process again. In this way, you constantly evolve the MIS to work with your business.
MW And what about the suppliers – do they need to help more?
AB They need to have a more thorough checking procedure for software before it gets to the printer. Things often take too long to be right, and that undermines confidence in the system
AT More integration between suppliers needs to be had– it needs to be more of an open forum. MIS depends on communication between all your suppliers – kit,
pre-media, post-press, everything. We have had to co-ordinate the communications and it would be great if they could work together off their own back – I don’t understand the reluctance. Also, MIS vendors have a lot of intelligence about businesses, but that doesn’t seem to go back into the product. Upgrades should be happening more regularly, as they feed in the knowledge they are acquiring from helping