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Potholes in Paradise

(May 2003) posted on Fri May 23, 2003

The perils of automating communications about workflows

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By Jake Widman

Over the past couple of months, I've written two articles for The Big Picture about the promised benefits of automation to the printing workflow. The first was May/June's "CIMply Marvelous;" the second on "Computerizing Customer Relations" will appear in the July/August issue. Both articles touched on the idea that when automated communications--such as filling in online forms to request quotes and submit jobs, and reading automatically generated e-mail to track the progress of a job--take the place of phone calls and coffee-fueled meetings, errors will be reduced and efficiencies realized.

Sounds great. But coincidentally, during this same period, I've been participating in the printing workflow as a customer, and my experience has made me take the promises of automation with a heaping teaspoon of salt. Automated communication might be really helpful--but only if the communication that's automated is clear in the first place.

I wound up a printing customer because I agreed to help a friend get his novel packaged and printed. He'd been trying to get it published as long as I'd known him, with no success. But in recent years he'd been reading about short-run digital presses, and he asked me if I could take his manuscript and another friend's sponsorship and turn them into 100 copies of his book. So I searched for appropriate printers, got a couple of bids, and chose a place in Canada that seemed like they knew what they were doing. The rep (let's call him Howie) was accommodating and responsive, the price seemed right, and the sample book he sent me looked good.

I laid out the book in good old PageMaker, and Howie sent me directions for how to FTP my files to them. I packaged the PageMaker files, the fonts, and the graphics into a Stuffit file, as instructed, and sent them off.

So far so good. After a few weeks, we got back what Howie called the "sample copy" for review. My friend read it and asked for some changes on 12 of the pages. I revised the PageMaker files accordingly and asked Howie what to do next. At this point, Howie passed me off to a woman in the preflight department--let's call her Susan.