There is strong justification for understanding the importance of and pitfalls associated with improving the way publishing and content management processes are executed throughout a company. Research firm IDC just issued the results of a new executive survey where the majority of the 550 U.S. organizations studied said effective document management and/or workflow drives improvements in business productivity and customer service. In the case of both productivity and service, 68 percent agreed. More than two thirds of our peers agree that time spent on improving workflow results in a better bottom line. Even the most digitally illiterate executive can use this rationale to initiate an effort to learn more about new technologies and processes that others have embraced.
My efforts are not to pretend to share some little-known insider information on how to make your business more profitable than your competitors’. I pen these words to find sense in this search for the best path to follow to move forward with my business. It is becoming more complicated every day. There is no time available to understand those things we need to know to thrive. Communication is expected to be clear, concise, and precisely what we need, where we need it, when we need it.
Even as an engineer who loves gadgets, I find myself occasionally overwhelmed by the challenges technology evokes. Like last week when my boss wandered over to my desk and casually informed me, "I need 2,000 words on publishing workflow systems. And we don’t have much time."
It goes without saying; in the 21st Century, we never have much time. The first part of the statement was duly noted, but the add-on was an injection of writer’s block.
Finding the Meaning
It did occur to me immediately that there are no publishing workflow systems available in a box labeled as such, and I felt compelled to respond accordingly. I could not admit it aloud, but it seemed an impossible task. How does one research, compare, and validate the vast amount of data available on the subject—a Google search on the phrase publishing workflow generated 1,350,000 pages in the English language alone—and distill it down to four pages in a couple of weeks. I have only days to learn all I need to know, but I sit glaring at a computer monitor waiting for something intelligent to magically appear before my eyes. Then, the epiphany; I realize I am struggling with the content because the phrase itself is an oxymoron.
A system—as defined by the American Heritage Dictionary—is "a group of interacting, interrelated, or interdependent elements forming a complex whole." Another definition for a system offered by the same reference is, "an organized and coordinated method; a procedure." Therefore, the engineer in me logically concluded, it can be said that a publishing workflow system will be a combination of sub-systems that are integrated to produce a customized set of tools and processes that create desired efficiencies in our unique business environment. I have been to almost every relevant Web site on the Internet and conducted innumerable interviews to find the magic solution—to no avail. A publishing workflow system is something envisioned, designed, and constructed for a particular user’s needs. It is a result; not a product.
One of the first questions to answer in the quest for a publishing workflow system is, "What is publishing workflow?" I can remember when publishing workflow was something of concern only to the printing and publishing industry. Back in the day, we thought we were automating production with workflow software that provided the ability to RIP, trap, and impose images and content to build a queue of film- or plate-ready files for output. Too many problems with input files led programmers to develop software that allowed us to automate the process of quality control for a file prior to its introduction to the RIP/Trap/Impose sub-system. At the same time, we moved past the process of developing film and realized the benefits of Computer-to-Plate (CtP) technology. Many printing companies now offer digital prepress in some form or fashion, and some have implemented CIP3-compliant technologies to automate processes all the way out to the printing press. These solutions to printing business problems are steps in the right direction, but none can be considered a publishing workflow system.
Publishing workflow can be a business problem for any kind of company. The need for quick, concise communication expressed in a variety of formats—documents, Web-based collaboration, variable data printing, and the Internet—drives companies to define and deploy a system. Tremendous financial resources and time are wasted when the flow of information stalls in an unorganized system. In an effort to realize greater efficiency and, ultimately, profitability, let’s take a look at some of the options available for managing content within your organization.
There are two basic categories of what we will collectively refer to as publishing workflow systems. One category is delivered by enterprise-capable system integrators; they represent a portfolio of products and consult with you to define your criteria for success. Then they integrate individual products to provide a customized solution. The second category of publishing workflow systems uses a more vertically focused set of solution building blocks. These two categories are supplemented by stand-alone products that break open bottlenecks in existing workflows or add functionality not originally available during initial deployment.
The first category of systems is generally targeted at the enterprise. One example of a company that lives in this arena is Context Media of Rhode Island. It was founded by former Netscape executives to provide next-generation enterprise content integration and application solutions. They offer products, such as Interchange Suite, Intershare, and PortalPLUS, that feature stand-alone functionality, but the best result is realized when professional services are combined with the appropriate product suite to customize a solution and integrate it with existing business-critical applications. For the budget-minded reader, this could mean quite an investment. In addition to the cost of the software products, there will be billable hours for application programming and interfacing and, more importantly, the consumption of your resources to co-manage the project to ensure that milestones are both meaningful and delivered on time. It is easy to spend six figures or more on enterprise solutions in this category, but the end result could be a unique and valuable service to your customers. Some of the companies that compete in this arena include Chuckwalla Inc., EMC Documentum, Entopia Inc., Filenet Corporation, Hyland Software Inc., Roger Software Development (RSD), and Stellent Inc.
The second category of publishing workflow systems is very much like the first in that they offer both products and professional services. What makes the companies and product sets in this category different is that they are focused on publishing workflow systems for a particular business or industry. There is a company that dedicates its resources to solving content management problems for newspapers, magazines, and media Web sites named SAXoTECH. It is truly an international concern developing and integrating products that combine to provide editorial content management and online publishing systems. Their integrated applications provide journalists a complete suite of print and online tools to plan, create, publish, and archive the news. On a slightly different angle, some vendors have, in many cases, bundled pre-packaged solutions to predictable problems within their specific vertical market. These solutions tend to be more comprehensive in nature and, consequently, less flexible. The printing industry provides some wonderful examples in this category. Companies like AGFA, and their offering Apogee X, provide modular software and hardware components to automate workflow, track and manage jobs, and provide collaborative capabilities and digital asset management. Forthcoming technologies such as Screen’s Trueflownet claim to take advantage of the opportunity to comply with standards, such as the Microsoft .NET framework for software development, to provide greater flexibility than customized solutions. Companies in this category to consider include AGFA, Dalim Software, Heidelberg, and Screen Media Technology.
Interestingly, the supplements category seems busier than the others. This group consists of smaller companies with limited product portfolios and narrow professional service offerings. I believe that their demand is driven by the fact that they fill in holes in existing workflows or provide better functionality than similar components in the larger, enterprise-class solution bundles. A good example of a product group that fits this category is digital asset management (DAM). It is an important component of any publishing workflow system, but the specifications differ from business to business so dramatically that there is room for smaller companies to deliver good products at good prices. Often, the product is a one-trick pony, but there is no need to complicate things if a simple addition to an existing system meets the need. Because the products from this category are developed to solve very specific problems, there is generally very little customization done after development is completed and the product is on the shelf. Professional services are usually limited to installation and training. Occasionally, there will be a requirement for some custom programming to provide an interface to a legacy system within the customer’s company, but the project’s cost is far more predictable with stand-alone products that solve industry- or workflow-specific problems. The downside here is that the customer needs to know what he needs. He must embrace the solution, dedicate time to training the right personnel, and be responsible for its continuing operation after the initial deployment is completed. There will not be an ongoing consulting engagement; the time spent on a comprehensive enterprise deployment provides a kind of on-the-job training, whereas stand-alone sub-systems (like DAM, job tracking and management, and remote proofing collaboration) see fewer people on-site for less time. Here are some independent software vendors that provide these supplemental type products: Artworks Systems, BrighTech Inc., Canto Cumulus, Extensis Inc., FinePrint Software LLC, MetaCommunications, EMC Legato, and WAVE Corporation.
At the end of the day, a publishing workflow system is what you define it to be. You may already have one that needs a little tweaking, or you may need to consider bringing in some outside help. Stand-alone sub-systems can be deployed in days, whereas enterprise application integration can take months and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. In these changing times, you are well advised to insist on complying with industry standards and avoiding proprietary technologies. The pace of change will only increase, and it is imperative to remain flexible so that we may take advantage of new technologies as they prove themselves viable and desirable to our customers. Remember that your publishing workflow system will, in fact, be a combination of sub-systems that are integrated to produce a customized set of tools and processes to create desired efficiencies in your unique environment. You want to remain free to be the company your clientele wants you to be; begin with a standards-based infrastructure which you can support from within. Then you can fill in the gaps or bring in the experts to do the big jobs right.