Channel Chat: Office Technology Trends

What trends have shaped the industry in the last 12 months, and what trends will we see going forward? We asked a panel of experts to share their thoughts.

Are you seeing traction in the channel with e-commerce solutions? If so, what is selling? If not, why do you think that is?

Doug Albregts: We are seeing some traction in our e-commerce channel. At this point, selling software licenses and products that are easier to transact are our strong suits, and selling hardware is more difficult for us online. To be fair, we’re now competing with much larger companies that have traditionally dominated the space and already have highly evolved e-commerce, distribution, and logistics capabilities.

We’re continuing to invest in those areas, and we’re making decent progress. But when compared to our print and IT services offerings, e-commerce remains a smaller portion of our business than I’d like it to be.

Patrick Flesch: We are seeing several dealers gravitating toward this platform. I believe it’s too early to tell whether or not it will become a successful marketing strategy, but we’ll be watching. We have explored the platform and will be prepared to shift in that direction if/when we feel the need to do so.

Mark Hart: This is not a new topic for our channel but seems to be the buzz right now as dealers, OEMs (hardware/software) and VARs are feverishly looking for additional ways to capture new end users. E-commerce has shown itself to be very successful in consumer-grade products but not yet to the masses for commercial-grade hardware/solutions, especially in mid- to enterprise-level consumers. Our channel has built its success on introducing a product/idea and then educating its customers on the value while offering a variety of procurement options other than entering a credit card on a website. E-commerce has a place, but which products will fulfill this need in our channel, I think, is still up for discussion.

In the past year, what did you choose not to push to the cloud and why?

Hart: The jury is still out on whether printing and scanning should be fully hosted in the cloud, specifically a public cloud. There are some advantages to hosting your print servers in the cloud, but today IT coordinators are finding many more challenges that are making them reconsider traditional on-premises print servers or hybrid environments with private cloud. The same goes for scanning, as the resources needed to scan, OCR, extract data and catalog in a document repository require a lot of bandwidth that might not be available for an end user today. So, we are taking a step back to truly understand the customer’s needs before we send them directly to the cloud.  

By the same token, data analytics is another application where we are taking special considerations before sending the customer to a fully cloud-based application. Today almost every piece of hardware and software running in a customer environment is tracking some sort of analytical data and the amount of server storage and network bandwidth required to keep up is becoming cost prohibitive. We believe there is a lot of great knowledge to be obtained from this data, but it might make more sense to store it all locally and then have only your viewing tools be cloud-based.  

Either way, in any of these scenarios, make sure you have a damn good security team to keep a watch over all things cloud. Too many hackers are waiting for one of your vendors to slip up and open a portal for them to gain access.     

What is the coolest collaboration tool you’ve discovered in the past year?

Laura Blackmer: It’s not so much the coolest tool as much as it is the adoption of lots of collaboration tools that has the coolest outcome. Watching people explore tools like Google Workspace and use them to collaborate on output has really changed how we share data. At Konica Minolta we’ve adopted Bonusly, which is not necessarily a collaboration tool but a way to truly recognize and reward co-workers for working above and beyond, or just finding ways to really recognize the effort that everyone puts in. Obviously, as most companies have seen, we now find ourselves using tools like Zoom, Microsoft Teams and other video conferencing tools even for conversations we used to just have on the phone. Now it’s become commonplace to have a video call versus a phone call. So again, not so much that the tools are cooler, but we’re using them in ways that have become very much a part of our day-to-day work rather than just looking at new tools.

Flesch: For us it has to be Teams. We use it in several different capacities. Certainly the most popular is video conferencing, but chat, calendar and other functions within the Teams platform have taken off within GFC.

ChatGPT and similar tools have really captured the imagination of the public. Are you and your team using any of the new AI tools? If so, what have you found most useful? If not, why not?

Mike Stramaglio: ChatGPT has been adopted at a history-making pace. The ChatGPT capabilities are absolutely mind-blowing and changing every minute. I am intentionally moving at a slower pace with my personal adoption — for the time being I am using ChatGPT for the obvious things like email,  learning, marketing and other communication needs capable of improving my output while reducing the amount of time I am spending on mundane activities. One of the reasons I am not moving as quickly as I might is because I am struggling with the feeling of guilt I oftentimes feel when I haven’t done something myself.   I have not had this feeling with other business tools but definitely do feel this way with ChatGPT – my hesitation might be a generational thing that I need to get over.

Are you seeing a steady decline in print usage? If so, what technologies do you see supplementing that decline?

Albregts: At Marco, we’ve actually seen an increase in our overall print business as we’ve become more aggressive in acquiring new clients. But overall, there has been a steady decline in print usage per client over the past few years, which seems to have leveled off … at least for now.

This trend shouldn’t come as a surprise for most print providers, and we’ve taken steps to expand and strengthen our other offerings. Additionally, the IT side of our business has increased by double-digit percentages over previous years, thanks to our investments in Cisco infrastructure and our enhanced abilities to manage Microsoft licenses and other software solutions.

Blackmer: Yes and no. Yes, the use of the office copier continues to be on a steady decline, although not as steep as during COVID. We’ve returned to pre-COVID decline. As we return to the office, we’ve seen usage go back up, but at the same time, people are using other ways to explore data, share data and even display data. And yes, those are having an effect on paper coming out of the copier. But copiers continue to be useful in putting data on the network. So obviously collaboration tools like the ones I mentioned earlier are imparting declines, but not more than was anticipated. Despite that, we are seeing prints in the production space growing at a good clip. Printed material is being used for marketing, both internal and external, and is really on the rise. Label and packaging continues to grow, particularly small runs with variable data, and the products used to create that have become more and more available to both commercial and in-plant providers.

Flesch: Certainly there has been a decline due to COVID and an increased remote workforce, but we actually see this trending back in the right direction. More and more organizations are coming back to the office, which has been great to see. And remote learning in schools seems to have subsided as well. Finally, the best supplementation for declining print volume is to earn new customers and we’ve had success in that area as well.

Hart: Yes, we all know that the total number of printed pages is on the decline, but I would like to look at this question from a different lens. End users are looking for ways every day to turn paper into digital, but what technologies are being used to ensure those pages still being printed that are necessary and sometimes mission-critical are done so reliably? Dealers should be considering offsetting printed pages with print enablement software that allows customers to print from any location to any output device. The hybrid work environment is here to stay, so find a way to make printing easy and secure. When you have print enablement figured out, pair that up with a great capture/digital transformation product to enable all required printed pages to be inserted back into a digital workflow. These software packages might not offset all the printed page revenue but will open doors for you to look at other business processes within a customer that might not have been present to you previously. 

What about office technology surprised you the most in the last year?

Albregts: Considering the significant investment many businesses have made in top video conferencing solutions over the past few years, I’m surprised by the lack of innovation in this space. While we’ve seen some incremental improvements in video quality, the overall user experience of video conferencing remains largely unchanged.

Why are these platforms so difficult to troubleshoot in real time? And why are meeting participants only identified by name, and not their role on a particular project? Don’t get me wrong — these tools are good, but they could be so much better.

Video conferencing platforms aren’t the only cloud solutions that have been slower to advance, despite the growing need. I’m also surprised by the lack of progress in data analytics to help drive business forward for print providers, especially given the number of changes in the industry. It’s a big miss.

Stramaglio: I am pleasantly surprised by a few major technologies that have exceeded expectations and will play a major role in the acceleration of exciting growth opportunities. One key area that not everyone is familiar with yet in the channel is the acceleration of low-code and no-code computing. The adoption is significant and as we move forward with citizen developers versus old-style engineering requirements such as C++, etc., the adoption will move at lightning speed and we are already seeing it in our channel.  More and better apps will be created that will dramatically improve our personal and professional lives.

The second thing that surprised me is the speed with which AI/IoT have adopted new methods for AI to improve itself (via machine learning) vs relying on the input from the developers and architects. The impact on humanity of our adoption of AI in the areas of healthcare, education, entertainment etc. are nearly unimaginable. The key will be how to proceed responsibly. 

The third thing that has surprised me are the real-world gains achieved by utilizing blazing-fast high-speed networks like 5G. Without these networks coming together, none of the first two items I mentioned could happen fast enough to impact us as we need. Sustainability and growth will be driven by the need for growing data volumes with faster network and processor speeds.  The key words in my opinion are “data volumes” and “more data volumes.”

What does the modern office look like in five years?

Albregts: The Jetsons got a few things right. Robots can vacuum your house for you, and there are some working prototypes of flying cars. The writers didn’t anticipate a workplace operating seamlessly without a full-time receptionist, but that’s already starting to happen. Thanks to modern business phone systems and security solutions, for most small to midsize businesses, there isn’t a need for a receptionist anymore. And those big empty desks will start disappearing as well.

In the next five years, the modern office will still need to empower remote work. However, instead of forcing more employees to return to the office on specific days, more small to midsize businesses will offer their staff a powerful incentive to be in person at least a few days a week. Think less stick, more carrot. In this case, the “carrot” could be modern audiovisual components that make meetings more engaging and inclusive for remote and in-person guests alike and eliminate mundane tasks like note-taking.

Many workplaces could (and should) leverage process automation solutions to reduce drudgery and workplace frustration. In addition to increasing efficiency and reducing errors, they’ll gain an advantage when it comes to attracting and retaining top talent. They could also consider offering unique perks, like portable charging stations for electric vehicles.

Blackmer: We will continue the evolution of hybrid shared work, which means people will have to be able to work on all the tools that they use, data they use and with the people they need – anywhere. However, that doesn’t mean that the office will disappear. In fact, we may see a return to office, but it will be using more open, collaborative space. Obviously the technology to support that needs to be in place – the infrastructure, tools to share information and the devices to help get offline information online. This leads us to the product side. A flexible space, being able to go from a two-to-three-person collaboration space to a five-to-10-person conference space and possibly to theater for larger presentations will be the best use of space for companies.

Hart: In five, 10, and even 15+ years, the office will still consist of a chair, desk, and employee in chair working on a mobile computing device with access to a print/copy/scan device. The hybrid office will reign supreme, and users will still rely on the cloud, public and private, to perform their daily tasks and to collaborate with their colleagues. Security will be a greater concern and probably force more companies to consider keeping/bringing some of their technologies back in-house behind their own firewalls. When looking for new technologies, companies will have access to so much information, most of which will be AI-generated, that they will need a trusted advisor for all things tech to make sure what they are seeing is truly what they will be getting! Will that be you? 

Stramaglio: This question screams out “have ChatGPT answer it!” I do not believe anyone can answer this question definitively, but we can sure imagine what five years from now might look like. Technology and the younger generations in the workforce utilizing that new technology will guide what comes next and there will be a keen focus on things that will dramatically alter (and hopefully improve) how things look five years from now. Some key priorities of the future must include balancing personal well-being, company culture, and technological freedom (remote and hybrid environments) with the need for a place to bring workers together with clear and shared objectives regardless of who is working where at any particular time. To answer this question properly is nearly impossible because of the fluid nature of technology and the way social norms shift, which are currently shifting at a speed we have never witnessed before. Younger people will enjoy the opportunities but there will also be a critical need for balancing project workers with contracted employees.  I was recently at a conference and the AI speaker indicated that “nearly 100 million new jobs will be created by 2025 and how can we determine how to manage or prepare for so many jobs that have yet to be created?”  It’s a startling point. 

Print will be replaced by every sector of the DX transformation and the future will be driven by unbelievable amounts of data that will be sold as a personal and corporate service and the lines between personal and business requirements will blend together. It will no longer be “IT,” but instead personalized offerings supported by apps and data, connecting your workplace with your personal life. 

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