The first five months of 2020 have been a really long 30 or 40 years, haven’t they? The news is mostly unpleasant at best and downright frightening at worst, but there have been a couple of bright spots in the doom and gloom. One of those was the launch of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with two astronauts on board – the first manned spaceflight to launch from the U.S. in almost a decade. There were many differences between the Falcon 9 rocket and the old space shuttles, but one of the most obvious was the flight controls – a clean, touchscreen interface compared to the nearly 2,000 switches and breakers on the shuttle.

The transition from analog to digital has been going on for so long now that spaceflight really may have been the last frontier. After all, copiers and MFPs have had touchscreen interfaces for a lot longer – is the imaging channel really ahead of the space program technologically? It’s a good sign as we prepare for a supercharged digital transformation.

The switch from analog to digital, also known as digitization, is just one piece of a larger digital transformation landscape, but like so many other things, it’s a piece that’s gotten sped up by the coronavirus pandemic. Buttons, switches and other surfaces are suddenly germ-laden deathtraps, so in some cases we’re skipping past touchscreens and going straight to contactless input – stores have scrambled to enable RFID or NFC payment systems, public transportation systems are speeding up their planned implementations of contactless pay options, and Visa, which last year had expected to issue 100 million contactless payment cards in the U.S. by the end of 2020, now expects to issue 300 million.

The coronavirus pandemic has acted as a kind of power-up spell on the digital transformation landscape, causing technology to go into overdrive and companies scrambling to keep up. You may have seen a meme going around the internet – it’s a quiz asking, who led the digital transformation at your company? A) CEO, B) CTO, C) COVID-19. And regardless of the answer — although be honest, it’s C — that transformation is here. What does it mean for the channel?

Not sure about the difference between digitization, digitalization and digital transformation? Click here for a quick primer.

Digital transformation was already happening. It’s just happening faster

The analogy of the power-up is pretty apt when it comes to COVID-19’s impact. You’re Sonic the Hedgehog, rolling along and doing your thing when suddenly someone hits the switch and bam! You’re still doing your thing; you’re just doing it a lot faster. The channel has been heading in this direction for a long time, looking for complementary and supplementary product lines while pondering whether this year will be the year of the paperless office (the answer is always no. Even this year.) In the Market Trends survey fielded by BPO Media in late 2019 and early 2020 – pre-COVID-19 – more than 50% of dealers were adding product lines including scanning software, network security and management services. Managed IT services were already being offered by 55% of respondents and of those who weren’t already in managed IT, 42% were exploring it.


Other non-hardware models were also trending upward, albeit much more slowly. While 67% of overall revenue was still coming from the traditional hardware, supplies and service model, that was down from 70% in 2018. Meanwhile, applications and software rose a very slight 1% from 2018. It remains to be seen how the COVID-19 power-up affects those numbers in another year, but it’s important to remember that those trends were already in motion. Yes, the pandemic forced change for some, but for many others, it has simply sped it along.

The channel is ahead of the curve when it comes to digital transformation. Really.

Even though COVID-19 isn’t going to create the paperless office, it has certainly put a bigger dent in printing volumes as workers moved to home offices. But although the suddenness of the switch to work-from-home and the need for alternatives to the workgroup A3 was unexpected, the eventuality of it was on the radar of most office equipment dealers. Why do you think it was someone from a copier company who coined the term “the paperless office”? Ask yourself who was more prepared for digitalization – the dealer who spent the last decade paying close attention to office print and the technologies that would supplement it, or the law firm whose workflow was dependent on in-office procedures that was suddenly thrust into a remote workforce situation? It’s not that these businesses didn’t have any digital procedures in place beforehand – certainly the legal vertical is one of the more digitally advanced — but those procedures are often predicated on the idea that the staff was in the office with access to certain pieces of hardware.

[click_to_tweet tweet=”Office equipment dealers are a resilient bunch. As customers work on their roadmaps to digital transformation, scrambling to speed up a process often filled with roadblocks, dealers can offer guidance, advice, products and services.” quote=”Office equipment dealers are a resilient bunch. As customers work on their roadmaps to digital transformation, scrambling to speed up a process often filled with speed bumps and roadblocks, dealers can offer guidance, advice, products and services.” theme=”style4″]

Office equipment dealers are a resilient bunch and have been planning for an uncertain future for a while. Both our formal surveys and casual conversations tell us that, although this group wants print to live forever, it has been preparing for all sorts of possibilities. As customers work on their roadmaps to digital transformation, scrambling to speed up a process often filled with speed bumps and roadblocks, dealers can offer guidance, advice, products and services.

The “trusted advisor” role has never been so crucial

Roadmaps, or a lack thereof, are part of the reason so many digital transformation strategies fail. Digital transformation is not a simple process, and it requires a lot of careful planning — something that often can’t be done well by an IT department that’s spread too thin or doesn’t have buy-in from above. Remember that meme about “who led the digital transformation?” There’s a reason the answer is C – the CEO is rarely fully focused on the task and the CTO may not even exist, particularly in an SMB, leaving no one fully dedicated to leading the charge. Businesses working from rudimentary roadmaps need someone to guide them and fill in the blanks.

Especially as the coronavirus pandemic sent workers to their homes and systems to the cloud, a guiding hand became essential for the organizations that may have just begun the journey and certainly weren’t prepared for this. By now, most companies have gotten past the initial hurdles, but it’s still worth asking how they did it. Did they cobble together VPNs and remote workstations to allow employees to access office-based servers “for now”? If so, how’s their security? As the use of VPNs surged – NordVPN reported a 165% increase in use between March and April – so did attempted exploitation of those VPNs, leading to a joint alert from the U.S. DHS Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency and the United Kingdom’s National Cyber Security Centre that specifically noted exploits in teleworking structure.

But so what? Isn’t that all behind us? Well, let’s face it: 2020 is the year of uncertainty. Even if the economy reopens on schedule, things aren’t going back to the way they were. Firms like Google, Twitter, Capital One and Microsoft have announced employees can work from home through the fall, until the end of the year, or forever. With social distancing still a concern and offices needing to implement measures to ensure employee safety, remote work is likely to become more prevalent – a University of Chicago study found that 37% of jobs in the United States can be done remotely. And there’s a big difference between the ad-hoc solutions put together in April and the ones that will allow for permanent change. The trusted advisor role remains vital in helping companies make that transition.

Your customers need you for digital transformation

If you’re a managed IT provider, the assistance you can provide customers is clear – to you, anyway. Make sure your customer knows the long list of services you can provide that go beyond making sure the daily backups happen and keeping the operating systems updated. A remote workforce needs IT support more than ever – from assisting with a secure network and offering security resources to recommending the technology that will allow them to best continue to do their jobs.

However, digital transformation goes far beyond IT services, so even dealers that don’t offer this service can aid in the work-from-home transition. From document management systems to enterprise content management (ECM), the processes and solutions that help a company go digital can also help it go remote much more easily. Centralized tracking and management of documents, allowing users in any location to input, retrieve, search, edit and manage information, is vital to a remote workforce. Customers that may have been reluctant to implement digital systems – or have simply put off doing so – are more likely to now see the benefits. The value was always there – COVID-19 simply provided the push. When we asked respondents in our Market Trends survey to rank the most important issues to their customers, “simplifying document process/workflow” ranked high on the list. Users wanted this before COVID-19 – they want it more now. In our post-COVID-19 dealer survey, the area of business expected to increase the most this year was workflow process design and development.


The final frontier

The Falcon 9 launch ushered in a new era of spaceflight, while COVID-19 ushered in a new era of digital transformation. One of those things is not like the other, of course, but they’ve both launched us into a new frontier, for better or for worse. Things aren’t going to go back to the way they were, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The astronauts on board the Falcon 9 rocket had both flown in the space shuttle previously and admitted that there was a learning curve in going from analog controls to automated touchscreens. However, at the moment they are safely on board the ISS, having successfully navigated the change. Can our industry do the same?

With OEMs constantly reimagining their offerings and offering diverse product lines and solutions, the tools are there. Meanwhile, the channel offers a built-in distribution model for in-demand software solutions, and customers are seeking out tools that will help them do their jobs in new ways. Whether offering document management solutions, cloud-based print, cybersecurity or scanning solutions, the channel has been preparing for regular digital transformation for a while – the power-up switch will help it get ready for the supercharged version.



is editorial director of BPO Media’s publications Workflow and The Imaging Channel, and senior analyst for BPO Research. As a professional writer and editor, she has specialized in the office technology industry for the last 20 years. Prior to that she worked in public relations and has a master's degree in communication arts.