Monday, 10 May 2010

The Rocky Road to Automation

Most of us, one way or another, are in the grip of the recession. How soon things will improve is anyone's guess, but at my end the freezing up of client budgets has given me time to assess how my own business is run.

Productivity has always been the name of our game, the goal we set for the consultancy and training we do for clients. Many businesses have been happy in the past to continue with their own tried and tested workflows. Change is not always easy to sell into a business. But the recession and changes in the picture industry have raised the stakes. Which of us is going to be around when money starts to flow again? My bet is on those who have taken the time to review their workflow and improve their productivity. Now, more than ever, companies need to assess the way they use technology to speed up business processes.

Years ago, people in image libraries joked about digital, and dreamt of lying on a beach somewhere while the agency ran itself. Instead, they found a whole new set of issues to address, new skills to learn.Taking care of a digital image collection is, if anything, a more time consuming business than filing transparencies in a filing drawer and relying on the human brain to remember what was where. But business moves on. Older brains get tired and over full, younger ones move on to other companies. And the needs of a global market are of a different order, and only satisfied by a digital response.

It's happened. Image collections are now shown digitally, and collections are either digitised or on the - sometimes long - slog to get there. But are the digital collections making best use of the technology they have at their disposal?

With budget, a large company can put together an all-singing-all-dancing DAM system with a number of workflow aids to increase automation and reduce production costs. At enterprise level there are plenty of companies willing to push their product to do what you want, if you pay for it. The problem may be that people aren't aware of the specialist needs of the picture industry, so sometimes large systems are less than perfect in that respect. At the other end of the scale, companies with more specialist needs and smaller budgets also need productivity. The search for automated workflow functions is worth looking at for businesses of any size.

Take my business as a small example. Like most people, I have too much to do. It's our way of life. And like most, I like to stick to the technology I know. Picking up new systems is time consuming, and it does your head in. It sometimes feels like a waste of time fiddling with obscure software functions dreamt up by techies whose whose brains appear to be differently wired. But in my case I found it was worth the pain.

I had found my marketing efforts dogged by chaos on both my physical and computer desktop. There were bits of information all over the place, which my current contact database couldn't cope with. I had tried paper lists, excel sheets, tabbed files and folders, and all kinds of plastic pockets, and all I had was a headache. Everything was taking too long.

Now I had someone to help me do my marketing (the very excellent outsourced company Tailored Time) it was doubly imperative to get smart. They suggested I look at an online system ZOHO, which is free for up to 3 users. I spent a few mornings struggling to get to grips with the system. A strategic call to Tailored Time when I felt like to ditching the project and going back to pen and notebook helped me stay on track. I imported some contacts and got on with some real work using the online database. It was like having someone else in the office!

I feel vaguely smug about this. Practice what you preach they say, and I like many others often find myself lacking in that department. (Have you ever tried to get a decent headshot of a photographer?) How can someone who helps other people organise their images systematically have their own affairs in such disarray? Easy. We're all as human as each other, and if you're in the business of helping people do things, you'd better know how hard it is to change habits, especially when it involves technology. What people need is a helping hand, someone to say it's going to be fine, it works, stick with it. That's what working together means in the mean high tech world we live in, and that's what consultancy is all about.

Back to automation. Some systems are simply too big and too wide ranging for people to grasp (or to pay for). So many people find themselves tacking together a workflow from a number of different components, and it can be the most productive route in some cases. The show has to go on, after all. When people ask me if they should get an image DAM system that does everything from raw files through to production and archiving (and there's another blog brewing there) I ask them to be cautious. Look at your workflow, I say, and your budget, and the different people who will be involved. Look at what you can reasonably learn and install and support. It may be easier to keep some elements of your workflow and target resources on just a part of it. Some parts of your workflow will benefit from specialist attention. The image archiving and sales database is one of those discreet elements that can save you a lot of time and money and do a very targeted job for you, perhaps in combination with a larger CMS (Content Management System) for the entire organisation. But even here, you may find that your image database and workflow software lacks some essential components that could save you time and money.

Write once, use many times is one of the mottos for a good workflow. It makes sense in the computer age, where anything entered anywhere can be seamlessly copied to somewhere else. Why do it again?

In practice, technology lags behind some of the standards that make this interoperability possible. Look at XML and the XMP format created by Adobe to deal with image metadata. The formats are there, the IPTC has worked to create standard fields to hold the information, and full automation is possible. But those of us helping create standards ( I work on the IPTC Photometadata Working Group) know that to a certain extent we are working with today's aspirations and tomorrow's workflow, today's clunky software and tomorrow's automation. The passage of data from one end to the other of the workflow is littered with obstacles, placed there by (let's be kind) not quite updated software.

That aside, the next principle of a good image workflow is that it should be clear what is expected at each stage in terms of the delivered product. The photographer, you might think, should deliver a colour correct image in a standard format, that can be passed on through the workflow and through to print or web output to produce a good result without without tripping up production systems. There should be a some metadata in the image as well (at least the 3 C's, caption, credit, copyright and picture number). We have spent years trying to get this message over to the receiving clients, image libraries and publishers. You are the client, we said, you should define what you want the photographer to supply. The reality is that both clients and photographers have been operating within a digital skills chasm. Things have improved, but we far too often hear that image libraries are using their resources to check and put right what photographers have failed to deliver. Whichever way you look at it, this is not a function that libraries (and publishers) can afford to carry in current circumstances.

This is why we set about creating a Photoshop plug-in, called ImageVisa, to fit the principles of a productive workflow. One, it gets the client to set the technical and metadata standards for the images arriving at their picture desk; two, it checks that the images supplied comply; three it can correct some things automatically before the image reaches the client; and four, it helps the supplying photographer to get things right by making his or her workflow more productive. Box ticking or what?

In an ideal world, these functions would be provided by the client's receiving software. But in practice most image software at the moment doesn't have that facility (Capture's Greenlight does a very fast check at the receiving end, but doesn't do corrections.)

ImageVisa is a bridge over the skills chasm, between different sets of software, and between the past and the future. It may help plug a gap in the workflow of hard pressed image libraries and publishers, especially those keen to reduce costs and limber up for the future. It could be the other person in the office I was talking about. Simple, focussed, does the job.

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