All systems go with MIS to suit everyone

If running a business is a benevolent dictatorship, then running a franchise group offers all the freedoms – and politically wrangling – of any healthy democracy. As the biggest printing franchise in the country, few are more familiar with this political landscape than Snap. Unlike other nationwide printing groups, a Geon or a Salmat for instance, bringing in change across Snap’s network of 150 Australian sites requires approval from bottom up as well as top down. It’s a dilemma Peter Driscoll is well aware of, as he prepares to roll out the most major upgrade to Snap’s MIS in a decade.

Driscoll, general manager of IT at the group, has been spearheading the imple­mentation of Prism WIN since signing up with the MIS vendor after Ipex. But the project dates back many more years.

Driscoll himself started with Snap in 1996, initially at a centre in pre-press and design role before working his way up the company’s most senior IT position. With the MIS, Driscoll is nearing the final mile of a marathon. To get an idea of the race, we need to go back to the start.

“We’ve had Prism MIS in place for many years. It goes back to the late ’90s when we started using a Prism MIS.” After a few years of that, and in response to the “different challenges that existed”, Snap decided to look at other MIS possibilities.

Driscoll says there was a desire at Snap like overseas counterparts such as Printing.com, Mimeo and Vistaprint “to think outside the box from an MIS perspective”.

“Going back almost five years, we began an exercise of ‘how do we keep pace?’. If we were inventing the company now, what tools would we have used?”

After scanning the products on the market, Snap decided to go with Press-sense iWay. “We settled on iWay as being an overall solution – both online ordering and workflow that did the neat trick of having those entities combined but also was easy to maintain from a franchise perspective. You could have those multiple businesses working alongside each other but a central service.”

Some people might already be pointing out that Press-sense had its own share of problems in 2010. When major investors pulled their support for the Israeli software company back in March, the court had to step in and appoint administrators. What followed was a period of uncertainty, after which the company was acquired by US software develop Bitstream in May.

“When Press-sense went into administration, it prompted us to revisit our decision of earlier. The subsequent buyer was not as enthusiastic about the aspect of the system that we were relying heavily on, which was the MIS component,” says Driscoll.

Snap put out a request for tender around March-April, in the lead up to Ipex. The UK trade show became the venue for Snap’s to see potential MIS suitors. Driscoll met with a number of leading suppliers to help steer this major investment decision.

“In the end of the day, across the criteria, considering what we were doing, the right solution ended up being Prism. So it was a long way to get back home again,” adds Driscoll.

This brings us up to today. Snap is currently implementing Prism at the first pilot site, the Westpac Copy Centre, which Snap operates out of the banking giant’s head office in Sydney’s CBD. Along with Driscoll, this is being lead by the copy centre’s manager, Fiona Harcourt. Beyond that, the steering committee also includes Al Babicka, part-owner of Snap West Melbourne, Richard Houwing, owner of Snap Milsons Point and North Sydney and Mike Palmer, who owns a number of sites on the East Coast.

When Driscoll talks about the “criteria” that got Prism across the line, they are possibly not the same requirements many commercial printers would look for. A number of factors are specific to the franchise environment. First and foremost, the system must be able to put up with a certain amount of “misuse”, he says.

“That’s not to be nasty to anyone. In the busy climate of a Snap Centre, we need a system that can help us to be sure nothing is missed across a wide array of print work. How do we make a system that’s as simple as possible?”

It goes back to the structural differences between a franchise group and a corporate. If a major multi-site printing group needs to roll out a new MIS, it can mandate everything from the top with utter single-mindedness. Snap doesn’t have that luxury. While any company’s strategy should be suitable from all perspectives, this is paramount in a franchise organisation.

See the Wizard
Prism’s ‘Wizard’ interface was one of the biggest drawcards. Driscoll says that when you do a “feature-for-feature shootout”, lots of the different MIS systems are pretty similar. “There isn’t necessarily one that dominates all of the others.”

“There a couple of things that really stood out for us in Prism. It’s a simple function, but the ability to have the Wizard was huge for us. It’s the concept of: ‘I’m doing this kind of job. Ask me 20 questions and I will build it for you’,” says Driscoll. The keep-it-simple ethos is useful in a business where a store’s owner might also wear the hat of salesman, estimator and production manager.

Another killer app was consistency of pricing. This doesn’t mean every Snap centre should be charging the same. Driscoll says the aim is for each centre to be very competitive, while making
a sustainable margin. “Striving for consistency isn’t about trying to set the lowest price, but a well-understood price.”

Consistent pricing is key to the Snap model because it is built on lots and lots of small jobs. The difference between profit or loss could be a few dollars. Case in point, of all the jobs the Westpac Copy Centre produces each year, 15,000 are under $150.

Throw into the mix the fact that at some branches, the salespeople aren’t necessarily experts when it comes to print pricing, and you can see why there’s need to automate the process if required. There’s also the fact Snap corporate gets a percentage of revenue, so it is in everyone’s interest that each centre is making a healthy return.

Of course, Prism itself requires a certain skill level, which brings us back to the training issue. Driscoll says the idiosyncrasies of the franchise business have caused their fair share of headaches for the Prism team.

“The challenge for Prism is that we are not a single entity that can just make rules that every needs to follow. That might sound counter-intuitive in a franchise situation, but the reality is that part of the reason you buy a franchise is because you do things your own way a little bit, within the bounds of the system,” says Driscoll.

“I’m sure we’ve tested the patience of the Prism analysts because we’re this combination of a big and small entity. As a franchisor, we need to take onboard the opinions of the owner group,” he says.

Back in business
Snap might be challenging customer, but Prism is glad to back in business with the franchise group. Kathy Mitchell, Prism’s global director, Professional Services and Technology, says: “It’s excellent news for us. We are very pleased to have them back as customers.”

As customers go, Snap must be one of its largest. While Prism has a number of big-name print groups on its books, including Salmat, Blue Star, Geon and IPMG, Snap is the biggest in terms of sheer number of outlets. But not every Snap looks alike. There are storefronts with a handful of staff. There are sophisticated in-plant style operations like the Westpac Copy Centre. There are production hubs with a mix of digital and offset capacity.

Mitchell says one of Prism’s advantages is the fact it can be configured in many different ways “to be as complex as it needs to be”. As Driscoll says, that’s a pretty broad range. Not only are there all there 147 centres and three hubs in Australia, the group also operates five centres and one hub in New Zealand, 22 centres and one hub in Ireland plus two centres in China.

With so much diversity comes a lot of room for error in an installation this big. “The list of risks is long,” says Driscoll.

Top of the list is the political issue. As Driscoll has explained, Snap franchise management do not suit atop a corporate pyramid from which they can direct orders for the whole network.

“The risk register needs to include thing like the network not accepting it culturally – the centres revolting against the forcing of the change. You are asking them to spend money. You are interrupting their profitable business for this many days. It’s negotiating things like that.”

With the Prism spec, Driscoll says it is important not to expect they can “train away their problems”, ie, while it’s realistic to expect each centre will toe the party line for certain requirements of Prism, other elements must more flexible. “There’s a real challenge in that. Having the robustness of the system to cope with people saying ‘that’s not how I do it’.”

There’s a diplomacy to Driscoll’s task, working to strike a delicate balance between advocating the needs of the franchise network and selling the benefit of Prism down the chain. So far, it’s working. Snap is making the final sprint toward a fully fledged MIS for the needs of today and tomorrow.

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