Print culture is holding organizations back

Many organizations have not really adapted to the Web but rather have made the Web adapt to them and their print processes, their print thinking and their print culture.

The characteristics of a print culture are:

  1. You are creating a fixed, contained, physical thing.
  2. It is much more efficient to publish one large thing than many small things.
  3. This thing is a project. It has a fixed publication date. There is no budget to maintain the thing.
  4. Once you have published the thing, it is finished, over with. You do not return to make changes to it.
  5. The overwhelming job of those who create the thing is to get it out there, get it up, publish it, communicate it.
  6. The physical print thing will expire over time. The brochures or reports will end up on dusty shelves, in bins, in landfills. After a couple of years, there will be practically no evidence that the brochure ever existed. Therefore, you do not need to worry that in 18 months someone might find this thing and use the information in it as if it was current.
  7. There is a huge focus on the surface of the thing, the cover of the thing, its standout visual appeal. Vast time is spent on what the hero shot should look like in order to grab attention for the thing. Because it is assumed that everything that is communicated must grab attention. When orgs create a thing they imagine it in a giant magazine store with people walking by, browsing. How will their cover grab attention?

Many communicators look at websites through the lenses of brochures and magazines, newspapers, pretty pictures, and “getting the message out”. For them, the Web is a vehicle to publish and forget, to launch and leave. The idea that people have agency, that people may come looking for information other than what the organization wants to communicate today, is an alien concept to the traditional organization.

Search, findability, metadata, information architecture, archiving, review and deletion, continuous improvement, databases; these are all alien concepts to a print culture.

On April 2, 2020, the EU CDC website was one of the first to publish information on loss of smell and taste as new symptoms for COVID-19. However, when I used its search engine in June to search for COVID-19 symptoms, the first result was for a symptoms infographic from February 2020 that contained only the old symptoms.

Out-of-date content is not being updated. The symptoms list should have been updated in the infographic. Generally, the search for EU CDC is terrible because in all likelihood nobody is actively managing it. Also, everything is probably siloed. The people who create the infographics probably never even think about how they will be found in a search engine.

We must create a digital culture when it comes to information, and that starts with a refocusing of energy and resources. We must focus 90% of our energy on what has already been published, and actively manage and improve the findability and usability of that information. No more than 10% of our time should be focused on creating new stuff.

Excellence in digital is inherently and foundationally about maintenance and evolution through processes of continuous improvement.

4 thoughts on “Print culture is holding organizations back

  1. Jim Reed

    Very timely article. A department in my organization is currently working with the IT folks to replace a paper form with an online process, but they seem to be completely overlooking the differences and they are building “electronic paper.” The first thing on the draft web form is about 180 words of instruction that they probably lifted intact from the paper version. The first sentence says “Please provide all information requested. Incomplete or illegible application forms may not be processed.” Have they never used an online form before? They asked me for some feedback and I told them nobody would read a word of that text if they left it like that. Some points people might read if they were placed in the body of the form as appropriate for the steps in the process. We will see what the next draft looks like.

    1. Gerry McGovern Post author

      It’s amazing alright. It’s always easier to just take the print thing and digitize it. It’s good they have someone like you to ask the important questions. Hopefully, that will get them to change.


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