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Cultural Awareness in Image post-processing

 

image edititngBackground :

The modern commercial photo/image/video supply chain is often an international one. The producers, publishers, the final clients and the ultimate consumers may all be on different continents. As this supply chain went global in the internet era, awareness about global cultures and their norms about language, dress, food, religion and so on increased. Today it is a socially-expected practice among Western photographers in search of exotic locales to shoot to pay attention to local traditions and practices and avoid offending people. Indeed, a search on google about “culturally sensitive photography” returns over 12 million search results. But a search on “culturally sensitive photo editing” returns a grand total of zero relevant results! The reason is obvious: most people do not distinguish between photography and photo-editing.

And yet it is. As we have mentioned in previous articles, the professional photo post-processing industry is an often invisible, but essential part of this global supply chain wheel. Photo post-processing companies, mainly clustered in low-cost yet technically sound societies in Asia, Eastern Europe, and South America, bring economies of scale to operational expenses while freeing up more expensive resources like photographers. This high volume work emulates a low-variation batch operation in traditional manufacturing. A typical arrangement between a traditional high volume photo processor and the client may go something like this:

  • The client shares sample images with the processor and broadly defines how that type of images should be treated by sharing a “standard operating plan” or SOP.
  • The client designates one or more traffic managers and supervisors to ensure each image is “marked up” as desired down to fine details. One of the cornerstones of the image processing world is to never do what is not explicitly asked!
  • The processor edits the images as asked in the “mark up” note, puts them through a pre-defined QC process and returns the images to the client.
  • The client’s representatives do a final check to ensure all instructions were followed and the processor has not missed anything.

At least, that’s how it’s supposed to go. In reality, hassled clients may get irritated why a processor needs the same instructions over and over for subsequent batches of photos, while a processor may be adamant that without them, the client may decline to accept the work, costing the processor time and money.

The Problems…

  • The Paradox

While simple tasks like masking, cut-outs and so on are easy to measure objectively the task gets trickier with more complex work like morphing, complex retouching, localization etc. On the one hand, the processor demands explicit instructions for each image while on the other the client tries to reduce costs by minimizing the markup and final QC times. This becomes especially pronounced for really complex, meticulous work that takes hours. Such work is attractive to the processor and therefore in demand. However, if the client is not careful and ends up with hundreds of instructions (quite common for very complex work) he can spend so long on QCing it that the cost arbitrage of getting it done with a low-cost processor simply evaporates.

  • Emerging Threats to the Traditional Processing Model

Large processors also face two existential threats- a large pool of ultra- low cost, low volume, fly-by-night operators who can erode their volumes with cost-sensitive clients and the rise of automation, which will inevitably eliminate simple, repeated tasks. Therefore processors and their clients both have no option except to find ways to make working together a sustainable, mutually beneficial activity.

…And the Solutions

  • From Transaction to Relationship

Business relationships are mysterious things. When the relationship is limited to a good vs. money transaction, the exchange is simple, quick…but also unsecured. Like every business with a growth objective, a processor looks to increase its year on year revenue, either by expanding its client base, increasing its revenue from existing clients by introducing new goods and services, or both. Therefore it is in a client’s interest to choose a trustworthy processing partner, but once chosen, to use legal, business relationship and strategic means to create safeguards which allow them to share as much information on incoming business, nature of business, standards etc. with their partners as possible. For its part, a processor must also think strategically. If it mindlessly tries to expand its client base and ends up threatening its client’s own revenue source, then it will inevitably lose not only its cost efficiency, but also its client. Does that mean a vendor has no right to look for new clients? Of course not. All it means is it needs to be transparent with those clients with which it wants to develop a long term relationship. It also needs to create a robust business development and product development pipeline so it continues to be relevant across industries, giving it flexibility of movement and frankly, the ability to leave an over-restrictive client should the time come.

  • Culturally Aware Partners

The solution to the paradox of shrinking business value in doing complex work is for the processors to not only replicate the actions and processes of their clients, but to replicate their thought processes. That is easier said than done, but not impossible.

Till now the processing industry has followed a basically BPO model of “tell us what to do and we’ll do it as you ask”. As the work becomes more subjective, processors have to start acquiring the skills to become at least KPOs (Knowledge process outsourcing). That means staying abreast of emerging trends in their space- understanding design, fashion, aesthetic, socio-economic, and technological trends. This requires a deep commitment to information gathering and analysis (both human and machine-driven), interacting with experts in the various fields, and creating deliberate up-gradation programs to keep their workforces not only relevant but also differentiated. This also requires the appetite to make investments for the future with uncertain ROIs. Without these however, processors will simply lose their value and get caught in the deathzone- too mechanical to become true “partners” to their clients, but too big to become cost leaders. Ultimately they stagnate and many die.

For their part, it is in the best interest of clients to create strong “onboarding” programs for clients they deem of the long term value. Sure, a vendor’s representative halfway around the world may not understand what “Christmas in New York” looks like, but comprehensive training can reduce the gap. Not mechanical rote-learning, but holistic cultural awareness infusion. Only companies that understand the wisdom of cooperation over transactions can hope to remain relevant in the future.

Conclusion

Pikspire, a large image processing company that edits over one million images a year understands the need to continuously upgrade its workforce’s awareness. Two years ago we transitioned from a “functional training” to an “awareness training” approach, with technical “must-know” skills complimented by soft “must-know” skils. As a result, our client interaction and satisfaction has gone through the roof. Everything written above is a first-hand experience from one of the company’s strategic leaders. We decided to share this with the processing industry because we think a true partnership between high-cost origination centers and smart low-cost processing centers is the way of the future. Not a client-vendor relationship, but two sides of a coin.