Integration Angst in Higher Ed
I used to joke that every time two higher education technology managers met, we talked about the same two things: the control systems and video projectors we used. Over the last couple years, however, our conversations have broadened. We discuss our control systems, our projectors — and how badly some integrator screwed up our latest install.
Now, I’m not here to upset people or pick a fight. Integrators are an important part of our industry. Some of my friends are integrators (or were until right now). But get a few higher education tech managers together and I promise you’ll hear a litany of horror stories about dealing with integrators.
Before I reach the top of my soapbox, these opinions are, of course, my own and don’t represent any official view of our dear red-shirted friends in Fairfax, nor anyone here at the UC for that matter.
For too long, integrators have operated in a corner of our industry with little or no accountability. As we grow from a mom-and-pop industry to what seems to be a step-child of IT, continuing a run-and-gun, Wild West, AV project management philosophy can only hurt and discredit our industry.
My group at UCLA is responsible primarily for the 200 non-departmental classrooms on campus. We will, however, build rooms for other departments on a recharge basis. Much of that work has been fixing or upgrading existing systems, sometimes not long after the initial install. After most integrator projects, we hear complaints that the department didn’t get the system they asked for.
We will also help campus departments navigate projects built by an outside integrator. Or we help interpret proposals departments already have. We consistently see a lot of “gold plating” — an effort to cram in unnecessary features and functions, particularly on big projects.
“Hundreds of thousands of dollars in new equipment. Half doesn’t work, half we don’t need.” It’s a refrain I heard for years from users of a big, high-profile auditorium in our medical center.
On small projects, we see the opposite: cutting every corner possible to come up with the lowest bid. I just watched one department get bids for a very basic projector and input-panel system. Even though the department needed the system primarily to display information from laptops, most of the proposals didn’t include any sort of digital input. I’m sorry, it’s 2013 folks. That’s AV malpractice.
Finally, there is often a push to substitute equipment that’s easier to get or more profitable for the integrator. We can have all the “campus standards” talks we want. We can even deliver all sorts of recommended practice documents. If there is a loophole, we expect the unexpected.
Before I sat to write this blog, I visited with a colleague who is responsible for the AV at one of our professional schools. It’s a small but fairly sophisticated collection of about 20 rooms; most everything has touch panels, VTC, and lecture capture. He has lived through renovating the AV in all his rooms at least once. Every project (every couple of rooms) typically goes to a different integrator.
I walked into my colleague’s office and asked, “What do you think of integrators?” He shot back, “I’m totally against them” and launched into a profanity-laced soliloquy describing what was messed up or left undone, by which integrator, and in which room over the past couple years. Wrapping up on a high note, however, he described one big local integrator as “almost competent.”
I’ll admit, part of the problem here in higher ed is our own darn fault. Just like my previous life in the military, anything important is brought to you by the lowest bidder. And purchasing departments — bless their penny-pinching little souls — often have no idea what they’re doing when it comes to sourcing AV. We gave the AV portion of a high-profile campus project to an unqualified electrical contractor a year or so ago and we’re still trying to work out the bugs and inoperative features. Our bad.
Also, here in the higher ed world, your point of contact is not always the end user. And the folks coordinating the work may not be interested in listening to actual users, or they may think they know better. I’ve witnessed both of those cases here pretty regularly. If you really want to know what sort of projects you’re cranking out, track down some end users after you’re done.
OK, let the pillorying begin. What do you think? Integrators are the largest portion of InfoComm members. Did I just toss a rock at a hornets’ nest? Higher ed folks, am I wrong? I’ve heard a lot of unhappy people out there and I think this is an issue that deserves some honest discussion. Use the Comments section, but keep it constructive, helpful and productive.
In my next post, I’ll offer some specific examples that fuel my unease, but also signs that there are efforts underway that may turn this situation around.