Integration Angst in Higher Ed

http://www.dreamstime.com/-image22927059I 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.

About Greg Brown

Greg is part of of the Classroom Technology Design and Maintenance group at UCLA, overseeing AV design, install and maintenance for most of the classrooms and AV-equipped spaces on campus. He is a member of InfoComm’s Technology Managers Council and a regular guest on AVNation’s monthly EdTech podcast. For more information, visit the Blogger Bios page.

17 Responses to “Integration Angst in Higher Ed”

  1. Nothing else to add other than. “Bing”, right on the head and thank-you for so eloquently offering what many of us are experiencing. I would offer that the challenges don’t just stop with integrators, many of the issues experienced are a direct result of AV Designers who seemingly know better than their clients in what they both need and want. Just saying! Having experienced this first hand I can say with some certainty that unless the institution goes down the path of creating its own Project Management Office with local AV SME’s or PM’s involved. The vicious cycle of others “knowing” more than the institution will only repeat itself. Thank-you again for starting this conversation!

  2. We can point fingers at everyone. I work in a department that integrates AV, and when they thought the project would take too long for us to do it, they called in outside integrators. And like everyone else, they can’t do the job we do.
    Watching my former boss let the responsibility of un-finished work fall to us rather than the integrator, it would drive me mad! How do they get paid twice as much to NOT do a job, but I get paid peanuts to fix their problems. If I was in charge, they wouldn’t get a penny until everything was working. Is it their Fault that it wasn’t working to our standards or our departments fault for not requiring them to meet the standards to get paid? Did the PM not provide a clear scope of work? Or did they simply not understand it?
    This blog was presented to the AV Industry…I’m in the middle of getting my PMP Certification. And in my last class I learned that 52% of projects fail and come in 189% over budget. That’s worldwide. It’s not just in Higher Ed or the AV industry, it’s because world is base on money instead of quality. How many Managers reference check the integrator? Have you been to there last project and spoke with the end users to find out if it went ok? Or are they used because they had the lowest bid?

  3. There is enough blame to go around. As an Integrator we see IT departments designing systems with equipment that will not work for the operation they are trying to achieve. So call Integrator’s cutting equipment to the bone and doing sub-par jobs to just “get paid” or “make their numbers”. Consultants that have no idea what the client wants, and doing what we call”copy and paste designs” because it work on another project.
    Then there is the “low bidder”…well my Granddad use to say “you get what you pay for”. I just had a meeting with a director of Procurement at a local college where we are re-doing someone else’s install. We found out that we lost the bid by a few hundred dollars, now it is costing them thousands for us to fix. Oh well I need the work.

  4. Any AV/IT project you are working on requires homework on your part. If you’re responsible for the lecture space, how do you want the room to function? What equipment and functionality are you offering the faculty? Have said faculty been asked directly what they want or need? What trends do you see in your institution?

    If you’re not responsible for the lecture space and are “helping out a department”(cough, cough) what are their needs? Most likely you’ll get raccoon eyes, because no one wants to take responsibility for a decision. This is where you have to ask very basic and detailed questions and make sure you document all of it.

    I design virtually all of the installations for the nearly 200 classroom lecture spaces my department is responsible for. I also am asked to assist departments with their AV installations. I work with the integrators, leaning on their expertise, doing my homework, educating myself, asking questions.

    An integrator, given no direction, is not responsible or accountable for a functioning AV system if it doesn’t meet your expectations. No excuses. I have excellent relationships with the integrators I consistently use when we are not building AV systems in house. I write up specific and detailed RFPs with my expectations clearly spelled out; have walk through meetings before integrators submit their responses to my RFPs, where any number of questions are answered and shared. I even have at least 1 post-award meeting with the integrator on the project and the full refresh or renovation team so all expectations are met and individual responsibilities are understood.

    My preferred method of integration is “Design-Build.” One company to design, work with, install and maintain for as long as the maintenance agreement is valid. Without question, the most productive use of everybody’s time and financially responsible.

    Now for the potent statement…I do not work with consultants. I find them nepotistic and self-serving, looking only to bloat the installation with useless and excess and expensive equipment. They spend more time thinking up persuasive means to make you believe you need all that stuff -my opinion. Then, when the integrator is handed that meshka-peshka equipment list and drawing, they are stuck building what was handed to them. My condolences to those projects…and yes, Ive been on the receiving end of these also, from departments that were persuaded to trust the consultant, only to have the finished product handed to my technical department to maintain; and to blame when it doesn’t work or function as that department required.

    Responsibility & accountability. I accept it and require it from those I choose to work with. That’s where it’s at.

    • Our local University has started designing their own integrated AV Systems based on Crestron. They put out a tender for supply only for the hardware. Once they have purchased the hardware at the cheapest price they then put out a tender for the installation. They already have a standard UI to be used etc… Makes it very hard to compete for the supply & installations now :-(

  5. As the AV department slowly comes under the rule of the IT world (kicking and screaming) it needs to stick to its guns, so to speak. It is not necessarily communication but severe lack of knowledge and manufacturer one-up-man-ship that have contributed to the end user (and their department-head interpreters) dissatisfaction.

    I recently helped on a university project with some of the problems being described. Now this project had 3 customers, his, hers and ours! Here are just some of the issues the beleaguered integrator (and I) had to deal with during the 3 day installation!

    The 3 orders were not for just the 3 projects. It seems one of the projects needed more money so some of its material was ordered with left over grant money from another project. No one thought letting the integrator know this fact was important.

    The design consultant never actually visited the site! This caused major problems and changes to the design were made between the university and the consultant over the phone then relayed to the integrator. Of course as-built drawings were still needed even though whole buildings were now being changed and added to the project. The integrator was not allowed to submit a change order. LOL!

    Some professors, or end users, were not even aware that new systems were being installed. Complaints were voiced, committees convened, and rooms re-arranged. All without a change in scope.

    4 WEEKS later university personal started to become annoyed that the projects were not finished. Did I mention that electrical had still not provided power for the projectors or amplifiers!

    And last but certainly not least; after signing off on the work the university refused to cut the final 25% check until the finished haggling with the consultant.

    Mr. Brown (and other higher ed end users) if you really wish to improve your AV systems from top to bottom I suggest a long term technology plan, similar to your campus master plan. Oh, and I would HIRE a technology project manager and pay him a really good HOURLY wage!

  6. Interesting article and great discussion. This is not an issue that is isolated to higher ed- I’ve seen this exact same situation arise across many different organisations.

    You are absolutely spot on with it being due to lack of communication. This is not to say that integrators and consultants are not performing the required analysis and research, or blindly specifying equipment in oder to maintain brand allegiance. Nor is it to say end users and facilities managers are intentionally failing to clearly communicate requirements. However, multiple instances of small and potentially insignificant hinting at the above traits, when summed across an entire project will combine to this communication breakdown.

    Now the important question is is why does this not happen in other industries – building, IT, aviation? Well, it does; just maybe not to the same extent. The greater the risk and potential damage of failure, generally the greater the level of documentation, language standardisation, compliance testing and general ‘overhead’. On larger projects the AV industry as a whole appears to be moving more towards this way of working and will hopefully also enjoy some of the benefits (…and pitfalls).

  7. Great article. At my campus, we recently went from being our own integrator to having an outside firm come in and perform that task for us.

    The company we chose does a good job, but they still face the same problems we used to face, like being given the room two days before the start of the semester to install, troubleshoot and commission a complicated touch panel based system.

    We were lucky enough to get a good company that is local and delivers a quality install at a reasonable cost. I design the systems and the campus purchases and provides all equipment. The integrator then installs it all and programs the system. Once we got them trained in the way we want it done, it has gone pretty smoothly.

    I did recently have an AV consultant try to get me to use “the other guys”, not our campus standard brand, on one project. Talk about gold plated, this thing had a huge isolation transformer, an expensive high end consumer AV home theater receiver used as just an amp and a tabbed perforated screen with wall mounted speakers behind it. Nice quality, but it’s an ordinary department conference room that is used for multiple purposes.

    Luckily, I was able to intervene and got it switched to our standard stuff. The consultant didn’t seem too happy about it. He wanted to bad mouth the brand we use, telling me it was just too kludgy. But, he wasn’t going to be the guy who had to service it and maintain it after the project was over. Ugh.

  8. Having been on both ends of the spectrum, from being AV tech to working for an integrator and now as a Technology Manager for the college I work at I can sympathize with all parties.

    The biggest issue I have with most end-users is their failure to communicate their needs when it comes to the AV systems they wish to implement. Even after repeated discussions about the AV system and finalization of the plans or proposal there invariably comes a time when the end-users expectations change and then they fail to communicate that change with the people responsible for installtion. Consequently, when the system is installed and commissioned it fails to live up to what they envision.

    That is not to say that an integrator has no blame in this outcome. Many integrators do not know how to relay the knowledge they have in order to get a clear picture of what specifics are desired. And of course if an integrator is not vested in the outcome that can become a problem as well when the job needs to be finished and they just don’t care.

    Good points in this article and I look forward to reading more.

  9. This conversation is very helpful in confirming pains and strides made over the past 5 years that I have experienced in a Technology Manager role supporting our Conferencing Center in both IT and AV functions. Coming from an IT background , the AV side of things I have had to learn as you go and with assistance of the three AV vendors we use. Their suggestion that I join InfoComm has been invaluable in starting down InfoComm’s Technology Manager track to speak the lingo and technical skills to work better with the integrators as well as troubleshoot more efficiently. Our corporate relationship with the 3 integrators is evolving. We just finished our annual review with each. The 2 hours we spent sharing what went well on past projects in 2012 and what needs improvement is something we have already seen results on. I echo previous posts that state the more local the integrator the better if you can, the more involved (process)on projects the better the result (whenever possible), kickoff meetings with identified stake holders including a few of the End Users that will be using the room when completed, weekly updates from the Integrator to catch missing or stalled items and a most importantly we are asking for is a solid commissioning process with closeout items e.g. code & drawings. These have all helped our builds improve over the years. It has been a journey but one I feel has improved over the years.

  10. From an AV integrator’s perspective, this blog and associated comments are right in line with what we are witnessing. Higher Education clients are not alone in this challenge, and as “B” indicates in his comment above, it is not only Integrators that leave users and owners dissatisfied, but just about all trades.

    It seems in today’s competitive, low-margin economic environment the less reputable firms are willing to cut any corner, exploit any opening you leave for them in your bid specs to take advantage of. And when reputable firms like ours bid a proper, complete solution, we get priced out in lowest-price-technically-acceptable bids.

    Remember that as more large national firms buy up smaller integrators, the best talent usually jump ship which leaves a less than ideal crew to conduct the local installs in that geographic region. So you might have a contract with a big acronym but get service from a Mom and Pop without their best techs. On the other side of the spectrum are start up integration firms, usually founded by the veterans who left those bigger firms, but who don’t have the management experience to run a business. Not to start a completely different topic, but this trend and the changing landscape of the integration firms out there is a factor in the declining quality of work that is being highlighted in this topic.

    One suggestion for those tech coordinators who know that needs to change and who have the power to drive change is to make your high profile projects a best-value bid. Yes, it means more time taken by the bid selection body to interview the offerors to understand the full value of their proposed solution, but compared with the cost of contracting a system that is insufficient or next to useless and will need to be redone anyway, the more time vetting your offerrors the better. Make InfoComm membership a requirement to bid, as well as having CTS, CTS-I and CTS-D certified installers, designers/engineers, and project managers. And though it can be touchy when it comes to formal bids, requiring the offerrors to have a service center within say 50 miles with 1-day response time significantly minimizes downtime and increases confidence and system use.

    If you have developed a relationship with your favorite integrator who you know delivers quality work and can back it up with service and training, consider a design-build contract that can be negotiated on price rather than an all doors open publicly posted bid. Another good alternative is invitation-only bids.

    Trust me, we’re based in Hawaii and with the slow down in the east coast and west coast integration business, mainland firms are trying to push their way out here because of the competitive, low margin state of affairs nationwide. If you post your bids nationwide, expect to get bidders who have no business bidding. And more than a few are in such bad shape, they are bidding projects at little to no profit just to stay alive. If you think they’ll still perform the work to your expectations and stick around to support you after sign off, I have a lovely private island I’d love to sell you.

  11. Sorry my first comment was cut off.

    This is a great article! These are the reasons that Universities are hiring A/V Engineers, Project Managers and Programmers.

    I actually come from an Integrator; being a Partner in a local company we did a lot of bidding against other Vendors. We would lose bids routinely because we bid the best solution, not what was the cheapest or made us the most money etc. Of course we used products we were comfortable with supporting, but never just to make more margins.

    Unfortunately as you mentioned the purchasers did not know Apples from Oranges or A from V sometimes. This made it hard to convince them ours was the better option. At times their hands were tied even if they knew it was better they had no choice but to go with the other company due to cost even though they knew they would regret it (I saw this first hand).

    We actually did more business going back and fixing or improving other Vendors work after they “disappeared on to the next job”. It was easier to work with the end user when they controlled their own budget this made servicing or upgrading work easier to get.

    After changing sides and having an understanding the Politics involved I realized why good vendors have a tough time winning bids that can be profitable, high quality and dependable.

    Part of it is the changing world, merging A/V and IT; IT is now a requirement in all A/V installs at some level. I remember working with University IT departments as a Vendor which was much more difficult than it is when they become your colleagues.

    Sorry this is long, but really spawned some good comments!

  12. Dead on. Same problems, different coastline. Still, some of the blame likely falls to us, or so I’m led to believe. Each time I’ve had problems with an integrator, in my private sector previous life, or my Higher Ed. current life, it all seems to come back to how I failed to be explicit enough in my expectations. Of course, if I could be completely explicit in every step of a project, I could likely have my own staff handle it.
    It is important to point out that this problem extends far beyond AV integrators. I’m having just as much trouble in a new construction getting things like outlets and doors in the expected places. Perhaps there is some sort of “magic language” that exists that we’re just not speaking?

  13. As a higher-ed technology manager, responsible for management of 100+ classrooms and conference room, with the exception of routine maintenance we haven’t had any issues with our integrator installed rooms. However, sadly, our integrator of choice has switched focus from classroom/conference room to large scale auditoriums and arenas. We are seeing similar difficulties with the integrators we are using, sadly. However, I’ve found the more hands on, and demanding (read: micromanaging) of our integrators, I am, the better the results are. I’ve found, unfortunately, that I often have to put most of the work in on my end to manage large projects to ensure they are completed how our users have requested.

  14. I agree with this. Working at a University myself I see this a lot. Where a project starts with us involved and then at some point we in AV are left in the dark. While we are in the dark changes are made to the system to save money. These changes normally are things like video preview on a touch panel, which to the outside person seems like a luxury. To us is a must have.

    I am a control system programmer as well as run an AV office. One of the benefits and downfalls of control systems is that they preform exactly as programmed. I have seen integrators apparently program systems to crash. Mainly this stems to integrators not commissioning systems correctly. Every button needs to be pressed in every possible configuration to call the system ready for end users. I see a lot of integrators saying they are too busy and have other jobs. Isn’t my job the “other job” to the other job? So what about me?

    Just a little rant.

    Jason

  15. You forgot the part that when you question them about line items or practices they feel slighted and hold it against you! Or the part where they sub-contract the work out to people who may not be qualified nor experienced enough to meet high standards?

    One integrator in this area that I know of put in a room, from a MAC to 2 60″ flat panels using all VGA connectors! Not sure why they didn’t come off the mini-dv or dvi to HDMI. From what I gathered they were not to happy I questioned the install!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. “Integration Angst in Higher Ed” with Thanks to Greg Brown, UCLA | Weezer Words - February 25, 2013

    […] A recent blog entry is sure to get the attention of media technology integrators.  Greg Brown, Manager of Classroom Technology Design and Maintenance group at UCLA, writes of the “litany of horror stories about dealing with integrators.” I am not about to step into something I’ll have wipe off my shoes, so I’m not taking sides.  Yet I found his lament of woe and responses fascinating reading.  Rather than reiterate what Greg wrote, read it here. […]