AV/IT: Evolve or Die
I recall coming home from the 2012 InfoComm 100 meeting in Reston and having that thought of “Evolve or die!” resonating throughout my mind.
David Wilts of Arup made the impassioned plea at that meeting (which I blogged about) that technology and society are changing so rapidly that firms in the AV space have both a great opportunity and terrible burden. Firms clinging to their old ways of doing business simply won’t be around in the next five or ten years without adapting to current needs and technologies – and changing their entire approach to the space.
Over my more than three decades in the industry I’ve experienced many perspectives. As an end user, an AV manager, an IT manager responsible for AV collaboration and now as an IT consultant specializing in collaboration, multimedia, and AV systems. I was the guy arguing that you couldn’t buy AV rooms out of a catalog while down the hall from me the CIO was doing just that. I learned that technology executives generally don’t care if the dynamic range of the conference room speakers is 20 to 20 or if the standard ratio of screen size to viewing distance has been honored. They care about making sure that systems they ultimately manage are standard, repeatable, and serviceable within an ITSM framework and as part of an ITIL process. Does that mean each conference room built within those parameters is the best one it could be? No. Ask yourself, however, if the car that you drive is the best one that you could own. No is probably the answer there as well. Does that mean that you made a bad decision buying it, or that you just analyzed the options and settled on your own compromise between features and cost?
As an IT professional, I did not have to flush my AV skills down the toilet. I can still solder cables, design and calibrate sound systems, set up multistacked video projectors, assemble a fast-fold screen, troubleshoot control systems, operate an MCU, and so on. My knowledge base has simply grown. I can now perform a network analysis, develop a change-control process, and understand the difference between incident management and event management. The two skill sets can definitely be complementary. I understand what my clients want today in AV systems – custom only where needed, off the shelf where not. I’ve evolved and will continue to do so.
Regrettably however, many in the AV industry have not. There are integrators that still see each client’s needed room as an opportunity to perform custom designs (along with the engineering, programming, and G & A fees that go along with them). There are consultants that still want to charge tens of thousands to design a custom room, and expect that the client will just pay that fee all over again for the second “custom designed” room that is essentially just like the first. I know this for a fact. These are the clients that are coming to me and asking if it’s really necessary to customize everything.
Sometimes it is. Sometimes you need to figure out how to get a twenty-person round table in a round room with two story ceilings to work with voice lift and without echo so it is clearly audible at both the near and far end. That was a rough one, but with the right experts involved, we solved the problems. Sometimes, however, customization isn’t necessary, like when you’re equipping a rectangular conference room that has a rectangular table with four chairs a side to support videoconferences. There are a dozen off-the-shelf solutions to meet that need and more hitting the market every day. It just burns me up that my beloved AV industry still has firms and players that will try to tell the client that, for example, a standard Cisco Profile or MX or Polycom Media Cart will not work unless the microphones are replaced, an outboard mixer/echo canceller/matrix/DSP is used, and the provided control system is replaced with a third-party controller and touch panel. Really? For an eight-person cookie-cutter room? Is there any wonder why the AV industry has had a credibility problem with IT leaders?
So while my advice to clients is to create a standard, internal “catalog” of system types with as many off-the-shelf solutions as possible, my advice to the AV integrators and consultants is basically what David said at the InfoComm 100 meeting – evolve or die. Use your unique skills to tell clients when those skills aren’t really needed – you’ll make up in volume what you don’t get doing unnecessary work. Develop custom solutions only where necessary and then offer to do additional, identical work without charging design fees and/or G & A again. Learn about IP networks, cloud services, Unified Communication systems, and smart buildings and become a trusted resource for your clients. Either that or get out of the way for the new leading firms that are changing the space by doing just that.