by Todd McCandless
I’m not one for circling wagons or cloud-based panic so I’ll spare you the impending doom speech because quite frankly I don’t see doom on the horizon—unless it’s in the shape of opportunity and I doubt that’s the case, as the Trojan Horse gambit is well out of the bag and most AV integrators aren’t falling for cheap parlor tricks these days.
What I see is reality in the work-a-day life of the AV integrator. Let’s be humble first—AV is lower on the technology food chain than IT and we must first admit our position in the dystopian world of rapidly changing, disparate technologies. Now, let’s get back to reality since we’ve offered our fatted calf and admitted our humble position at the altar of Information Technology (IT).
The reality is this—the AV industry woke the IT dragon of opportunity and it’s not the cute one your kids watch on Saturday morning. It was our fault though. We thought it might be interesting to put an Ethernet jack on all of the products we design, specify and install. After cutting our teeth on setting up wireless networks, figuring out what the “DMZ” function of the wireless router was, building VLAN’s and determining why DHCP works, we figured it would be a great idea to have these random products attempt to talk to each other over a network.
That, as you can imagine, was the move that launched a thousand ships. Manufacturers determined that in order to become more sophisticated, they should hire some of those IT guys and start making their products more IT-friendly. Well that was like inviting the fox to the henhouse all expenses paid. It was a move born from pure innocence, admiration, opportunism and innovation. No one can fault us for wanting to become more salient to the process of integrated technologies. In fact, we pride ourselves on being integrators and to be honest, we are still the best in the business.
What became clear to the IT industry is that we represented a very large business industry and while the IT industry sought new markets, products and services—this may be a new shiny object to exploit. Exploit they did. Cisco acquired Tandberg in a move that many predicted. Reading today’s Wall Street Journal is a playbook of why this move made sense. Headlines such as “LG net plunges”, “Moody Downgrades Nokia”, “Juniper sends grim signal” and “Cisco to lay off 16 percent of their workforce” are all indicators of an IT world searching for new markets, products and services as their established roles are becoming untenable.
I’ll be honest, I’ve been in this business for over 20 years and I cannot recall a time when technology products and services have changed so rapidly. We can grouse about it but the reality is there is no way we can resist it or hide from it. The IT world was said to be “converging” with the AV world and I am sad to say that this is only partially the case—more aptly, it is consuming it.
Cisco’s acquisition, and subsequent troubles, is only the first of what is coming. Polycom has read the move very well and championed “open-source interoperability” as its goal. Crestron, the remote control company, has now become Crestron the digital AV management and switching company with lighting and a few touch panels to boot. These days everyone has a CAT5 solution for audio and video.
Videoconferencing will most likely become a software or cloud-based solution rather than an end point or hardware-centric notion. Microsoft’s acquisition of Skype is a clear indicator of that type of move. As an integrator to several large law firms, I can tell you that flat fees in their industry are demanding that iPad’s, Skype, videoconferencing end points and bridging all need to work together. Attorneys who are subject-matter experts need to join a call even if they are remote via their iPad’s “Face Time” feature.
Audio is having its mani-pedi too. It has shrunk in hardware footprint as well as changed its signal type to a digital format without so much as a whisper. It has become more complex in its new networked hoody and skinny jeans but the benefits are big (yes, I do get the plot that real amps glow in the dark).
What is a troubled AV integrator to do in this rapidly changing world of AV-meets-IT in the ultimate battle? Let us be perfectly clear here—sales is king and the person I deal with most in the decision process is the CIO. No longer lumped into facility management, the IT department has taken control of all things electronic. Why? Because everything electronic has an Ethernet jack on it and can be polled for status and communication as well as integrated.
If sales is king and CIO’s are making the decisions, then we must learn to speak clearly to the CIO and not the frumpy guy in facilities who has been manning the wireless microphone system for 15 years. How do we do that? Here are a few ideas:
1- If you desire to grow in the converged/consumed market of AV/IT, you may want to pull that suit and tie out of the closet and resign yourself to the notion that the jeans and polo’s look was kitschy in 1994 but it doesn’t fly with the professionals in the IT world. Sure, the rank and file “IT dudes” have taken the khakis and golf shirt look to the brink of hell but I implore you to raise your game and dress better than the propeller heads you are now serving in the IT department. IT professionals—read decision-makers—wear suits while their minions wear the unique stylings of the khaki/golf shirt uniform of mediocrity. Who is buying? The guy in the suit. Who is selling? That AV “dude” in the jeans/khakis and golf shirt with his glasses perched on his head (seriously, lose the glasses on your head).
2- If you’re small, look to subcontracting your labor to larger AV integrators and IT companies who lack localization. Many IT companies can now sell Cisco/Tandberg end points but few integrate them. Team with reputable IT companies in your area as their AV partner. They need your skills and you need their pull in the IT world because it is that world doing the devouring, not your world.
3- Realize that the big IT company is just one move away from shutting you down. If they were to hire a guy like you, they would be instantly in the AV business. You, as the owner/GM of an AV integrator, have all the know-how to assemble the AV integration side of their business. You most likely know all the vendors and can get dealerships with the AV manufacturers who are now vibrantly looking at IT companies as their next frontier.
4- I’m not going to mention training. It’s a foregone conclusion that it is very important for skills and adaptability. What I will suggest is making a revised business model for your company. Let’s look very quickly at this notion:
a. Establish your capability profile and realize that seemingly adjacent product or service acquisition/adoptions are not always adjacent. You have to have the capability structure to execute the integration of the product/service you are selling. Think of it this way, the IT world is viewing the AV world as an adjacency but they are discovering that they do not have the capabilities strategy to integrate and to simply rely on economies of scale is not enough to justify the merger/acquisition alone. The current situation in our industry is a shining example for you and you should be looking at new source of business value and not just “what can we sell?” options.
b. As you build your new model, make it a capabilities-driven strategy. Focus on what your company does best. Identify three to six mutually reinforcing capabilities that create new models, products, and services that your competition cannot easily compete with you on.
c. While I am seeing a shift in the role IT plays in business (from powerful leader to demand management based on departmental needs whose managers are now setting IT direction), I can also say that your business needs to shift as well. IT is facing serious changes at the same time they are trying to digest our industry and we could face the fallout of that heartburn. Prepare your business to avoid the blast radius of IT’s bomb-of-change by identifying your competitive advantage using your capabilities-driven strategy to assuage the threat of IT explosion or implosion (former Tandberg employees most likely know what I am speaking of right now).
5- Do not lead with silly integration ideas. It’s like having the word “concepts” in your business name—no one wants a concept, they want top products integrated with other top products and zero downtime. This isn’t the time to get the old Radio Shack “150 in One Electronic Project Kit” out; it’s time to match your capabilities to the products that you execute best with.
These are simple concepts from 60,000ft. but do give your business model a serious look. Here is one thing, as owner or employee, that will help you move forward in the confluence of AV and IT—ask yourself these questions:
Are there three to six capabilities that you uniquely do better than anyone else? If so, is your entire business model drawing on that capabilities system? Are you creating value for the company or just managing the work? Is your company defining the future of integration through capabilities equally matched and competitively superior in light of a new neighbor called IT? If not, time to sharpen your pencil, define your revised business model and put a suit on.