Every office needs a grand piano—or at least some communal music instrument. This was but one key takeaway impressed on me while attending AVI Systems’ new Learning Center’s open house in May. The spontaneous acquisition of the grand piano, perched at the edge of the vibrant open dining space designed to encourage social gatherings at the company, deeply reinforces the impressive commitment to education and learning that president and CEO Jeff Stoebner has envisioned. This vision is to build a highly educated and specialized workforce with an overt commitment to succession planning and ensuring the 100-percent employee-owned integration firm’s future success as much as today’s. 

And sitting comfortably near the top of SCN’s Top 50 systems integrators list (clocking in at number four in 2016) by all accounts, Stoebner’s shrewd leadership has established a unique recipe for success.

The new office space and learning center has exceeded expectations for Stoebner. He cited a good architect who listened to what they wanted as one reason why. “Some of the things we told her were, ‘small houses, big parks.’ So we didn’t necessarily need ginormous workspaces, but we wanted a place for people to spread out, for people to collaborate, for people to meet.”

This was certainly achieved to the highest standards. The facility, while spaciously open, is also flexible enough to enclose some of these areas with hip garage-door aesthetic details, partitioning wide workspaces with mostly soundproof glass and acoustical treatments adorning geometrically shaped ceilings, which effectively remove any reverberating effect from the glass barriers.

The idea was for meeting spaces where workers can enjoy one another’s company and still gather productively. “And then when you’re working at your desk, you’re working at your desk,” Stoebner said.

One of the other most notable traits of the new Eden Prairie, MN facility is that there’s no real division between the learning center and the office space. Beyond a few designated classrooms, the learning center and the offices are essentially hybrid areas. This was purely intentional. “If you walk around, you see the circulation is really open,” Stoebner added. “I think it encourages people to connect, hang out, explore. And we’ve got a little fun. We’ve got some bikes. We’ve got the piano.”

As with many new office builds, the idea emerged from necessity. AVI had quite simply outgrown its space. “Then I think we thought, ‘Let’s build something around education and learning.’ That’s where it started,” he recounted. “Then it morphed into, ‘Well, maybe we look at the whole space holistically and try to create something that flows well and doesn’t look like a remodel, plus a remodel, plus a remodel.’”

Not following the DIY route was a decision he touted for the success, as well as hiring people who were able to bring good perspectives in. One other key element was engineering a space that mimics the look of AVI Systems’ customers’, since many of these clients are in higher education and using their facilities as a tool to recruit both customers and employees.

What started as an office expansion and learning center is next being brought to the field with a similar look and feel extending the AVI Systems brand. “We really want to have people know that they’re in an AVI facility, wherever they are.”

Building on Stoebner’s comments, Joel Lehman, COO added that, “It is really in line with what we’re trying to accomplish for our customers. And it’s also very in line with our business in what we do for our customers, and in line with our growth strategy, particularly around elevating the capabilities of our team and our workforce. The onsite training facilities are particularly important in making sure we stay on top of what’s happening in the industry and ensuring we have the highest trained workforce.” 

Minutes later, Lehman, who joined AVI Systems earlier this year from outside of the AV industry, retrieved his flugelhorn from his car and joined the pianist entertaining the open house guests for an impromptu duet. Lehman plays in jazz bands around Minneapolis, so while technically new to the industry, he fits in like a seasoned vet.

While the pianist was hired for entertainment during the event, apparently there is a regular rotation of staff members that take a break from their work to sit down and play a few numbers. With compelling psychological research studies pointing to the positive effects music has on our brain waves, it’s safe to say this unplanned piece of the AVI Systems learning center was destined to be.

As the open house quieted down a bit following the lively pig roast lunch guests enjoyed, Brian van der Hagen, manager of training and development, graciously demonstrated AVI Systems’ new learning dashboard. This remarkable portal is the online centerpiece of the company’s ambitious education initiatives. “Basically, the intention is to come into a singular entity for all things learning or enhancement, or potentially announcement, or anything employee based,” van der Hagen said.

The learning module is an ecosystem of “How do I make myself better?” he described. It includes a performance module where AVI Systems has adopted a continual employee review model. “So it’s no longer once a year, sit down with your manager, and review a piece of paper. It’s a living strategy to continue to stretch goals. It’s live. The employee knows exactly where they are with their milestones.”

Because why wait 12 months for a review to see if you’ve achieved a goal or not?

“We also made the commitment to a formalized succession program within the company. We decide that not only do we start right sizing individuals in roles, but we start looking toward their future, and how do we elevate them and continue to show performance enhancement, as well as succession ascension into new leader potential in the company.” 

As part of the curriculum portion of the portal, AVI Systems has licensed InfoComm’s CTS courses, and they intend to grow this portion, which they’ve had discussions about with NSCA, CompTIA, and AQAV. There’s nothing official to report there yet, but van der Hagen anticipates adding to the core offerings in the next year or two. “The idea is to drive people, employees, customers, and competitors into this learning rich environment.” 

Wait…competitors?!

“Yea, why not?” he said. “In our opinion, if we’re contributing to making our industry participants smarter, whether they work here or not, the whole industry gets better. The customer experience gets better. The customer enhancement experience gets better. Everybody gets better. ‘The more, the better’ is kind of the philosophy.”

Plus, licensing it adds an extra layer of monetization to a project they invested significant resources into. “We have a public facing e-commerce model that we’re going to be rolling out,” van der Hagen said. “So you could subscribe to learning. You can register yourself. It’s not a filter to say you work at a competitor. It’s certainly a field that we want to track to see how much adoption we’re getting both internally and externally. Then it’s just ‘come on in,’ the more the merrier. Whether it’s instructor-led, online session, or self-paced, it doesn’t matter.”