The AV and IT industries have developed separate cultures over time, but as the disciplines converge, they increasingly have to work together. Can they get along?

While the AV and IT industries developed separate cultures with varying modes of communication over time, breakdowns in communication seem to be diminishing these days.
“I think it’s actually getting better,” said TJ Adams, QSC’s director of installed systems product management, who believes that the AV culture is changing as younger generations enter the industry. “It seems that a lot of younger folks are coming from university, even high school, and jumping into the AV industry, and they are more naturally IT-minded.

“I think that the IT culture is starting to change as well. More people of that generation think of AV technology and media processing and transport as an IT domain. There isn’t as big a line to be crossed from AV to IT—it’s a continuum.”

Cody Kleven, vice president of partnerships, Americas for Haivision, agrees that communication between IT and AV practitioners is improving. “There are so many AV technologies that sit on the network now that I think over time, relationships have gotten better. There’s more empathy; they each understand each other’s goals and objectives. It’s not quite as contentious as it once was.”

Any lingering differences between AV and IT are partly historical, according to Zach Snook, senior applications engineer, Biamp Systems, especially in one area of interaction. “It’s more about media networks, putting the audio or video on the network and streaming it. In the past, that has failed networks and left a bad taste. It wasn’t that the protocols or standards used were bad—it was the implementation. But it wasn’t well explained; the industries didn’t know enough about how to talk to each other.”

Snook continued, “That traffic is scrutinized because it’s important. AV needs to understand that IT is nervous about it, and make sure this stuff works.”

Manufacturers have played a role in bridging the AV/IT gap. “A lot of what we do from a product development standpoint is as much about meeting the business user’s needs as it is about making our technology deployable on a wide variety of network topologies,” said Kleven. “I think part of our success—and part of our responsibility as a manufacturer—is to make it easy for AV to have that conversation with IT. Give them the right products, interfaces, and technologies to allow them to deploy our stuff on the network without really being a burden on IT.”

At the core of the culture clash is the difference in the type of complexity between AV and IT systems, according to Adams. For instance, an IT person expects to be able to walk into a conference room, log into a meeting, and start a discussion as if they are at their desk using the soft codec client application of their choice. “However, they enter the conference room and find that it’s not as simple because they must interact with a user experience that is not standardized and seems to require special knowledge to operate.

“It’s really hard to communicate with your customer when they start out with the mindset of ‘Why can’t it just work?’ But we must understand and empathize with why they tend to think this way before we can solve their problems in the way they want us to.

“This is key to bridging the chasm. When we used to sell to an internal AV team at an end user, we could rely on the fact that they had a common understanding. They understood they were receiving a customized solution where the integrator stitched together all these disparate systems and made them all work nicely together. Meanwhile, IT people were looking for an easier, more complete platform, rooted in current IT software manufacturers. They expect the integrator to service them more like their other IT vendors and VARs by providing services that appeal to their desire for consistency, standardization, and simplicity.”

The onus is largely on AV to become more conversant with IT technology, according to Snook. “AV needs to learn to play more on the IT side. Manufacturers are leading the charge, but AV has to step up their game a little bit.”

Collaboration is key, agreed Kleven. “I think it’s important that when there is going to be an IT department involved, for AV to not try to take complete ownership and make assumptions, or even select products, without IT’s involvement. It’s best to make IT part of the project, as opposed to just giving them a product to support or a list of requirements.”

To aid in those discussions, AV people should become conversant with at least the basics of networking technology. But IT training courses can often be manufacturer-specific or delve deeper than the average AV person really needs to go.

Fundamentally, IT can be an alien culture for some AV people. “They don’t understand what motivates an IT person,” Adams said. The situation will eventually improve, he added. “At the integrator/owner level, I would say continue hiring young software and network savvy people, and don’t worry so much that they may not know anything about AV at first.”

The AV industry has much more to offer IT than just boxes and gear, Adams continued. “Our understanding of acoustics, gain structure, and other seemingly dark arts come to mind.”

Ultimately, the ability to embrace change will be crucial to ensuring the AV integrators’ longevity in the industry.

Steve Harvey (sharvey.prosound@gmail.com) is editor-at-large for Pro Sound News and also contributes to TV Technology, MIX, and other NewBay titles.