Jockeying For Position

As an increasing number of products are placed on the network, the border between AV and IT continues to blur. For systems contractors working with IT professionals, the challenge is to deliver systems that meet the needs of a client that doesn't necessarily understand all of the technology involved.

"It is becoming more and more network-centric, where people can access their systems remotely, via the web," observed J.P. Carney, chief operating officer of Revolabs in Maynard, MA, a manufacturer of wireless microphones for conferencing applications. "This shift is pushing things more and more toward the IT department. There will still be AV professionals inside companies, but it is going to be more IT-centric."

Traditional AV consultants and contractors continue to face an age-old problem: They are not included in the project from the outset, often creating a rocky relationship with the IT department. "From a consultant's point of view, those are the people that we would like to be talking to early on in the process and throughout," said Paul Malpas of Arup Acoustics in Cambridge, United Kingdom. "We usually only bump into them when the project is being commissioned, and, by this time, they are a bit disgruntled because their bosses bought stuff that they didn't necessarily buy into, and things are more awkward than they would have been otherwise."

Phi Ho, P.Eng. and vice president of Acumen Engineering in Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada, notes that the new Master Format will drive companies to include AV systems in IT contracts. "As far as the owners go, the AV administrator is starting to become a part of the IT group. As far as the AV installations go, they are starting to be reviewed by the IT group, and oftentimes, the AV portion of the project is included in the same contract as the IT," he said. "With the new Master Format, Division 27 covering communications and audiovisual, this will come out under the same contract in the future. Our experience has been that AV projects are still going out by themselves, but we are also starting to see that IT and AV will be grouped together, and companies are starting to strategically align themselves with IT groups in order to have that expertise."

Ho maintains that this is a wise strategy; AV education is harder to come by, making AV specialists valuable to IT professionals. "I would rather see AV contractors start to pick up IT contractors. I think it is more difficult to learn AV than it is IT. There are less good, specialized AV contractors out there than there are IT professionals," he emphasized. "I would like to see the AV people to bring in IT professionals to deal with videoconferencing, inter-site or campus environments, or video over IP. I can see the inclusion of AV and IT specialists within the same contracting company, and we are already starting to see a bit of that right now."

Such is the case for Ace Communications, a systems contracting firm based in Lynbrook, NY, which was recently acquired by electrical contractor, Tritech. David Goldenberg, ACE's president, explained that his company has worked with Tritech on a number of projects during which the latter was in charge of integrating structured cabling, data and telecommunications systems, and networking. This alliance has enabled those at Ace a close-up view into the world of IT.

"Their number-one issue is that they don't understand AV," Goldenberg declared. "The big AV projects that we are working on right now all fall under the domain of IT. There are IT managers overseeing audiovisual projects that they really don't understand. There is a lot of confusion, at first, when we start working with some of our clients. Because there are more and more products, however, that have an IT flavor-in the way they are being controlled, and that they are networkable-the IT people are starting to feel more comfortable as long as it doesn't impact their bandwidth, which has been, and will always be, their concern."

In order to manage this relationship, Goldenberg and his team strive to employ a bit of the IT professional's language. "We try to focus on the things that are important to IT people: reliability and ease of use," he said. "People tend to look at AV as not always reliable, especially when you are talking about videoconferencing and that type of AV installation. You have to build confidence that audio products are very reliable, and the control systems that are managing the underlying technology are also reliable."

Goldenberg noted that this has become necessary, mainly because the number of on-site AV-specific divisions is decreasing. "Unless you are a giant corporation, there aren't even AV teams. Most of our projects fall under the facilities department or, more and more, IT," he said. "Where there are AV teams or individuals in charge, they are very comfortable with our systems. The only concern that they have is that they don't want to see anything go on the network. They want to keep the AV products separate from the IT products. They will be the first individuals to tell us not to install anything that is IP-controllable. I think that goes back to job security and managing their discipline, and the fear that everything is going to end up in an IT department's domain."

In an effort to assure the IT client that their teams are knowledgeable in Information Technology, Ace encourages its staff to obtain IT-based certifications over and above their AV credentials. "Because now we are dealing more and more with IT people, we are beginning to certify our technicians in Microsoft, Cisco, and those disciplines," Goldenberg explained. "Now, not only do they have a CTS designation, they will have a Microsoft, Cisco, or Oracle certification. That is how we are getting over the fact that the IT people might not feel comfortable with AV. When you have those types of certifications as part of your credentials, you jump up in their minds as someone who can really support their AV, as well as their IT needs."

Goldenberg concluded that while IT is becoming the basis for many systems-thus appointing IT professionals as the decision-makers during projects-there will remain a clear division between IT and AV when it comes to the products involved. "I think we will see more of a convergence on the end-user's side of the equation. In other words, the end-user won't have an AV department and an IT department; more than likely, they will have just an IT department," he said. "As far as the products go, some of them lend themselves very well to being IT- and IP-compatible products. Control systems are a good example of this. However, while plasma screens and projectors may be IP-compatible, they are really not products that I would consider IT products. So, from an end-user's perspective, IT may be taking over AV, but from a product perspective, we will continue to see some separation, except for control systems."

Ace Communications...www.aceav.com
Acumen Engineering...www.acumen-bc.ca
Arup Acoustics...www.arup.com
Revolabs...www.revolabs.com