True: the latest and greatest AV technology out there has the potential to boost an organization’s productivity—and make them look sexier and more innovative to boot. Not always true: cutting-edge AV deployments are what users actually need. False: a tech rollout featuring the latest and greatest will guarantee the most favorable ROI.
Before embarking on a cutting-edge AV deployment, it’s best to know what the organization aims to achieve with this tech—and how it is going to support both the equipment and the users. “Who is going to use this room? How are they going to use it? What are the business goals behind the technology?” said Victoria Ferrari, senior account executive at AV/IT design and integration firm Netrix, based in Bannockburn, IL. “[To gather this information] it takes an investment on the part of the end users and the company that wants to deploy the technology, and then also the integrator—the partner who is helping the company.”
Ferrari cited an experience she had with one of her own customers: the client was building out a collaboration space that would serve a considerable number of people at the same time. Initially, the plan was to deploy multiple displays, including electronic whiteboards, to enable meeting participants to share visual information quickly. But after interviewing the client at length, Ferrari and her team concluded that a much simpler—and low-tech—solution was in order: “analog” whiteboards and erasable markers. “After learning what they were going to be doing and the type of people [that would be using] this room, that was going to be fine for them,” she said. “Sometimes markers and a whiteboard are good enough. You can’t shoehorn technology just for the sake of it, just because it’s cool. Truly understanding the end user’s business case, their workflow—those are important questions to answer.”
William Tinnel, senior vice president of operations and chief commercial officer at Utelogy, a software-defined AV monitoring and management platform developer headquartered in Irvine, CA, echoed Ferrari’s advice about including the end user in technology purchasing decisions. He offered up videoconferencing solutions as an example: “We went through this trend of a lot of disparate workers in lots of different locations, and these long, tiresome videoconferencing experiences in rooms dedicated to just videoconferencing,” he said. “What I think the soft codecs are showing us is that these meetings can be much shorter; [the technology] is much more likely to be used if it’s easy to launch a call and include others, and you don’t necessarily need to have the best video.” For most meetings, he argued, participants are much less interested in being able to see each other well than hear each other so that they may communicate their content. “So audio, obviously, is supremely important, and the ability to share content is supremely important.” Video, for many, is less so—but it’s necessary to ask users how they use these technologies in order to deploy systems that will actually be adopted.
Justin Rexing, CTS-D, ISF-C, DMC-E-4K, is an AV systems design engineer at Western Kentucky University (WKU) in Bowling Green, KY. (He also runs his own AV design and integration business, Rexing Consulting Group LLC.) He explained that he and his team run an in-house AV design and integration shop, including a programmer, and that one of their primary concerns associated with any tech deployment is total cost of ownership. “We try to specify a lot of the same gear, but [it provides] various solutions for different people,” he said. “That way—because we are a very limited resource [that serves] the whole campus—the support side of the AV department doesn’t have to work as hard to keep those systems running, and to provide that good experience for our students and our faculty.” He acknowledges that sometimes this is a challenge, especially when it’s necessary to deploy technology that the AV department may not have worked with previously. “When we’ve never spec’d it before, [we’re wondering]: what is this going to do to our programmer? Is his time on that project going to increase because he’s dealing with variables that he hasn’t dealt with before? What about installation—is that time going to increase? Do we have those costs covered in our labor? It’s that risk/reward path that sometimes we have to go down.”
As Rexing noted, support is a big issue: do you have the staff—and the expertise—to manage cutting-edge technology, and to hold users’ hands when necessary? If you’re working with an integrator, do they offer adequate training so that users can operate the equipment, and managed services to maintain it (and respond to failures in a timely manner, or even before you know there’s an issue)? Ferrari also pointed out that it’s necessary to assess the manufacturers behind the technology you’re seeking to deploy. “That’s one thing I always consider when looking at vendors: what’s the viability of the company? Are they just a start-up? Have they recently been acquired? Do they have funding? How long have they been in business?” she said. She notes that looking into how well vendors support their integration partners is also valuable information to obtain before reaching a final purchasing decision.
The same questions one should ask of manufacturers apply to developers of proprietary equipment. While IT-focused professionals who are accustomed to standards-based gear often shy away from anything proprietary, the reality is there is still a lot of proprietary technology in professional AV. “We try to [specify] standard equipment, but sometimes if a client needs a very specific solution to solve one of their problems, and the only solution out there is a proprietary one, then sometimes we just have to bite the bullet,” Rexing admitted. “And then what we really have to look at when we’re dealing with proprietary equipment is how sustainable it is.” This means, once again, examining the company behind it: how long has it been around? How long will it likely continue supporting the product? “If something breaks 10 years from now, are you going to have to buy something all-new? That really equates to your total cost of ownership for that system.”
In his role at WKU, one of Rexing’s goals when he and his team are deploying systems on campus is to ensure they will be easy to support—and therefore, present the AV department with as few hassles as possible. As the owner of an AV consulting and integration firm, his goal is pretty much the same. “You have to put yourself in the client’s shoes,” he said. “Make sure that the display is bright enough, that it’s big enough, that your audio coverage is what the standard says it should be— that’s just the basic bread and butter of what we do, and all the other bells and whistles around that AV system are what the client might like to use. But when it comes down to it, it’s really about the user experience for that AV system.”
Carolyn Heinze is a freelance writer/editor.
The Case for AV/IT Integrators
Victoria Ferrari is senior account executive at AV/IT integration firm Netrix, so it’s natural that she would urge tech managers to work with integrators on their AV deployments. That said, she makes a good case for developing these relationships; namely, they free up tech managers’ time to focus on the bigger picture.
“When you partner with an integrator that takes into consideration your end users and helps you take advantage of technology for your business, you can then have your IT staff start working toward things that help your company generate revenue,” Ferrari said. “No company wants to spend their IT resources trying to fix an AV room. If you have the right partner, you can set up your IT staff to do things that benefit your company instead of having them waste their time on a broken TV in a conference room.”