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Does IT Have Bad Breath?

by Todd McCandless

I recently attended the InfoComm 100 event in Portland, OR, and besides the locale being a very pleasant city with equally pleasant weather, the event itself was a terrific opportunity. InfoComm has yet again shown its utmost concern with remaining effective, salient, and relevant to our industry as not only a trade and education organization but as a thought incubator for the changing world of integrated audiovisual systems.

Upon returning home, I was struck by the notion of the converging world of AV and IT as I was exposed to serious amounts of both during my travels. Digital signage, data, infrastructure, system management and control—it was all there in the airports I trudged through. Like most things, our perception of AV and IT is modified continually as they progress through the adoption cycle, ubiquitous deployment, and ultimately their untimely demise—still not sure why I still have an Apple Newton.

As we look toward the “convergence” of AV and IT, something bears keeping in mind. We can consider all the ways our industry is behind the curve and in danger of being trampled on or devoured like road kill on the information super highway. AV has been snared in the worldwide web and the spider feels the tugging of the struggling industry. We can wax poetic of the demise or Borg-like assimilation of our industry into the magical, well-oiled machine that is IT. But…

I don’t think it’s quite that easy. IT has its own major industry issues right now. IT has spent the last 10 years reducing itself to single-digit-margin hardware in favor of volume, professional services, and maintenance contracts. The reinvigorated IT companies are looking to cloud-based solutions for remote management and hosting as well as VOIP and data solutions—anything to adopt the new, rapid migration path of technology. They have serious brand equity issues and the political power of IT is changing within the hallowed halls of the corporations with the control moving back to department heads and not the staff of khaki-wearing IT gurus.

This wounded beast is the one that some AV doomsday criers are suggesting will devour us whole and make us look like chumps in our technological evolution. Some recent acquisitions have been quite the contrary. They’ve made AV look like the stoic person in a digital Romper Room episode. I find the notion of convergence very real, very important and something we all should take very seriously. It will happen but it would be best to know the aggressor instead of reading their marketing slicks and believing they are perfection acquiring an imperfect industry.

Sure, AV has less certifications and standards, and IT will change the face of this radically, but what if AV were to consider the IT model and motivation instead of trying to rapidly decide whether to close, cooperate, coordinate, or compete? What if AV, and InfoComm, spent their time studying the nuances of the IT industry to find the areas where AV is most fertile? The areas in IT where AV can make the most impact and bring our skills to bear?

Some say we have no areas of expertise and that IT can do everything we do and better. I have never found that to be true and my clients are IT leaders with expansive and talented IT staff. I find their trouble-shooting, solution-sets, and mental approach to integrated presentation systems is completely different from ours and usually not much further north than that of a home electronics consumer. When was the last time your IT client spoke to you about free air fundamental cone resonance?

I don’t mean this in a terse way. There is much these experts of information are absolutely stellar at! Things we can’t imagine doing and that’s what makes them our heroes but just for a moment, would it not be prudent to stop praising IT and start reducing them to what they really are so we can see what they really want and how we can position AV to fit within their gambit? We need to see them in the available light.

If we’re to converge, we must do it with grace under pressure. We must understand whom we are converging with and not get caught up in the whoopty-doo of the iPad explosion and “everything’s going to the cloud” craze. It may very well go there, but AV has to be a player in its migration. I’ve seen IT’s idea of integrated AV over the cloud and to be honest, if I were a CIO, I would be really disappointed in the quality of both audio and video.

Where do we go from here? Circle the wagons? Pull the ripcord? Not at all. I think we need to understand our digital parents and come to grips with how we, as life forms lower on the food chain, fit into their bag of tricks. But instead of focusing on how we need to be more like IT, we need to focus on what motivates IT, why and how we can play a role in integrated, cloud-based solutions for content in both audio and video formats.

A CIO of a major law firm told me last week that the convergence of AV and IT scares the heck out of him. When queried as to why, he said that IT has a way of saying they can do just about anything and while their strike rate for that boastful claim may be 80 percent, they rarely ever think of the future costs associated with it or the P&L impact on their noodling around time to make stuff work. This is something AV folks learned a long time ago.

I am currently working on a project that has an IT person picking the fly poop out of the pepper on the control programming. He’s made revision after revision and I understand why he’s doing it. He wants one thing and then when he has it, and several people use it, he changes it. No worries, we’re here to help but he won’t take any direction from us on the issue. We speak of our best practices and all the things we know and have learned over years of doing this and he says he doesn’t care about that or the scope of work for the project. He’s incredibly abrasive and terse with us (in stark contrast, his boss is one of the nicest guys).

We’ve tried to pin him down on the touchpanel design and layout, and every time he wiggles and will not sign or approve any layout or programming document. Instead of trusting us to know what thousands of users have told us about our touchpanel layouts and how to do it best, he is creating it all from scratch circa 1998. We’re going to let him run on this one but if he were truly serious about his job, he would realize the money he is wasting at his employer’s expense, because as all of you who are reading this know, we’ll end up with the layout we started with. That’s IT and that’s expensive.

Convergence? Sure… but it’s important to know what words mean and it’s important to know all we can about who is consuming. My recommendation is to start buying a few IT industry trade magazines or product magazines. Get in touch with what IT is doing and where they are going. What does HP’s new CEO think is important? What is Cisco’s newest move? Why is Microsoft really excited about Azure and OCS? Dig in and you may just dig out of the hole into which everyone says we’re falling.