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How pro AV can hit the mainstream without being swallowed up by IT

Institutions have historically viewed AV as a bespoke add-on, utilising it on a limited project-by-project basis. However, with demand for both collaborative solutions and more impactful staff/customer communications spiking in recent years, pro AV is suddenly big news and the sector is booming. However, it needs to work harder to learn lessons from IT, whilst maintaining its autonomy.

With many of today’s AV solutions including video conferencing or centrally served digital signage, the comms or IT departments, and more recently IT vendors and their channels, have become involved and are increasingly taking control. This has put pressure on AV businesses to accommodate IT mainstream practices such as standards, centralised support and volume procurement.

IT departments are, of course, used to dealing with technology services businesses, having had many years of experience with working with IT vendors, integrators and service providers. This presents a challenge for traditional AV companies: how to be taken seriously by IT departments and how to dovetail effectively with their working practices.

It also raises challenges for facilities departments responsible both for the broader environment in which the technology resides as well as overall project delivery, since not all IT departments are familiar with facility requirements. Here, the AV industry has a major opportunity to help both parties work together efficiently.

Mainstream solutions

This seismic shift in the way things are done (with integrated AV solutions requiring support by IT) is mainly as a result of an increasing number of video conferencing (VC) systems being integrated into a broader IP-based Unified Communications platform, so sitting on mainstream IT networks.

Similarly the prevalence of digital signage (a burgeoning market) has resulted in more AV technologies being situated on IT networks. Moreover, mainstream IT and telecoms vendors, such as Cisco, Microsoft, Avaya, and most recently Mitel, have expanded their portfolio of solutions to address a broader range of meeting space requirements (mostly through acquisitions) – and this again has led to increased convergence of AV and IT (albeit via traditionally IT facing companies).

As a consequence, IT departments want to be (and need to be) involved, and possibly take ownership of the technology that is deployed by AV integrators within these meeting spaces, or in digital signage and video wall projects.

This has led some commentators to predict that the IT industry will eventually swallow up AV, but this is unlikely as very few IT system integrators have genuine AV capabilities – and although IT vendors have increased their AV tech solutions (as stated above), they still only address a limited spectrum of applications.

Real Estate delivery

There are other challenges for AV. The AV industry has traditionally been dominated by project-specific requirements, in many cases triggered by a building move or a significant refurbishment. As a consequence, the overall project managers of installations tend to be facilities / real estate / operations teams (collectively referred to as ‘Real Estate’ for the purposes of this article) who oversee a bespoke design process, probably with the support of internal AV specialists and / or AV consultants.

It’s fair to say that few IT professionals understand the significant ongoing involvement of Real Estate in the planning and delivery of AV technology. The two worlds of Real Estate and AV are often, in reality, bridged by IT firms’ partners (typically AV system integrators) and by internal AV teams and their AV consultants. Perhaps we could say that whilst AV needs to follow an IT ‘recipe’ it will still be baked in a Real Estate ‘oven’.

This muddled situation frequently causes significant confusion and even friction between IT and Real Estate teams (and, of course, the end-users that they are both ultimately serving). At a recent IT User Group, more than five of the global companies represented claimed that their global, standards-based, volume procurement-based vision for meeting spaces had been thwarted by their Real Estate colleagues who used local Real Estate operational budgets to implement whatever they liked at a local level.

Typically this leads to major issues with users who complain about the resulting lack of consistency (and hence usability) and arguments about who should support the technology, which can be very expensive with no scope for any kind of centralised or even an over the network support model. Similarly Real Estate executives have been heard complaining that IT isn’t listening to its requirements – for example – divisible / flexible spaces, open plan acoustics and presentation-focused spaces. This effectively forces Real Estate to try and do its own thing, separate from IT.

Crossing the chasm

So who should ‘own’ AV technology design, delivery and support, particularly for meeting spaces and digital signage where there are obvious benefits to following an IT-influenced standards-based and volume procurement approach?

We see arguments from each side, but what seems clear is that without a model that actually meets the requirements of both camps the market will continue to struggle to find an optimal solution. IT led initiatives will continue to overlook the bespoke nature of each space that the technology is being delivered into and the different requirements of the ecosystem of trades involved in delivery. And Real Estate initiatives will continue to overlook the security, regulatory, volume purchasing and centralised support needs of IT.

And therein lies the opportunity for the AV industry. Solve this problem and AV technology vendors and their channels can ‘cross the chasm’ – at least for a number of applications – so shifting from low volume and bespoke installations to mass deployment, just as IT companies have been doing for many years.

Scalable and reliable

Scalability and reliability are crucial to IT departments, whether this is during the purchasing process or the operation of purchased technology. Typically, this is where the AV sector often comes unstuck, with most AV integrators used to installing unique, one-off systems – exactly what big IT departments don’t like. They prefer to be able to purchase a standardised solution, in bulk, that they know will work and will be supported on their networks in exactly the same way as the other elements that already sit on their networks – PCs and servers. AV needs to operate in similar ways to IT (standards, frameworks, IT network compatibility etc), but should deliver on a more bespoke project basis to dovetail into the real estate world.

The AV industry needs to be able to offer standardised, scalable solutions, whilst adopting professional, mature purchasing and support processes – the same service levels that clients demand from their current IT or technology service providers.

AV is following in the footsteps of IT, consolidating, changing from being lots of fragmented small companies into fewer, bigger players. The size of contracts being offered by clients are changing too. Indeed, one follows the other, in that if the contracts get bigger the companies that need to handle those contracts need to get bigger themselves.

Modular standardisation

It is possible to solve the problems inherent in the IT/RealEstate model, whilst also opening the door to huge growth for the AV industry – indeed this is something my company has been developing with companies such as Cisco. Solutions such as ‘Cisco Project Workplace’ are modular in their approach with standardisation at their core, and are built in-line with strict standards. They are applied into the Real Estate world using standardised services.

IT understands that the technology will always follow an agreed standard (for example, to help meet security and regulatory requirements and please users) and that it can be procured in volume and supported through an efficient centralised model. And Real Estate appreciates that the standard is flexible enough to meet with local non-standard environments, and that this flexible and local design process is easy to work with and features the detailed outcomes that it requires – for example, cable schematics for mechanical and electrical systems (M&E).

This does mean, of course, that the design of technology standards is more challenging. Finding the right balance between simple and flexible is not easy, and being able to manage some flexibility, via modularity, in a global volume environment, demands sophisticated tools. But it is achievable if the appropriate investment is made.

It’s clear that pro AV will be working much more closely with IT in the coming years to develop models that are standardised and more scalable, while also meeting real estate needs. If pro AV integrators are to thrive in this evolving market they must work closely with their partners to develop these innovative, global solutions.

Only then can pro AV – like its more established, larger IT cousin – hope to hit the mainstream.

Ed Cook, CEO at AVMI

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