Thursday, July 7, 2016

Just Another Con Job

If and when you need a con(sultant)?

What is a consultant?  A person who borrows your watch to charge you to tell you what time it is?  So why hire one?  This is a can of worms.  Let’s open it together.  First, we have to determine what does a consultant do? And when does a consumer need a consultant? Does a System Integrator need a consultant? Let’s look for some of the answers to these questions.

What does a consultant do? When I am talking about consultants, I’m referring to the purists, if you will, these are the Independent Consultants in Audiovisual Technology.  These are usually design consultants, but they can also be service or commissioning consultants. These consultants don’t sell any of the equipment that they specify into their designs. These consultants are used solely to provide information and guidance with an owner or their representative on their communications and audiovisual technology needs, write a program report and/or bid documents, they develop the facility infrastructure and develop a systems design and may manage the implementation of such a design. Let’s use an architect that is designing a home for someone as an example of a consultant. Although an architect does all of the drawings, specifies the types of wood, brick and so on used in their design, they don’t usually purchase the materials to actually conduct the build. They are, however, on hand to supervise the construction in some manner of speaking, make corrections and manage the progress of the project as needed. They are there to represent the buyer’s best interests or even just the integrity of the design. Well, the same stands true for the Independent Consultant in AV Technology.

One of the most important aspects of what a consultant offers is their objectivity.  Independent Consultants in Audiovisual Technology are product agnostic and they are separate (hence the use of the term independent in their title) from undue influence of a parent firm or company.  This does not mean they cannot be part of a larger company or firm, but there should be clear lines that dictate that their decision making processes are separated from those in that firm’s structure.  It is all the better if the legal structure of the entities or firms are separated. Independent Consultants in Audiovisual Technology are there to provide services related to the identification of the needs and the design a system that best suits the user’s (purchasers’) needs and to make sure the system is implemented per their design.

I like to use the model architects use with the construction of a new building as an analogy for describing they Independent Consultants in Audiovisual Technology work.  The only way an architect can stand behind their design is to make absolutely sure their design is followed to the letter and to position themselves as the approving authority for design changes (as the owner representative or working with the owner representative). This also holds true for the Independent Consultant in Audiovisual Technology. Again the consultant’s number one focus is designing a system that meets the needs of the users. Since consultants are not equipment dealers, they don’t have any overstock items they need to get rid of (or any stock for that matter) or a quota of specific product to move. They can be focused on picking the right products for the application.  They can focus on the right fit and best in breed. Often, a consultant’s value is actually in preventing owners from spending money on technology that they don’t really need or that will not yield high value for the user’s or owner’s money.  Independent Consultants in Audiovisual Technology can focus on return on objective (functional needs and business objectives) along with return on investment and total cost of ownership.

When does a consumer need a consultant? A lot of the answer to this question can be found in the definition of what an Independent Consultant in Audiovisual Technology does. Independent consultants typically work on large, long-term projects. There is no clear-cut dollar amount the project must exceed or project time cut off to help decide when to use a consultant. Independent Consultant in Audiovisual Technology, as a general rule of thumb, don’t work on the smaller short-term projects. The consultant’s bread and butter comes from the management process of a given project and if the project is too small it doesn’t require much of a management process then many consultants will turn it over to systems integrators.  There are exceptions when smaller projects still have a level of complexity to them that may require some expertise that will keep the consultant engaged and adding value. System Integrators, however, can save you a lot of money on these “smaller” projects because of the buying power they have with the manufacturers. Their profitability mainly comes from the margins they can generate from their volume discounts, their value add proposition in pre-engineered systems or lightly engineered systems and the services they can offer on an ongoing basis (of which some of the Independent Consultants in Audiovisual provide as well).

Does a System Integrator need a consultant? If you want my opinion (if you don’t…stop reading), all System Integrators should develop a healthy, mutually respecting relationship with one or a few consulting firms. This way they can make it an option for their customers to use a consultant and even have a list of a few on hand. One of the challenges is that many systems integrators assume that consultant work will automatically equate to a low-bid, low-margin project when it comes back their way after the design process. That is not necessarily the case. For example: many AV customers are adopting the same practices that we are seeing in the construction industry. There are alternate deliveries and award models wherein negotiated award, cost-plus arrangements or qualifications based awards are becoming more common. We also see the growing trend toward the construction industry model of design-build where designers and contractors work together to deliver solutions to owners outside of the antagonistic design-bid-build model. But, don’t think you consultants are getting off easy. The fact that System Integrators should use consultants goes hand-in-hand with the fact that I believe that all Independent Consultant in Audiovisual Technology need System Integrators with whom they can build a solid track record of success. Let’s face it, the consultant can design the greatest system in the world, but eventually some integrator has to build it in order to bring that system to life. Even those System Integrators that have design personnel on staff would benefit from having this type of relationship with a design firm. Consultants are routinely designing for technology two to three years in the future. The experience that these consultants gain from these types of long-term, large-scale projects provides them with skill sets that would benefit designers at design-build firms on their own large, complex projects. The best part of these types of relationships is that the consumer will have the ultimate choice. Using our architect example, we see the importance of the General Contractor and Architect relationship proven time and time again in the new building process.

These two professions are truly codependent, despite the fact that at times they can be in direct competition with each other. They provide more than just the benefits of a combined solution to the consumer; they also provide a united front from which the consumer can get consistent messaging. They even form companies that represent a combination of the architects and general contractors. We in the AV technology industry have learned a lot from this and other relationships like this one and we are continually building on what we have learned. As we learn to better coexist, we can get the consistent messaging out to the consumer so they can learn of all of the benefits to integrated systems and the entire industry can grow as a result of this relationship.

So how do I sum this one up? Just because the term consultant contains the word “CON” doesn’t mean it is a bad thing. I leave you with this thought: “you get what you pay for.” You may not want to pay for your design and consulting services, which works fine, but remember you will always get what you ask for and that may not always be what you need. One last example and a piece of advice - think of the consultant as your attorney. Imagine you are in court. If the “charges” are small enough then maybe you can defend yourself (and your best interests), but if the stakes were high enough you’d use the attorney, right? Well if you are considering a sizable investment in AV Integrated System, then you want an “attorney” on your side. Remember: “he who states his own case, has a fool for a client.” – Proverb.  Bottom line is it’s all about relationships and trust, and while I know you can trust most of the people in this industry it is up to you to find people YOU can trust to (even sometimes) protect you from yourself.  That is what consultants do.

I look forward in great anticipation to the colorful emails and discussion this article will inspire.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Networked AV Security and My Thoughts on the "AMX Backdoor" Story

Recently there have been a few people who would have you believe that “Networked AV is the single biggest threat to cyber security today.”  Are the people who are saying this seriously stating that Networked AV poses a bigger threat to Cyber Security than social engineering or the other countless cyber security issues that end users can bring to a network?
For cyber security I am still much more afraid of the free USB storage devices that everyone picks up at tradeshows or the discussions or complaints that people have about their networks in public.  I fear the way people write down passwords on sticky notes or how they login to their network from their home computer or public computers.  I fear that people use cloud storage for  their customer’s data and other truly cyber security scary things like these issues.  Yes, I fear how everything being added as a network device can change the landscape of network security, but Networked AV is such a microcosm of that.  It just seems ludicrous to say it is the biggest threat.  Furthermore, Networked AV is most often made up of purpose built devices that are easily made secure by logically or physically segmenting them from the rest of the network.

When you talk about Networked AV, you are most often looking at simple devices that attach to the network that have functionality in audiovisual, some may even do streaming of audio and video.  These devices attach to the network much like printers and computers.  Security for these devices work the exact same way existing devices on the network does.  If you want to protect them from being used you implement features and methods on your network that you currently use to lock devices down.  Sure you should seek out devices that have built in security features (like for streaming you would look for encryption and such), but your network must provide the needed security as well.  No Networked AV device is going to make your network more secure than it already is.  If you lock your network down properly and segment it away properly, no networked AV device can make your network less secure.  I know I can confidently say this because I know that you can implement a separate physical network to run Networked AV if you really needed to.  By doing that, your original network is no less secure.
AMX and their BACKDOOR issue - Here are the top three reasons I think the article in Forbes (and a few other places) is just a lot of hype and fear mongering:
  1. The main article opens with mention of a backdoor vulnerability that Juniper had with a product that allowed for sniffing on the network by a snoop.  This has no relation to what the AMX backdoor account does and the statement is used only to sensationalize the article and to fear monger.  Juniper products are LAN/WAN products that are part of the infrastructure not endpoints.   When a product is part of the infrastructure it determines the network’s security.  These particular AMX products are endpoints and are in part protected by the network topology and security (i.e. physically or logically segmentation).
  2. At another point in the main article there is mention of the consulting firm not taking the research far enough to actually find out what the users of the backdoor accounts would actually be able to do once they exploited the vulnerability.  Clearly the researchers have no clue what AMX control systems do and were completely unaware that the “hacker” would be limited to source switching and other such control sets.  However, again for sensationalism at this point the writer choses to mention AMX case studies with military and the U.S. President.  The writer takes it even further by bringing up a case that had to be dropped due to lack of evidence and the accusation having no substantiation with regard to spying.
  3. The writer mentions that SEC Consult determined that if the AMX devices were configured in such a way or mistakenly configured that an outside user could use a general search for AMX and can find these devices on the internet and then exploit the vulnerability.  This would require the control panel to be placed on the internet.  This is NEVER the case.
 The bottom line is that sure the backdoor accounts were not necessary, but they are by no means a major concern and at best they are a very minor maintenance task to be taken care of upon the next maintenance run.  The way the article is spun and the direct assault on AMX is more suspect than the vulnerabilities in the article. I came away after reading it thinking the consulting firm has an axe to grind with AMX.  I came away definitely believing that the Forbes writer had it out for AMX.  I really did not see much objectivity in that article.
About the Author: 
Max Kopsho, CTS-D/I, PMP, CQT, CCNA R&S and Security, CompTIA Network+ and CTT+

Max has worked in the AV industry for over 18 years in various management and technical roles.  Over the last 28 years Max has acquired an extensive background in supporting AV and IT systems, computer networks, telecom, and VTC systems.  Max developed one of the industry’s first networked AV solutions and that product is now deployed in a single network with over 15,000 network attached AV devices.  Max has made considerable contributions to the InfoComm Education area in AV/IT and CTS preparations.  He was awarded the 2010 Educator of the Year for InfoComm and has prepared over 1000 candidates for their CTS exam.  Max has recently joined Thorburn Associates as a Principal Consultant focused on Unified Communications & Collaboration. By combining his knowledge and skill in AV and IT with his decades of experience, Max will be responsible for driving Thorburn Associates' Unified Communications and Collaboration Division (UC&C). Max will be instrumental in the anticipated “exponential growth” of Thorburn Associates' UC&C Division by solving the toughest of customer AV/IT problems with his technical prowess and keen insight into their business needs.

The views in this article are strictly the views of Max and do not necessarily reflect the views of his employer or business partners.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

PART II - Better than Being There - Three Keys to AV Delivering UC&C

Three Areas Where AV Can Realize the Vision of UC&C
- It’s All about the Physics
(it’s a long post – but I think it might be a good one)

In my last blog I talked about the vision of Unified Communications and Collaboration (UC&C) and how UC&C can be better than being there.  I of course acknowledged the importance of face-to-face meetings.  To recap, I emphasized that when you use UC&C, you have all of your resources available to you and thusly your meetings can be very productive.

In this article I will expand on how AV designers and integrators need to bring their expertise to the forefront as they ADD IT to their solution mix.  The important key point to remember is that AV can successfully enter the AV/IT market (or the UC&C market) and even dominate their area in it as long as they stay focused on the fact that what they are doing is ADDING IT to their current AV solution offering.  If AV is their core competency, they need to go into IT knowing that IT features and functionalities can and should be leveraged as an add-on to their core, but this should not be an attempt at going head to head with IT integrators or resellers.  This may even be an opportunity to partner for some.  Simply picking up IT products and IT integration and competing with those who have been doing it for decades is a tough row to hoe and is often a losing proposition.  This article focuses on what AV has to add to IT and how that makes UC&C a complete offering.

I will do one more clarification because I know this will generate a lot of discussion as discussions like this has done in the past.  I am not advocating that AV is here to stay just the way it is for the long run and that change does not needed.  I am also not stating that AV companies should all go out and become IT companies because of impending doom.  What I am stating is that AV is due for a natural evolution in their business.  I am stating that there is a shift that is being driven by; new technologies, the way space is being used in business and the way that businesses are setting policies, procedures and process to support more collaboration and the way global teams work together.  This evolution must be addressed by AV companies and better yet, there is great opportunity in it.

I guess I should clarify what I am saying when I discuss UC&C and IT.  When I mention UC&C – I will give you my definition (sorry Wikipedia), I am referring to the space where telephony, computer networking, data networking and collaborative technologies all come together.  Some of the most common examples of UC&C are video conferencing, but those often lack the collaboration element and use very little of the data networking element.  Fully integrated rooms where videoconferencing, interactive whiteboards that allow for Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) are integrated with the phone system, computer system and also allows for interactivity and integration with the entire network system including desktops, servers and network resources are better examples of full UC&C.  As for IT (again my own definition – not Wikipedia), I am talking about the network and the network appliances.  This general term can also include the Local Area Network (LAN) and Wide Area Network (WAN) technologies, applications and appliances.  I guess I am saying that IT is a smaller part of UC&C and is also higher on the hierarchy when you look at the bigger picture.  This is because IT can cover an entire enterprise where UC&C can fit into a smaller subset at times (for a better definition of UC&C and AV/IT check out this post by Corey Moss).  Another important thing to remember is that the terms being used are subject to the speaker’s definition.  When you are talking to an IT guy about his network he gets to define it how he wants and you shouldn’t correct him.  A network is an IT guy’s baby and when you correct him about terminology he is using about his baby, you might as well be telling him he has an ugly baby.

It is important for AV companies to focus on their core competencies and then grow their IT and UC&C branch to add the following value to these UC&C evolution areas:

1. The Technology— I am amazed by all of the advancements in UC&C.  It is hard to break them all down, but if we look at a few of them like networked AV, encoding and decoding, FPGA v. ASICS, gigabit networks, fiber optic networking, 4K, HDBaseT camera technology and size, OLED, touchscreen tech, wireless applications, etc. we see that you don’t have to look far to see that technology in UC&C has come a long way in a very short period of time.  Just as amazing is that the price points for these technologies has have come down exponentially.  A lot of these advancements and pricing advantages have happened in the very recent past.  These advancements have found their way to implementation in consumer products as well.  The fact that these advancements have been implemented in consumer products is has a significant impact in the corporate market for UC&C.  There was a time when UC&C was a black art.  The only people who knew what new technologies were available were the technologist and really high-end geeks, but now that these leading edge technologies are prolific and in the hands of the masses in home theater and home office.  These end-user consumer applications are often driving what goes in the boardroom and conference room.  The consumer looks at the fact that they can make a clear video call with clear audio to their child who is studying in South Korea and wonder why they can’t easily make the same call from a huddle room in their office to a business partner around the world.  The IT guy had better make it happen regardless of network security, bandwidth issues, service provider problems or mismatched protocols or carriers.  “It works at home via consumer off the shelf products”, thinks the consumer, “so it had better work in my boardroom.” The evolution of expectations has gone from when there was a time that only the fortune 100 had it so that made some companies want it.  Then it went to people in Hollywood had it (like Jack Bauer (24) had it, so some companies wanted it.  Now, we see that the evolution of expectation has come to the realization that a teenager installed one’s house and now those people want it at work.

What can AV do about the Technology Evolution? In order for AV to add value to the technology evolution in UC&C the emphasis still needs to remain on the fact that AV is adding IT to their solutions mix and that their core competency is still enhancing the physical environment.  Marketing and selling the value that AV has in enhancing UC&C is where the challenge is, but it is also where the greatest value is.  Once the end user understands the value that AV adds to the solution, end users will realize that using AV to complete their UC&C deployment makes perfect sense.  A lot of people will argue as to why one should try to market something or sell something that the end user or target customer doesn’t know they need or isn’t asking for.  To that, I respond with a quote that is sometimes attributed to Henry Ford: ““If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have told me a faster horse.”  The quote may or may not have been made by Henry Ford, but the point is well made and his grandson believes he said it.  The point is that sometimes it is our responsibility to educate our customers as to what is best for them and deliver more than what they are asking for and more than they had ever hoped for.

The fact that AV can speak IT and do it with a UC&C result as the end goal will drive the business their direction.  The competition in the UC&C market is most often an IT or Telecom integrator.  Trying to compete with them on a technology level is going to be tough.  So where is the unique value that AV can bring? To be highly differentiated I still stand by my earlier posts/blogs/articles that state that AV maintains value in lighting, acoustics, camera placement, control system design, AV signal routing and signal integrity design, microphone placement, audio reinforcement design, display type, display size and display location selection, etc. This is to say that the physical space is still where an AV designer and integrator is still the master and has much to offer.  We still find that many UC&C or videoconferencing systems are not used as often as intended due to these three main reasons: they are not easy to use, the conferencing does not feel or sound natural and the system is not compatible with the system they are trying to connect with.  AV designers and integrators are well suited to overcome these top three barriers and can best adapt to the use of cloud technologies to maximize the capabilities that the latest collaborative and bridging systems offer.  AV designers and integrators can spend the time to become specialist in the UC&C areas that end users need with the AV expertise added that will bring the system to its highest functionality possible.  It is important that AV add IT to their solutions mix by educating their staff and investing in the new technologies while still maintaining their strength in AV.  I have said this before as well that the investment in IT can be done through partnerships, but should not be done halfheartedly.  The evolution is here and AV companies must evolve as well.

2. Process and Policies- One of the other challenges we face is the shifting in the way business is being done.  No longer are we using technology to get things done, but we are seeking out technologies to match how we expect to get things done.  Our users expect to be able to collaborate the way they can meet online and share information in social media at work.  Therefore policies and processes have to evolve as well.  Things that used to be forbidden on networks or forbidden as a matter of corporate policy are now business requirements.  We used to have strict policies against the usage of computers for social media and we had strict rules against iPads, Tablets or other personal devices being added to corporate networks.   These are policies of the past and now we have policies and process that not only allow this type of behavior, but we have process in place that encourage it.  We have meeting spaces that encourage impromptu meetings that require no prior scheduling through the corporate email system and the meeting space is an open space that looks almost like a cafĂ©’ or even a garden area.  Policies and processes have evolved to encourage collaboration and open communication.  Corporations are looking for new and innovative ways to make their workforce more productive and more profitable.  Can these things all be combined?  There is a strong belief that using UC&C to build a more collaborative and team centric workforce will quickly yield more profits and higher productivity.  With AV implementing UC&C we must find ways to help the evolution of processes and policies that will drive this in ways that other industries can’t.

What can AV do about the Process and Policies Evolution? - Seizing the opportunity in the evolution in process and policies for UC&C will involve understanding process improvement and having a strong business acumen.  Personally, for this I used my LEAN Six Sigma training and Project Management Professional training and certification.  These trainings, certifications and experience lend the background, knowledge and skill I need to support customers in changing their business approach along with the implementation of technology.  Having your AV project managers be more than elevated technicians is key here.  The AV industry is a little unique in that most of our project managers come from the technical side of the business.  In many other industries project managers come from the business side of the house.  Having a business education and background gives them an edge when they are working with large enterprises.  For AV we need to adopt that approach.  For those AV companies that have moved to this, I am sure they can attest to the fact that in dealing with large enterprise accounts having a project manager who knows project management and business pays in dividends.  I have seen this work for others where the team approach is used and the account manager takes the role of business manager as well.  The important thing to know is that there needs to be an approach where someone with a strong business acumen and an understanding of the industry that your customer is in needs to work on the team to help the customer with the development of an evolved set of policy and process to support UC&C.  Executive buy-in is key to the successful deployment of AV in UC&C.  If executives are not using the system and if they are not setting policy and process that support and drive the usage of the systems if will all be for not.  The policies and process need to be built on the WHY of the system.  Way back at the needs analysis the root causes, explicit and implied needs were uncovered.  Now is the time to make sure that policies and procedures are developed to make sure the system that is developed and deployed is used in such a manner to address those needs.  As an AV designer and integrator we need to take on the role of business process and UC&C consultant.  This may require your organization getting some additional training like I have in LEAN Six Sigma or (Project Management Professional (PMP®) or similar business process related training and certifications.

3. Space Planning– Throughout my AV career I have heard AV designers and integrators discuss the importance of being included in the design process early.  Architects and General Contractors are often overlooking AV in the initial phases of a project and that is often detrimental to the successful AV implementation or it at least makes the successful implementation a more difficult task.  That has never been truer than today and in UC&C.  With UC&C space planning is critical.  The challenge continues that consumers are blasted regularly by manufacturers with the message that products are off the shelf, easy to implement and require minimal set up.  The truth of the matter is that in a corporate boardroom environment or in a conference room these products require a lot of special handling and even more care when being integrated into a space that many people are using or a space that is used for a lot of different purposes.  The evolution of space planning involves the user’s expectations just like the technology evolution did.  For the space planning evolution I’ll use the Apple Store example.  Everything in an Apple Store is sleek and clean.  An Apple Store is used to demonstrate technology, but you see no wires and actually you see very little technology compared to the space you are in.  You actually see a lot of clean white space instead.  The evolution of the corporate boardroom and conference room has a very similar evolution as the Apple retail space did.  The expectation is that there should be a lot of technology in the space, but nearly none of it should be seen.  The space should remain clean and sleek yet highly functional.

What can AV do about the Evolution of Space Planning? – The space planning evolution is an area that AV can address better than almost any other industry.  I will point out that furniture companies with space planning design capabilities that have a technology element can have the upper hand when they want, but that usually involves the expertise of an AV design and integration firm as well.  I believe AV can best address that evolution of space planning because the unique requirements for lots of technology with a clean and sleek look challenges the acoustics, lighting placement of technology more than ever before.  Telecom and IT provider who integrate UC&C will not have the knowledge, skill or experience to overcome the challenges that these environments bring (with major consideration to lighting and acoustics).  AV designers and integrators will be there to save the day.  AV will master the physics and bring solutions that balance the esthetics with natural sound, great looking video, properly placed cameras and microphones to give the feel of face-to-face meetings even when the meetings are taking place thousands of miles apart.  The AV integrator that takes on the challenges of UC&C knowing that the value they bring is still their core competencies in AV and how they apply that competency in space planning will dominate their market.   They will dominate as long as they can send the message right and to the right people.  There is an aspect of this that goes far beyond enhancing the AV and making it work in the environment or making adjustments to the environment to better suit AV.  When collaboration comes into the mix, considerations can be taken into account as to whether the users and presenters/collaborators will be sitting or standing.  When space planning is done well in a collaborative environment, the space enhances the communication by making people comfortable and at ease.  Here is an example: when all the participants are seated at bar height and the “presenter” is standing, everyone is actually at the same eye level.  This makes it to where everyone feels a level of equality and is more likely to contribute to the collaborative discussion than if they are all seated at a lower level and being talked down to.  Once AV integrators understand the IT side and combine this all together and work in the space planning aspects the environment becomes part of the reason people are more open and communicative.

Now that we have addressed three of the reasons market is growing (evolving), we can know how to address its growth.  AV companies will approach these a little different, but ultimately the core ideas are the same.  The end user’s goals are to better use their physical space, use their technology more efficiently and to set the right policy and process to support their team’s productivity and profitability.  If your company can help your customers do this by giving them a UC&C system that is better than being there and that meets these three evolutionary goals, how can you lose?

Next week I will discuss how companies can be more collaborative by creating a TEAM atmosphere for their collaborators.  TEAM = T=Trusted, E=Empowered, A=Active, M=Motivated. A great read to kick off this thought is from Cory Schaeffer.

About the Author:

Max Kopsho, CTS-D/I, PMP, CQT, CCNA R&S and Security, CompTIA Network+ and CTT+

Max has worked in the AV industry for over 18 years in various management and technical roles.  Over the last 28 years Max has acquired an extensive background in supporting AV and IT systems, computer networks, telecom, and VTC systems.  Max developed one of the industry’s first networked AV solutions and that product is now deployed in a single network with over 15,000 network attached AV devices.  Max has made considerable contributions to the InfoComm Education area in AV/IT and CTS preparations.  He was awarded the 2010 Educator of the Year for InfoComm and has prepared over 1000 candidates for their CTS exam.  Max has recently joined Thorburn Associates as a Principal Consultant focused on Unified Communications & Collaboration. By combining his knowledge and skill in AV and IT with his decades of experience, Max will be responsible for driving Thorburn Associates' Unified Communications and Collaboration Division (UC&C). Max will be instrumental in the anticipated “exponential growth” of Thorburn Associates' UC&C Division by solving the toughest of customer AV/IT problems with his technical prowess and keen insight into their business needs.

The views in this article are strictly the views of Max and do not necessarily reflect the views of his employer or business partners.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

The Vision of Unified Collaboration and Communications

 – Better than Being There – Three Keys to AV Delivering UC&C

I want to preface this by stating an important point.  Nothing will ever replace the value of face-to-face meetings.  A firm handshake to close a deal or the ability to spend time with people building strong relationships is incredibly important.  This article is about building on top of the personal relationships and handshakes by using technology, processes and space planning.  The emphasis has to be on the building and adding and not trying to replace.

I can’t help but get incredibly excited about where we are heading with Unified Communications and Collaboration (UC&C).  This is really directed at the AV/IT players in the industry.  When we look at UC&C and what AV/IT can do with this space the impact is fascinating.  AV already masters the physical space with lighting, acoustics, displays, sound and control options, but when you add in the full offerings of UC&C the usage model changes in unbelievable ways.  Let’s explore some examples together and then we can break them down into a few categories to see what really makes this work for us.

I feel I have to re-emphasize that when I refer the UC&C, I am referring to a system that includes all that telephony, IT and audiovisual has to offer.  In this article I am going out of my way to emphasize the audiovisual part. 

These are Just Three of the Many Advantages of AV/IT Delivering UC&C:
  1. The Environment - These advantages include a more natural environment for videoconferencing with proper audiovisual integration that includes proper lighting, acoustics, camera, microphone, loudspeaker placement and display sizing and placement.  All of these things can give the users the feeling that the remote participants are in the room. 
  2. Collaboration - Another advantage is the ability to use audiovisual integration by placing document cameras in the ceiling and using processors that can support the ability to literally slide a document across the table to remote participants and have them edit and collaborate on these documents using the network. 
  3. Escalation - One more advantage is having the systems fully converged so that when the users are on a VOIP call and they need to move it to a videoconference they can just shoot an Instant Message to invitees and open a video call on the fly.  The user should even be able to book resources on the fly as needed for adhoc meetings and escalate a meeting from a call to a full-fledged collaborative videoconference with just a few clicks.

One thing that is mind-blowing to me is this thought; what if we actually put cameras, displays, loudspeakers and microphones in the chairs of “remote participants”?  Some UC&C integrators (AV Systems integrators) are doing just that to give participants the feeling that remote participants are “in the room”.  Schools do this for kids that can’t attend school because of illness.  As a product there are robots that travel the halls and attend classes via videoconferencing for students and allow the students to be a part of their regular school environment while they recover from a medical procedure or medical treatment.  Why can’t we do this for business remote collaborators as well?  See.  Told you.  Mind blown.
Picture Attributed to VGO Communications, Inc.

When looking at how UC&C will evolve in the near future, we see how UC&C meetings will actually be better than being there (remember I said that it will never replace the handshake, but at times when added to face-to-face it can be better).  How can I say that?  I say that because there are times when these meetings take place that participants will need access to resources that are only in their home office locations.  Having a UC&C meeting means that participants can be in two places at once.  This means that they can have access to all of their recourses that are in their home location and be in a remote location at the same time.  To me, at times, that can be better than being there.

So what is really driving this evolution for UC&C?  I believe three major categories is driving the changes; the advancements in technology, the way companies are changing their process and policies and lastly the way we are doing space planning to support true collaboration.  In my next article I will discuss how AV/IT integrators can leverage these trends by applying what they do in the technology realm, with supporting process and policies and physical space with lighting, acoustics, audio, video and converged technologies that no other industry can deliver the way AV/IT can.

The author:
Max Kopsho, CTS-D/I, PMP, CQT, CCNA R&S and Security, CompTIA Network+ and CTT+

Max has worked in the AV industry for over 17 years in various management and technical roles.  Over the last 28 years Max has acquired an extensive background in supporting AV and IT systems, computer networks, telecom, and VTC systems.  Max developed one of the industry’s first networked AV solutions and that product is now deployed in a single network with over 15,000 network attached AV devices.  Max has made considerable contributions to the InfoComm Education area in AV/IT and CTS preparations.  He was awarded the 2010 Educator of the Year for InfoComm and has prepared over 1000 candidates for their CTS exam.  

The views in this article are strictly the views of Max and do not necessarily reflect the views of his employer or business partners.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

5 Ways AV Can Become More IT

When we discuss the ways that AV can become more IT, It is important to emphasize that the transition to becoming more IT is not one that should take AV away from their core competencies. I have had a lot of discussions lately with some of the best minds in AV and we seem to all agree that we (AV) need to continue to promote our value.  This is to say that we all agreed that AV can do many things that no other industry can do.  AV rules the physical space.  Nothing happens in the physical space (sight or sound) without AV working some form of magic (that magic being the mixture of art and science).  When AV adds IT for the purpose of monitoring, managing, sending content, collaborating, conferencing, controlling and much more, the business opportunity is huge and the problem solving we can do for the customer is immense.  That is where the focus should be – ADDING IT to AV.

  1. Partnering and Connecting - During my training sessions that last two or more days, I also teach juggling.  I do this especially when I am teaching an AV/IT class.  I tie in the analogy that in an AV/IT class there are three topics being covered; Audio, Video and IT.  In the analogy those topics represent the three juggling balls.  I then have these students partner up in twos.  When one partner throws a ball, the other catches.  The pairs can easily jump to two juggling balls.  This does two things.  This allows the thrower the ability to focus on their throw without worrying about catching and this allows the catching partner to catch without worrying about making an accurate throw.  The teamwork being used in this exercise helps me to illustrate the value in partnering in AV/IT.  The exercise also illustrates that when you are partnering you can focus on your core competency and trust that your partner can focus on theirs (one is throwing and the other is catching).  We also discuss that partnering mitigates risks.  While there is shared risk of course there is shared return so the major goal should be to seek out more customers together than either partner had alone to make sure the partnership yields new business.  The biggest lesson I use the juggling analogy to teach is that when you are an expert in AV (two of the three) and you can juggle those two really well, but you pick up that third juggling ball and you drop them – you have failed at juggling (in our case AV/IT integration).  Even if the AV part of the job is perfect, if you picked up the third ball and dropped it, you failed at all three in the customer’s eyes.  Partnering helps with allowing you to juggle in front of the customer with low risk.  A good partnership will have a way for both parties to continue to grow throughout the relationship and not feel threatened by the other’s ability to grow.  Connecting is also important – joining industry associations and social groups in IT will help an AV company stay informed of technologies and trends.  This will also help with networking (people networking) and possible sources for candidates, contractors and technical resources. 
  2. Physician Heal Thyself - It is nearly impossible to sell, support and promote something you don’t believe in.  If you believe in something you need to implement it.  As AV/IT integrators our networks need to be solid and they need to be able to support UC&C.  There is a saying that states the Cobbler’s kids go barefoot.  Our industry is not an exception to this saying.  I often find that our demo facilities are lacking in capabilities or esthetics.  In the case of AV/IT the demo facilities need to be solid.  IT people expect an integrator to be able to prove that they can do for themselves what they propose to do for the customer.  Make sure your IT system supports what you expect to sell, support and promote.
  3. Set a Plan and Take it Step-By-Step - AV adding IT is something that needs to have methodical and planned approach.  I have seen several companies add IT to their business model and the ones that do it well do it with a business plan and work that plan.  It sounds so simple, but you would be amazed at how often I have seen the opposite approach.  I have seen AV companies that add IT as a second thought.  They simply add a few products to their mix and throw some additional responsibilities on their internal IT guy to support some customers and wonder why they are not growing their IT business.  Adding IT requires adding appropriate resources and deploying those resources.  Those resources may come from a partnership, but there is need for additional resources nonetheless.  The other point I would like to make here is that it is just as important to communicate the plan to everyone involved as it is to have a plan.  Everyone involved should have a good understanding of what the plan is and what every step of the plan looks like.  Over communication is better than none here.
  4. Hire the Right Employees and Customers - One of the biggest challenges in adding IT to AV is ensuring you have a team that is capable and supportive of this new endeavor.  At times, getting this team assembled requires hiring new employees.  In AV we tend to “fill vacant positions” rather than looking at where our business will be in a year or three years down the road and determining what our needs will be then.  We tend to try to hire replacements with the same skillsets as previous employees.  When adding IT to AV we need new skillsets and with that we need to look in new directions.  Start your job descriptions from scratch.  Write the job description as if you were doing a needs analysis on your company.  You will often find if you start from scratch rather than using an existing job description you will come up with something completely different.  Sometimes change is good. What about your customers?  Are you customers asking for IT in their AV?  If not, you may need to hire some new customers.  Your customers may be the ones who are stagnant and if that is the case you may be missing out on a lot of new business.  Sometimes you need to look at business trends and wonder why your customers are not following them and you may need to hire some new customers.  Someday you may even find that you will have to fire some customers.
  5. Training and Certifications - You are not always going to hire new employees to embark on new endeavors (or new customers for that matter).  You will also need to grow the ones you have.  Training is the best way to do this.  I completely believe in this.  I have trained people most of my career.  It is the best way to get loyal team members to grow and stay happy.  If you have people with the aptitude and attitude, you will find that they are often worth their weight in gold and making a training investment in them is well worth it.  These types of employees are willing to grow with you and they will take your organization to new heights.  The risk of not training your people is far greater than training them and having them leave.  It is not worth the risk.  Certifications in IT will gain your organization a foot in the door.  A lot of the certifications do not hold much weight in the IT industry, but they do meet a litmus test and allow your people to get in the door to start a discussion.  From there, your people need to sell the value of AV and IT combined or they will fall in the trap of competing with every other IT integrator at their game.  So, change the game.

- - -
The bottom line is that AV is the true value-add in AV/IT.  IT will bring the business, but AV will prove that your company can do things that no other player can.  So again I say, CHANGE THE GAME – AND WIN!

Monday, November 23, 2015

5 Reasons AV Needs to Become More IT

Last week I read a very good article titled The 5 Reasons Why AV is Not IT by Ernie Beck (  The article discussed in a very compelling way how AV has considerable value in systems integration and will continued to for a long time to come.  One of the great points in this article is that for the integrators and systems design engineers that embrace their true value add there is plenty of value in their contribution and still plenty of business to be had.  There was a theme of “don’t sell yourself short”.  In the article/blog I am writing here I intend on building on that necessary message for all AV systems integrators to maintain the message that they own the physical space and no IT integrator or reseller can match the user experience they can bring.  What I intend to add is the need-to-know 5 reasons that AV integrators should consider transitioning their business to include an IT integration element along with maintaining the value (the core competency) in acoustics, lighting, control and space planning.

Firstly, I would like to emphasize the importance of what Ernie said in his article.  There is incredible value in the core offerings AV integrators already have.  Yes, I am championing for AV integrators to embrace IT in bigger ways than just adding endpoints and getting a list of IP addresses from the IT guy.  I am even asking AV integrators to move beyond traversing firewalls for videoconferencing and to embrace an enterprise IT integration mindset and to learn and deploy IT in much deeper ways than many of them ever have.  There is a lot more to this transition than some will have you believe.  This requires employing and/or partnering with a whole new set of skill, experience and knowledge.  There is no halfhearted effort here.  The major caution I will add is that systems integrators should not try to use their internal IT guy as the crux of their entry into this market space.  Providing the level of expertise that is required to fully consult and integrate these solutions is far beyond what the typical internal IT support team can muster.  This must be a focused and concerted effort by the integrator and should not be taken on as a side project.
Another point I will make before getting into the meat of this article is that AV integrators should not downplay the value IT brings to the table as well.  While I thoroughly enjoyed the article about the 5 ways AV is not IT, I will say that there was a bit of downplay when it came to the role of IT.  The statement that Ernie attributes to an AV pro where “IT typically establishes and dictates” is a little broad and quite frankly wrong.  IT, as does any other design/build integration or solutions provider does, goes through a complete needs analysis.  There is no doubt that IT is 100% driven by user needs and business needs.  IT has the added challenge of having a highly regulated industry and a well standardize technology and infinitely wide marketspace.  IT spends nearly 100% of their time focusing on the business needs and how they can help their end users support those needs.  IT is under high scrutiny to maintain uptime.  So, yes some of the implementation is dictated, but the solution is user driven.  AV integrators need to let go of the IT Ivory Tower mindset – that is old school and counterproductive.  I was an IT director 18 years ago and my favorite phrase was “not on my network.”, but that was then.  Today I have two kids who are in IT.  I have learned that today it is much different.  Today when a user asks, “can I put this on the network”, (about iPAD, tablet, smartphone, etc.) the IT person will respond, “Yes, of course, how can you be productive without it?”  IT deals with needs that are driven by end user just as AV does.  Both markets must spend time and take on the challenge of determining the difference between wants and needs.
So, why should AV make this transition to be more IT?  Below you will find the 5 reasons that AV integrators should making the transition into becoming more IT:
  1. Products and Solutions are Being Driven to IT – AVB, Dante, VOIP, H.264, H.265 and many other standards are driving technology development.  This development is leading the AV industry down the path of being incredibly more IT centric.  The challenge lies in that knowledge of streaming protocols, multicast implementation, layer 2 and layer 3 switching requirements and many other standards and implementation requirements are often unknown to standard IT people.  The ways AV leverages IT are different than IT is used to and the value an AV integrator can bring can be considerable if they bring this specialization.  It has been said recently that we are not in the AV business, we are in the technology business.  It is time to grow into the IT side, this is where AV can shine and add a lot of value in IT.
  2. End Users and Buyers Expectations are Evolving – Many times a connection between what an end users sees at home or out in the market in many other segments lets them see what should or could be done for them in their baordroom or conference rooms and meetings spaces.  The mentality becomes “if they can do this (insert technical feat accomplished in home) why can’t they do that (insert technical feat done in office)” or “if this works and that works then why can’t they make this plus that?”.  The knowledge and complexity of the end user and their expectations drive us as a market to deliver on a higher level.  An additional challenge is that with these increased expectiations is that AV has hit somewhat of a critical mass.  AV can’t deliver much more than they already are without leveraging the network or the use of some new technology.
  3. IT is Looking Outwardly for Expertise - in 2015 there was a considerable shift in IT where the IT Generalist was the top growing level of certification and the top job position being filled/sought by recruiters.  IT departments, strategist and hiring managers have recently realized that they need people with a broader understanding of IT and that they could then later deploy specialized skills only when needed.  This shows us that IT now has a better understanding of when to bring in outside resources to solve unique problems.  AV/IT integration is still a very unique problem that AV integrators can be that specialized force that IT is looking for. 
  4. IT is Lower Cost and IT is a Different Funding Source – I will write an entirely different article on the details of this in the near future, but suffice it to say that AV ports tend to run about $350 per port for switching and a Gigabit Ethernet ports run $25 to $30 for switching. Traditionally AV has found its funding through facilities.  The beauty of IT is that IT has a completely separate budget and as long as you can prove the business need and the increase in profitability and productivity then that budget is easily and justifiably invested into AV/IT.
  5.  Increased Functionality – Simply by adding AV over IT one can route their video from anywhere to anywhere using the network infrastructure.  Control and full integration is seamless.  This is far beyond seeing every device and controlling it over the network.  This is fully converged where data, AV and control all reside on the same network (segmented via VLANs or whatnot) and when the customer needs they can have AV and data (say a video call with customer information on the same screen).  This can be deployed in unbelievable ways to bring a whole new world of AV/IT solutions.  In addition to the freedom in routing one can add functionalities such as video wall processing, windowing, control, and recording and much more simply by adding AV/IT appliances to the network.
I agree with the mention in other articles that we are far from a doom and gloom “change or die” message, but I will say change or miss the biggest opportunity in business in a very long time.  Businesses live and die on one simple truth, “do the customers need what you have?”  This is one of the times in AV history that our customers absolutely need what we have if we combine our skills in AV and IT.
The last thought I will leave you with is that in every “convergence war” IT has engaged they have won.  This is true for nurse call systems, security systems, telephony to VOIP and many others.  That is not to say that IT does nothing but throw their weight around and force implementation on users whether it has value or not.  IT has won every convergence war because it has always proven to be more cost effective, provide more features and has a higher level of supportability.  The IT watchwords are security, reliability, scalability, flexibility and affordability.  IT has proven that all of these watchwords hold true when you combine AV and IT.  To me that says the war is well underway.  Where do you want to be on the battlefield?  I for one want to be a peacemaker and provide win-win scenarios for my company and moreover my customers.
Next week I will try to address the top ways to make the AV to AV/IT transition.  As a teaser I have included a link to an article where this discussion started and from which I would like to pick up and take much further (
About the Author:  Maxwell Kopsho, CTS-D/I, PMP, CQT, CCNA R&S and Security, CompTIA Network+ and CTT+
Max has worked in the AV industry for over 18 years in various management and technical roles.  Over the last 28 years Max has acquired an extensive background in supporting AV and IT systems, computer networks, telecom, and VTC systems.  Max developed one of the industry’s first networked AV solutions and that product is now deployed in a single network with over 15,000 network attached AV devices.  Max has made considerable contributions to the InfoComm Education area in AV/IT and CTS preparations.  He was awarded the 2010 Educator of the Year for InfoComm and has prepared over 1000 candidates for their CTS exam.  Max has recently joined Thorburn Associates as a Principal Consultant focused on Unified Communications & Collaboration. By combining his knowledge and skill in AV and IT with his decades of experience, Max will be responsible for driving Thorburn Associates' Unified Communications and Collaboration Division (UC&C). Max will be instrumental in the anticipated “exponential growth” of Thorburn Associates' UC&C Division by solving the toughest of customer AV/IT problems with his technical prowess and keen insight into their business needs.
The views in this article are strictly the views of Max and do not necessarily reflect the views of his employer or business partners.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

The Collaboration Conundrum Part II (Considerations for Collaborative Systems)

A great collaboration space allows the people to interact freely and share ideas openly as if they would whether they were using technology or not.  The purpose of the technology is to SUPPORT the message and to ENHANCE communication.  In my earlier blog about this subject I mentioned that part of the needs analysis should include a study of the users in the meeting or proposed space prior to any new systems are in place.  I also noted that this study (observation) would be done without the subjects knowing they are being studied.  Perhaps hosting a different meeting for different reasons and using that meeting to not only have that meeting, but to also study how the meeting takes place.  Once the information is gathered this will allows the consultant or designer to better determine how communication currently takes place and how to plan a space and include the use of technology to support and enhance collaboration and communication.

Once the usage information is made available and analyzed to help the consultant or designer to determine what the true needs are, then they look at three major factors.  These major factors are the environment, interactivity/network and social aspects.  I will go into a little detail on each of these major points.  But, it is worth noting that there are many more things consultants and designers take into account and this should only serve as a small dose for the reader to get a feel for the complexity that goes behind space and technology planning for collaborative systems.

The first major point I will discuss is the technology and how it applies to the environment.  A design engineer or consultant may take several measurements of an existing space to measure ambient light and ambient sound as well as physical volume and acoustics of the space and many other measurements.  These help the designer or consultant determine where lighting, loudspeakers, microphones and other technology will be placed.  But, I have jumped the gun.  The designer or consultant may start to consider technology now, but it is an iterative process and very dynamic.  Other considerations are still being taken as well.  The designer or consultant is still taking in the data to determine where viewer and listeners will be physically located and how they will interact with all other users of the space.  In truly collaborative spaces the concept of presenter and audience or board members and a chair of the board are gone.  Most collaborative spaces have to make a strong consideration for all participants having equal standing.  This is a considerable design challenge.  How do you design a “presentation space” with no presenter position?  If you create a space that has a single location for a “speaker” to connect and present from it losses some of its collaborative feel.  Yet when the system includes an element of remote connectivity through video conferencing, you have to have cameras and add an element of a “stage”.  The major point here is that this is a considerable undertaking that requires a COLLABORATION with the client to have them give input and get a feel for where the system is heading.  Some may call this “scope creep” others call this consulting.

The next point I would like make is about the interactivity and network aspects.  I mentioned a little of this above when I mentioned the fact that this space may include a level of video conferencing with remote users.  What about adding a level of voting or data sharing for these remote participants.  A considerable amount of design and consulting has to be done with the network people at this point.  This requires a level of knowledge, skill and attitude about networking and unified communications and collaboration that many in the AV industry simply do not have.  Without the proper configuration and network service level these systems fall way short of the users expectations and come nowhere near the user experience that they should have had.  If you do not have the expertise in networking, unified communications and collaboration and network provisioning then partner with someone who does.  This is critical to a truly collaborative system done right.  As I mentioned in my last blog, these off the shelf systems are far from plug-and-play and they require a strong network person to get the full capabilities out of them.

The last, but certainly not the least, important point I will make is about the social aspect of adding collaborative systems to a customer’s solution.  The key is to have executive buy-in.  Well, duh Max!  Let me expand.  Sure, you have executive buy-in, you got the P.O. or you were commissioned to do the design work, but do you have buy-in from a usage policy support aspect?  Will the executives use the system religiously and will they write and enforce policy that will make the company feel free to collaborate openly and collaborate with full reciprocity?  The key is to make sure that executives and management do all they can to remove the barriers to collaboration. All too often those barriers have little to nothing to do with technology and more to do with company culture.  When designing a collaborative system business processes often have to change as well.

I am a LEAN Six Sigma Green Belt.  I learned a lot about process improvement in the program I took at Georgia State University.  I am also a Certified Professional Project Manager and a Certified Technology Specialist for Design and Install for InfoComm in audiovisual.  I have certifications from Cisco in network routing, switching and security.  I have certifications from CompTIA and for general networking and technology training.  I have worked in networked AV, unified communications and collaboration for 28 years now.  Why do I tell you all of this?  Because all of these certifications and experience are all related and without them all combined, I could not come close to providing anywhere near the solutions in collaboration that our customers need.  All of our customers need their technology, environment, network infrastructure, design, engineering and business process needs met.  Heck, If I can do it, I know any of you can.

About the Author:  Max has joined Thorburn Associates as a Principal Consultant focused on Unified Communications & Collaboration. By combining his knowledge and skill in AV and IT with his decades of experience, Max will be responsible for driving Thorburn Associates' Unified Communications and Collaboration Division (UC&C). Max will be instrumental in the anticipated “exponential growth” of Thorburn Associates' UC&C Division by solving the toughest of customer AV/IT problems with his technical prowess and keen insight into their business needs.