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.

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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!