Build It and They Will Use It

featured-tiners-tkeAs you are walking the cavernous hallways of the Las Vegas Convention Center this year, and you hear a voice whisper “build it and they will use it,” don’t worry, others are hearing the same voice. The amazing gadgets we see at InfoComm and other tradeshows and in publications, are so exciting, they get us thinking about how we can put these to use in our own environments, or sell them to our customers. Beware though, just because you can hear the whispers, and others may hear it as well, does not make what they are saying to be right.

Recently, I heard someone tell a group that 10 years ago the “smart classroom” was all the rage. Now, a decade later, all we have are really expensive dumb classrooms. I hope that in my institution, and yours, that is not the case. Yet, I do know that even at my institution we have run into the “build it and they will come” trap. About 15 years ago we built a new academic building and hired a top of the line consultant to design the AV. Although I was not here at the time, my observation is that the end user did not have enough of a say in what was getting built. So, our consultant put every possible option in the room, and every possible option for expansion. Unfortunately, it was just too confusing and difficult to use. Because the rooms were built for EVERY purpose, it did not work perfectly for any purpose.

A second example is a video conferencing facility we built in the early 2000s. It was a grant funded room that cost over $90,000 to build. Several other colleges in Maine were given matching grants, so that the schools could all be connected by professional video conferencing equipment. Great right? Except for one big problem. There was not a clear need or demand for the technology. The room was used periodically for years (maybe 10 times per year), and often those uses were purely exploratory. During that time period the technology in the room did not serve any clear business or academic purpose. We built it, but they did not come.

Years later, we started getting requests for video conferencing. Faculty wanted to speak with colleagues around the globe. Staff wanted to interview potential employees. By this time, the video conferencing codecs were obsolete. They did not work with other codecs, and many of the places we were trying to contact did not have hardware codecs. Through discussions with our end users, we understood what they were trying to achieve. They wanted a room that provided good audio, both sending and receiving. They wanted a camera with pan/tilt/zoom so that several people could be in the meeting without moving a webcam around. We took these desires and re-vamped the video conference room to work with the basic web conferencing tools. We also put in a small Polycom based system for the few faculty who did use it to conference with colleagues at other hardware equipped locations. In two years, the room went from a room used 10 times per year to one which is used at least 10 times per week.

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Why the sudden change? I believe it is due to the fact that we really listened to what our customers needed and delivered it to them when they needed it. Perhaps, if we had built a room for web conferencing even two years earlier, it too would have laid dormant. People are ready for things, when they are ready for them. Sometimes, forcing the technology on them scares them away. Or, they don’t use it immediately, and when they are ready for it, it is too old for them to use with current technologies.

The days of ‘build it and they will use it” are, in my opinion, gone. We no longer have the money in our budgets to afford that type of experimentation and failure. At the same time, we can not afford to sit back and not be ready for the future. What do we do?

First, you educate yourself. It is no coincidence that this article is being printed at InfoComm time. Whether you attend InfoComm or not, this is your opportunity to educate and prepare. Watch for the trends in products. Talk to colleagues if you are a tech manager, if you are an integrator, find some of the tech managers from your area and tour the floor with them. Listen to what stands out to them.

We have been very successful at Bates College, by educating ourselves, and then listening carefully to our faculty. When they start to discuss technologies they are interested in, we are able to gauge what solution would be best for them, and we are ready to provide the solutions. Our users, the faculty, get exactly what they want because we are not pushing technology on them, or trying to force them into a box that we built several years ago, even though it does not work anymore.

Enjoy InfoComm, and make sure you take advantage of all that is there, but most importantly make sure it prepares you for what may be coming your way over the next year.