Several months ago I started a podcast here on rAVe called #DearVendor. The idea behind the podcast is the AV industry is an ecosystem — we are only healthy if all parts of the industry are healthy. In the podcast, I give tech managers (aka in-house integrators) an opportunity to tell manufacturers, integrators, programmers, designers and others what services and products they need. An integrator commented on a LinkedIn post about the podcast, saying it was like eavesdropping on higher ed tech managers who are talking amongst themselves. What a great observation! That is exactly the point of the podcast.
If you have missed the podcasts, you should go and listen to them. They provide valuable insight and will serve you well. Let me recap a few things we have learned during the first several episodes.
I have spoken with tech managers at private schools, public schools, large schools and small schools. Some have large budgets and some are struggling. One thing they all have in common is they do the majority of their installations in-house. Every single person I have spoken to so far has done this, and each person has a slightly different reason for doing so. They also each have slightly different schedules for bringing in outside firms for design and installation help.
Lesson number one for integrators (if you have not already learned it): The vast majority of your classroom design and install work is gone and not coming back. It is not completely gone, as each person told me that they still do go out for certain installs. Sometimes they do it if they have a particularly large number of installs to do in a short time. Other times they do it for very large or complicated installs, like an athletic facility. Yet, even when they bring in outside designers, integrators or installers, they most often do the project management themselves. In fact, even at my school this summer (we are finishing a new building), we are hiring an integration firm as outside laborers for the install work only. We did the design and programming and are managing the project.
Another universal view of the people I spoke with is they still need a partner. Each person spoke of relationships they had that were very valuable to them. Some examples of how a partner can help include reviewing designs, sourcing equipment, understanding and communicating the availability of the equipment, training and general education. As good as we are at being in-house integrators, we still cannot possibly know all of the vendors and their associated equipment. A good partner can help review designs and keep us up to date on what new equipment may exist to improve the design.
It is very important to let us know the availability of equipment. Erin Maher-Moran of John Hopkins spoke about how important it was to know when the equipment would be going to end of life, and when vaporware becomes real equipment. If we have an installed base of dozens of specific boxes, and that box goes end of life without us knowing, it becomes a problem. A good partner will know this and communicate it with us, so we can stock up on spare parts or stock up for future installs.
One thing that did not come up with anyone was the desire or need to purchase directly from manufacturers. This surprised me, as there is a move in higher ed to try and push manufacturers to sell directly to us. Personally, I was glad not to hear this. I have previously written that I believe that direction is wrong for many reasons. After these first few discussions, I feel even stronger about my view. I believe big universities with a lot of money are trying to make this push, and I also believe they have not thoroughly thought through their own business case for buying direct ( it will cost them money). If they are successful, they may likely push the integrators they used to purchase from out of business. This will leave the rest of us who rely on a strong partnership without a partner.
In the end, this move will hurt all of higher ed much more than it will help the few schools that have money to waste. This continues to leave the industry in a pickle. Schools want a partner (integrator), and most are willing to buy from that partner (integrator). Yet, we know that selling boxes is not a successful way to grow an integration firm. What are the new services that integration firms need to get into in order to continue to be successful? We hope that the #DearVendor podcast will continue to help us think through that question.