By Tim Kridel
Special to InfoComm International
Face time with a client’s CIO or IT director can be important to everything from cinching big-ticket, organization-wide AV projects to getting the network access necessary for remote management services. And thanks to AV/IT convergence, those executives increasingly have the ultimate say over AV projects.
Of course, old habits die hard. For example, many enterprises have traditionally put AV under the purview of the real estate/facilities/building management department. That made sense when AV mainly comprised islands of projectors and displays, rather than networked, enterprise systems, such as unified communications and collaboration. But that’s not the case today.
Still, in many organizations, such an arrangement persists for several reasons. In some cases, it’s the momentum of tradition. In others, it’s because IT has successfully resisted taking over AV responsibilities. In still others, the AV systems are so tightly linked to HVAC, lighting, room scheduling and other building systems that the organization decides the facilities department ought to be in charge.
“Even when IT owns it, real estate still owns much of the capital budget that drives these projects,” says Byron Tarry, CTS, Director of Enterprise Solutions at Sharp’s Audio Visual.
When AV is the responsibility of multiple departments, the CIO’s office can still play a key role in approving and coordinating disparate projects. “Progressive IT organizations are becoming much more consultative, much more of a technical intermediary to help lines of business identify the opportunities where they can improve their business by using technology,” Tarry says.
In those types of organizations, it’s important for AV firms to interact directly with the CIO or IT executive — and that’s not always easy. Either those lines of communication don’t exist or the role of AV in an enterprise technology strategy isn’t clear.
“Historically they have undervalued AV technology and solutions because they were not viewed as part of core or critical communications,” says Michael Goldman, CTS, Executive Director for UC Solutions at Crestron.
But when AV companies and IT executives are on the same page, the results can be exceptional. “In larger companies, for example where UC has become a core focus, there is a clear connection to AV technology,” Goldman says. “In those situations, AV is now viewed as part of enterprise communications.”
Making the CIO Connection
How do AV teams get access to CIOs and IT executives in the first place? When it comes to enterprise AV, working only with individual business units or departments in an organization can cause a disconnect. Such arrangements run the risk of information getting lost in translation when AV professionals then try to explain a solution to the CIO’s office. The worst-case scenario is when one of those departments tries to grease approval by promising something an AV firm or system can’t deliver.
“That’s been a challenge,” says Gregory Clark, CTS, principal consultant at The Sextant Group. “In that respect, it would be helpful to have access to upper-level IT folks.”
When IT takes complete charge, it’s often because something went horribly wrong, such as an investor presentation in which a video stream kept freezing, or a board meeting in which remote participants who couldn’t hear what was being said half the time.
“Then the C-suite looked to the CIO and said, ‘You need to fix this,’” says Scott Walker, CTS-D, president and CEO of Waveguide Consulting. “The CIO looked across the organization and said: ‘Wow, nobody has been owning or managing this. Now I’ve been saddled with it and it’s not my area of expertise. Help!’”
Other times, the CIO’s office has an epiphany on its own, such as when it realizes the amount of IT staff hours spent hand-holding employees who encounter a different touchpanel GUI in every conference room. That hodge-podge often is the result of departments within an organization purchasing AV systems on their own.
In fact, many integrators say the first step to take with any new client is to inventory all the AV gear the organization has amassed. These reports set the stage for the AV firm to educate CIOs and IT executives about the cost of fragmentation and exactly how and where the AV firm can help.
“We’ve done reports where we’ve found 30 different touchpanel GUI designs,” Walker says. “Is it any wonder you can’t troubleshoot the London conference center from New York?”
ExxonMobil is an example of what happens when the CIO’s office takes charge. The company standardized AV systems in thousands of rooms across its Calgary and Houston campuses. “And that was driven by the very highest level of the organization,” Tarry says. “If that had been a more traditional environment, they would have had a hodge-podge of rooms with no standardization, no efficiency, no ability to measure and manage because it would have been done in a whole lot of little projects.”
What Do CIOs Think When They Think About AV?
In the IT world, standardization is the name of the game because it helps staff more easily support enterprise systems. To meet CIOs’ preference for standardization, AV firms may have to change their marketing strategies and business models.
“Custom AV solutions represent an area of unknown and a cause of concern for most CIOs,” says Dale Bottcher, Senior Vice President of Sales for AVI-SPL. “I believe they absolutely see the value of integrated meeting technologies but need a consistent end-user experience.”
When asked what IT executives think about when they think about AV, Goldman says they’re amazed — but not always in a good way. “They can’t believe AV systems that serve common functions differ as much as they do under one roof,” he says. “The touch-screen control panel for the videoconferencing system in one room has a button labeled ‘Join Meeting,’ but it’s and ‘Start Call’ in another room….There is no consistency and the end result is overly complex, difficult to use, difficult to maintain, inconsistent and unreliable. In other words, it’s not viewed as an enterprise solution.”
“The focus is no longer on the project or room, but rather on the platform,” Bottcher continues. “CIOs, more than ever, are looking at standardized, scalable meeting solutions. To stay relevant, we will need to flip the way we approach the market, from the current 80-percent custom solutions and 20-percent standardized templates, to the inverse.”
But it’s tough for AV integrators and consultants to help when CIOs and IT directors don’t understand what exactly “AV” encompasses these days.
“When they think about AV, they probably think about flat screens and projectors,” Walker says. “They’re not realizing it’s everything from sound masking to interactive videowalls.”
Another challenge for AV professionals is educating CIOs and IT directors about the value of including AV in a larger enterprise technology strategy.
“We’ll explain all the benefits and ROI of collaboration and telepresence, and the advantages of standardized control for ease-of-use and user adoption,” says Blaine Brown, CTS, director of technology at Sensory Technologies. “We spend a lot of time on user adoption, because for us, this is what determines that a job was successful — not just the technology working perfectly. We’ll also help them better understand what technology they have, where it is in its lifecycle and how it’s being used, to aid in making informed decisions moving forward.”
It often helps to show where AV fits with existing IT systems. “I would integrate [into my pitch] the tools, technologies, infrastructure, and security protocols they’re already using, such as Microsoft Exchange or IBM Notes for scheduling, SNMP for management, IP for control and communications, 802.1x and Active Directory for security,” Goldman says.
And what if the CIO uses network security as a reason for denying AV a role in the organization’s technology strategy? “There is no ‘if,’” Goldman says. “This is the first conversation you will have. Depending on how you answer, it may be the last conversation you have.”
The Security Obstacle
Other AV pros agree that security is a frequent roadblock to engagement with members of the CIO’s office. “From their perspective, AV is a rogue technology with undisciplined IT integration,” says David Thorson, CTS, Director of Programming for AVI-SPL. “Additionally many AV integrators don’t consider security until asked. The first rule about security is don’t talk about security.”
But an evasion strategy is a great way to make your first visit to the CIO’s office your last. “If you are talking to IT executives about attaching devices to the network, your technology must live up to IT industry standards,” Goldman says. “They will ask you a series of pointed questions about security. You will either answer yes or no. They will ask you directly — and not allow for any caveats or explanations — if your solution supports a series of standard security protocols, such as HTTPS, TLS, SSL , 802.1x and can integrate with Active Directory and be managed by SNMP. If you don’t, they won’t.”
The bottom line is that the more information AV pros provide, the better chance they have of making or salvaging a sale.
“It’s because they don’t understand the technology in the AV space that they’re initial reaction is, ‘Not on my network,’” says Julian Phillips, executive vice president at Whitlock. “It’s not that they’re closed to AV as a concept; they just need to understand what it is and how it’s going to work.”
CIOs’ and IT executives’ fixation on security also highlights the role they typically play in their organizations — a role that has more to do with details than the big picture.
“Most CIOs are risk managers,” Phillips says. “Their job is basically to make sure [bad stuff] doesn’t happen and that the business keeps on working. They don’t tend to be the ones driving a lot of change and innovation, which is what we’d like to believe they do.”
And managing risk usually means focusing on mission-critical aspects of the enterprise infrastructure — an umbrella under which AV systems don’t usually fall until they touch the network.
“CIOs are right in that many aspects of AV are not mission-critical,” says Brown.
For instance, he explains, installing and maintaining an AV presentation room is not as mission-critical as making sure a company’s gigabit backbone never goes down.
“But they need to make sure they’re not undervaluing the importance of implementing a well-designed AV plan,” Brown says. “That includes AV asset management, cutting-edge presentation technology, digital signage communication and HD telepresence collaboration.”
It’s in these environments that professional AV can really shine, says Goldman. “Because properly implemented systems can provide a great user experience.”
This column was reprinted with permission from InfoComm International and originally appeared here.