Integrators and Higher Education: An Evolving Relationship

As long as I have been writing columns for rAVe ED, my aim has been to help integrators understand where they can provide value to the higher education market. The business has changed so drastically over the years, that the value propositions of ten years ago no longer exist. I write about this because I realize we all live in the same economic environment and rely on each other. Yes, we in education NEED integrators, designers, programmers and installers. We just don’t need them the same way that we used to. I want the people running these firms to make money, thrive and stay in business. If they are not doing so, then none of us can.

I have received some feedback from columns recently that have driven my thinking about this relationship between higher ed and integrators even further. One of the biggest challenges in developing a strong relationship, I believe, is making sure that the integrator understands the customer’s business. In particular, for experienced integrators, there is a challenge in understanding how the business has changed.

In order to help that understanding, I offer up the following theory on which our AV department is built and runs. At my college, which is small, there are hundreds of uses of AV, across more than one hundred spaces, every single day. On a normal day, we may get between four and seven help requests for these spaces. Many times these are issues that are easily resolved, e.g., a professor can’t locate the PC in the rack or may not know where to plug in a USB drive. Other times, they are actual technical problems. Those are the cases that truly drive our business model. The professor in that room expects to be able to teach her class (using technology) regardless of what we find. That is to say, her take is, “I don’t care what is wrong, just fix it.” That is likely followed up with “and do that within the next 10 minutes.” I don’t write this to pick on faculty. In fact, I think those expectations are completely appropriate. Plain and simple, our business is teaching. Every minute that passes without being able to do that we are, in essence, losing money. Think of it this way. If the cash registers at Wal-Mart stopped working, what would happen with the business? You couldn’t just roll your eyes and say, “Well, they don’t really need technology to do that, they could do it by hand.” In fact, they can’t still just do it by hand; just like today, much teaching CAN’T be done without technology. So the primary thing to understand about our business is that there is zero tolerance for extended downtime. When something goes wrong, it must be corrected in minutes. If that is simply not possible (e.g., a display fails), then alternatives need to be sought (cart with projector, for example). The main system then needs to be fixed by the next time that the professor is in the room.

This requirement for technology to be available and working did not exist ten years ago. Expectations were different with a different set of students and faculty. Now, we understand this need for technology and built our business model around it. We design systems that make it relatively easy for us to troubleshoot and repair. We design systems that do not require us to train faculty. We design systems that have similar equipment, so we can easily keep spares on hand. We program systems in a way that allows us to quickly get into the programming and change it if models change during an emergency repair. We use metrics from our rooms to determine which are most in need of upgrades and preventative repairs. Most importantly, we have staff on hand at all times, who are ready to head to any space on campus in five minutes if there is a problem. These are AV professionals, who are prepared to do anything to fix the problem, from pointing out where a device is to getting out a ladder and replacing the projector.

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Anytime an integrator wants to discuss with higher ed institutions, different services, different offerings or an explanation of how we may want to change, they have to take into account the above description of how our business works. The services or changes also have to provide value. I have recently talked with integrators who suggested letting them do our installs and having our team act as project managers. In figuring out whether that works for us we also need to ask: Who is completing the programming, design and commissioning, our in house team or the integrator? How does that affect our in-house team’s ability to quickly respond to and resolve future problems, in a timeframe that is acceptable to our business? And as we answer that, we need to find how that provides us more value than what we are currently doing.

After my last article, I received a comment: “Why are you looking to do all the maintenance manually?” They directed me to a service that does proactive notifications of room problems, among many other services. I looked at the service and it seems valuable. We do have a limited budget, so adding services alone is not always realistic. We likely would have to make that budget up in another place. Is the vendor prepared to show me, realistically, where that money will be made up? For example, don’t tell me that it will allow me to cut a staff member; that’s not realistic. Alternatively, are they prepared to prove to me that this will be such an enhancement in our services, that it’s worth arguing for an increase in the budget?

I am not writing this as an affront to integrators or service providers. In fact, my entire goal here is to help them better understand the higher education client. I would love to sit down with an integrator and talk in detail about this. I will even offer up numbers for what we spend on equipment and staffing, along with the work that we do every year. Let’s figure out how we can help each other be successful.