I want to preface this column by saying, first, that this is intended as a call to action. It is to suggest new strategic initiatives that can transform how we do things. This article has nothing to do with products; it has nothing to do with how we design systems. It’s about processes and a search for continuous improvement.
Over the last 15 years, I have spent a decent chunk of time working as an end user. This means getting systems installed, updated, upgraded, repaired, etc. — and then ensuring that my customers were able to use said systems. And, as has become the norm for the AV world, this was within the IT department. Whenever it came to justifying new capital expenditures, showing user satisfaction with the systems in use, capturing metrics on usage, and tracking maintenance and issue resolution, the expectation has been to align with the processes in the IT world.
From this viewpoint, it was and is clear that there are gaps — big ones — in how the AV industry delivers, measures and reports on systems and services under our umbrella. It also shows me how critical it is for our industry to find ways to align with our customers — the IT industry.
History of IT
If we hop into the wayback machine for a few moments, we will see that back in the mid-’80s, IT was gaining momentum and was becoming a much bigger deal than it had been previously. The market was exploding with computers, printers, and all the accessories, boxes and wiring that kept them running. During this time, the British government realized it had a real issue at hand: No one had a practical, consistent and repeatable way of measuring the effectiveness of the IT services across its various business units. So, to ensure that these business units could standardize and measure the efficacy of what its workers were purchasing, they started building a playbook for measuring success. Then, they made rules to define what they needed to deliver and how much of it. To summarize: All of this came together and formed the core of what became the Information Technology Infrastructure Library.*
*I am in no way an expert on ITIL or the other systems that I am about to describe. So any definitions or explanations are deliberately high-level to keep things simple.
Many of us in the AV industry are somewhat familiar with ITIL and its various relatives. However, it’s been my experience that not many of us understand what it’s about or why it exists. I was in that same boat for a long time, but as I started to learn more about these systems, I realized they are the missing link to our world. The entire purpose of this article — as already stated — is to help others see how this can help us, and maybe even kick-start adoption of (what I see as) the next stage of evolution in our industry.
What/Why Is ITIL?
ITIL came about as a way to measure the delivery of IT services. We’ve gone over that. Over time, these efforts resulted in a playbook for how to order services, measure the quality of services delivered and continuously improve those services. ITIL has nothing to do with what products are used; it doesn’t tell you how to design a system. It instead provides the framework for how we align with the goals of our businesses. It ensures we are meeting customer needs.
The early version of ITIL had five main chapters that defined the overall goals:
- Service Strategy
- Service Design
- Service Transition
- Service Operation
- Continual Service Improvement
Over time, this has evolved and new chapters have been added, but these five areas are still the main goals of ITIL. As its title infers, it is an infrastructure library. ITIL is not a process or guidebook on its own — but instead includes references we can use to get things done. It’s important to note that ITIL is no longer the only game in town — and while it is, in fact, a clearly defined library of reference materials, it’s also a term used by many as the generic name for systems that explain these processes.
In looking at the above chapters, it’s an easy jump to see how these areas can apply to the AV industry. Therefore, it should be clear why we in AV should try to follow them. Simply stated, ITIL is the bible of the IT world.
ITIL to ITSM
I use ITIL to this day, but that’s not totally accurate. Over time, as these systems have become more robust, there came a need for a more comprehensive playbook. ITIL includes various sets of best practice processes, but no overall big-picture strategy guide.
According to Wikipedia, “IT service management (ITSM) refers to the entirety of activities — directed by policies, organized and structured in processes and supporting procedures — that are performed by an organization to design, plan, deliver, operate and control information technology (IT) services offered to customers.”
ITSM can bring together an IT manager in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and a director of IT in Bangalore, India. It’s how the IT service desk at a company in Silicon Valley can benchmark its effectiveness against the entire industry, or, even against others in its sector. Most importantly, ITSM came into existence to ensure that IT was not a monolithic block, providing the same product to all departments regardless of their needs.
Simply stated, ITSM aligns IT services with the needs of the business. We’ve come to understand that we can’t assume one size fits all, but instead, we deliver what businesses need in a manner they can use. Then, we measure the effectiveness of that service — and then study it and find ways to improve it.
Doesn’t this sound like something we need? A few years ago, I was preparing for a quarterly business review of a group I was in. As I saw the metrics that others were delivering on the usage of their services, changes in workload quarter over quarter and measuring customer effectiveness, I was gobsmacked. AV had nothing like that — I had to deep-dive into the data that I had — but I realized we needed more. We didn’t even have enough information to accurately report on what our group had done over the last quarter. Think about that: AV is critical. AV is imperative. Yet there are no industry-wide metrics we can use to prove it! And when you can’t prove it, good luck getting more resources.
It got worse when I realized that the data others had were standard industry metrics that they could benchmark against other companies, industries, sectors, etc. How could we not have that? How could I assure my management that we were doing better, worse or the same as others? I couldn’t. I’d implore you, reader, to talk to various end users to further my point. We all have different made-up metrics that we use to paint the picture we need for our management. That’s no way to run a business.
As a Service?
One of the significant benefits to the world of ITSM is that since we are all working off a standard playbook, it makes managed service providers a viable option. Here’s an example: If I want to hire you to deliver a service for me, I need a way to determine whether you are providing a “good” service. ITSM gives us that. Therefore, I could use my own metrics data up until you, the MSP, take over. Then I can compare that data to your metrics to see how you are doing. Further, I can benchmark against others, and more importantly, set triggers so that if your numbers on X fall below Y, then there will be a penalty, bonus, termination of contract or whatever was defined by the business. Metrics, aka key performance indicators, measure how business effectiveness is judged.
In the AV world, there are no standardized metrics or KPIs. I have no way of comparing/benchmarking against anything. In this world, we just have to hope that we are getting the service we need. This is not to say that there is nothing: If you polled a dozen of the largest AV service providers and a dozen large enterprises, you would undoubtedly see some commonalities. However, this is the next step. This is about taking those metrics that are loosely used today and codifying them so that everyone is working from, again, that same playbook.
Once these things are defined, then industry organizations (talking to you, AVIXA) gain an opportunity to obtain the data: benchmarking, refining and updating it as new trends emerge.
This, of course, leads to other points. In the enterprise IT world, data only has power when it can be visualized and presented regularly in places recognized by management. This is the ITSM platform. Some of the major players here are companies like Oracle, ServiceNow, BMC Remedy, Jira Service Desk and more. These companies automate all the processes that are involved in ITSM: Once data is in place, then dashboards and reporting can be automated. While it’s great that Crestron, Utelogy and others have reporting and ticketing — that info is mostly useless for IT upper management. As a previous director of mine would say, “If it isn’t in ServiceNow, it didn’t happen/doesn’t exist.” In other words, if I’m looking at products, I don’t care how your ticketing works. I only care how your API talks to my ITSM platform because that’s where we need the data. The more data added to the ITSM platform, the more clarity can be provided to management. Therefore, the better the AV manager can see and report on what’s going on in their world.
Twenty-five years ago, there was no formalized training/certification in the AV industry. Individual manufacturers offered training, but there was nothing standardized across the globe. So, the industry got to work. Various manufacturers shared the time of their people, and ICIA (that was the name AVIXA had back then) brought on amazing education folks like Melissa Taggart and Randall Lemke. They ensured that we delivered a product that was far above any of our individual capabilities: the CTS program. AV only got better from there (largely in thanks to Melissa for beating the value of context in lessons in all our thick skulls) because we raised the training capabilities in all corners of the industry.
We can keep improving. We can build our own AVSM landscape that fits puzzle-piece-style into the ITSM world, or we could stay in our lane. Either way, we need the same outcomes from having global benchmarking across critical areas.
Reminder — those areas are:
- Service Strategy
- Service Design
- Service Transition
- Service Operation
- Continual Service Improvement
With every big idea, this needs enough people to buy in. This requires people to make noise. As stated earlier in this column, I am by no means an expert. But it doesn’t take one to know that our industry needs this to move forward.
ITIL and ITSM gave the IT world the tools to evolve and mature its business practices. It offered a way to guarantee that services can be delivered globally, all while securing happy and productive customers. It is (past) time that the AV industry started to mature in this same fashion.