We Have a Plan But It Doesn’t Work!

Suppose you were one of the United States largest businesses, with your estimated net valuation exceeding 63 billion dollars, with gross revenue over 9 billion. Your 32 divisions average over $300 million in gross profit every year, and your divisional COO’s average salary is over 8 million, without considering anything but cash compensation. Who would you be? Have you figured it out yet?

You are the NFL!

Now, you choose to deploy new technology to each and every COO (head coach), in a 400 million dollar endorsement deal with Microsoft. By mandate every coaching staff WILL use Microsoft Surface tablets for every game. There is no option, and there is no pre-deployment discussion on how this is being implemented. It is simply a fait-accompli by direct orders from NFL headquarters in New York City, period.

There Is No Pre-Deployment Discussion

This plan, or lack of one, depending on your perspective, is not unique to the NFL, or for that matter thousands of companies, enterprises and educational institutions across the country and around the world.

A decision is made to implement, deploy, require, mandate or otherwise force technology and devices into the hands of users with little if any consultation with those users or any evaluation of whether what is being planned actually makes any sense or is even practical. Forget about in-field testing and debugging, just ship the stuff out and make it work, if you can, later — the AV system version of the old recording adage “we’ll fix it in the mix.” Yeah! Right! Sure you will!

Too many of the folks that technology is intended to help end up actually resenting the technology.

In the AV integration industry, this is nothing new. How often have we heard stories about how long it takes to launch a video call or meeting?

The AV industry is battling negative stereotypes. “AV — that’s the stuff that doesn’t work,” is practically a mantra in the corporate world, especially among the IT-based purchasers of today.

But you, dear reader, who are probably one of the folks who work for the integration firms that are actually responsible for providing audio, video, communications and automation solutions for organizations shouldn’t be laughing. You should be afraid, very afraid, and if you’re not already doing so, paying VERY close attention to this seemingly built-in perception of your customer base.

All of these issues have been a problem forever it seems. But recently they achieved front-page, lead story, breaking news status, when one of the COO’s who just happens to be the head coach of the New England Patriots delivered a VERY public rant, which exploded in every media format you can think of.

All of These Issues Have Been a Problem Forever It Seems

You may have caught bits and pieces, but it is worth looking at precisely what was said, and why.

What Coach Belichick actually said in his rant was: “As you probably noticed, I’m done with the tablets. I’ve given them as much time as I can give them. They’re just too undependable for me. I’m going to stick with pictures … because there just isn’t enough consistency in the performance of the tablets, so I just can’t take it anymore. The many other critical in-game (emphasis added) communication systems, including the press box to the coaches on the field, the coach on the field to the signal caller or the coach-to-quarterback, coach-to-signal caller system, all have repeatedly failed for us on a regular basis.” (This was a sentiment supported by about half the league’s coaching staffs, according to multiple ESPN on air and online reports aired after the Belichick comments).

He added, “There are very few games that we play, home or away, day, night, cold, hot, preseason, regular season, postseason — it doesn’t make any difference — where there aren’t issues in some form or fashion with the communications or computer equipment.” (Based on the data reported by ESPN, USA Today, and others, that means that out of the total of 512 in-season games played by the league’s 32 teams, about 15 percent have no major issues — which means that 85 percent of the games or roughly 430 games per season have some major communications- or Surface tablet-related problems.)

What Belichick was referring to is the seemingly randomly selected mishmash of headsets in the helmets, wireless belt packs, the league proscribed Internet service connections, all of which are controlled by, approved for in-game use by, selected by and provided by the league from multiple manufacturers, including a well known major audio company in New England, whose logo is on coaching headsets. The various systems (from multiple vendors) are of course using an assortment of RF frequencies or wireless mic bands (the belt packs Belichick mentioned), without, it seems, anyone having done what every knowledgeable live sound company would do automatically — check every system for interference and channel availability at each game location of each game day.

Compounding the issue, Belichick and multiple other coaching staffs noted (again based on reports aired by ESPN and others) the fact that ‘this is all league equipment so we don’t have it during the week.’

I don’t know about you but logically speaking, is it remotely sensible given the HUGE dollars at stake in every game, every week, for every team, that they would have no opportunity to work with these systems all the time and be able to find the guaranteed problems and troubleshoot and correct them for each game BEFORE game day?

Is It Remotely Sensible That Users Have No Chance to Work With the Hardware Before It’s Critical?

But no — the teams only get the equipment a few hours before the game. Belichick pointed out “that’s the first chance our staff (and of course the opponents’ staff as well) has to test it. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. We hope that by game time it is working but more often it is not.”

That’s bad enough but he also pointed out that “during the game… (it is almost a sure bet that) something will happen and it has to be fixed.” That means every team’s tech coordinator and the venue staffs have to figure out, in real time, on national television, is it a battery, the particular player’s helmet, the battery on the coach’s pack or any one of perhaps 15 or 20 other failure options? Doesn’t that sound like a cardiac event-inducing situation — and add in the league’s equity rule that mandates that if one team’s gear drops dead, then the other team’s system has to be shut down to maintain “a level playing field.” This rule affects some but not all systems.

How that particular concept was created remains a mystery to the teams and their staffs, but it is ‘league policy,’ without any explanation. It just is.

Are you wondering by this point just what incredibly naive rules committee or league executive approved this idea and continues to allow this situation to exist? I sure am! (For the full Belichick rant video, go here.)

Did anyone at the top ask the people who have to use these systems to test them out in advance or work with the multiple vendors to insure compatibility, reliability and user functionality? Doesn’t seem that they did, does it?

Unfortunately, this scenario is all too familiar to buyers and end users in the corporate, commercial and hospitality worlds, and our industry is, in many ways, responsible. We don’t determine if what we are providing will work for the people it is intended to serve. This is why so many of the folks that all our glossy digital technology is intended to help end up resenting it at best and hating it all too often.

So Many of the Folks That All Our Glossy Digital Technology Is Intended to Help End Up Resenting It

Think about for a moment, or perhaps have a sleepless night digesting the ramifications. How often have you heard stories about how long it takes to launch a video call or meeting, or the educator who can’t figure out how to use the slick new lectern AV control touch panel with multiple soft keys, or the sales presenter whose 2016 laptop won’t interface with the 2014 presentation system, because the connectors don’t match up?

We are creating a whole generation of users/buyers/decision makers who come into the process with significant doubts and a huge lack of trust in what we say or do. Why? Because we fail to do something so basic, it should be blatantly obvious. ASK the user/buyer about the design and hardware upfront. Provide them a hands-on demonstration to find out if what you propose will actually work for them in their specific situation. Is that educator or company CEO comfortable with that touch panel controller or confused and uneasy enough to not want to use it?

No one running or managing an organization wants to be or can afford to be apprehensive about their infrastructure.

Belichick represents essentially every customer. He might not be the person you’re selling to or the person you’re training. But he’s the person behind the scenes who’s angry when the system isn’t intuitive enough for him to use — or when it simply doesn’t work.

While that infamous quote about AV, that it’s “the stuff that doesn’t work,” is simply not true, it is the stuff that requires ongoing support. The NFL, based on Belichick’s description, is doing its teams a disservice by not providing embedded service technicians to quickly address potential issues with systems that, for them, are mission critical. Are you making the same mistake with your customers, by not offering ongoing service and support up-front as part of the whole project package?

Too many AV integration firms are doing their customers a disservice when they take “no” for an answer when it comes to service contracts. You know, and the customer will rapidly discover, how mission-critical video communication is for most organizations. The powerful folks behind the scenes that depend on it, like Coach Belichick, will be more than willing to pay for that peace of mind.

And just one more thing… it should be pointed out that Microsoft, which generates on average 85 billion in annual revenue, has committed a tiny fraction of its earnings, a reported $400 million over five years, to have its tablets featured in the NFL. Even so, the company can’t be amused to hear Belichick’s stoic condemnation.

Perhaps, though, Redmond should look on the bright side. At least they haven’t blown up.