This System Sucks

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By Mario Porto
Director of Strategic Accounts, HB Communications

“THIS SYSTEM SUCKS! NOTHING WORKS!!!” How many times have you heard that comment? If you’re like most of the people I’ve spoken to over the years, you’ve heard it more times than any of us would have liked. I recall meeting an architect from a very large global firm at a social event and when he learned what I did, he looked me right in the eye and said, “Oh yeah, AV, I know all about it. I know it never works.”

So, I’ve spent quite some time thinking about why this happens and I think it can all be summed up in two phrases that we all know well:

  • Manure flows down hill.
  • The Emperor wears no clothes.

The Dynamics of Manure Flow

If you look at the genesis of every AV project, they all start pretty much the same way. A group of people within an organization has a need, so they seek out the appropriate “experts” to advise them on filling that need. The process of assessing then begins, etc… you know the drill. The problems start when the conversation turns to money: How much is this going to cost and who’s going to pay for it? That’s when things get real interesting.

In most organizations, anything that involves doing something to a building has to go through the facilities group (or whatever name they give the people responsible for the proper operation of the systems within a building). The facilities folks often carry the budget for the building’s improvements and maintenance and if they don’t, every other group WANTS them to: Makes sense, right?

OK, so the facilities folks now need to build a building (or improve an existing one), so they need to find out what’s going to happen inside that building. Who are they going to ask — the people that came to them to build the building in the first place, right? Well… not so fast. The facilities people are pretty smart and they’ve figured out that if they ask the people that are going to actually use the buildings what they would like the building to do, they’re going to ask for EVERYTHING including the kitchen sink, thus blowing their budget out of the water. So what often happens instead is that the actual end users of the systems being put into the building are left out of the conversation about what should be included in the new building that they asked to be built in the first place. Sounds crazy right? Well, ask anyone in the higher education space and you’ll see that it happens more often than you’d think logical.

Now you have a design team, assembled by the facilities group, that goes about designing a building and its systems. AV consultants are hired, and when they ask to speak to the end users to do “Need Analysis,” more often than not, they are told that they can’t: The facilities guys or whoever else has been assigned the task of representing the users. Another one that I’ve heard often is, “Well, we’re looking to you to make recommendations based on your experience and expertise. What are other organizations like ours doing?”

The design consultant is designing in a vacuum more often than not. Too often, the group that’s been identified as “the end users” doesn’t even know what AV means, let alone being capable of deciding how they’d like their new control system to work. So their decisions are too often based on one criteria: What’s the least expensive way to do it?

The design process continues and then the project is put out to bid, lowest-qualified bid wins (I love that one but that’s for another article), etc. and we now have an AV integrator on board. The integrator has a set of documents that are his (or her) marching orders but a funny thing happens: the integrator is pretty smart too and he (or she) recognizes that there may be a better/faster/easier/cheaper way to accomplish the task described in the documents. So, what to do? If he makes a recommendation that will increase the cost of the project, it will most likely be refused because by the time AV came along, the budget had long been spent. If he makes a recommendation that will save money, the client will want a credit and the cost of the project goes down: not so good for him. So, for the sake of expediency and business preservation, he says nothing and builds the project the way it was designed.

Project is finished, documentation is complete, etc. Now it’s time to close the loop and bring in the end users (remember them?) for training. The integrator’s trainer starts to show them their new systems, of which the trainer is very proud, but then the users say, “Huh, this isn’t going to work. We don’t do things like that here, etc.” Now the fun REALLY begins.

The users go back to their bosses, who go to the facilities people, who go to the design team, who go to — you guessed it — the integrator and say, “WTF, this system is no good; it sucks; nothing works.”

So, as you see, the manure does indeed, flow downhill. We’ll deal with the emperor’s clothes in the next article. Until then, wear high boots.