The AV Bill of Materials (BOM)

Standardization… the holy grail of the corporate customer. Years ago, when building out a technology space, enterprises relied 100% on the expertise of AV integrators and consultants. This worked well when the spaces consisted almost exclusively of just a few really big complex ones (auditoriums, boardrooms, EBCs, etc.), but over time, starting in the early 2000s, we saw a real shift. This shift was driven by a democratization of first projector prices and then flat panels. And with the decreasing costs and ever-increasing quality and offerings of flat panels, we pivoted to a world where we started putting a flat panel of some variety in every room. As I talked about in an earlier article, while this was great from an offering’s perspective, we started to see issues because all the rooms were different: different remotes, different models, different backup projector lamps and even different battery types for the various remotes. As a result, it became increasingly difficult for users to just walk into a room and plug in and go. While simple all-in-one solutions from folks like Extron and SP Controls and others gave us options, this resulted in differences from building to building or campus to campus based on what the dealer preferred. And our users were caught in the middle. Now we needed more and more documentation in each room just to tell people how to use THIS room. Anyone who has been doing this can tell you horror stories about needed five different laminated cards in each room just to use the darn TV.

Then in the early part of this decade, videoconferencing really started to explode — new solutions hit the marketplace that caused VC prices to plummet and functionality/ease of use to skyrocket.

The result of all of this meant that we were putting more and more into each room, and subsequently ended up with more and more drift from room to room with regards to the use of the room.

Standardize!

It became painfully clear that end users needed to take control of things so that they could dictate to the dealers what they wanted. As a result, more and more enterprises opted to bring on an AV person or three into the IT department to help make sense of it all. And nowadays, just about every enterprise has some level of expertise in house. And the main goal is to standardize.

But what does that really mean?

Users care about experience. Whether the room is in Bangalore or Boston, they just want to walk in and use it. They don’t want to have to open multiple applications, deal with 15 cables or have to point their laptop in the direction of Cupertino or Redmond and pray to the spirit of Bill Gates in order to make this happen.

One of our stakeholders needs a standardized EXPERIENCE. And we can all agree that when looking back at our stakeholders, there is no argument with regards to the primacy of the user.

The IT dept cares about standardization of the devices, the IP ranges, the ability to support and then of course all the reporting and such that goes along with an investment the size of a standard AV estate. As expected, IT wants the gear standardized.

AV Bill of Materials

So, we need to create a standardized AV bill of materials (BOM).

However, let’s clarify what we mean when we say BOM. Strictly speaking, BOM refers to the bill of materials. So this is the listing of the fear to be used in a particular installation. However, more generically, it has come to be more of a catch-all to describe the entire list of equipment, reference wiring diagrams and possibly other guidelines that would aid in the install. However, where we need to focus is on broader documentation that gives all the details and relevant flavor.

If I was going to write documentation for an entity, the first thing I would reach for is the style guide. This would tell me all about fonts, color palette, certain words to be avoided, etc. In short, a guide to ensure that my outcome is in alignment with corporate standards. More closely related, the real estate/facilities team also as a design guide of some sort that they pass on to architects/designers to ensure that new spaces look like all the others.

In that same vein, we need to create similar documentation that ensures that AV projects have similar outcomes, both in how a room operates, as well as how it looks. And not just the equipment, but also its appearance — colors and fonts and logos on panels, menus, etc.

Based on all of this, the complexity of the BOM/design guide will vary depending on the space. It could be exact instructions on what and how to build when talking about a conference room, but if we’re talking about a big auditorium, it might just be rules around what is and isn’t acceptable so that the integrator can build what is needed, and we can be confident that it will work as expected and the users will have that consistent experience.

Standardizing the Experience

I worked at one company and while the BOM was very mature and well laid out, we still had problems. The issue was that the integrator would follow the BOM, but the room wouldn’t work as expected. How can this be? If they use all the products we told them to… why would we get an inconsistent outcome? Simple — it happens because we focused on the gear — what to use and how to wire it. We were not focused on the experience, all that nuance that comes from HOW it is configured and guidelines around how it is expected to work. We didn’t define that. So, the integrator followed industry best practices and configured things as expected.

Now these practices that AVIXA, Extron, Crestron and many others teach are good general practices. The issue, however, is that while they might make sense for one scenario (large room with a matrix switcher and lots of ins and outs), they may not make sense for a small room with just an extender, a codec and a display. In our case, the issue arose when they enabled the scaler in the extender. That may seem logical to most, but in our case, it completely broke the user experience of just walking into the room, plugging in a laptop and presenting. What the dealer didn’t know was how we were configuring the codec to work.

As a result, we ended up creating one-page overviews that gave details on HOW the room was supposed to work and adding them to the BOM package we shared with integrators. We ended up doing this around a simple conference room setup (as above) and then more of them for other problem areas such as: networking at our site (we had some idiosyncrasies in our environment) and even with regards to overall DSP configuration and even when it came to the UI for control systems, we realized that we could not rely on dealers in various places to come up with a consistent UI or even to just follow guidelines. So we made it clear from the beginning on every project that they were to follow the UI templates that we provided. (The whole issue of user interfaces will be another article.)

At another organization I recently spent some time with, they had a more immature BOM. (Not to say that it was problematic, just that they were in an earlier stage when it comes to developing their standards.) As such, they were putting in loads of effort into “mostly” designing the spaces but ended up hamstringing themselves into systems where they had limited the dealer and affected their outcomes. And my biggest advice was to stop, define the outcome/experience first, then work backward onto approved models/manufacturers, etc.

Defining an exact BOM takes quite a bit of work. And for most organizations, it is an evolutionary process. The best outcomes start with loose definitions and over time you define more and more. There are many reasons we need to standardize. Consistency for your users as well as for your support team. However, there are also good business reasons such as pricing, better warranty, etc.

In many companies, the “AV expert” in the beginning is usually one of the IT team. The person who kinda likes playing with TVs and such, maybe a gamer. So that person becomes the “AV expert.” And as so much of the AV world is dependent on the network, it’s not a bad pairing. But over time, the needs get more complex and that IT/AV person runs into a wall where they don’t know enough to even ask for what they need. One of the challenges in the IT world is that old adage that “if you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” So if you are an IT organization or department with all sorts of IT people, it’s hard to understand that there is far more to this space and that you just cannot scale a Zoom Room up to an auditorium. Not that you can’t use Zoom or Bluejeans… far from it. It’s just a totally different approach that comes from a far different experience set.

Inevitably you run into the realization that if you take some really basic needs and communicate those to integrators in five different U.S. markets and four more international locations, and sit back… you’ll get nine different results. And every integrator will give you six reasons why the other integrator was clearly mentally deficient to suggest “whatever” and that we should give all our global business to them alone.

While the last paragraph may have a little hyperbole embedded in it… it’s not as much as you might think. There are many reasons for it: what lines they carry, what their business portfolio looks like, budgets, etc. And while we have seen the rise of some massive integrators with global footprints over the last 10-15 years, it’s not a stretch to say that not all offices do things the same. I was dealing with one of them and I needed to have two billing accounts and two account reps even though they were both west coast California offices. So clearly many of those promises are not as solid as we might hope. (*High hopes for the future*)

If we flip that formula at the start, however, and provide a clearly laid out vision of what we want that experience to be for the user, as well as what the validation process should look like, then we will have a very different outcome. In this case we could have rooms that all have a totally different makeup of equipment, BUT the user experience is the same, and as such, our pain is severely diminished. Users can just walk in and use it. And we discussed above, giving the users that standardized experience is 50% of the game right there. It also gets much much easier to start standardizing the equipment because it becomes clearer why I am using whatever I am using.

So, if we start down this path by defining the experience and you are able to still get the same experiences no matter the dealer, then the NEED to lock down all the gear becomes less of a priority. Don’t get me wrong, as I said above, there are lots of reasons to standardize and over time it will absolutely happen, it’s just not as critical if you lock in that experience. And when we run into inevitable deviations from that BOM due to differences in product models worldwide, or a partner we are using does not carry manufacturer ABC, but instead uses DEF… then it’s really not a big deal because we know that the EXPERIENCE will be consistent

When Mark Coxon did a piece a little bit ago in which he asked, “Which site walk did you do?”, I found myself wondering if anybody has ever sent a designer/PM to a different client’s office in City A to do a walk-through of the buildings that they like to ensure that the results you deliver in City B are the same. And of course, sometimes there are internal cultural reasons why one site can vary from another, from their history to even some executive that is no longer there but wanted things a certain way.

I’ve told lots of integrators that in this day and age, when we buy codecs from our networking VAR and that we can get displays and extenders from Amazon or CDW, our need for you is diminishing (talking about simple conference rooms here). I know of one very large company that has moved all their conference AV work WORLDWIDE… to a large network VAR. So that VAR is doing all the conference room work globally: installs, repairs, day-to-day service delivery. It’s NOT an AV company… it’s a VAR. And if you don’t think that trend will continue, then you really haven’t been paying attention.

What’s an Integrator to Do?

The modern integrator (who wants to maintain relevance) needs to understand that enterprise customers are looking for three things from partners:

  • Quality — Well-done high-quality work (no hanging wires!)
  • Consistency — Per this column, same thing, EVERYWHERE!
  • Scale — Figure out how to do more rooms, in less time, with fewer resources.

The days of programming and design engineering being the main value proposition of an AV integrator are gone. (Again, talking about those thousands of small conference rooms and not the large unique spaces.) In order to provide the value I described above, you need to stock up on PMs and QA folks, as well as beef up on process! (Long live The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande). And pay much more attention to that whole experience dynamic.  That is where you can add value, this is where your firm becomes VERY “sticky.”  We have hundreds if not thousands of small conference rooms and dozens of large complex spaces. Do the math! I am not saying that value is still not to be found on the design and programming side… just that we have hundreds to thousands of conference rooms. New builds, refreshes, etc. can all be very profitable if you figure out how to do it right. And let’s also look at the new reality, when an Amazon looks for a new HQ or Google is opening a new development office, and they want to open a new site somewhere else, it’s likely a small town with cheap real estate and a much higher standard of living for employees. All they need is an airport and good internet and that town is the NEW OFFICE! So, what this means for the AV world is that if we go looking for an integrator in Boise, or Moose Jaw, or Morgantown, West Virginia… or wherever… it’s likely that my favorite integrator does not have an office there. So, I’m either starting all over again training whatever company is in town, showing them to build stuff the way we need it, or paying 2x for a more well-known integrator to roll trucks and do the work locally. And honestly, that’s a bad idea. There won’t be any local support, for starters. But if that experience is defined, there should be no serious issues. And I can count on my favorite integrator to subcontract that local dealer, knowing that the project will be driven by the same PM and QA folks and process we already deal with all over the place… this has immense value.

Validation/Acceptance Testing

What this all hangs on of course is how we validate that space once it is done. Once we define those experiences, we also need to define in advance what the testing protocol will be.

I have a background In the world of training. And in that world, if you are going to write a class on widgets, the first thing you do is determine what people need to know about widgets when they walk away from that class. That is what defines our test. And from there we work backwards to create the main teaching points, and then we flesh out all the related MUST KNOW, SHOULD KNOW, and COULD KNOW information that fleshes out a ten min quiz into a four-hour class.

To that same end, if we have defined a room experience, then we MUST have a defined testing protocol in order to validate that our expected experience is what’s actually happening. What are all the things we are going to test and HOW are we going to test? For example, we will test (while listening to the far end of the VC on a studio quality headset using a desktop client) the sound of each microphone, the sound as a person walks around the room, the performance while four people all talk at the same time, and whatever else we have defined is important the experience we need. If we don’t define the testing criteria in advance and SHARE IT with the integrator, how else could we expect them to meet our expectations/needs?

In short, instead of starting with a list of gear for an AV BOM, let’s start with:

  1. How the room works and what’s the experience we want… for both the near AND the far end user
  2. How we plan to test it with them

Then as we evolve over time, we have a solid framework to build on, and can even (through keeping track of BOM versions) track what version all your rooms are in order to make future upgrades easy.

But in the end… no standardized BOM, no sanity!