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Capitalizing On Converged Communications Part 2

It is fun to reflect on a story I was pleased to author almost six years ago (sndcom.us/1BoqueM) on the convergence opportunity of voice, data and video ecosystem for systems integrators.

As an executive/founder of several AV integration companies over the past 38 years, the goal of building a converged relationship with IT always seemed to escape me. Now, as an executive in an IT-centric company, I can finally confirm why, and it is what I always suspected would create a true convergence AV/IT company. The centerpiece of my story might shed more light on the current debate/topic on AV’s or IT’s positioning in the Unified Communications ecosystem, most specifically from the AV integrator’s lens. The question posed is this: Who should customers partner with for their AV integration solution…their IT integrator or their AV integrator? The desire for the AV integrator to be AV/IT or, better yet, perhaps IT/AV, has altered how AV companies are trying to redefine who they are and what they can do.

I have been reading with fondness stories in other industry publications about UC/AV versus IT. Some of the best comments note that AV integrators must “learn to speak IT/AV.” Added to that was a series of questions, such as, “When will the blending of cultures between AV integration and information technology be complete?” One answer was, “Never.” To that, I certainly agree!

Another question was centered on whether quality engineering and design expertise in audiovisual integration will continue to be valued at a sufficient level to sustain the AV industry. The AV world seemed to rally to a YES on this (from what I have read), and my answer here is, not really. Certainly, AV Design & Engineering will be valued, but it is NOT enough to sustain the AV integrator’s business or the industry’s AV ecosystem.

The reasons are part of this story, but the “short” of it is that culture matters. Intellectual capital investment toward true IT is not part of AV’s culture (perhaps with the exception of one or two classical AV integrators). Culture matters! It defines who you are, what you do, how you invest and what brands your company as either AV or IT.

I can start my 2015 story in much the same way I began it in 2009, that the promise and profitability of converged communications has more than emerged at the epicenter of Voice, Data and Video with more than a wealth of overlay of software applications. The struggle has never been so heightened for the customer about who should handle the confluence of these disciplines in an attempt to build a cohesive, reliable, solution when there are so many video, IT and even telecom integrators who say they are truly the unified solutions’ best provider. So how does the ecosystem of decision makers look today, and how do the IT and AV integrators position themselves?

Also, who does the customer select: an IT or AV centric company (today and going forward) for that Unified Communication “catch all” mission? In general, it can be said that video integrators do not get IT, and IT integrators generally do not get video, and telecom/voice integrators generally do not get either.

• Reality: The desire to locate “one throat to choke,” that one partner to offer a Unified Communications package, has never been more in demand, especially for small- and medium-sized businesses. Today, the demand has been heightened because video integrators find themselves in the center lane with disruptive companies like Vidyo (and to some extent LifeSize) invading the classical MCU-video CODEC videoconferencing space. Additional disruptive solutions like Pexip and Acano have begun to demand that the AV integrator reexamine how its brand is seen by a larger and larger cross section of the decision makers in their customer base.

Remember that the conversation has changed from “end points (rooms)” to “end users (people).” Now, everyone has conferencing access and the number of concurrent users matters, whether they are meeting on their smartphone, their desktop or on their tablet.
The reality is that the IT directors, the CIO, the CTO, are driving the bus and control who gets on their network and how; that is not going to change.

Unified Communications has changed to “Optimized Communications” (from my lens), and yet we still land at (what I called six years ago) the “Convergence Opportunity.” Yes, it still more than exists for integrators; it is real: All IT integrators look to dip their toe in the video world and all video integrators say on their websites that they are “with it” on IT/UC (Unified Communications). Really?

Not many AV integrators would take a CIO/CTO meeting about the insertion of their boxes in the customer’s IT infrastructure closet without the manufacturer’s rep or someone with IT chops beside them. Do, some of these professionals exist in AV organizations? Yes, a scarce few do, but it does not matter. Their culture (and overall mission) cannot be overlooked and is not overlooked by IT decision makers. AV, even if it is AV/IT, is not good enough for AV integrators, and those companies will not be able to sustain themselves as was suggested by some at the top of this story.

To do so would require AV companies to have the courage and the investment on how to change core operations, its sales force and its product plan figured out. Further culture shock would be to create an environment that can celebrate an order for, say $500 recurring per month for one customer. A customer approach that is consultative and gets solutions from VMware, Cisco, Microsoft, EMC, and all hosted/cloud and hybrid solutions is the future for a true Optimized, or UC, communications partner. WOW… that is a high mountain to climb for the classical AV systems integrator.

Surprise announcement: AV is not rocket science. Having said that, it does require a construction process, and smart teams and top AV integrators have this. What they do not have is an internal culture, a reputation, or the proven trust to build an IT Network. “Infrastructure” or “network” means that you must be able to discuss the converged communication requirements on that network and that means “getting” voice and data. Building the ramp organically is nearly impossible from an AV integrator’s perspective; however, IT-centric companies that desire to be in video integration as an overlay practice can do it inside four to six months, and then can truly be that UC/Optimized Communications partner CIOs are looking for.

Video integrators want to convince the end users that AV design is specialized, that you need a video systems provider on video systems who understands the design/build process. It is true that a customer should select an AV partner that knows the design/build process, but having been in that business for 38 years, I can say that it is a race to the bottom: Many integrators can try to keep up with this, creating a bid company. However, rooms are getting easier and easier, not the other way around. Video is data, data is on the network and smart IT guys get the topology quickly. Yes, I get that programmers, acoustics, broadcast and specialties will always be needed, but the meat is gone, as is the profitability, because it is getting easier every day.

To offer balance, most IT centric companies have failed to win with video integration because they underestimated the need to invest in even the minimal teams necessary with test and verification expertise. That is a lot of overhead and, in AV, there are many moving parts; with margins low, it is a tough return. Nevertheless, as noted before, rooms are getting easier, equipment more powerful, to the point where Jeffery Fairbanks (Global Head of AV & Media Technology at Bloomberg LP) stated at an InfoComm seminar last year, (and I paraphrase) that few of his conference rooms, including videoconferencing, are going to cost more than $20,000 and they are all powerful.

What are customers looking for today? IT Chops!

As I type here, I think to myself, “Everyone knows this stuff, Romano. Everyone knows that the IT departments, the CIO and CTO teams are ‘making the calls’.” So AV integrators need to ask what the decision makers are accustomed to. What are their expectations? Well, in video, we used to like to say, “We get mission critical.” However, it is assumed that, in an IT ecosystem, decision makers are way past “mission critical.” Customers may already have trusted IT integrators on their network, who have already proven they have the intellectual capital for the heavy IT lifting.

They have the IT certifications and the track record experience to get into any door, including the one with “no lock,” labeled AV. Convergence solutions are often bonded; in fact, they need to be seamless at the desktop and/or in the conference room’s presentation system. All have to be available to the home office worker as if he were sitting in headquarters, for voice, data and business continuity with resilience, bonded with video, for full collaboration. This is the world IT professionals are in every hour of their workday; it is not an ecosystem 99% of AV integrators play inside.

Over the years, we have had things in IT swing from “On Premises” to “Off Premises” and back. But with the realities of cloud computing, hybrid cloud or even hybrid “On Premises,” things are not going to trend back to populating the closet with more equipment (with some exceptions in financial sectors). IT departments are studying what they can offload and they are looking for answers (if they can be found) from one provider. Things are changing so fast and it is simply not affordable to keep up. POW! Enters the IT solution provider with cloud solutions and a company culture and expertise. The result is downward acceleration for AV companies and they cannot control that reality.

As a CEO most of my career, I was fatigued with the endless demand to keep up my IT budgets to meet the growing needs of the business. It eats up your time and it kills the budget…but what choices did we have? Not a lot. Spend money on IT or be out of business.

Now we have a lot of choices. For example, who buys PBXs any longer? Hosted voice is on a tremendous comeback. Hosted Voice (VoIP) makes sense in so many ways with mobile workers, multiple numbers and seamless control. Why? Because our devices are smarter than those of the first space mission’s and the internet speeds are terrific and getting better, as is WiFi. So what matters to CEOs today is being able to focus on their business and let others keep up with the huge changes and the protection of their company’s information. They need to choose wisely because now it is not just mission critical (i.e., some rooms did not work). In IT, you are out of business.

A storm like Sandy happens, a virus infects your system because someone in-company opened up some file, you’re spammed to death, your system crashes and where is your data? Customers no longer need to have separate Voice/Data and Video companies, but they do need to be protected and be secure. So, if your organization can provide all of these elements, it is a “trust” sale and your company needs to verify that your organization is capable. Remember, companies today must be ready for disasters and that means the entire company has to be able to work from home if necessary.

Optimized communication providers exist, but you need a partner who can demonstrate that he has critical customers (such as banking, financial and medical) because, again, if data is lost and your system down, all you have left is your cellphone…and your cell alone cannot run operations.

The future belongs to the IT centric organization with a video practice overlay. Look for partners who offer solution alternates, such as hosted or hybrid ecosystems. Do they understand what business continuity means? Most importantly, can they make an assessment of your current legacy network wireless, LAN/WAN, telephony, bandwidth requirements, wireless network and data resilience ability/captivity, and leave you with a road map to keep you in business?

Do they have a video practice properly staffed as noted here? Can you trust them on your network? Do they have 24x7x365 help desk because s**t happens, and will happen to you? Finally, if the IT firm claims to have an AV practice overlay, get the references on their AV specialist, sales engineer, programmer and whoever will project manage. Honestly, customers should do this anyway, IT or AV!

If you need to build a TV studio, a stadium, go to an AV video specialist. Massive project design builds is what they do, and their missions are pretty carved out. Most get streaming over the network, as well. Those installation types are the exceptions, but in the SMB, and even Fortune 500 spaces, 90% of what needs to happen is not rocket science. It may be big (in multiple room count) and therefore sound big in dollars, but it is not technically difficult.

If a customer’s needs are basically everything else, find a strong IT centric company, one with top certifications in Cisco, EMC, Microsoft, VMware and more, with accomplished video systems overlay practice. The classical video systems integrator is dying a slow death. My best suggestion to them is to acquire a strong IT company, change the name of your company, invest real money to market and start over. For the IT company, your focus is most important: There are so many avenues to take in the cloud.

For those who like to see what I got right and wrong, check out my original discussion in November 2009. I listed some companies back then; today I feel more comfortable hoping that some of what I have written will lead you to new places with proven experience or, at the very least, a continuation of the branding realities that fogged the lens in the AV integrator’s ecosystem.

IT is not for beginners.

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