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InfoComm POV: The Case For Proper Documentation

Or, how a conversation about napkins got AV professionals engaged.

Here’s a New Year’s resolution for you: Document your AV projects. Because many people working in commercial AV do not, and that’s a problem.

Sometimes, it’s surprising to learn what gets AV professionals talking. Apparently, system documentation is one of those things. Recently, I told a story about how, here in the InfoComm Standards department, a group of volunteers working on what would become the ANSI/INFOCOMM 10:2013, AV Systems Performance Verification standard got to talking about project documentation. The fact is, if you’re going to verify the performance of an AV system, you need a common understanding with the client about what the system entails and how it should perform…and it should be documented in advance.

But what if it isn’t? I asked the group what share of the AV projects they encountered did not have documentation. They told me about 60%. I asked them how often they felt proper documentation was required. They said 100% of the time. How do we fix the disconnect between 60% who don’t and 100% who should?

I’m sure you’ve heard stories of AV system designs sketched on a napkin and then used as an installation plan. As much as we joke about it, such things happen. But it’s no joke that too many systems are put together without proper planning or consideration for how they’ll be used, which leads to mistrust and misunderstanding. When a project is not documented adequately, the AV professional has two unacceptable choices: Save a business relationship and possibly lose a bunch of money, or quit and lose a client. And it shouldn’t be that way.

I’ve heard many different excuses for not documenting AV projects. Among them: “I don’t need to put anything in writing, I’ve done this kind of system a million times,” and “I don’t need a roadmap. I can just tell where things need to go” and “My company doesn’t have the money to invest in creating those documents.”

To which I reply, “If you’ve done it a million times, how hard would it be to provide documentation? Write it down once and you can use it for every project,” and “When things go badly, good luck trying to get more money to make it right,” and “That’s too bad, because your competitors have figured out how to afford it and they’re using it as a differentiator.”

Repeat business is important in commercial AV, and the risk of losing repeat business because a system doesn’t meet expectations can have serious business ramifications. Documentation gets everyone on the same page (often literally) and helps ensure a client’s loyalty. The challenges include developing documentation early enough to make a difference and determining what documentation is required for a given project.

When I began talking about project documentation in a blog, AV pros started to chime in. One of the original members of the task group that kicked off the conversation recalled from our meeting, “Everyone agreed there should be documentation and that most projects did not have it. But it was not because anyone forgot or did not know how. Primarily, it was because the AV entities were not in control of the process. By the time the AV group got involved, the project was baked.…It is a great goal to put together a basic list of documentation every project should have, but without finding a way to get that process inserted at the beginning of every project, the results may not change.”

Yes, it’s especially incumbent on AV professionals to work with the entire project team as early as possible. Of course, that’s not always easy. But asking questions about documentation as soon as you’re engaged can help train customers and related trades to expect and appreciate the value of documented projects. Remember that audio, video and control systems are the most apparent parts of a technology infrastructure, and the delivery mechanisms for a user’s experience. In other words, what you do is noticeable immediately; no matter what happened in the design/build process, if the AV communication doesn’t work right, the AV pro gets the blame.

Does every project require extensive documentation, including, for instance, a scope of work, equipment list, schematics, drawings, verification (commissioning) checklist, training manuals, etc.? Maybe not. InfoComm is currently working on a standard for AV project documentation. As one AV professional wrote recently on the subject, “I agree that all AV installations need documentation, but the expectation has to be scaled to the information that’s necessary or no one will do it. A monitor hang-and-bang requires an equipment list, a two- to three-sentence scope of work or verbal description, and a hand-scratched drawing to show which wall the monitor goes on and where the wall plate goes. Put it on the product carton so it won’t get lost.” Do you agree?

In general, the more documentation the better. But something is definitely better than nothing. Sometimes a napkin is all you have, and as long as the client signs off on that napkin and acknowledges that he got what he was promised, it may be enough.

The question is, how do we convince AV professionals that managing the expectations of both clients and vendors through documentation is a good, necessary thing that will, in the end, take less time and money and reduce callbacks?

“We can analyze clients’ present and future needs and create very specific room designs for them, and can turn around the presale process much faster,” said Jason Antinori, CTS-D, a design specialist at Canadian telecommunications company Telus, and a member of InfoComm’s Standards Steering Committee. “A client is able to specify exactly the kind of room he wants and know he is getting a standard quote, with standard hardware, and room performance that satisfies all the requirements for the standard.”

Once the room is up and running, Antinori explained, because everything is well documented, AV personnel can respond to any problems and address failures quickly and efficiently.

“Some see it as adding work, but it always adds value. Working within standards separates great AV companies from just good AV companies,” he said.

Last year was a busy year for many AV integrators, which is great news. So it can be hard to imagine doing more work on a project. But the common arguments against proper documentation don’t hold water. If you think you can’t afford to add a layer of confidence to your projects, think again. You can’t afford not to.

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