I am an “in-house integrator” in the higher-education sphere. This means my small team and I focus on all aspects of delivering a full, turnkey audiovisual system: needs analysis and estimating, procurement, staging, installation, control system programming and ongoing support. I also have a trusted external integration partner to whom we talk every week, and they have been doing work on campus almost continuously. While being an in-house integrator and simultaneously having and using an integration partner may seem conflicting, it turns out to be what most higher-education institutions need.
In higher education, there are three types of schools, and they all need a trusted integrator:
- Schools that have no internal integration capacity; clearly, they are reliant on outside contractors to complete all their projects.
- Schools with a growing internal integration capacity: These schools can tackle the easier projects but will need an outside integrator for everything else.
- Schools with a well-established internal integration capacity: These schools also need a trusted integrator. While the in-house team will tackle the majority of the audiovisual needs on campus, it simply is not practical to staff up an in-house integration team to tackle large capital projects and the summer rush.
I am in a unique situation to feel very comfortable with this reality because I have worked on both sides. I spent the first 18 years of my commercial AV career working for a commercial integration company. We did unique and complex projects all around the world. It was a great experience, where I went from functionally zero AV knowledge to being a CTS-D/CTS-I dual-certified professional.
Now, for the last four years of my career, I have worked as a technology manager and in-house integrator for Iowa State University. Let me share some of what I have learned through my transition from commercial integrator to technology manager.
Advice for Technology Managers
To my technology manager friends, here are some things your integrator partners would appreciate on your end:
First, help make connections; don’t be a blocker. It is very important that the integrator has direct connections to the facilities team, construction managers and IT staff. Help arrange for them to talk to the actual end users and stakeholders of a project. Yes, you’ll likely want to stay involved, but you should not require the communication to funnel and filter through you. It’s far better for the integrator to hear it firsthand.
Second, be honest and recognize your limitations. The fact is, there are times when an in-house integrator is simply outside of their scope. The project may be too large, may have unique requirements you don’t have experience in, or may have a time or labor requirement you simply can’t meet. We recently did a couple of outdoor projects that were outside our normal expertise. They went off well, but really taxed our team and led to some concerns with the client. In hindsight, we should have handed off those unique projects to someone else who had more specific experience in outdoor installations.
Third, keep in mind that outside integrators can provide insurance and warranties you may not be able to provide. If your in-house team accidentally breaks an 85-inch display, who pays for that? If you are a fee-for-service operation, you don’t have any profit or overhead to cover it, and the client certainly won’t be happy to pay twice. Thus, if you serve risk-averse clients, using an outside integrator to support them with insurance and a comprehensive system warranty may give them extra peace of mind.
Advice for Commercial Integrators
To my integrator friends, here are some things your technology manager partners would appreciate:
First, build a partnership—and, more importantly, a relationship. Try to move past a simply transactional approach. Here, the key is to understand that small change orders have an administrative burden on the technology manager’s side; having to manage that process for small amounts can get tedious. If you take care of the little things, technology managers will be more likely to do more work with you.
Second, don’t sell products; instead, sell solutions. Don’t only provide installed-hardware systems; more importantly, help make the job easier, faster, safer and less expensive. For example, become expert level in resource-management tools like Global Viewer Enterprise or Fusion, and then help set up and configure the instance to be productive for managers’ needs. Help maximize the IT security of the AV systems and interface with the internal IT security team. Be the expert in ADA compliance and ensure that the systems meet all current requirements. Again, these are just examples for you to consider. The bottom line is to ask managers where the pain points are and then provide the solution to alleviate them.
Third, consider priorities. Technology managers may very well have established brand standards; ask upfront and don’t constantly push a different solution. Ask managers what the priorities are for reliability versus features. For some spaces, like classrooms, reliability may be significantly more important than the latest and greatest “wow factor.” For other spaces, like special donor-funded projects, providing a never-before-seen, one-of-a-kind solution may be just what everyone is looking for.
Another priority for managers may be to focus efforts on doing the design and control system programming in house, but to have an outside integrator do the physical installation and wiring. So, find out what is important and then go above and beyond to meet your technology manager partners’ needs.
Fourth, keep in mind that managers may be integrators, too. Now, don’t take offense here, but, sometimes, we really are the smartest person in the room. Don’t be defensive or intimidated, just work with us. Ask us how we like things done; ask us for help when you face a challenge or question. Let’s collaborate as two experts working together.
An Incredible Learning Experience
My journey from integrator to technology manager has been an incredible learning experience. I can look back now on so many interactions as an integrator and see how I should have approached things differently with my client’s technology manager. I have also been able to work with peers here at Iowa State and at other schools to help them understand how they can improve their partnerships with integrator partners.
As someone in higher education, my takeaway is simple: Always be learning!
Mike Pedersen, CTS-D, CTS-I, EAVA, is audiovisual experience manager at Iowa State University.