Monday, May 18, 2015

Sound & Communications: Getting Ahead in Higher Ed

I wrote an article that was published in the May 2015 issue of Sound & Communications magazine sharing some tips on how integrators and consultants can keep higher ed AV support staff happy.  Based on my experience working on the end-user side of higher ed AV support, there are too many classroom AV systems designed and installed without any thought for the group of AV technicians that will need to repair and maintain these systems.

May 18, 2015: 
Working in the higher education market can be lucrative for integrators and consultants, but there's often one overlooked component that can be the key to getting recurring business.  In addition to the obvious end-users (professors) that you need to satisfy, there's often one overlooked group:  the institution's audio visual support staff.  Before I started my business as a design and management consultant, I worked for ten years in various AV design and support roles at Harvard University and Ithaca College.  Every school's staffing structure is different, so you will run into any combination of in-house repair/maintenance technicians, system designers, programmers, project managers, bench techs, daily support field technicians and student employees.  There are widely varying levels of experience, education and certifications within these positions from school to school.  Paying attention to the needs of these individuals may just be the key to becoming that campus' preferred integrator or consultant.  
As important as it is to design and install AV systems that fit the end-user's needs, it's equally important to remember that there's a staff of individuals that will have to support these systems long after the consultants and integrators have left campus.  Include this support staff early in the project, during the needs analysis phase, and you'll be sure to make them happy.  Acknowledging the fact that an in-house AV repair technician told you they won't be able to easily access the projector to replace a lamp during the 7-minutes between classes is just as important as listening to the professor that tells you how they want the touch panel to look.  Many times the AV support staff isn't brought into a project until well after many system design and infrastructure decisions have been made, and then it's too late.  This may be the fault of the construction project manager, but that doesn't mean the AV consultant and integrator can't ask to have the in-house AV support staff brought into the discussion early.  There are a handful of needs that you need to address to make the institution's AV support staff happy.  Many of these needs may seem very obvious, but I've been on the losing end of all of this, and I've seen it happen with many different consultants and integrators.

You can present the most innovative, forward thinking AV design to a higher education client, and the in-house support staff will just be thinking of the future when they have to troubleshoot the system in front of 50 students and an annoyed professor.  Taking the time to focus on serviceability during the needs analysis and system design phase is very important.  Find out what lamps, spare parts, etc. they keep in stock, so the systems you install can be serviced using the same methods as the 200 other systems on campus.  Ask about their staffing structure and how they handle trouble calls and tickets when they come in.  Get to know the technical ability of the staff that will be supporting these systems.
If you're an integrator and you're working with a system design that was created by an in-house AV designer working for the school, realize that many of the design decisions were probably made with serviceability in mind.  Most AV designers in higher ed also get involved with the repair and maintenance of AV systems.  They're making design decisions based on the fact that at some point, they'll be up on a ladder working on the projector that you installed.  
Remote access is also a very important consideration on campus.  Connecting control systems and other networkable devices to the campus network and monitoring them through centralized remote management software is very key to AV support staff.  I don't think I've ever met someone working in an AV support role in higher ed that feels their department is over-staffed and flush with plenty of technicians sitting around just looking for something to do.   A properly designed remote management solution for the campus' AV systems will be music to their overworked ears.
Many higher ed support departments have a control system programmer on staff.  They may look to integrators to complete the initial programming, then use their in-house programmer for small changes, like switching to a new projector model or minor touch panel layout changes.  Integrators revisiting clients to make programming changes can be a source of income, but it's just not something that many higher ed clients need.  Integrators that write organized and well documented code, and don't give the client trouble about ownership of that code, is what the AV support staff is looking for.
Appearance can go a long way, and this really applies to rack wiring.  Nothing is worse than trying to troubleshoot a rack that's a rat's nest of disorganized, unlabeled cables.  It's important to stress to installation technicians that they should install everything with the thought that someone else will be trying to service it.  Cable service loops, proper connector labeling and flush-cut zip ties are small touches that will make the in-house support techs happy later.

One of the most important goals for higher ed AV departments is standardization.  They want their professors walking into any classroom on campus and seeing the same touch panel they've used in ten other rooms.  This is easier said than done when dealing with 200 classrooms on a rolling lifecycle replacement program, but nevertheless, it's still very important to AV support staff.  Many schools have taken the time to create audio visual system design and technical standards documentation, in an effort to get everyone involved with AV installations on the same page.  Outside consultants and integrators need to get on-board with these established standards at the beginning of the project. 
Presenting a system design that deviates from the established standard can cause anxiety for the AV support staff.  Many hours of effort have gone into campus technology surveys, end-user focus groups, testing demo equipment and writing of these standards documents.  Disregarding all of these efforts and taking a "this is what you really need" approach does not sit well with the in-house staff.  You may be excited about the latest and greatest projector, but the support staff sees that projector change as a deviation from their standard projector that they stock replacement bulbs for, have a couple spares on the shelf ready to go, have a proven track record of reliability, and are very familiar to their student support staff that handle preventative maintenance.  Introducing higher ed clients to new technology is fine, but just don't do it on that system everyone is rushing to get installed during the next break.  Let the AV departments evaluate new equipment through their usual testing process, and let them get buy-in from the campus community.  Most higher ed clients don't see being on the bleeding edge of new AV technology as important as properly researching, establishing and sticking to their standards.

Project timeline:
Like most job sites, audio visual integrators are usually the last crew on higher ed construction projects.  This means that all of the delays caused by other contractors have compounded and pushed the classroom AV installation project timeline to sometimes unrealistic milestone goals.  Nobody understands this more than the college's AV support staff.  Time after time, I experienced down-to-the-wire classroom AV installations.  Regardless of where the blame lies, a "first day of classes" deadline is a very important milestone.  These classroom installations aren't like a corporate conference room, where a meeting can just be moved to another room if the AV installers need more time to finish.  Finding a new classroom at the last minute because the AV integrator missed their deadline can be a big headache for multiple departments across campus.  Classroom scheduling is like a giant chess game for the registrar.
Cutting the end of the project timeline too close to the start of classes inevitably results in little to no system commissioning before classes start.  Nothing is worse than having the professors commissioning the systems "on the fly" in front of students.  Once the semester starts, there's never a time when you can reserve the room for a day or two for system commissioning.  Good luck even getting a two hour chunk of time in many rooms.  I've even had integrators suggest that we have a staff person sit in the classroom for a few days and operate the equipment for the professors, since the control system programming isn't done.  That takes up the time of one employee during the first week of the semester, which is a very busy time, so that's not a viable option.  Moral of the story:  either properly manage your project timeline so you hit the final milestones on time, or be honest with the AV support staff so they have time to make other arrangements for incomplete classrooms.

You would think this goes without saying, but experience shows that it needs to be said.  Professionalism is of utmost importance to higher education institutions.  Their image is everything, and countless hours have been spent by many people to develop it.  Sexual harassment on college campuses is a pressing issue these days.  Colleges are constantly walking prospective students around campus for tours and some schools have a revolving door of VIPs on campus from the business, political and entertainment communities.  AV installation technicians need to be well trained on acceptable job site behavior and appearance.  One disrespectful comment made toward a student, or a dirty/unsafe job site, can quickly get an integrator thrown off campus.  Image and student safety is extremely important to schools, and the in-house AV department will enforce that above and beyond anything else with contractors on campus.

Client interaction:
With so many different parties involved in AV installation projects, it's easy for lines to get crossed and information to get muddied.  Looking to the institution's AV support department as a central point of communication can prevent many issues.  Always involving them in end-user communication is very important.  A thorough needs analysis with the professor that will be using the system the majority of the time is great, but make sure that the AV support staff is involved, to keep everything in-line with their established standards and budget.  Make sure your field technicians know that they should never agree to anything when end-users approach them, without going through in-house AV staff.  This seems obvious and applicable to any job, but some college professors can be intimidating, pushy and demanding.  Your install techs may be agreeing to a change that goes against a decision made by the in-house support staff.  Majority usually rules during the needs analysis stage of a classroom installation, but the squeaky wheel sometimes gets the oil, and they tend to show up during the construction phase as a pushy professor talking to your install technicians.  Courteous but non-committal is the best road.

Closeout documentation:
If an integrator has an exclusive service contract with a client, then the client may never really need or read the as-built drawings, system verification results, equipment inventory info, IP address tables and control system programming code.  This isn't the case with higher ed institutions that have their own AV support staff.  Comprehensive closeout documentation is key to making their life easy when it comes to maintaining and repairing the systems you're designing and installing.  Nothing will make a college's AV staff say "we should hire these guys again" than when they're reading some stellar closeout documentation left by you after a project.  

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