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AV/IT Integration Roundtable: The Human Element

Much has been written about the AV/IT hardware convergence and we’re well into subsequent chapters on the melding of technical functions between networked AV control and the well-established use of networks for audio and video conveyance.

AV/IT Integration Roundtable: The Human Element

Aug 13, 2012 2:33 PM,
With Bennett Liles

Much has been written about the AV/IT hardware convergence and we’re well into subsequent chapters on the melding of technical functions between networked AV control and the well-established use of networks for audio and video conveyance. However, the most interesting side of any equation is always the human element. In the integration of AV and IT, workers and their managers still face challenges as the overlap of AV/IT job functions, skill sets, and technical know-how widens by the day. Even now, the organizational plans for AV and IT management vary widely. In the company and on the campus, AV techs and IT network managers find themselves working together more and more directly and the marriage of their disciplines and work styles has had a wide range of results.

We have assembled a panel of experts from several professional areas involved in the merging of AV and IT hardware and workers. The fields represented are digital signage, AV installation/integration, university AV/IT, and AV network connectivity. As the lines between AV and IT have blurred, so have those between many of these professions and we sought the comments of the participants regarding its effect on the human side of their respective fields.

SVC: What do you see as the state of awareness and cooperation between AV and IT professionals (network managers/AV techs)? How well do they know each other’s hardware?

Fletes: AV and IT convergence was foreseen 20 years ago at my campus. The multimedia group (AV department) was moved under the “computing and communications” umbrella of services. Being members of the same division facilitated close collaboration as well as sharing the same visions and goals. Just like network operations, multimedia has become a specialized enterprise IT service. The AV industry has been migrating out of analog and into digital technologies. Today, most AV support staff has some background in IT … whether developed by professional training or personal interest. The AV tech title has disappeared and has been replaced by programmer/analyst classifications to better represent today’s responsibilities. Multimedia staff remotely monitors classroom technology devices, including webcams, via their mobile devices. Being a sister department with network operations allowed our multimedia group to design and execute smart classrooms with extensive remote management and support capabilities in a very short period of time. Our satellite campus directly benefited from this association when the design called for nine smart classrooms, each with videoconferencing capabilities.

This organizational relationship has also facilitated the creation of digital multimedia services with live webcasts and video podcasts. AV and network services have also been converging in the private industry with AV system integrators now supplying network services.

The multimedia group supports all classroom presentation technologies, including classroom computers. All classrooms have a “help” button, allowing faculty to alert the classroom technology helpdesk of an urgent problem. This comes in the form of an email and text message. Multimedia techs will respond to calls stemming from AV trouble, network problems, and academic computing services. They continue to provide first-line support and rely heavily on the help of network operations. Multimedia’s support staff has been cross-trained to complete basic checks and provide key information for network operations when classroom technology devices fail to communicate.

Boyce: There is definitely a closing gap in the understanding of AV and IT professionals’ equipment. Good cooperation is attained when both professions provide timely, detailed, and accurate information about each other’s equipment. The AV professional needs to provide information such as: number of data drops needed, bandwidth requirements, list of ports that need to be open, QOS and VLAN considerations, and multicast or unicast considerations. The IT professional needs to provide information such as: IP schemes and assignments, passwords for computer access, port numbers on switches to utilize, and timely configuration of the network. The lack of timely communication is typically the root of poor cooperation.

Cahoy: I feel the space has merged to the point that there isn’t much of a separation these days. Several years ago you had conflicts and turf wars, but today most universities and corporations have integrated the two groups. This, along with the great ongoing education programs put on by organizations like InfoComm and others, has helped properly set standards and share information.

Minich: Both are relatively unaware of each other’s equipment. IT has little interest in knowing the details of AV.

Wilson: Being an AV integrator we have to know a fair amount about IT networks. Most of today’s complex control systems require a solid network to communicate on. Often on larger commercial jobs we explain to the IT department exactly what we need and they help setup their network to accommodate our AV needs. With residential projects we often setup the network. We are well-versed in setting up residential and small business networks.

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AV/IT Integration Roundtable: The Human Element

Aug 13, 2012 2:33 PM,
With Bennett Liles

Do you see distinctly different personality traits between AV technicians and IT network people? Do they require different management techniques?

Fletes: The years have brought a better understanding of AV and network group equipment and support services. Multimedia staff has access to a network administrative interface, allowing them to readdress network supported AV devices. There are no distinct personality traits between multimedia and network operations. Both are specialized IT services utilizing programmer and engineer level professionals. Today, there is a general understanding of each other’s hardware, but more importantly, there is a clear understanding of each other’s challenges.

Boyce: Years ago, the IT professional was stereotyped as the president of the computer club at school and the AV professional was stereotyped as the lead guitar player in the local cover band. You wouldn’t typically find the two hanging out together after work. Today, the character traits of the AV and IT professional are much more aligned. You typically see the AV and IT professional exchanging contact information and comparing the latest apps on their matching iPhones. Most professional AV equipment now resides on a network. Therefore, the AV professional has to be IP savvy to remain in demand.

Cahoy: Speaking from a digital signage perspective, I don’t notice much of a difference. As display devices are getting smarter by having the controllers built into the technology, the lines have blurred to where the AV side has to be more network savvy as the displays are ultimately network appliances. I think the bigger personality differences come with how the content will be controlled. While IT/AV are great for creating a foundation and infrastructure, the content ultimately comes from marketing and communications. This is where we notice personality conflicts because IT/AV will look to “lockdown” a system, while marketing wants to leverage things like the web and social media.

Wilson: I see IT professionals similar to the way I see AV programmers; they are definitely unique, but critical to a successful project. The best in the industry are the professionals who can provide the complex “uber geek” support but then can also break down the information/explanation into layman’s terms.

How can IT and AV staff better integrate and cooperate?

Fletes: In designing new AV facilities, network requirements are shared with network operations. Technology updates or last-minute redesigns result in changes to the network infrastructure requirements. Having both groups work closely together has allowed them to focus on creative solutions as opposed to what can’t be achieved, especially in last-minute situations.

Boyce: AV and IT staff can better integrate by establishing a common goal of sharing information and knowledge in a timely fashion. AV and IT professionals are typically working in stressful environments under tight deadlines. Providing accurate information in a timely manner will help develop a positive rapport by eliminating the last-minute requests so often experienced by both parties. Providing education along with information is also important. Generally, AV and IT professionals like to know the technical aspects of equipment and configurations. Helping each other learn typically creates a better working relationship.

Cahoy: I think a lot of progress has been made over the last five years and the line is already blurry. The key is education; making sure IT understands how AV equipment works and coexists with a network, and for AV to recognize the backbone of the system is the IT infrastructure.

Minich: Cross education: IT learning about AV and certainly AV learning about networking infrastructure. Basics like a glossary of terms and acronyms can go a long way, just to even be speaking the same language.

Wilson: We haven’t had any projects where the IT and AV teams haven’t gotten along. It’s important for both sides to appreciate each other’s skills and to realize that each side is critical for successful project implementation.

What do you see as the best organizational approach to user assistance by IT and AV people?

Fletes: Our best approach to customer service has been the alignment of multimedia and network operations under central IT. Multimedia staff provides immediate support to faculty making use of central IT services in the classroom. All IT problems are solved in a timely manner.

Boyce: I think from an organizational standpoint, it is better to have staff that is cross-trained in both AV and IT. Oftentimes, reported problems from end-users are vague or are misinterpreted. Having segregated support staff can extend the lead times of providing a resolution. For example, an end-user may report that a projector is not turning on in a classroom. An AV tech is then deployed to the classroom to find out that the projector is functioning fine, but the link light on the touchpanel controlling the projector is not active. At that point, an IT manager may have to get involved. Staff that is cross-trained in both AV and IT usually can resolve problems much faster.

Cahoy: I feel they should be merged under the same umbrella so that organizationally they can cooperate versus having competing goals. If you try to divide responsibilities, you end up with a poor user experience as it leaves room for finger pointing. The equipment user ultimately wants to be assured it is working properly and that when there is a problem it can be resolved with one phone call. Wilson: IT and AV are really different types of systems. I think on small systems the same professional can assist with both. On larger systems the client needs to be educated on who can assist with each type of potential issue.

Do you consider installation and operation of videoconferencing facilities to be an IT or AV function?

Fletes: Videoconference design and installations require close collaboration between AV and network groups. Traditional AV groups support videoconferencing services to the public, while network operations ensures video network traffic is flowing. Network operations also support the local gatekeeper. With the support of IT network operations the multimedia group has overseen the deployment of a dozen AV rooms with videoconference capabilities.

Boyce: Installation and operation of videoconferencing systems require both IT and AV skill sets. We design and install the latest in videoconferencing technology. Our office is also equipped with a video conferencing suite that we rent out to the public. Even our technical facilitator who manages the conference suite is skilled in both IT and AV. He joined our team with a background in IT management, but has learned the ins and outs of AV equipment through in-house training. Having staff with this skill set keeps our overhead down and has proven to be successful. We are able to resolve problems more quickly.

Cahoy: I think it is a cooperative effort and ultimately for a project to be successful it needs to have one champion/owner. That individual may leverage other expertise to set things up, but dual ownership of something is usually a recipe for disaster.

Minich: Installation: AV. Operation: IT

Wilson: Videoconferencing is handled by both [teams]. AV techs setup the audio/video portion and IT setups the network and Internet access portion.

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