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Changing lines of communication

13 May 2013

FMs are always being pulled in every direction and due to the reactive nature of the job can find it difficult to get involved in the strategic planning that is often where they could make most difference. There are areas such as energy efficiency and environmental management that the FM would be the natural corporate champion of. One such area is the field of AV and connectivity, both within the workforce and further to the customer. Tim Fryer tried to find out where the FM should start

The FM has a difficult balancing act here. A text book project involving tens, of even hundreds, of thousands of pounds worth of equipment to create the office of the future sounds great. But what if that office in the future finds that it has very few people working from it, the workforce has mobilised itself to become more productive and environmentally friendly? Will all of that investment have been wasted?

The truth is that future shifts in the workplace are almost impossible to predict. While the computing power of portable devices no longer make it necessary to be stationed at a desk, the migration of computing to ‘The Cloud’ means conventional networks are no longer tied to any building or estate. At the same time the most fashionable word in FM at the moment is collaboration – a recognition that a workforce (sometimes including multiple organisations) works better and more productively as a team with common goals. The key to collaboration being communication of course.

So where does this leave the FM whose goal is to provide the most productive work environment for all employees, wherever they are based? Obviously no business, no building and no workforce are the same. The amount of variables means that no two solutions to connecting the workforce are likely to be exactly the same.

I asked three quite different providers of AV and connectivity solutions - a manufacturer, a distributor and an integrator - what the main considerations should be for an FM? How future-proof is that investment, how knowledgeable the FM has to be and how easy is it to manage the equipment and systems once they are in place?

I spoke to Nigel Roberts, Marketing Manager for manufacturer AVer Information Europe; Wayne Mason, Head of Marketing at distributor Imago Group; and Roland Dreesden, Managing Director of AV specialist integrator Reflex.

My first question concerned the nature of the working environment itself - do you see this as a crossroads in how companies are organised and how employees communicate with each other?

NR: I wouldn’t say it’s a crossroads, but certainly the wide range of communications products and systems available can be confusing and a challenge. One of the big issues is one of interoperability between systems so a company faces the challenge of identifying and selecting the best system for now and for the future.

WM: I don’t see it as a crossroads per se, more an evolution of how we manage our ever increasingly busy lives, trying to manage the silo worlds of work and our personal life as they compete for precious time. Employees want to be successful in their jobs. Employers want them to be successful, so it’s a natural development that we all use technology to achieve this. The challenge is how do you access understanding and the right knowledge that’s right for your business, creating your own fluid ecosystem that grows as your business needs grow.

RD: It is certainly an approach to a crossroads, one that has been on the horizon for some while, as the technology has developed, and is now getting closer all the time! We are most certainly seeing a growth in implementing communication solutions that connect different locations. However we find that culture, attitude and mind sets are still focused internally within an office, or between offices, more so than home working or mobile connections.

Tim Fryer: Until the future of the workplace becomes clearer is it wise to make big investments in connectivity solutions?

NR: Most businesses would use Skype and possibly MSN, in addition to other internet based systems, so without making big investments, simple solutions are already there. These systems are fine for basic 2-way (or more) communication, but have limitations. However, for quality video conferencing for instance, investment in the best or most appropriate system can be costly, in terms of infrastructure, product and integration.

RD: Investments should be right for the organisation’s needs today and companies should focus on putting the structure in place for unifying communications i.e. using all that you already have and making them work together.

It’s like buying a PC - if you wait to buy the latest technology, you will be forever waiting because technology is constantly evolving and meanwhile, you have a need right now. There are significant savings that can be made today for site-to-site communication.

The FM should put their investment in the integrator rather than the equipment. That way the accountability for the solution lies with the integrator who has the product knowledge and integration skills.

WM: Big investments are all relative, in a nutshell most people can provide some type of ROI, but to really see the advantage of this technology it means working with your chosen technology partner to make sure there our training/usage programs in place. The technology works today.

TF: Will the increasing quality of webcams/Skype make some AV solutions redundant? An argument being that low-cost solutions will prosper for every day employee-to-employee communications and high end Teleconferencing will prosper for top level client-customer environments. Some of the middle ground may already be becoming obsolete?

NR: Not necessarily, Skype and similar Voip (voice over internet protocol) solutions have their place, but where image and sound quality are important, such as remote teaching and learning, or demonstrating high technology products, a full-on video conferencing suite is the way forward. The market has some dominant players at the top and their kit is priced accordingly, but lower cost systems are available which in most cases, are good enough. In fact, I would say it’s the middle ground where, as a video conferencing supplier, the most opportunity lies. What’s vital is that companies take on board that the investment in infrastructure and systems integration is equally important as the kit being installed.

WM: I don’t believe so, we are creating this so called solution ecosystem which works, ie all elements come together. New services like the hosted “VideoMeet” service from Deutsch Telekom is an example of such a service which enables this, bringing skype users into the world of corporate Videoconferencing for the first time. The emergence of the Tablet/Mobility space is another example of the market adapting to business needs, some would even say this will kill webcams off.

RD: I’d agree with that argument. The shift will be away from worrying about the endpoints themselves to thinking about connecting them all. There will always be different levels of quality and ability as technology continues to evolve.

TF: Are there scalable solutions that can adapt to changing needs?

One area which has potential is the integration of systems, such as using Skype and video conferencing together, as a complimentary solution. Such systems are available but can be expensive. Any company who can deliver a low cost system would find themselves in a very good position, as it means that remote workers could join in with video conference, without the need to invest in expensive, dedicated 2MB internet connections.

WM: Absolutely, there are more examples of this every day, but this fundamentally is critical to growing the market so its key vendors concentrate on solutions that are scalable and interoperable.

RD: Yes, all technologies can be scalable. Manufacturers and software developers are increasingly producing compatible solutions as more products and solutions are brought to the market. Software is a faster changing animal than hardware and people like to have the option to mix brands, products and software so they all need to talk to each other.

TF: What are the advantages/disadvantage of an FM trying to implement a system by themselves (or with their internal IT people) and buying products directly from the manufacturer – or using a distributor or systems integrator?

NR: My view is consider the whole cost of the package and do your homework thoroughly! In theory, anyone can connect a video conferencing system, but the reality is often quite different. Think about the cost of installing a dedicated internet connection; what will you need as your business grows? Consider also the size of your meeting room. Do you need additional microphones? Consider also the warranty package. Is it included in the price? Is it a compulsory ‘option’? Using an integrator is the ‘safe’ option and should be considered as such. The market is confusing enough, with many seemingly similar products out there.

WM: In my humble opinion, the vendors are experts at what they do but in a complete VC environment, this can become grey very quickly. So its engaging with a partner that can deliver the answers to their questions, but also work with distribution/vendors and be happy to encourage dialogue between Vendor and End User. My recommendation would always be have clearly defined objectives but don’t take these on in isolation. There are some great companies that we engage with on a daily basis that deliver outstanding solutions, but remember it doesn’t end when that install is signed off, that’s when the real work begins.

RD: Use those who have expertise. You could try and do it yourself but who is going to support the installation and help integrate new products and tasks with existing systems and products? It’s a bit like cars. Fifteen years ago, given a bit of knowledge, you could probably fix it yourself. But now that cars have onboard computers and diagnostics most people need to call on an expert.

Integrators are the glue that pulls everything together. They can call on support from the channel and their own trained and experienced technical teams. Using one company for everything from products through to aftercare gives peace of mind and continuity of support.

TF: What are the key issues that an FM should think about when contemplating a new AV/connectivity strategy?

NR: Well, that’s a difficult question and one which can only be answered with the aid of a crystal ball! Certainly, as I have said before, an FM Manager needs to consider the infrastructure required now and for the future, considering the growth potential of the business and future technology. Its worth researching the market thoroughly, before signing the order forms and don’t discount lower cost systems as they might be plenty good enough for your business. The other thing to consider is the meeting room environment as its critical to get this right, as your staff will be spending time there and your customers will see your premises when they communicate with you!

WM: Be clear about the strategy, but forward thinking about the utilisation. Have a definitive plan for implementation and finally clearly communicate this through regular dialogue through the chosen reseller/technology.

RD: I’d strongly recommend engaging with AV specialists at the conception stage and taking full advantage of any services on offer. In our experience, the most successful installations result from FMs partnering with specialists right from the start.

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