As I walk around the offices of many of my clients nowadays I tend to see the same thing. There are still a handful of big, mostly unused 1980's-style integrated AV rooms, while groups of three to five people are wandering around the hallways, struggling to find a place to meet.
These old-style rooms were usually expensive to implement and created either for really important meetings or for one of the firm's executives. These rooms have a "loaded for bear" design that enables the use of any technology at any time. Oddly enough, the technology in them is rarely used.
We're experiencing an interesting convergence of change in the nature of society, collaboration, and technology that is forcing the metamorphosis of our meeting spaces – despite the long-standing efforts of professional architects, AV consultants, AV integrators and/or facility managers to maintain the status-quo.
It doesn't take much to understand the convergence. In the past, internal teams, business partners, and clients were mostly regional. The people one would work with were typically located within the building – or within driving distance. Most meetings were conducted face-to-face. Enterprise users would leverage large rooms for these group meetings – typically deemed to be the "important meetings." As such, organizations wanted the ability to bring in remote participants and presentations via video technology when necessary. This, of course, drove the need for expensive, technically complex rooms – boardrooms, executive rooms, etc. – that needed a large investment in AV design and implementation, in theory to ensure a quality user experience.
The problems with these rooms were plentiful:
- They were typically expensive, so enterprises could only afford a few of them.
- They were typically very complex, designed by AV engineers for AV technicians to handle any possible circumstance that might arise.
- They were typically custom designed and programmed. Many hours would be spent programming their systems and user interface. They would even need to be "staged" at an offsite location just to make sure everything worked the way it was supposed to.
- They were typically very hard to use. Organizations would need a small army of AV/IT people to stand by to push the buttons to have any chance at reliable performance.
Enterprises kept hiring the same architects and AV consultants, and they kept designing these very same rooms (plus or minus an updated display or component here and there.)
While all this was going on, the world became virtual. Remote working broke through the old stigmas to become normal and accepted. An organization's internal teams, business partners, and clients might not even be in the same country anymore, much less within driving distance. This has forced changes in the way we meet. Instead of face-to-face in a boardroom, organizations use audio and web conferencing – typically with about three to five people at any one location. The boardroom is inappropriate for these more frequent needs. It sits empty (or used by VIPs without technology) while these small groups wander the halls trying to find a corner in a smaller room, pantry, or open area to meet.
The technology needs for these meetings is also different. Rooms only need to do one or two things well – not everything imaginable. User interfaces need to be standard, not customized, as they are intended for self service. Systems need to be standard, repeatable, scalable and reliable, not requiring off-site staging just to find out if they actually work. The term "huddle room" has become an incorrect yet popular label for these needed spaces/systems. In its most simplified terms, enterprises need more rooms with fewer features and fewer rooms with more complex and expensive technology – more of less, less of more.
We're beginning to see a number of new products hit the market expressly designed to serve this new need. Many of them are great, offering installation times in hours instead of days, and meeting the needs for high quality, high reliability, ease-of-use and scalability. Sadly, a number of them are not great, relying on deceptive marketing and user confusion to establish a market presence.
When shopping for these technologies, it is important to ask the following questions:
- Does the system natively work with all of the collaboration/conferencing tools an organization already owns, and without the need for additional gateways or a "toll to use" service?
- Does the system utilize a camera designed for a conference room – able to show a close-up of a participant seated at the table – or does it use a glorified webcam that was designed to live 18 inches directly in front of the user's face?
- Does the system have enterprise-grade management capabilities? Can it be remotely diagnosed, tested, rebooted, initiated, etc.? (If you have to send someone to the room to figure out why it's not working then you haven't gained anything from transitioning to systems that are meant to be self-service.)
- Does the system have the reliability of a complete, always testable solution, or does it require your users to bring in their own PC/Mac and fumble with wires or wireless processes connecting to it?
The best way to select the right collaboration solution for an enterprise hasn't changed. Step one is to create a user segmentation plan, admitting that no organization has a single "typical user." Once all the use cases have been documented and an analysis of an organizations existing systems has been completed, educated decisions can be made regarding the correct blend of solutions needed. It's often wise to consult with outside experts who have performed this type of analysis before. Just be sure that they have no vested interest in your decisions. Most manufacturer's own experts will undoubtedly conclude that all your problems will be solved if you buy more of their stuff. Most legacy AV consultants and integrators will undoubtedly try to convince you that all their expensive customization is really necessary.
No matter what product decisions you wind up making, I assure you it will involve more of less and less of more.
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