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Still Holding A Grudge?

Animosity between consultants and integrators used to be a stereotype. Times have changed, but the change isn't yet universal.

A lot of independent AV consultants have worked with a lot of integrators over the past couple of decades. In the “early” years — the ‘80s and ‘90s — projects were sometimes a tough row to hoe. Consultants were still finding their way though new territory and trying to “integrate” AV design into the architectural design process. Integrators were also trying to make the transition from selling boxes to installing systems, while simultaneously trying to learn what it meant to be part of the construction industry.

I've talked about this transition before in my November 2003 column, “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.” While “good” consultants working with “good” contractors was great for everyone, if the combination was “good consultant/bad contractor” or vice versa, the process was more difficult. And if both consultant and integrator were “bad,” the outcome was downright ugly.

That ancient era was a time when the attitude of consultants was that most integrators weren't qualified. At the same time, integrators reviled consultants because they were “taking business away” from design-build firms, weren't qualified to design systems, or just made their jobs more difficult when they won a consultant-designed project. Sometimes these perceptions were based in reality, but a lot has changed since then. Or has it?

In the old days, consultants and integrators could rarely sit down together in a room, unless it was professionally required for a potential or awarded project. The rocky beginnings of what became InfoComm's consultants' and integrators' councils (now ICAT and SAVVI) were an expression of the culture at the time. But those days have passed for much of the industry.

Consultants and integrators now regularly work together both on AV projects and in professional association committees — not just with tolerance, but with anticipation and acceptance in many cases. The InfoComm effort that resulted in the “AV Best Practices” book was a remarkable culmination of a team of consultants and integrators working together in a constructive manner. And it happens in the field, too.

The best practices development process helped both the consultants and integrators involved to see that we have the same goal at the end of the process, and what we think it takes to get the job done well is virtually the same. This was an epiphany of sorts at the time. But not everyone has been converted yet.

Consultants (including me) have occasionally run into resistance and even hostility in recent years when working with unfamiliar integrators. This can happen locally or, in today's national and global economies, when consultants may more easily be involved in projects that are far from home. The location may be where consultant-designed projects are rare, or the locals don't know a particular consultant's work history. And friction may result when an integrator has a “lock” on a client who then uses a consultant on a project that may “open up” the process, threatening a local integrator's established client relationship. This is reality, but it doesn't necessarily have to upset the progress we've made in working together. So what's going on here?

Prejudice sometimes rules

Perhaps it's just unjustified prejudice against consultants in the present based on bad experiences with consultants in the past. There have been projects where consultants haven't performed well, integrators haven't performed well, or both. It might be because the consulting firm wasn't qualified, or the individual managing the project was under-qualified, overloaded, or both. It might be because the owner or architect made the process unworkable, or the contracts were under-scoped. Sometimes the reason doesn't really matter once the negative perception has been established.

And it isn't just the integrators who hold a grudge. Some consultants still have residual, often unjustified hostility toward integrators that remains unresolved. Some consultants just don't accept design-build as an equal force in the AV world. Design-build isn't an evil, it's a reality — and it's not all that bad. In fact, it may be the trend as the signal side of systems design becomes more network-centric, with both consultants and integrators truly headed for the same project role. But that's still down the road a bit. Perhaps the more justified antagonism from consultants has been sparked by integrators purporting to be independent consultants, which still happens today.

And there are darker questions. Do some integrators disparage consultants because they hope to have a better chance of getting a job they aren't qualified for if a knowledgeable consultant isn't around to tell the owner? Probably. Do some consultants think design-build is adversarial by its very existence? Yes. Will it always be this way? Maybe for some. But the world that most mainstream consultants and integrators now live in, thankfully, isn't like this.

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