|Ira Friedman is the CEO of Bay Audio, a
manufacturer of custom speaker solutions.
He holds an MBA from the Harvard Business
Most CI companies offer services in
five major disciplines: audio, video,
control, lighting, and security. With ever-changing
technologies, products, and
configurations, it’s simply impossible for a
CI company to master all five categories.
Some CI companies focus their efforts on
one area. Yet, they’re pressured to offer
all disciplines on many projects, exposing
a weak link in their capabilities.
A CI company focusing on best-in-class
theater performance has to know something
about automation and lighting. A CI
company with a focus on IT has to tune a
theater from time to time. Unfortunately,
clients are being underserved because
many CI companies end up providing sub-optimized
systems when lacking expertise
in one or more areas.
Have I ruffled your CI feathers? If you
don’t believe me, think about the way doctors work. Do you see a GP
for all your ailments, or do you have a cardiologist, a dermatologist, and
a slew of other specializing “ologists?” As an industry grows, becoming
more complex, there’s a natural tendency for specialization to occur, and
for factions to split off and become masters.
The CI business is in its infancy, populated with country doctors and
their black bag of solutions. You’ve got a remedy for coughs, and another
for hernias. You’ve treated sprains, rickets, and gout. And for the most part,
your patients live another day, never fully cured, never completely pain free.
Most installed CI systems are “good enough.” They work, for the most
part, and provide intermittent satisfaction for the owner. (Of course, your
systems are flawless. It’s just the “other guy’s” stuff that seems so poorly
|Becoming the expert of the experts pushes you firmly into the role of consultant and allows you to
pare your company into the essentials: great design and top-notch management.
What I’ve found is that most CI companies have a core competency–
usually distributed AV or theater design. And these same companies have
a glaring weak spot accounting for the bulk of their service calls– typically
networking or automation. Aware of this shortfall, CI owners expend
resources shoring up their engineering departments to handle ever-more-complex
projects. Or not. Because the cost of specialization is high.
GPs will refer a diabetic patient with high blood pressure to an
endocrinologist and a cardiologist. It’s just not practical for the GP to
study endocrinology and cardiology. But the CI dealer, in his ever-valiant
attempt to be a “one-stop-shop” for his clients, attempts just that. And
The Specialization of the CI Business
As the complexity of the business and the need for services grows, specialty
organizations will pop up to provide needed expertise on a subcontracting
We’ve already seen this on a small scale with boutique companies that
write automation code, others who specialize in lighting, and a handful
who design theater rooms. There are subcontracted labor providers,
security providers, and specialists who knock out phone systems.
This is just the beginning of a very natural trend–the trend toward
specialization. No industry has consolidated, has become more simple or
more homogenous. This leads to the inevitable conclusion that the CI
industry will follow the historical precedent set by every other industry by
fracturing into broad generalists and specialty providers.
The Place for a Generalist
The most prestigious architecture firms outsource complex engineering
and material resourcing. The best interior designers rely on their trusted
tradespeople. And in these three examples, the generalist is paid to corral
and manage the specialties he hires.
No client expects their interior designer to lay tile or paint the walls.
But the client does expect the designer to choose the best tradespeople to
lay the tile and paint the walls, oversee the work, manage the invoices, and
guarantee the finest result.
In the future, these same clients will be comfortable having you
organize and manage your suppliers–the IT company, the lighting
designers, the wire pullers, and the acousticians. The client will expect
you to find suppliers with the highest level of expertise (a level of expertise
you couldn’t possibly maintain in-house). The client will expect you to
hold the schedule, keep to the budget, and fight on the client’s behalf as
things go awry.
Why This is a Good Thing
Becoming the expert of the experts pushes you firmly into the role of
consultant and allows you to pare your company into the essentials: great
design and top-notch management. If there’s one area of expertise that
you must develop, it’s management. You can invest in management, in
process control, and in systems that keep people moving efficiently, and
you can become a master in this. You can become the master of managing
experts, which gives your clients the best solution: a well-designed
projected, executed flawlessly, by functional specialists.