Ira Friedman is the CEO of Bay Audio, a manufacturer of custom speaker solutions. He holds an MBA from the Harvard Business School. 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 engineered.)
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 fails.
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 basis.
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.