“It’s that last 5 percent.” That’s Chuck Wilson, director of the National Systems Contractors Association (NSCA), commenting on what he found was the hardest thing to do when he was managing multiple A/V projects as an integrator. And, Wilson continues, the shadow of that 5 percent tends to loom exponentially larger the busier your company is.
“Getting that last bit of each project done gets more and more difficult the more projects you have,” he says. “At its core, it’s a discipline issue. At some point you have to finish what you have before you take on any more. And that’s hard to do when you’re trying to grow your business. In fact, it can be a trap.”
Managing multiple projects simultaneously will be the norm going forward as the A/V integration business pulls itself out of the lingering morass of the recession, and like most other businesses they’ll have to do it with fewer people than a decade ago. That’s not to say that hiring won’t be part of the strategy.
One of the collateral benefits of the recovery, as slow as it’s been, is that many companies and industries feel confident enough - and have the legitimate need - to begin hiring more personnel again. However, the significant progress that many companies have made in terms of increased productivity from smaller workforces has become less a recession-induced anomaly now and more of an intrinsic characteristic of how we work.
There are software solutions that can help companies become more productive and better managers But regardless of what software we’re talking about or what its vintage is, before anyone can double-click on the icon they have to adjust their thinking to embrace new solutions - not necessarily an ingrained trait even among technologically inclined managers.
“Being familiar with software and being willing to adapt to new things are two different things,” comments Jeff Kussard, director of strategic development at Capitol Sales, an A/V systems and products distributor in the Minneapolis area. Kussard worked as part of a team a decade ago to develop a project management software tool that Harman offered to its CEDIA market-channel customers. The resulting product was both “world-class” and free, he says, but nonetheless, “Getting A/V integrators to implement it into their workflows was like pulling teeth,” he recalls.
“Getting people to change their habits is the hardest thing about improving productivity and management. I think it has to do a bit with the fact that engineers, especially, take the approach: if it’s not broken, don’t try to fix it. There are project managers out there who have been working for years with an Excel spreadsheet and Word docs, and there’s little apparent incentive for them to change.
“They have to be shown how much more efficient project management can be. But first you have to go through the pain of learning, of inputting the data and setting up the parameters. You have to commit time and money to improve workflow and tools, but you will reap the benefits in the long run. You will see return on investment and customer satisfaction improve.”
Brad Malone is InfoComm’s project manager instructor, as well as president and principal consultant at Twin Star Consulting, in Hinsdale, Ill. Those dual roles have given him the perspective to see the often-ambivalent relationship between software and people and, more to the point, the way that our natural tribal tendencies result in enclaves within companies - sometimes called “silos” - that can impede a company’s overall progress.
Malone says that companies with sales and field forces under a dozen or so can generally perform adequately with basic systems like Excel spreadsheets; larger companies will want to look into more complex platforms like D-Tools, Oracle’s Net Suite and Microsoft’s Project Professional for companies with between 10 and 20 workers and Project Server for those with more than 20 employees in the field. The real problem arises when information that should be shared on those platforms instead stays in silos, not for any sinister reasons but rather for cultural ones, based on a company’s traditional compensation structure.