How to Select a System Integrator

Rob Llewellyn By Rob Llewellyn

How to Select a System Integrator

Working with the right partner to ensure a successful digital business transformation is vital, but with so many system integrator options available, how do you know what makes a good system integrator good? – and more importantly, what makes them the right choice for your organisation?

Some system integrators offer a full spectrum of services, while others concentrate on a specific service. Some focus on a particular industry, while others work across all types of industry. But those that attempt to be all things to all clients are often seen to have a strong brand that they abuse in an effort to expand their offerings. So while unsuspecting clients thinking they're buying a Ferrari, they pay good money and end up getting a patched up Ford Escort.

There are too many tales of astonishing sums of money being wasted by system integrators that fail to deploy the right individuals to lead the various aspects of transformation. One of the most common shortcomings is having the ability to throw plenty of technical expertise into an account but low calibre project, programme and change management capabilities. Another is the need to staff an account with a high degree of contract resources, because of over promises during the sales stage.

There are no widely adopted business and technical standards for the system integrator industry, so setting benchmarks and selection criteria can help you sleep better with the decision you make. So, what really makes one systems integrator stand out from the others? And how can you avoid wasting your time, money and reputation?

Three Fundamental Requirements

At the highest level, your selection of a system integrator needs to be based on the sound business fundamentals of technology expertise, industry experience, and best business practices. If a system integrator cannot clearly articulate and prove their expertise in any of these three fundamental areas, you probably need to remove them from your shortlist.

System Integrator Considerations

Time spent giving all these considerations the time they deserve could well save you time, money and a great deal pain in the long-run!

1. Track record

Search for a system integrator that has a long list of successful projects in the areas you are looking for. Check out references they provide and find out how long they have been in the specific field you need help with. Being competent and well-known for performing well in one type of work does not mean they can do the same in the type of work you need done. It's too easy for system integrators to list the big names they've worked with, without disclosing that they never did for those clients, the type of work you need help with.

2. Look for over promises

Business development managers are all looking to sell, and I have seen first-hand how business is sold by some of the largest system integrators on the planet, only to find that they are not capable of fulfilling the promises made during the sales process. Get the integrator to prove they understood your requirements, didn't under-estimate the project and they have experience with similar projects and the internal staff available to run your project. If you get a much lower price than expected, dig into “where” their staff will be coming from and any implications that might present.

3. Familiarity with standards

Find out what partners the integrator works with since no one can do it alone. It's also important to see how an integrator manages a project and what their code library looks like. What methodologies do they use and can they guarantee that the staff they mobilise are certified and experienced in those methodologies? Be sure to vet all the CVs and be on your guard for last minute changes because the candidates you were originally promised were actually never going to be available to you. They simply represented a good looking CV to win you over.

4. Comfort factor

In addition to reliability and professional capabilities, choose an integrator you feel comfortable with, who understands your process needs and has experience in your industry. And remember that while it's easy for a large system integrator to claim their expertise, but the only thing that matters to you is that the right expertise finds its way onto your premises. An impressive list of resources is no good to you if they're all busy on other accounts.

5. Expertise

Focus on their knowledge, techniques and skills. Make sure the staff the system integrator intends to mobilise have full knowledge of system engineering, as well as sufficient experience to handle your project. Again, beware of system integrators who claim expertise, but ho fail to provide you with the right individuals who have that expertise.

6. Current experience

Prior experience in your discipline is key to the selection of your Integrator. Experience keeps the integrator current on new digital business transformation. Many integrators have reduced staff, minimal knowledge of the latest technologies and zero bench. Take the time to assess the strengths and weaknesses of any integrator you consider to ensure that they are capable of delivering the “people” you require – who in turn will deliver the transformation you require.

7. Stay involved

Can you allocate “the right” resources to work with that integrator on a day-to-day basis? Your people will one day need to operate in the new world that the system integrators helps create, which includes new technology and ways of working. So ensure you assign good people from the beginning.

8. Strong programme management capability

When embarking on anything more than a few small local projects, programme management capability is vital. Without it, your efforts will be at risk of becoming a series of siloed projects that are neither joined up nor integrated with the rest of enterprise. Balancing resources, strategic priorities and other elements of transformation will all suffer without strong programme management.

9. Breadth and depth of portfolio and expertise

Transformation is much more than a new technology, and while many system integrators state this in their online content, the teams their often mobilise do not reflect that understanding. Do your best to work with a partner that has the breadth of offering to meet all your key needs, and that can source, integrate, and manage additional capabilities as needed to satisfy the end-to-end requirements of the operator.

10. Ask questions

Choosing a systems integrator is the hardest and easily the most overlooked part of an automation project. Ask questions about types of projects they've done, vertical preferences and size of projects. Have them include project details, such as were they on time and on or under budget, and what percentage of the time.

11. Track record of innovation

Technology evolution is happening at a very fast pace. It is essential for service providers to partner with partners that are constantly innovating and are at the forefront of the industry. Almost everyone claims how innovative they are. Test this by asking about their innovation process that they innovation leads will be implementing for you, along with where and how successfully this was implemented previously.

12. Experience has its limits

Be aware that most integrators have experience either in a vertical industry or with a certain type of project, such as PLC/HMI programming. Either way, they may lack the capabilities needed to do projects outside of that experience. Many HMI/DCS vendors have a list of endorsed or recommended systems integrators on their home page. This is a good place to start.

13. Communication skills

Much of what separates an ordinary systems integrator from an excellent integrator is the ability to communicate well with clients. That sometimes includes delivering news that you do not like to hear. Perhaps the client is asking for a process change that does not appear to be in i
ts long-term best interest. Or, maybe the client is asking for a project to be completed in a very short time frame without fully understanding the impact that the timeline may have on budget or scope. These kinds of issues require a systems integrator to be able to skilfully and truthfully say “no” to the client.

14. Smart isn't enough

Choose an integrator as you would choose an employee. Spend time, talk to references and know that while every firm out there enlists very smart engineers, you don't want them cutting their teeth on your project.

15. Professional integrity

Make sure an integrator can confidently provide you with a project plan, with decision points, contingency plans and staffing that will meet your timeline and project goals.

16. Stay in control

If you lack the experience required to manage a system integrator, engage a consultant who can do it on your behalf. Or you might well find yourself being a dog wagged by the tail.

17. Test the team

Verify the integrator's capabilities by giving a test to the personnel who will perform the work on your project. Make sure those people are listed in the contract, including fallback or substitute candidates.

18. Business skills

Digital transformation should be guided by the current and future business needs of the firm. The market is demanding new business models, such as flex capacity, and new go-to-market frameworks. In defining its business requirements, the service provider often requires expert help from an entity that has a broad perspective on the market dynamics and trends. Look beyond technology expertise or project experience to consider an integrator's commercial qualifications. Transformation is about new ways of doing business, which technology enables. If all your system integrator can provide is technical expertise, think twice, because you need to avoid your digital business transformation becoming a technology project.

19. Are they open?

Select an integrator that is open to your requests and ideas. Beware of one that constantly pushes back. If you hear the phrase “nobody does it like that” or “this is how everyone does it,” you might want to consider another integrator that is more open minded. You are paying that integrator to get what you want and need – not just what they are willing to build because it's easy or they “always do it that way”. Yes, you hired them for their experience and would like their suggestions, but don't discount your own ideas just because this is your first time. Also allow for the ability to make some changes, especially if your approach is new and unconventional. Be open for changes and tweaks as you go if it makes the end result easier to use and more flexible.

20. Security Focused

Because of the sensitivity of data, you need a system integrator that will ensure you and your customers and partners are protected. As you evolve your transformation, identifying and implementing a security framework is essential, and it is critical that your system integrator is equipped to address all dimensions of security.

Other considerations for selecting a system integrator

  • Match the technical sophistication level of the system integrator with the complexity of the project. If the integrator “offers” to tackle issues outside of the company’s business domain, be cautious.
  • Present the system integrator with the main risks of the project and ask them to add to that list. Then ask them to describe how they will manage those risks.
  • If you don’t have in-house expertise for making the integrator selection, consider hiring a third-party technical consultant to establish selection criteria and/or participate in the review process.
  • Take a long-term view. Select a system integrator with experience in similar systems and tie payments to project milestones. Ensure their services will be available for upgrades and maintenance via a separate contract.
  • Does the system integrator have a satisfactory human resources management process to ensure your project will never be subject to their lack of resources?
  • Meet with your integrator’s project team before commercials are signed.
  • If the system integrator relies on subcontractors, review the systems deployed to monitor and control workflow.
  • Will you get along? Establish criteria for assessing the business culture of the system integrator. Does the integrator respond in hours or days to requests? When do casual discussions turn into consulting charges?
  • Keep up-to-date milestone records during the course of the project. If you have to replace an integrator (and that sometimes needs to happen), refer to the specification and decide on a fair settlement covering payment for all completed deliverables.

This list is probably incomplete, so if you can contribute to it, send me your “bullet points” and I'll add them here.

“There should always come a time when a company knows it has tried its best to amplify the value of their system integrator, and tried enough.”

– Rob Llewellyn

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With over 20 years helping managers and leaders generate commercial value from technology, Rob Llewellyn is dedicated to helping the new breed of digital economy professionals write the next digital economy success stories.

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