April 01, 2015

| By Paul Oswald, President

View the original article on Automated Building's website.

What Does It Mean To Be A System Integrator

Much has been written about Smart Buildings and IoT and Big Data and Analytics (did I miss any buzzwords). This inevitably leads to the subject of integrating all of the wonderful technology we have at our disposal.  But what does that really mean and who are these folks who perform this integration?  What skills must they have and what does it really mean for someone to call themselves an integrator?

Let’s start with purpose; the purpose of the system integrator is to take parts (hardware and software) and many times disparate, and create a solution out of them.  At a very fundamental level, this consists of getting devices to talk to one another; LON to BACnet, to Modbus, to legacy, etc..  At another level it is getting software applications to work together such that data or information flows between the applications as part of a solution.  These are two very obvious examples of what a system integrator does.

Wikipedia defines a systems integrator as follows: 

“A systems integrator is a person or company that specializes in bringing together component subsystems into a whole and ensuring that those subsystems function together, a practice known as system integration.”

Beyond the capabilities you need to perform according to these rather obvious defnitions, I would like to suggest that there are several skills or qualities I think a company needs to possess in order to truly be called a systems integrator in the industry today; aspects of being a systems integrator that are often overlooked.

Focus

In today’s world it is difficult to be a master of multiple things.  This is why I believe that manufacturers do not perform well as a system integrator (I believe this is just one reason).  Similarly, I believe it is difficult for consultants, distributors or contractors to be effective system integrators; these types of firms have other skills and fulfill other functions.  They serve other important purposes; manufacturing, mechanical and electrical design, installation, distribution, software development, IT security, etc..  Disclaimer; please understand that this is a generalization and there are exceptions.  In our industry there are firms who have proven capable of wearing multiple hats but in general, focus is key to being at the top of the industry in whatever discipline or business you’re in.

Multi-Discipline

A system integrator must be fluent in a variety of disciplines including:

  • Control systems
  • Electrical systems
  • Mechanical systems
  • IT / IS
  • Software applications and data management
  • Network/IT/Application Security 
  • Visualization

Technology

In order to truly live up to the definition of a system integrator, they must be technology agnostic.  That doesn’t mean you cannot have certain technologies or products that are your “lead” products; products that in the absence of any other requirements or influences are your “go-to” products because of their capability, reliability, serviceability, etc..  But it would be difficult call oneself an integrator if you only had competency, skill and knowledge on one product or one manufacturer.  Sure, you might have the ability to connect a BACnet device to a LON device, but only within the capabilities of the system you know or sell.  This tends to force your solutions to always be developed from the perspective of how the client’s need fits into your solution, and not how your solution fits the client’s need (a BIG difference).

Process

Often overlooked in the discussion of systems integration is the process by which solutions are developed.  We find that all too often the solution is designed before the problem is understood; the proverbial “yes, we can do that now what’s the question?”.  A system integrator, particularly a firm engaged in developing so-called “smart building” solutions, must be skilled at the art of envisioning.  This is not as simple as you may think since most clients say they want a smart building or campus or enterprise, but have no idea what that means or what that looks like.  A system integrator must help the client develop a picture of future success, defined as achieving the client’s business objectives and desired outcomes.  And part of this process is being able to assess the gap between the client’s current and desired state.   

People

As I’ve stated in a previous article, for most of the system integrators in this industry, they have only one asset–people.  Let’s face it, integrators don’t manufacture anything, they typically don’t have any patents or licensable IP.  They have one primary asset and it goes home every night. Are we continually investing in our people to ensure we are bringing the best and brightest talent, skills and ideas to our clients?  This is not a one-time training event.  Nor is it as simple as sending someone to a manufacturer’s technical training program.  This is about a developing a culture of life-long learning (note: learning, not training), that creates an organization with skills and competency around not just the technical aspects of an integrator’s role, but areas such as problem solving, business, communication, leadership, etc..  All too often it is assumed that a successful integrator has to be a master of technology.  My belief is that to be a truly successful integrator you have to master talent management; attraction, retention and development, and you have to build expertise in organizational development.

Our industry is full of new technology but lacking in the skills required by true integrators to apply this technology in innovative ways that deliver results, particularly at scale.  We owe it to our people, our clients and this industry to raise our skill level and to deliver on what it truly means to be a system integrator.  We will be discussing these topics and more at the upcoming IBCon Smart Building Integrator Summit on June 8 in San Antonio.  If you are an integrator or aspire to be one, I encourage you to attend this event.

About Environmental Systems

ESI is a professional services firm focused on making buildings run better. With multi-faceted expertise and best-in-class technology, ESI enables customers to reduce costs, minimize energy consumption and maximize their return on investment.  For more information please visit www.thinkESI.com

About the Author

Paul Oswald is president of Environmental Systems, Inc (ESI).  Paul has over 30 years of experience in building automation, system integration and energy management. His experience includes product strategy and development, business and channel development, and services.  

About IBCon

IBcon has grown to become the world's most comprehensive and leading edge discussion on the next generation of smart, connected, high-performance, green, sustainable, intelligent buildings. This event is not about the traditional one building, one system, one vendor smart building of yesterday, but rather the open architected, interoperable, integrated, IP, IT centric smart buildings of tomorrow. For more information please visit  the IBCon website.