A good partner

System integrators form a critical link in the chain that leads solutions to become effective business tools within enterprises. As the skills base in the region improves, it is upto enterprises to choose and work with the best in the game. Sathya Mithra Ashok explores how.

It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of system integrators (SIs) to the Middle East ICT market. They serve as the valuable link between vendors and end-users, and become the critical glue necessary for making every deployment work in the long term.

“The ‘raison d’etre’ of a SI is all about the integration. In today’s IT market there
are very few products which are installed and implemented on a ‘stand alone’ basis. Most products of course have to connect to, work, communicate with each other as well as other elements of the organisation’s infrastructure. Hence the SI has to solve and manage the integration between multiple and diverse products and technologies. Quite simply without effective integration, you have an ineffective solution. And the customer will not reap the ROI,” says Colin Summers, regional director at CommVault.

Shaheen Haque, territory manager for the Middle East and Turkey at Interactive
Intelligence agrees, saying, “The system integration function is commonly described
as the capability to bring together the various components of a subsystem into one
system and ensuring that the subsystems work together as an independent system.
Most companies have a mix of systems, each performing a unique set of functions.
Sometimes these systems are designed to serve only the needs of either one region,
one office, or one department. The problems arise in a siloed IT infrastructure where
multiple systems cannot work together due to a lack of standardisation. There is
no commonality that interconnects these disparate systems so they can act as one. This is where integration comes into play.”

The critical nature of SIs to a project’s success often rests on the technical abilities
of their personnel and the familiarity of the team with standards and best practices that can be applied across enterprises.

“SIs are key to a project’s successful and timely implementation and as such it is
important that SIs have the highest degree of technical capabilities and are conversant with the vendor’s products. This requires regular training and skills upgradation. Some SIs are able to give customers support and services that cost less than if the vendor were to offer it, which certainly adds value,” points out Hassan Hamadani, marketing and business development manager for emerging markets at Brocade.

Haque adds, “A SI’s expertise is critical to the success of all projects that they take
on-board. They need to manage not just the technology aspect but also the political and organisational aspects of the project. The end-users are typically reliant on the SI’s and their expertise or perceived expertise to complete their vision of end solution.”

While there are lot of SIs in the region, and many that work with vendors and
end-users, not all of them are at the same expertise level and not all of them are trained to the same extent as well.

Summers points out, “The level of expertise varies greatly, there are so many variables, depending upon the technology, the country and the company itself. I do
believe that one of the key challenges for all SIs in the Middle East is staff retention and staff development. Every SI will openly share his concerns about making investments in training and certification, and then losing the trained resource. The make-up of the large expatriate work force in the local IT community Middle East market does contribute to this challenge. Compared to other markets with a larger proportion of home grown talent, there is a much higher incidence of short term attrition and turnover particularly in the SI channels.”

HelpAG presents a more dire aspect of the situation when Stephen Berner, MD of
the company states, “Most of the companies pretend to be professional and have the right level of expertise, but in the end it is all about cheating the customer by not providing quality resources and the right technical execution. There is a massive demand for qualified system integrators in the region today, but by far not enough supply. Worst thing is that big chunk of system integrators abuse this situation by promising the customer something they cannot deliver.”

Choosing right

“SIs are an extension of the vendor and as such the SI’s quality of work and level of
competence is reflective of the vendor’s capabilities. So choosing the right SI is critical with a view to building a long term relationship. Level of proven concepts and
ability to execute, financial stability and resilience, customer references and level of
relationships with its vendors are some of the key things vendors should look at when qualifying SIs,” says Hamadani.

Berner says, “The selection should be based on success criteria, which has to be according to technical, commercial and organisational aspects. By having this success criteria, they should have a clearly defined evaluation form with a set threshold, and companies that fall below that should not be considered for delivering strategic or even commodity projects. The customer will end up paying a lot more than budgeted as a result of a poor decision in this regard. Success of any project is based on sticking to the time schedule – every single day that the project is not delivered on time, should be seen as an additional cost to the customer and will also impact other projects that maybe delayed as a result.

Summers adds, “The customer should have a simple check list or score card, where
he can apply a value to the relevant factors, which he or she deems relevant. This
removes the temptation of going for the cheapest cost, and in many ways, this plays
in parallel with striving to define the ROI. The SI’s capabilities, skills in conjunction
with the commercial offering is a key part of the ROI process.”

He continues, “The customer should check for references and speak to other customers directly. It does not take long to find out and get access to other customers, so my advice is to invest in time and speak to or visit other organisations, who have already had some experience of both the vendor and the SI. It’s not just about trying to expose problems, but the learning experience of the project implementation could really help and be applied to new customers and projects.”

“The concept of system integration refers first to the integration of the interdependent functions within the same company. The SI chosen should have an extensive integration experience of various functional technologies and this would be crucial for the success of any integration project. Furthermore the SI needs to take responsibility for quality collaboration among different departments, technology sponsors which is very important for the success of a project. Second, SIs need to consider their relationships with other specialists SIs to come and handle specialised
aspects of the project,” says Haque.

Apart from choosing right, an enterprise will also have to take efforts to manage
the relationship to get the most out of the strategic partnership.

Summers provides some tips,” The customer must ensure that he invests in experienced project management. This really is a pre-requisite and most important
the customer must invest in an experienced project management resource. This means you cannot allocate the role of a project manager to any technical resource.
Understanding the technical virtues of a product is not what project management is about: the real skill is defining the steps and criteria and timelines from project start to finish and and in making sure that the suppliers and the internal resource are executing as per plan. Hence there must be a well defined and detailed plan: Who Does What, Where, How and When? The project manager has to develop and get acceptance of the plan and the real challenge is ensuring that the plan is executed on. Hence it really does require true ‘management’ expertise.”

Says Berner, “Progress should be monitored by having a project plan and a proper methodology in place. This means that the initiative is subject to constant monitoring of resources and accomplishments. Any upcoming problems should be identified early on. The end customer should have the overall overview of the initiative and technical resources at any point of time. As Help AG we will be the primary interface between the end customer, the technical resources with regards to any questions related to a project as such. Before we start any kind of initiative there needs to be a clearly defined objective. We truly believe there has to be a phased approach. Our phased approached is called “SPIEC”: start – planning – implementation – execution – closing.”

Enterprises should also invest time and energy to ensure that the partnership grows
from strength to strength, and that – in the long term – it provides the organisation exactly what it wants – a trustworthy, strategic partner.

On the other side
Apart from customers, vendors also need to work to ensure that their link with their
partners – the face of the vendor in many parts of the region – remains strong.

“Vendors struggle to find strong SIs who are loyal to them as competition gets fierce in a tough economic time. As such, it is important to work smart by “keeping partners close but building a relationship with customers as well”. This is often
challenging as SIs see this as a threat. It is important to allay the SI’s concerns by assuring them that customers feel more comfortable knowing that they have direct
access to the vendor which is a win-win for all,” says Brocade’s Hamadani.

Haque adds, “As a software vendor, we are called upon by various customers wanting us to work with their SI or SI’s on projects. The main driver for us in all instances is that the customer perceived requirements are met, whether the customer calls us or the SI calls us. The challenge we have include ensuring the SI partner is trained sufficiently so that they have the latest knowledge of our technology and are self-sufficient and confident in presenting and deploying our solutions into end-user organisations.”

He continues, “The SI partner needs to invest in a team of people from sales, pre-sales, services and support if they are to be successful in deploying and supporting end-user call centre related projects. The SI also must have the diverse technology expertise in other complimentary areas that a customer may require integration in, such as customer relationship management(CRM) systems and speech technology solutions, all of which typically form part of end-user customers shopping list for a solution.”

Vendors agree that there are several ways in which the SI ecosystem in the region
can and should improve in the coming years.

“The key skill set which I strongly recommend is project management. The ability to manage complex and large projects is lacking in the regions, however it’s also a skill which both the SI and the Enterprise customer needs to recognise and need to value. The customer has to appreciate the value of the project management skill set, the reality is that this is not recognised by enough organisations to-date,” says Summers.

“It can be improved by mastering the simplicity and following the quality assurance and customer satisfaction. Everybody likes to talk about big success without being able to implement the basics. Only if you can understand and customise the basics you will have that big success,” says Berner.

They also agree that the improvement will come over time, that change being a constant in the region, the evolution of SIs will continue to happen in parallel to the widening nature of customer requirements and the fickle nature of budgets. And while that process because a reality, it remains the customer’s preroragative to ensure that he gets the best out of every partner or SI that they work for in the Middle East.

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