Integrator as a 4-letter word - can SIs transform?

Profile picture for user pwainewright By Phil Wainewright December 30, 2016
Historic practices mean systems integrator is almost a 4-letter word - can SIs really transform to meet enterprise needs in a digital era?

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Anyone who works in enterprise IT has learned the stereotypical image of the bloated systems integrator (SI). These legendary organizations lock their clients into highly complex, multi-year enterprise IT projects that invariably overrun their schedules and bust their budgets. Their consultants traditionally arrive on site by the busload and then, like the hotel guests in the song, never leave.

Today's global giants of professional consulting claim such behavior is consigned to history. They don't recognize themselves in this caricature (even if some are privately willing to admit that the cap did fit, once upon a time). They have reinvented themselves for the digital era, and they are on a mission to help their clients do likewise.

No wonder they dislike the connotations of the term 'systems integrator', which is still widely used to describe professional services companies that install IT systems. Mark Lush, who leads Life Sciences and Enterprise Cloud Solutions at Deloitte Digital, told me earlier this year that:

We almost view the word 'integrator' as a four-letter word, because we focus on business transformation. We focus on moving the value needle in what we do.

Unreformed practitioners

So is the stereotype an aprocryphal memory of something that no longer exists in the modern, digital world? Or are there still some unreformed practitioners lurking in distant corners of the professional services market? SAP SuccessFactors President Mike Ettling recently lambasted SIs who apply old-school methodologies to cloud application projects:

The SIs who come to this with essentially the old on-premise methodology of a clean sheet of paper ... It’s a recipe for disaster.

Ettling says there's still a significant cohort of SIs that haven't modernized they way they approach projects to fit in with the faster, more agile environment of the cloud:

I think the ecosystem is splitting into what I call the haves and the have-nots — those who have got it and those who have not got it ...

The haves are accelerating, in terms of growth and market share, and the have-nots are going backwards, in terms of growth and market share, and it’s all round this issue, which is causing it.

He counts Deloitte and Accenture among the tier-one players that have succeeded in transforming themselves. Early acquisitions of cloud pureplays have helped bring that more agile DNA into both companies, a pattern that Indian IT services giant Wipro hopes to repeat after its acquisition of cloud pureplay integrator Appirio.

That digital DNA still has to coexist alongside the full gamut of technology services, of course, and all those digital and cloud projects have to integrate to the client's existing IT infrastructure. Saideep Raj, who heads up Accenture’s Cloud First Applications group, says that means embracing a two-speed model to accommodate the cloud components within that landscape:

It’s a hybrid model, because they’ve got this often very cumbersome legacy. They’re trying to figure out all the release patterns, and how do you make this fit in and deliver with all of that context?

Going where the puck will be

Sometimes the client simply wants to move an existing system to the cloud and has to be talked into considering a more fundamental transformation, says Deloitte's Lush:

If a client asks us to do a lift-and-shift type project, we'll challenge that. We're working with a client right now that claims their project is lift-and-shift. We're challenging them to say, 'Well, OK. There's some TCO benefits to it. But you're missing out, potentially, on the opportunity to improve.'

Being able to help the client think about "where the puck will be" is an essential element of the consultant's role in today's market, says Lush.

Systems integration, data warehousing, CRM and all that stuff — to us that's table-stakes capabilities that a client that knows Deloitte expects of Deloitte. Those are must-haves.

But in today's world, having that extra layer of, the ability to use our Monitor practice for strategy, our Deloitte Digital practice around marketing, marketing capabilities, digital marketing creative, advertising, TV, branding — and then our Doblin part of our business relative to innovation — it's quite a breadth of services we provide.

We can be within a client doing a lift-and-shift call center change, but also in a different part of the business helping them see where that puck is going to be in the future.

The most rewarding engagements are those where the client is able to create a different kind of experience that enhances the brand, attracts customers and drives profitable growth, he explains.

Innovation projects whereby in six weeks we've helped an organization literally change the trajectory and focus of their business — which has downstream, spillover effects in terms of what do they do with IT and marketing and mobile and social and all those types of things. It's a pretty transformative thing.

My take

It's hardly surprising that professional services companies want to present themselves as modern, forward-thinking partners that bring strategic value to their enterprise clients. Many have made substantial investments to acquire skills and develop methodologies that will help them deliver on that promise.

It's equally unsurprising that nobody puts their hand up to admit how closely they still conform to the old-school stereotype. I'm far from convinced that such practices have been eradicated, even from those organizations that are seen as the 'haves', to use Ettling's classification.

And if there are still many enterprise clients out there who demand the old-school approach because that's what they're used to dealing with, the SIs aren't going to turn that business away, are they?

There's no doubt that many SIs have shown they understand what it takes to provide the kind of professional services that enterprises need in a digital world. They have digital and cloud units that can walk the talk. But I suspect the transformation of the entire business is still a work in progress rather than a done deal. Therefore enterprises must be on their guard to make sure that what's delivered measures up to what's been promised.