Certifications: A system integrator’s journey

When choosing a system integrator, how much importance should you place on certifications? Both individuals and the corporation can earn them, but how much do they matter?
By David McCarthy June 10, 2014

System integrators often cite the value of a certification as a differentiating point between them and their competitors. It can indicate to your clients that your firm has put in the upfront time, effort, and resources necessary to implement their projecWhile the Declaration of Independence says that "all men are created equal," such is not the case with automation system integrators. At our core, each of us, as individuals and companies, has our own unique combination of culture, values, and ethics. Layer on top of this our technology and industry expertise, mix it all together with our standards, work products, and practices, and you have the unique blend that represents each of us as individual organizations.

A big part of the corporate DNA at our company and many others is certifications, both individual and companywide. Certifications have the power to make people and companies better, often in ways you do not expect. Our journey can serve as an illustration which might show you how a certification process could be of benefit to your organization.

The power of credentials

Above all else, the most important attribute your clients seek from an integrator is competence in performing their work at hand. This usually requires expertise with some combination of technology platforms, manufacturing processes, business intelligence, information technology, project processes, and business practices. Even great system integration firms are not necessarily competent in all disciplines relevant to a particular project.

Clients that already know you and your company will understand your strengths and weaknesses. Those that don’t will need a little help. Certifications can help shine a light on the attributes you possess that your clients are searching for. System integrators often cite the value of a certification as a differentiating point between them and their competitors. It can indicate to your clients that your firm has put in the upfront time, effort, and resources necessary to implement their projects successfully.

While any certification relevant to a specific project can provide the power of a credential, the total value often runs much deeper. As you will see, the preparation process itself for a specific certification can be of immense value to your firm. Let’s take a look at a few types of certifications we have been through, and the benefits we received from each experience. 

Supply-side economics

Historically, supplier programs have been a bit of a cottage industry in the system integrator community, particularly with technology providers. For many, the entry level into a supplier program required little more than an annual fee, a few references, and some nominal demonstration of familiarity with that company’s product. In return it would provide development and test platforms for its products, as well as the occasional project lead.

Today most of these supplier partner programs have evolved into genuine certification programs on various aspects of specific technology platforms, even though the entry-level component usually still exists. As the size and complexity of our systems increased over time, so did the complexity of these technology platforms. Our company pursued multiple supplier certifications as part of a risk abatement strategy. While our initial motives were simply to acquire more technical expertise in proper application of these products, our measured benefits over time became much more than that.

The deeper we delved into these supplier technical certifications, the closer we became to the suppliers themselves. For us, this strategy made a lot of sense. The more effort we put into earning certifications, the more trust each supplier had in us, resulting in more opportunities from that supplier, project and otherwise.

Knowing how to navigate a key supplier’s organization in times of trouble allowed us to marshal resources much more quickly to address issues. In large supplier organizations this can be a huge advantage, and it really enhanced the level of customer service we could provide to our clients. Close relations provided opportunities for us to be part of supplier beta-testing efforts, and to provide our input into enhancements and features we would like to see in future releases. Some suppliers have even shared views on the evolution of our collective technology, geographic, and industrial markets. This has aided us in our own internal strategic planning. What started with a simple goal of risk abatement blossomed into many additional benefits for our organization, none of them foreseen at the onset, and all of them of value.

More than the sum of its parts

Supplier certification programs typically require that individual associates of your organization pass exams. Depending on the complexity of a given program, certain levels may require successfully completing prerequisites. Acquiring enough individual certifications (and often company references and more) in a particular area could certify the entire organization in that area. Partner programs at Rockwell Automation and Microsoft work this way, as do many others.

There are other types of certifications we pursue strictly on a professional development level for our associates. Examples range from American Society of Quality (ASQ) certifications for calibration technicians to Project Management Professional (PMP) certifications, and more. Vesting in the professional development of our associates has yielded many tangential benefits.

Certifications for individuals in your company from various governing bodies may not impute any specific status on your company, but they still provide significant value to the firm at large. Your organization receives an indirect credential, simply by having these certified individuals on staff. Those who complete such certifications often bring best practices and new ways of thinking in these areas of excellence. For us this has been a big driver in a variety of continuous improvement initiatives. Encouraging these individual certifications for our associates is a big part of the overall professional development focus at our firm, and has contributed to a low turnover rate, helping to provide organizational stability in a very competitive labor market.

See the next page for more on best practices and audits

Saving the best (practices) for last

There is another type of certification our organization has gone through, the best practices type. For us it was certification from the Control Systems Integrators Association (CSIA). CSIA is a not-for-profit trade association with more than 400 member firms in 27 countries, representing our professional peer group. This certification required an outside audit of 79 process and practice areas. They were broadly grouped in nine categories including general management, human resources, sales and marketing, financial management, project execution processes, quality processes, and more. Minimum scores per category and a minimum aggregate score were required to pass.

For us the preparation process itself was transformative. With more than 20 years in business, we felt we were a mature organization when we embarked on this process. We had well-established practices in all of these areas, which in our view were also of reasonably high quality. But the fact that an outsider, an auditor, was coming, gave us pause. This person has measured others in our peer group, and will now measure us. Based on our size, we were held to the most stringent version of the audit, which also gave us some things to think about.

Being true to another part of our corporate DNA, we overprepared for the audit and the results turned out more than fine. In the end the audit results themselves were not what was of prime importance. It was the preparation process that caused us to give a hard look at each of those 79 measuring points. We looked closely to see if what we were doing in each of these areas was really as good as it could be. More often than not, even if our process or practice was good, we found ways to improve upon it. This introspection created new ways of thinking and new ways to measure, and made us a better organization for it. When we reached out to those in our peer group who had been through this process, it became clear that our experience was the norm.

The journey continues

Starting out, we felt certifications were as much about credentials as anything else. Most young firms need to establish their credibility in a variety of ways, and certifications are a good way to do that. As we walked further down this path, our offerings became larger and more complex, as did the complexity of the technology platforms we were deploying. Risk abatement became another part of the mix.

As we worked to develop supplier certifications, relations with those critical companies deepened, providing a host of unforeseen benefits to both our organization and our mutual clients. Individual certifications earned by our associates not only made all of us collectively technically better, it opened us up to new ideas and ways of operating. It also contributed to a low turnover rate.

Finally, the best practice certification was the best of all. It provided the motivation and framework to look at our organization as a whole. Every firm will benefit from taking the time to look at all of its practices, with an eye toward self-improvement. For us and many of our peers, the dividends from such activities were enormous.

At our company this process continues and is now part of the fabric of who we are. If you have not done so already, I encourage you to start your own journey. You will be glad you did.

– David McCarthy is president and chief executive officer for TriCore Inc. Edited by Peter Welander, content manager, CFE Media, Control Engineering, pwelander@cfemedia.com.

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Learn more about TriCore Inc. in the Global SI Database

For more information, visit:

www.controlsys.org for system integrator company certification information

www.tricore.com 

Key concepts

  • System integrators develop specialties connected with the skills and certifications of individual employees.
  • Integrator companies can be certified based on business practices.
  • Customers and prospects can evaluate possible integration firms based on certifications.

Consider this

Does your organization encourage or fund continued learning and certifications? Do you value the expertise of organizations that do?

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