The future of work for system integrators
The future, whether in the office or working remotely, looks bright for system integrators.
The importance of work cannot be overstated. We dedicate a considerable portion of our productive time to it. For many, work defines who they are. At the level of companies, cities, states and countries, work generates and defines our economic value. The COVID-19 pandemic delivered a full-blown challenge to our work routines. It turned our entire notion of work on its head. The ongoing reopening of the economy in the U.S. seems to be generating whiplash to many sectors in the economy and another set of challenges and opportunities for system integrators (SIs) and their clients.
In this article, I examine:
- Work SIs deliver.
- When and where SIs work.
Work SIs deliver
The work SIs deliver is driven by the needs of their clients (industrial and manufacturing end users) to:
- Stay competitive
- Increase flexibility
- Meet regulatory compliance.
The pandemic may have added:
- Reduced worker density on the manufacturing floor (to reduce contagion)
- Remote monitoring
- Urgency to address cybersecurity risks.
In the early days, SIs had few hardware and software providers. Today, SIs have many more technology options to select from, allowing them to deliver an increased solution scope. This has resulted in diversity for the SI market.
The pandemic has highlighted vulnerabilities in our industrial setup, including our supply chains. Reshoring, near/local sourcing, sustainability and national interest considerations seem to be gaining traction. Automation is a must to make it economically viable. Current labor shortages are incentivizing manufacturers to add or increase automation of their plants and processes. In addition, manufacturing and process industries view digital transformation as a new way to gain competitive advantage. While deployment of digital transformation is broad and involves softer areas like change management, there is an important technology component where SIs can play a leading role.
All this is driving a significant surge in automation projects. SIs are staffing to meet this expanded demand (see Figure 1). They are hiring to deliver on their immediate needs, but planning ahead; 21% of the respondents are looking for recruits to handle new requirements (see Figure 2).
Where and when SIs work
“The only constant in life is change.”
Many of us witnessed the deployment of the office cubicle (along with all the ridiculing by the Dilbert cartoons) and the move to the open concept layout. The last one became a likely casualty of the pandemic. Some of us may recall the days when the dress code called for suits and ties for men and when smoking was accepted in the office. The introduction of the PC, e-mail and internet represented not only new technology; they redefined how work was done. The laptop and residential Wi-Fi meant work could be done outside the office. Flextime was introduced not that long ago, breaking the Monday through Friday 8 a.m. (or 9 a.m.) to 5 p.m. mold.
The office layout was driven by different objectives. For some, it was increased spontaneous interaction/collaboration. For others it was flexibility (e.g., multipurpose space, fluctuating work team sizes). The layout of the office, work schedule flexibility and ability to work remotely are viewed as recruitment and retention tools.
“Recruit, develop and retain talent” — this has been the main issue keeping SIs awake at night since well before the pandemic. Some leading SIs embraced the remote work (eliminating the need for new recruits to relocate) and flextime concepts early (before the pandemic) to attract talent.
The virtual office
Ready or not, the pandemic forced everybody into remote work. The enabling technology had been around for a while; the pandemic brought it to a different level. With the economies reopening, SIs have been forced to revisit their policies (see Figure 3). When CSIA surveyed its members in April 2021, we learned few were ready to give up on the office altogether. Most SIs were envisioning more flexibility for remote options for employees.
What is consistent with broader surveys and counterintuitive to many: It is the younger generations that desire to return to the office (see Figure 4).
Questions that linger and still to be answered include:
- With an increased openness to remote resources, will SIs be able to develop and cultivate a shared company culture?
- Will an openness to remote resource and talent shortage in the U.S. open SIs to increased international sourcing? Will they become masters at creating project/client-specific consortia to deliver global projects?
A year ago, I wrote about the challenges faced by our industry in the middle of the pandemic. While the pandemic is not over and many countries are still struggling, the outlook is brighter. The dramatic rebound of the U.S. economy has created new challenges and intensified previous ones, including staffing. As the “war for talent” has intensified, SIs need to stay current on the ongoing changes to the work setup. Leading SIs will find a way to create competitive advantage through a desirable work setup with an enviable company culture.
As I expressed last year, CSIA and the SI industry have a unique opportunity for reinvention. From what I have been able to witness, the reinvention is in full gear. The future looks bright for the system integration industry.
Jose M. Rivera has been CEO of the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA) since March 2015. He works to help independent system integrators build better companies through the adoption of the association’s best practices guidelines. His global career in the automation industry, including Emerson Electric, Schneider Electric and Siemens, has spanned six countries, most often with regional or global leadership roles. Jose has an MBA from Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, and MS and BS degrees in Electrical Engineering from the University of Costa Rica.
About the CSIA
CSIA is a global, nonprofit professional association with a mission to advance the practice of control system integration to benefit members and their clients. CSIA has more than 400 system integration company members and 100 vendor partners in 27 countries. CSIA is a CFE Media content partner.