Changing computers and networks will compel many integrators to change their market approach. It's not simple. I'm not sure it ever was, but it's getting worse. The right approach involves fully knowing the role information technology plays in an organisation. The problem isn't really knowing the role the various technology pieces play today.
The problem is figuring out the role that IT will play over the next year or, in the ideal case, the next five years, so that intelligent decisions can be made now.
These questions stand out in sharp relief when you walk the aisles of a network trade show. Convergence is a word greatly overused in our industry, but it's an accurate and concise word that describes a number of streams coming together in the collective lap of enterprise IS departments.
It was once possible to separate the functions of data processing, data communications, and telecommunications. In some organisations there are still walls between the departments, but where those walls exist they must come down.
Now, I can hear the screams coming. Vast cultural differences exist, especially between data processing and telecoms, and the knowledge set is different for each area. These are very real issues, but it's territory that integrators must learn to navigate if they expect to help companies avoid falling into traps that prevent them from using technology as an asset.
What do I mean by all this? Let's start with questions like, what will go onto the desktop? Will it be a desktop computer or a network computer? Will it function simply to communicate and manipulate computer-created bitstreams, or will it serve as a general communications device that provides a human gateway into voice, video, and image networks?
And about those networks -- what, precisely, will they carry? Will data and voice networks be separate, will data continue to overwhelm voice on public nets, or will voice become a standard way of transacting business on the Internet?
The future today?
The catalyst for moving these questions to centre stage is the maturity of two network technologies. After what seems like years of promises, vendors are actually shipping ATM switches that work, making combined voice and data networking into a possibility for more customers. At the other end, ADSL (asymmetric digital subscriber line) is coming on strong as a technology that brings much-improved wide area connectivity to telecommuters, branch offices, and customers unable to justify private networks.
Add to these technologies the growth of large ISPs looking for integrators to represent their services, more options for application platforms at both the desktop and the server, and customers trying desperately to control costs while using technology for maximum competitive advantage.
Now we have a situation that makes the integrator's role more crucial than ever while making the decisions dramatically more complex.
The consequence of all this for integrators is that they must become more involved with technology as a strategic component of their customers' lives.
Many integrators, especially the largest, have long engaged customers at the strategic level. I still hear, though, of integrators who function as providers of technology at the tactical level.
I'm not suggesting the tactical business will go away overnight, but I'm afraid the trends are not going to be kind to the tacticians.
That approach to the market will become increasingly reactive and commodity driven, with all the pressures implied by those models.
I remember a particular visit to the dentist. I described my problem and he reeled off a multisyllabic, Latin-sounding phrase. I asked whether it was complicated to fix.
He confirmed that it was and then, in his best Peter Lorre voice, added: "And very, very expensive."
I don't imagine it was easy for him to go through the eight-year-plus setup for that joke.
It won't be easy to become knowledgeable in all the different aspects of convergent technology, at a level that allows their strategic application.
It won't be easy -- but it will be very, very profitable.
OK, are you committed to the tactical approach, or is strategic involvement the key to an integrator's success?