Inventors and disruptors get all the headlines – and they deserve them – but we want to celebrate another, often unsung, hero: the systems integrator.

People sometimes think systems integrators are just plumbers. After all, don’t they just connect existing technologies together?

We think this undersells a uniquely creative discipline. A discipline that’s probably changed the world just as much as the Edisons and the Zuckerbergs. (In fact, Mark Zuckerberg was probably more of an entrepreneurial integrator than an inventor – the technologies existed, but he’s the one who put it all together to build a network that nearly 1.5 billion of us use every month.)

Creativity is Just Connecting Things

Systems integrators aren’t the people creating entirely new inventions; they’re the ones who pick up the tools they need and crack the problem that’s stumped everyone else. Sometimes it’s a problem no one else even knew was there – but we all feel the benefit once it’s solved.

Integrators draw on broad bases of expertise and combine problem solving with creative vision. When Steve Jobs spoke about creativity, he may as well have been talking about a systems integrator:

“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things.”

It’s the same truth James Webb Young discussed in his 1940 book ‘A Technique for Producing Ideas’: “An idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements.”

Integrating for Business Advantage

A well-integrated solution isn’t just a thing of beauty: It generates serious business advantage. So what does it take to master the art and the science of systems integration?

By using mostly existing technology and creating something new out of those old elements, systems integrators solve a real problem for an organization. At Xerox we have the privilege of working with many amazing systems integrators – ones that we employ and those in our partners and customers – and we see the same skills and characteristics at play again and again.

The best integrators are known for:

  1. Close listening and watching: Integrators watch before they solve. We often take an ethnographic approach, analyzing everything from high-level processes to the nitty-gritty tasks that people actually perform, so we can identify opportunities for improvement.
  2. Deep understanding of the tech landscape, the state of different innovations and their implications.
  3. An engineer’s mindset – the kind that sees a desired end result and works backwards to map out a path for everyone. A mindset we’ve written about here.
  4. Ability to align stakeholders around goals, priorities and metrics of success.
  5. Design skills: create a new solution that fits the purpose.
  6. Tech skills: Integrating disparate systems in an elegant way.
  7. Tech neutrality: Not being tied to one application or database; able to use the right tools for the job.
  8. Documentation skills: Capturing everything for the benefit of future developers.
  9. Project management skills to deliver on time, under budget with minimal disruption.
  10. An eye to the future, baking in the capacity for adaptation and growth over time.

Look under the hood of all the best systems integrators and these are the qualities you’ll see.

So the next time you see a headline about an amazing new invention, admire it, by all means; but spare some admiration for the systems integrators who will take that invention and put it to work.

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