Should System Integrators Be Licensed?

The Control and Information System Integrators Assn. is making this registration/audit mandatory for all its members

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What if there were no barriers to entry for the accounting, legal, and medical professions? Accountants wouldnt need a CPA to perform an audit, lawyers wouldnt need to pass the bar to practice law, and doctors wouldnt need to have a license to perform brain surgery.

If there were no license requirements, would the quality of service be better or worse? Would purchasers of these services feel more or less secure? Is licensing in general a good idea?

I think it is, and not only for the aforementioned professions. I feel licensing allows professionals to separate themselves from unqualified practitioners, and I believe it gives buyers of these services at least some assurance of competence.

Of course, no system is perfect, and there are plenty of incompetent licensed accountants, lawyers, and doctors. But I think that there would be many more incompetent professionals and a lot more dissatisfied customers if there were no license or registration requirements.

In many instances, tasks performed by control systems integrators (CSIs) are at least as technically challenging and important as accounting, legal, and medical work, but no licenses of any kind are required to be a CSI.

I have argued in this column before that all engineers should be required to hold professional engineering registration to practice engineering [see "End the PE Death March," CONTROL,Oct. 01, p27]. Now I state a case for registration of control system integration firms.

Most purchasers of control system integration services have no assurance of CSI competency. Many purchasers rely on personal relationships formed with owners or executives of CSIs. If you or your firm has such a personal relationship with a CSI and if the CSIs capabilities fit the needs of your next project, then there is no need for third-party assurance.

But personal relationships are subject to change, and not all projects are a fit for all CSIs. In these circumstances, the only way to be assured of a CSIs competency is to perform an audit.

These audits may include prequalification questionnaires, visits to CSI offices, and conversations with references provided by the CSI. These audits can be time-consuming and costly, especially because in most cases multiple CSIs must be audited in order to obtain three or more prospective bidders.

On the CSI side, it is very time-consuming and expensive to constantly respond to audit questionnaires. I spent over 10 years in the CSI business, and for most of that time I was the person responsible for filling out pre-bid qualification forms. These forms could run to more than 20 pages, and each client had special requirements that thwarted efforts to standardize responses. It would have been great if we could have responded to one set of questions and received some type of audited certification.

Wouldnt it be nice if an independent firm audited CSIs and then provided registration to those who passed the audit? Purchasers of control system integration services could then have at least some minimal assurance of competency. Most purchasers would probably want to perform additional background checks, but requiring prospective bidders to have registration would definitely save purchasers time and money in the audit process.

The Control and Information System Integrators Assn. (CSIA) (www.controlsys.org) has long been aware of these problems, and its leaders think their two-year old audited registration program is the answer. At its recent annual meeting in New Orleans, the organization announced it is making this registration/audit mandatory for all its members.

"We decided to make registration mandatory to send a clear message to the marketplace that CSIA was serious about improving the professionalism of its members. Members not registered within three years will be dropped from CSIA," says Bob Zeigenfuse, the president of Advanced Automation Associates (www.aaainc.com) in Exton, PA and a founding member and past chairman of CSIA.

CSIAs Registered Member Program requires applicants to pass an intensive third-party audit performed by Exotek LLC (www.exotek.com) for a fee of $1,500 plus travel expenses. Exotek judges the firms using criteria selected from CSIAs "Best Practices and Benchmarks Guidelines." Criteria included in the audit include general management, human resources, project management, quality management, financial management, and business development.

Besides CSIA, the system integrators, and prospective clients, vendors using CSIs as partners for integration projects also benefit from registration. These vendors are responsible for ensuring that each partner is competent. Prior to the CSIA registration program, this meant checking out each and every partner, in effect performing an audit of partner capabilities.

The CSIA registration program does part of a vendors audit work for them, and is seen as a valuable metric. "We will ask all of our Select Partners to join CSIA, implement Best Practices and Benchmarks, and become registered," says Jack Barber, the partner development manager for National Instruments (www.ni.com).

E-mail Dan at dhebert@putman.net.

 

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