Systems Integration

Peer groups give system integrators common wisdom

Participants in the Control System Integrator Association's Peer-to-Peer program exchange precious experience and advice from fellow group members.

By Jim Montague, executive editor, Control

So, I'm hanging out at the Control System Integrators Association's (CSIA) 2015 Executive Conference a few weeks ago in Washington, D.C., when I'm blindsided by a phrase that I haven't heard in more than 30 years.

"Peer group." I thought I'd heard a ghost.

As I remember it, peer group is an umbrella definition covering a range of self-help, encounter, professional development, therapy and other gatherings, in which participants discuss personal and professional challenges, identify common experiences and issues, and provide support to each other in dealing them. I remember a useful get-acquainted group in college, where pretty much everyone acknowledged feeling completely over their heads and inadequate in the face of so many apparently pre-Nobel-Laureate fellow students. What the group learned was that everyone felt this way, and it helped the participants worry less, and have a better chance of success in their new academic environment. Very helpful. Sanity-saving, in fact.

More recently, many of the physicians and other healthcare professionals I used to cover hold regularly scheduled staffings, where they gather to compare notes on unusual patient situations, and jointly come up with better treatments based on their collective experiences. Not only are several heads better than one for patients, but the group process also enhances the mental well-being of the clinicians themselves.

Anyway, this concept popped up at the "Success with Peer Groups" session during the CSIA conference, where several veteran integrators shared their experiences and benefits gained from CSIA's Peer-to-Peer program. In general, CSIA's integrators are always seeking new and better ways to run their small and large integration firms more effectively and professionally, but several have formed different styles of peer groups to discuss in-depth challenges and share useful practices in greater detail. Including about six to 10 integrators, these groups are both self- and professionally moderated, meet a few times per year or more, and bring in their training, sales and marketing, human resources and outside presenters as needed. To avoid running afoul of clients' non-disclosure agreements, CSIA peer group member are careful to focus on technical issues, and avoid sharing any identifying details, projects they're pursuing or other competitive information. However, where it makes sense, some peer group members even end up forming partnerships and functional alliances.

Of course, system integrators and their clients, end users, process engineers, operators and other colleagues have always conferred on how to implement and optimize their equipment and applications. What's different about CSIA Peer-to-Peer is that it brings together integrators, who might not have had the chance to meet otherwise due to geographic and technological divisions.

"Our peer group works like an outside advisory board, where we can pose problem, and get feedback," says David Bishop, president and CEO of Matrix Technologies Inc. in Maumee, Ohio. "We have nine companies in our group, so when an unusual problem is brought up, it's likely that someone has been through it already. We secure good metrics and trends, and this helps us compare what we're doing to everyone's best practices."

Thomas Reski, president of Quantum Integrated Solutions in Tempe, Ariz., adds that peer groups also help members prepare for audits on the way to becoming CSIA-certified integrators. "We can listen to the specific experiences of other group members on how they got through their audits, which truly helped, and gave us the tools and confidence that we could do it," says Reski. "Peer groups offer great advice without the feeling like its coming from someone who's also trying to sell us something. And, when we're really stumped, we have a shoulder to cry on, and we can get straight input and answers that are non-judgmental. This is invaluable to us."