Integrators vs. General Contractors

The following is the opinion of Brig. Gen. Avon C. James, (ret.) U.S. Air Force, director of strategic development at Robbins-Gioia Inc., Alexandria, Va.

Government agencies traditionally turn to integrators to implement large, complex information technology systems. The assumption is that these companies have the resources to do the requirements analysis, applications development, implementation and user training often required by the government.

Unfortunately, federal agencies often experience less than optimum cost and performance results using systems integrators, which has led to the emergence of a new method of engagement -- one in which an objective general contractor takes charge of managing long-term programs.

One complaint about integrators as prime contractors is that after contract award, team members involved in winning the contract might disappear early in the performance phase. Also, to retain profit margins, the integrator typically squeezes out subcontractors while the work is in progress, leaving the integrator to perform most of the work, irrespective of core competencies.

In this situation, the customer might feel the investment has grown too great to risk changing contractors. So despite delays and budget overruns, the federal customer allows the work to continue.

The fact is, this management model has never produced a successful, long-term infotech program that has come in on time and within budget.

If you study reports on programs that have gone down in flames, you'll find some indication that the failure resulted not from the technology but poor process management. This is because program management is not typically a core competency of systems integrators, who tend to place more emphasis on engineering rather than the business side.

So why would the general contractor approach work better for government? For the same reason it works so well in the commercial sector. In the construction industry, general contractors don't lay bricks, mix mortar or erect the infrastructure. They assemble a team of subcontractors who specialize in performing these and other tasks. Each sub does a particular job and does it well, under the general contractor's management; and the result is an office building, shopping mall or airport that meets expectations.

Government agencies applying the same principle to their IT programs might reap similar, measurable benefits. Typically, these programs require a long-term commitment involving people, processes, technology and training. The general contractor remains closely focused on the customer's needs and requirements, and keeps each segment of the program on target and within specifications.

Getting it right the first time is the most cost-effective way to implement any program. The benefits realized include enhanced productivity, best of breed skills, superior performance results and measurable financial returns.

Program management by a general contractor committed to keeping the customer's interests at heart is a powerful concept that will result in value-added service, program affordability and management accountability. It's simply the best way to ensure successful government infotech programs.


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