Will Security Integrators Survive IT Convergence?

By: John Honovich, Published on Jun 12, 2008

Many believe security integrators are dead; walking dinosaurs who are oblivious to their impending extinction. Indeed, many new IT entrants certainly wish that security integrators (and physical security managers) are wiped out.

Despite this belief and hope, is this really the case? Are security integrators destined to fail?

No, I believe security integrators, as a whole, will survive. I believe the detractors have made 3 main mistakes:

  • Detractors look at convergence as a recent phenomenon whereas security integrators have been adapting for the last 10 years
  • Detractors do not appreciate the skills that security integrators possess
  • Detractors view IT as a disruptive innovation when it is truly a sustaining one

Adapting for 10 Years

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Security integrators have been assimilating IT skills for the last 10 years. While a lot of anxiety exists over IP cameras and NVRs, the technical challenges were far worse 8 to 15 years ago. At that point, integrators were deploying their first DVRs or network based Access Control systems. Most had no IT skills. Many did not even know what an IP address is. Over the years, with education and on the job experience, the situation has changed dramatically. Today, most security technicians have at least basic IT skills and many are fairly sophisticated. IP cameras and NVRs present new technical challenges but they are extensions of the basic skills security technicians have been learning for years.

I am not contending that security technicians are as strong in IT as IT technicians. However, there are 4 very real aspects that affect the competitiveness between IT and security integrators:

  • IT technicians are much more expensive than security technicians
  • Security technicians have a good basis for the tasks needed for IP security systems
  • As IP based security systems mature, they are becoming easier for non-IT experts to use [link no longer available]
  • A lot of what IT technicians know is overkill for IP security systems

Because they have been adapting for the past 10 years, security integrators can offer many of the IT skills needed at less cost than IT integrators. This is an under-appreciated factor in why security integrators will survive.

Security Integrator's Skills

Many underestimate the importance of security integrator's skills and the value those skills will continue to have in projects. Two key issues exist:

  • Security Integrators have many key skills that IT Integrators lack
  • Even in IP security systems, most of the integration work is not IT

Good security systems integration requires extensive design and implementation precision. It is far more more involved than simply installation plus IT tasks. Security integrators have been learning skills for years that IT integrators totally lack.

Good integrators in any field participate in design. Just for video surveillance, security systems integrators must be able to:

  • Anticipate what areas and assets require protection (many end users need guidance here)
  • Determine how to protect those assets with what cameras and what positioning
  • Understand the limitations of the products available for protecting/imaging
  • Understand the environmental limitations and how to accommodate them
  • Determine and eliminate gaps in coverage

None of these are IT tasks but all of these are essential in integrating a high quality video surveillance system.

These skills are needed throughout the implementation and are not a distinct part of abstract design. Rarely can security equipment simply be installed. It requires skill and judgment in how to adapt to on-site issues:

  • Judgment and skill in final camera positioning is critical in ensuring the right shot
  • Camera settings and lenses will need to be adjusted to optimize image quality
  • Cameras may need to be moved due to an unforeseen implementation issue
  • On site managers may object to aesthetics and integrator will need to find new positioning
    • Again, none of these are IT tasks and none of these go away with IP based systems. You need to master these aspects for good security integration. The average security integrator has this. The average IT integrator does not.

      The same pattern exists in developing policies and best practices for using security systems. Security Directors routinely expect and lean on their integrators to help teach them and share ideas on how to best use the technology for security objectives. IT skills are of little help here unless you know the application and the issues involved in physical security.

      80% of the work involved in security systems integration is in the areas I have just outlined. The IT side is certainly valuable but as a matter of time and effort, it is a rather small portion of overall IT projects. As such, it is a natural candidate for security integrators to simply expand and integrate into their services. And as I have discussed above, this is is part of a long term trend that security integrators have been doing for years.

      IT is a Sustaining Force to Security Integrators

      The emphasis on IT being a 'disruptive' technology to security is misleading. Many think disruption is a factor of how sophisticated or powerful a technology is. In a business context, that does not make a technology disruptive. Technologies only disrupt businesses when they disrupt business models. The widely held theory of innovation contends that if a new technology enables incumbents to make more money from their best customers in the same way they have historically, the incumbents usually win.

      Security integrators can make more money from their best customers by selling IP based security systems. As such, innovation theory holds that security integrators should survive. Just like they did before, security integrators are still selling products, integration services and maintenance services. Plus, the revenues per deal have generally increased. In the often cited scenarios where incumbents where killed, it was because prices were radically different (e.g., mini-computers vs PCs) or the business model switched from selling products to subscriptions (e.g., SaaS). This is just not the case here. There's no reason to think security integrators will retreat and growing evidence that they are responding.

      All the big security integrators are financially motivated to compete and they have resources they can invest in IT. Just like many other industries, security integrators will engage in training and will hire new personnel with appropriate skill sets, assimilating them into their organization. And because security integrators have excellent existing skills in the fundamentals of security systems, they will have a big advantage over IT integrators trying to learn the space, relationships and implementation details that integrators have mastered over the years.

      Concluding Thoughts

      Running a security integrator, I have lived through all of these elements first hand. At that time, I was the IT outsider brought in to help the transition. However, it was I who assimilated because that made the best business sense. Of course, I brought in new training, practices and skills that helped grow the business. Nevertheless, we used the core group of existing security technicians as the basis, improving their IT skills and supplementing them with a small number of strong IT engineers. It was simultaneously less disruptive, more profitable and allowed us to execute on the many physical security related details that the IT engineers would have taken a long time and a lot of money to sort through.

      You may have a couple of counterarguments:

      Counterargument: My Security Integrator is Bad

      It happens. But consider that about 1/3 to 2/3 of all IT projects fail. Making security into IT is no panacea. IT has plenty of its own issues.

      Counterargument: IT is the future - It has to take over Security

      To the extent that computers are replacing electronics, absolutely. Security systems will become an IT specialty, just like historically security systems were a specialty of low voltage electronics. However, the companies that succeed in security as an IT specialty are likely to be the traditional security integrators who evolve into this role.

      Some Security Integrators have to fail

      Certainly, some will fail. Some always fail but the failures will be more an issue of poor individual execution that it is that the whole industry will collapse.

      IT integrators have a lot to offer

      I agree. Look to see IT engineers hired into existing security systems integrators or see them start their own specialty shops dedicated to security systems. I am only objecting to big IT integrators coming in and wiping out security integrators. There is always room for new skills and new talents to grow an industry.

      Most everyone I know has an opinion on this issue. Please share yours in the comments.

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