Systems Integrators 101

Best practices for doing business with government contractors, federal systems integrators, and aerospace and defense organizations. 


Who are the Integrators?  

Federal Systems Integrators (or “Integrators”) come in many shapes and sizes.  Most professionals can easily recognize the most common industry names like Boeing, Lockheed, Northrop Grumman, and Raytheon. The truth is, though, that there are thousands of organizations like these out there. In fact, a new government compliance mandate called NIST-800-171 DFARS, which deals with “CUI” or “Controlled Unclassified Information,” has identified nearly 30,000 Integrator-esque organizations that could be affected in one way or another. 

While 30,000 may comprise the all-inclusive Integrator total, the most common names in the industry amount to anywhere between 100 and 200.  In addition, there are other small organizations that may not identify entirely as government contractors but still receive government money for manufacturing a single piece of hardware like a ball bearing, hydraulic system, or servo motor to fill a component of a new government contract. 

Other organizations, known as Federally Funded Research and Development Centers (FFRDCs), are scientific research organizations that provide the government with a specific capability, service, or development based on their unique assets.  There are around a dozen of these FFRDC entities and many of them are standalone while others are associated with a university or educational institution, as is the case with the MIT Lincoln Laboratory.

Why does the government contract with Integrators?

In order to receive the very best in capability and price, the government regularly leverages the capitalist economy and private sector.  This points to a concept referred to in part as the “Military-Industrial Complex” made famous by Dwight D. Eisenhower.  Though the U.S. government employs millions, it doesn’t necessarily perform the bulk of the development and production of its own solutions.  There are, however, many government entities that develop advanced capability themselves, such as Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).  DARPA, for example, played a pivotal role in the creation of the internet. While examples like this exist, a large majority of government needs are still contracted to the Integrators. This happens because organizations like Lockheed Martin provide a large portfolio of capabilities and resources that can supply just about any government agency. 

Which Government agencies utilize the Integrator community?  

The Integrator community serves nearly every government entity, ranging from the intelligence community, DoD and military branches, Civilian agencies, to State, Local, and Public Education (SLED) agencies.

What are the Integrators providing for the government?  

Anything and everything!  It could be a physical product or a technology solution or service.  Human capital is also a key component – providing outsourced assets on site for research, training or maintenance. Some of our nation’s greatest capabilities in analytics, nuclear or medical research, or hands-on work in IT or mechanics, are performed through an outsourcing contract to an Integrator. 

Structure

Many Integrators have multiple business units and overlapping organization charts. While there are groups in place to support the company's internal operations, there are also parallel roles for professionals working similar, external-facing functions as part of a government contract. These outward-facing organizations may operate as independent subsidiaries of a larger parent holding company or can be centralized through a single hierarchy.  To boil it down, there are “internal” and “program” centric individuals.  Knowing the organization's structure and who you are talking to is a good first step, though it does not always clarify the purchasing behavior. 

Is the business considered “government money”?  

The answer may not always be clear. With few exceptions here, we are discussing private sector companies focused on government-funded opportunities.  Their primary revenue stream is most likely government money from one or various federal, state government or public education entities.  “It’s all government money, right? Would these organizations really exist without our government?”  Probably not in the same capacity in which we know them today. However, this is an incorrect way to look at the industry.  

Have you ever heard of the phrase “different colors of money”?  

Integrators also purchase goods and services for their internal, capital, commercial needs just like any other company. The market refers to this as “sell-to”, meaning selling to the Integrator directly for its own needs and investment.  Keep in mind that Integrators themselves are largely considered commercial organizations. They require their own assets, people, capital, R&D and investments to operate.

There are a couple of other ways Integrators buy. Let’s list a few:

  • Using government money as part of a new prime or sub contract, including outsourcing contracts

  • Using government funds for long-term support, development and maintenance of an existing contract

  • “Sell-through” business in which the Integrator is passing on the goods or services to the government

  • Foreign military sales

  • IRAD “internal research and development” efforts

How does one qualify the business?

When searching on a bid site like FedBizOps, it’s easy to recognize that an opportunity is government-funded. However, it is important to understand if the organization or contract you are pursuing is part of a large prime contract or tied to a government program. This strategy can help you understand all the players involved and where you fit in the scope.  

For instance, let’s say that the USAF wants a new aircraft with a service life of thirty years. The USAF will most likely be awarded as a “prime contract” to a large organization such as Lockheed Martin.  Lockheed, being the “prime” contractor, may determine it can only perform four out of ten pieces of that project.  Lockheed then needs to identify the ideal partners to provide the other six pieces of the puzzle. The government does not want to manage this process. Other organizations will need to provide training and maintenance services.  The “prime” is going to issue smaller “sub-contracts” to these organizations.  These organizations will take the subcontract and purchase or provide the goods and services necessary to fulfill their assigned piece of the greater contract. 

Key questions to ask in the discovery process:

  • Is this government-funded?

  • Is there a program award number tied to it?

  • Is the purchase taxable or tax exempt?

  • Is this on a public listing like “FedBizOps”?

  • Is this funded by capital dollars or by program budget?

  • Who will retain title to the product or solution?

  • If the Integrator is retaining title, will it transfer to the government entity at a later date?

  • Is this IRAD-funded or being developed as a POC or new capability? Is that capitally funded?

  • Is this foreign military sales related?

  • Is the good or service going to be maintained on an Integrator facility by Integrator employees? Or will it be fulfilled or maintained at a government agency facility by government employees?

  • If it is a cloud solution or an outsourcing contract, is it single or multi-tenant? Whose data is going into the solution? Where will this data reside (physically or virtually)?

Why does this matter?

  • Mind the law. Knowing how your company provides goods and services – with their corresponding terms and conditions – is essential. Not knowing who is ultimately the recipient of your product can put your customer or your company in a bad legal or contractual jeopardy. It is up to you as the sales or business development manager, in collaboration with your legal team, to ensure the customer is placed in the right contract.

  • You may end up losing business. Many organizations have separate federal sales teams, sell-to and sell-thru teams, etc. If you are inadvertently selling to the wrong party, you may have wasted weeks, months, or even years chasing the wrong opportunities.

  • Knowing your customer accelerates business velocity. Showing the right party that you know the industry, structure, and their unique needs will ultimately accelerate building trust and business traction. Knowing the multi-faceted structure of prime and sub-contractors, buying vehicles, or preferred reselling parties can help you navigate a complex contract or, more importantly, ensure you don’t miss a key detail which may affect your firm’s ability to win business.

Conclusion

The Integrators are a unique community and industry vertical that span nearly every type of solution in nearly every global market.  Understanding the key Integrators who are relevant to your focus will be a great asset to your business strategy. Separate yourself from the pack by taking time to become an expert in this unique industry and give your business efforts a leg up on the competition.  


About the Author

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Ike Fleetwood is in the business of leveraging technology to solve complex customer problems. Ike has made a successful career out of focusing on “sell-to” Integrator and Aerospace and Defense organizations since 2012.