Application Integration for the Mid-market -- How to Get Your IT infrastructure to Communicate
Visualize your business for a moment. Think of all the people on your team: Bob in HR, Debra in finance, Hank in procurement, Bill in sales, and so on. Now, visualize each person speaking a different language: Russian in finance, Italian in HR, Swedish in procurement and Mandarin in your IT shop. Taking this one step further to illustrate the point – imagine some of the employees being 30-years old, and some being 4-years old.
Imagine trying to do business in this sort of environment and you begin to appreciate the critical nature and complexity of application integration for small and mid-sized business.
Application integration software has been around for as long as businesses have been using information technology. As a business grew, more applications were added, legacy systems were upgraded and obsolete ones replaced. Orchestrating this mix of software into a seamless unit that could communicate “on the same sheet of music” is the goal of application integration.
Application integration helps reduce data-entry errors, improves supply chain responsiveness, increases inventory accuracy, decreases order fulfillment times, reduces or eliminates document processing fees and customer charge-backs, to name just some of the benefits. All good stuff.
Not having your applications communicating results in a host of real business problems: customer data that is replicated in multiple places with unavoidable errors and omissions; unknown inventory status leading to missed sales opportunities and delivery commitments; and a general ignorance of what is going on in your business at any given moment. Ram Gangupanthulu, senior systems analyst for Harris Tea puts it this way, “The true value of our integration offering is the visibility it provides. Within minutes of orders being received or products being shipped, we know where the customer order stands. This information is critical for Harris Tea, our vendors and retailers.”
Ram brings up an important point for mid-market businesses and integration - integration doesn’t end inside the four walls of his company. It flows outside the walls of a business as well. You must be able to work with other businesses that have their own set of issues with their IT infrastructure. The same integration engine that links together a business’ internal IT applications can also link the systems with those of a company’s partners.
Most large businesses have some form of integration deployed. These systems are large, costly and complex, and require a small army of IT staff to maintain them. In fact, many large integration projects are done by developers writing code to make a point-to-point connection between applications. This is an expensive, error-prone process. And the complexity increases exponentially as more and more point-to-point interfaces are needed. To make matters worse, when these interfaces must be modified, a new developer may need to learn the code. Not only is this approach not scalable, it is beyond the capabilities and budgets of most small and mid-market in-house IT staffs.
Cost, Complexity and Lack of In-house IT Resources: Barriers for Mid-market Businesses
A new breed of integration software is available that is developer-free and easily configured to meet the business’ integration needs of the mid-market. With this new integration architecture designed specifically for them, small and mid-market companies can:
• Use their business and systems analysts to configure automated integration processes for existing legacy systems and new applications so they can be connected across their business.
• Install new applications when needed, either replacing older systems or IT-enabling business processes for the first time – without the need for an expensive systems integration team.
• Translate, reformat and export data from legacy systems to new replacement applications.
A Focused Approach to Business Integration for Mid-market Businesses
• A comprehensive solution: The solution must have all components required to connect internal applications to each other and also to enable automation between a company and its business partners.
• Minimal software development: The solution must eliminate the need to develop custom application coding. Instead, common integration patterns should be used through a visual process designer to make setup and maintenance of integration points quick and easy.
• Standards support: There are many electronic exchange standards for business documents. These standards must be simple to define and implement to minimize the lead time required to complete the integration project.
• Applications support: A true end-to-end integration solution must provide access to data and server layers of the related applications. Connectivity to a business application must be easy to setup and maintain.
The Application Integration Value Proposition Grows as Your Business Grows
As an example, CRM (customer relationship management) applications store numerous pieces of information about a business’ customers, such as the customer information itself, key contacts within the organization and sales opportunities with current customers and prospects. If this company also uses other systems such as ERP, WMS, OMS, home grown portals, etc., this customer data also resides in these systems as well. Without integration, customer information must be re-keyed in each system manually as changes are made in any one system. If a customer opportunity converts to a sale, a shipment order must be manually keyed in to the system that facilitates fulfillment of the order. With integration, this all happens automatically, eliminating people from the mundane and error-prone tasks.
Likewise, in a manufacturing environment, as products pass through various production processes, information from shop floor systems should be automatically integrated back into the financial/ERP systems to provide real-time visibility into operations. These are just a few of the numerous integration points within a business that should be considered for automation.
Mid-market companies can benefit from the same competitive advantages that integrated applications have provided to larger enterprises. Most importantly, mid-market business can achieve a source of competitive advantage now, creating the potential to leap ahead of other businesses that fail to recognize the power of well-integrated information technology.
So no matter what language your applications speak or how old they are, you have a viable, affordable option to pull your technology infrastructure into a cohesive system that can become one of your business’ greatest assets.
By Richard Nucci