Application, data and information integration has been at the forefront of many a CIO mind for a pretty long time now. Integration tools and platforms have similarly existed in many guises, dating back to the mid-90s.
So, why have so few organisations managed to realise the promise of seamless integration; or managed to generate a single view of the customer or successfully wrestled the challenge of omni-channel to the mat?
Often the problem starts with not being able to build a business case to invest in integration capabilities so that an organisation can start to utilise ensterprise-scale business integration.
Too often integration management technology is coupled with back-end solution refreshes. Yet, everybody knows that those old point-to-point interfaces need to be retired and there must be a better way, but its been hard to justify the investment in integration platforms on the direct replacement of these legacy point-to-point interfaces.
Integration platforms really need to be positioned as an enabler for business and digital transformation to aid organisational agility. Through supporting the introduction of new business capabilities, organisations will enable growth, improve customer service and deliver business efficiencies. It’s not the interfaces and integrations themselves that deliver value, it’s the capabilities they enable.
Let’s step briefly back in time to reflect on its evolution and the real value that can be derived from integration capabilities.
Since the 80s we’ve been trying to link computer applications and the data they consume and produce, but never really that successfully. Firstly, moving data around and facilitating its import/export through batch files, uploads and using ETL (Extract, Tranform & Load) tools. Then it became increasingly about integrating data and applications in the 90s and early 00s with hubs and buses – MDM (Master Data Management) hubs to try and impose some centralised control over master data, and Enterprise Services Buses (ESBs) so that one application could “subscribe” to data ”published” by another or to ensure that messages transmitted from one source really did get received at their intended destination.
These technologies that only a decade ago were regarded as leading edge enablers for organisations to join together siloed technologies, connect business processes and exploit the move to the web, are now moving to the declining end of the technology lifecycle curve or at least plateauing. They are being overtaken and superseded by technologies that, while they also rely on the web, do so in a much more engaging and interactive manner, focusing not just on moving data but on integrating people, processes and complete end-to-end businesses.
This is the era of the integration platform as a service (iPaaS), integration software as a service (iSaaS); of API (application programme interface) management and of process and omni-channel business orchestration.
Integration has seemingly come of age and perhaps finally living up to the hype that I first experienced attending a Gartner Enterprise Application Integration conference in the early 2000s. Or has it?
Let’s take the retail sector as an example, we can all recall projects not so long ago that integrated back-end enterprise solutions to a simple browser based e-commerce solution. The legacy integration requirements from this era were relatively simple, and tightly coupled interfaces with monolithic applications were the norm.
This integration helped online sales swiftly overtake the takings from bricks and mortar stores. But consumers are fickle beasts, and fuelled by comparison websites; peer review sites and price search engines, customer loyalties remain fluid.
Cloud does not necessarily make it easier!
Then the Cloud came along. Business applications now do not just exist in an organisation’s data centre, but also somewhere “up there” in the ether, on somebody else’s infrastructure and under their management. While this shift has brought about the advent of APIs, traditional integration remains important. Much to the delight of countless technology consulting organisations, who have seen their revenues grow thanks to complex “Cloud migration” projects, and integrating these new virtual assets with on-premise applications and databases. Unfortunately, this has also been a harbinger of doom for their customers.
Why? We hear you ask. Because almost everyone focuses on the technology – the enterprise architecture, the database schemes, and network performance to roll out Cloud. But it’s not about the technology, integration is about the business drivers; the capabilities that need to evolve, be enhanced or created. Putting business drivers ahead of the technology allows precise focus on integration of only those aspects of a business that are needed for immediate value.
The current model is worth a quick exposition. The Internet browser is passé. Smart devices use a variety of operating systems, coupled with an explosion of apps flooding the market for almost every possible user scenario. The currency for digital value is data, with the end consumer demanding data to be available – anytime, anywhere on any devices – hence the power of leveraging integration capabilities and building the business case for investment is not based on tech but on the value derived from data availability and consumption.
Integration in action
Many organisations have embarked on, and are being challenged to deliver an optimal integration approach across a range of capabilities and drivers. Here are just a few:
- Single view of customer: this is a capability that will need a seamless flow of customer data across all transaction channels – typically store, ecommerce browser and mobile apps. Suddenly the data warehouse installed at great cost only a few years ago becomes less relevant, as the capability can only be achieved through the real time flow of customer data. An Enterprise Service Bus (ESB)? Probably not. The key will be to establish an effective API management platform, coupled with relevant analytics.
- Consistent customer experience: having a consistent customer experience, irrespective of the channel used as the touchpoint, is easier said than done. This is a capability that often calls for a scale of internal integration that requires the gradual replacement of legacy architecture. Organisations need to take a structured approach to prioritise capabilities, “service” enable their existing applications and develop an integration roadmap that will be crucial if they are to successfully deliver transformation – digital or otherwise.
Supply chain optimisation
- End to end visibility: a lean supply chain is a key ingredient for organisations looking to cut cost and remain competitive in a fickle market, with trade boundaries and agreements disrupting current supply chain norms. The integration scenario here straddles not only internal systems, but also external systems operated by third party partners, suppliers, logistics providers and the need for operations to exist in different geographics. This drives the need for an integration capability, that can be deployed at pace to maintain competitive advantage.
- Predictive analysis: predictive analytics can apply to a range of business functions including inventory, sales, reordering and customer service. There are a plethora of data analysis suites with their own integration tools that have been launched in the market, many of which have been deployed in organisations by line of business, bypassing IT. While a business led approach to integration should be advocated, this should not be at the expense of ignoring the rest of the technology estate and leveraging IT’s knowledge of the technical landscape to achieve the best value.
So, how does one even begin to plan integration?
Taking a business capability led approach to integration provides the structure and prioritisation that is essential to drive value. Determining the best integration strategy becomes less daunting, and forces an element of strategic thinking on what often begins as tactical projects. In the overall scheme of things, integrating for capability becomes a benefit for all, rather than a siloed solution founded on a restricted technology business case.
Searchlight Consulting has helped clients, including leading organisations FatFace, Costa Coffee and Wiggle- CRC to achieve seamless integration. Find out more with our case studies.