Today’s Systems Integration: What, Why and How?
By Jeb Buddecke, Practice Leader, Director of Enterprise Applications at Sphere Partners
I talked to an IT Director recently who mentioned to me all the different software applications (NetSuite, Teams, Slack, monday.com, Zoho, Salesforce, Canva, DocuSign, ShipStation, SmartSheets, Jira, etc.) their company is using. Many are redundant and none of them are integrated with each other. The result is they are spending a lot of money on subscriptions, data is siloed, there is no gained efficiency, and they have a high risk of having flawed and conflicting information in the various systems.
Imagine the benefits if they were all integrated. Imagine the cost savings by having only what you need and using each system to its fullest.
This evaluation considers the benefits and methods of choosing the right applications and building integrated systems.
Choosing and Managing Multiple Systems
Companies today are bombarded with software options. It is very difficult to know which to purchase, and it is difficult to centralize that purchasing. For example, marketing might want a marketing automation platform, people in the warehouse want a warehouse management system, accounting wants a new billing system, and project managers want a new system to manage projects. If this isn’t controlled, then your company could have just purchased 4 different applications, and there is a high likelihood of overlapping functionality. In fact, you may have been able to purchase one enterprise application that can do all those things.
For that reason, it is important to have a strategy and a single entity, like Purchasing or IT, responsible for evaluating and procuring new applications. (It is likely that the IT team will manage the applications, but it isn’t mandatory that IT manages the buying process.) This policy ensures that someone is responsible for avoiding redundant and inefficient application purchases.
The same or similar internal group should consider and manage how multiple applications interact with each other. There should be a single source of truth for each type of information. For instance, customers should be managed in one system and potentially shared with other systems. If customer data is maintained in multiple systems, then there is no longer a single “source of truth” that is correct, and there will be conflicting or decentralized data.
Another major consideration is how users interact with the systems. It is important that users can access the data they need efficiently, so they shouldn’t have to switch between many different systems. Users generally should only have to access one or two systems daily. Imagine a customer service rep having to use a CRM to see customer data, log into an ERP to see inventory data, then log into a ticketing system to create a support ticket. It is vitally important to build systems and integrations with a focus on the roles and actions of each employee.
Highly effective organizations build integrated systems that minimize the spend on licenses, maintain data carefully and share it with all users that need it. This creates tremendous operational efficiency and user satisfaction while minimizing costs.
Building and Maintaining Integrations
There are different ways to build and manage integrations between different business systems. (For the purpose of this discussion, systems, business systems and applications are any published software application that performs a group of functions desired by one or more departments in your organization.) Options for integration have changed drastically over the past couple decades. This used to be a highly manual and technical process, but improvements in networks, cloud computing, and integration tools now provide flexible options.
Many systems have modern, open APIs which allow information to flow in or out of the system. Integrations can range from highly manual processes that rely on imports and exports to highly specialized and automated ones that involve custom programming or integration platforms, like Celigo or Tray.io. The right option depends on the skills of your organization, how quickly you need the integration, how often it is used, how you want to manage the application, the budget for building the integration and how you expect the integration to change over time.
The simplest type of integration to create is an export-import integration. This involves exporting data from one system and importing it into another. This could be done manually by a user or via automation, and usually is in the form of a user exporting data to a spreadsheet or other flat file then importing that same file into a different system. (It is debatable if this is truly an integration, but we will consider it a simple one for this discussion.) This method can usually be designed and deployed quickly, but it takes the most effort each time it needs to process since a user usually must take action. It could be a good option if it is not performed frequently, there is a small budget for creating an integration, or the systems in question don’t have APIs.
If the integration is expected to be static or you have a strong technical staff in your organization, you may opt for a custom integration. That usually carries the highest initial cost, but the recurring cost may be very low. This is typically created by a developer and involves creating some kind of “wrapper” application that creates the API connection and gives users a way to execute it manually or schedule it for execution. Sometimes the enterprise application will have these tools built in and make this much simpler. Technical expertise is usually required if this type of integration needs to be changed.
Conversely, if your staff is less technical or you expect the integration to change, then using an integration platform might be better. Tools like Celigo are newer to the market and provide a visual interface so less technical users can build and maintain the integration. Little or no coding is required. These tools can have a higher recurring cost but offer a low code environment to make changes without needing to engage a developer with specific skills.
Examples of Practical Integrations
There are an infinite number of ways of connecting systems that make sense and drive value, and a few common ones are described below.
Sales Pipeline Management – Customer, Vendor, Inventory and Order information could be managed in an ERP and integrated with a CRM system so your sales team has this information available when generating opportunities and communicating with customers.
Project Scheduling and Management – Project management system users can visualize and manage schedules, while supporting information, like inventory, employees, and project accounting data can be managed in the ERP.
Support Desk – Allow customer service to work in the CRM while pulling information about employees, customers, orders, service tickets and inventory from the ERP.
Resource Management – Manage resources – people, equipment, etc. – and workflow in a project management system using the employee, inventory, and project definitions from the ERP.
Marketing Campaigns – Use customer and prospect data that is maintained in ERP in your marketing campaign application.
Manage Communications – Connect your CRM and your email application to manage and organize communications with clients, vendors, and other partners.
File Management – Connect your file management system with your ERP system so that attachments related to customers, vendors and transactions can be managed efficiently.
Benefits of a Well-Conceived Systems Integration Strategy
The concept of integrating multiple software applications is nothing new. It has existed since shortly after the first enterprise applications were created. However, different types of systems now exist, and the benefits and methods of integration are much broader than in decades past.
Basic benefits of integration range from preventing duplicate entry and errors to eliminating manual processes to having consistent information for everyone in the organization, regardless of what system they use to access it. It is desirable that users do not have to access multiple systems. However, it is beneficial for all users to see consistent and accurate information, without having to create it or maintain it in multiple systems. An example would be managing and viewing customer information. This is likely to be managed in the ERP, however users in other systems probably need to see and use that information, too. It is not efficient or practical to manage the same information in multiple places, so an integration allows it to be shared.
Having a defined systems integration strategy and integrating applications scales the benefits of those systems by preventing information silos within the organization, eliminating waste and errors associated with double entry, and boosting morale by enabling users to work in a single system that offers best of breed functionality for their individual daily tasks. There is also a direct financial benefit. Paying for fewer systems and licenses saves money. Choosing your systems and building your integrations thoughtfully can drastically decrease licensing costs and improve the experience of your internal users.
Sphere Can Help Integrate Your Systems
Regardless of the type of integration that your organization needs to build and maintain, Sphere can help. We can discuss options with you, provide guidance and build integrations for you. Our experienced consultants and developers have the knowledge and skill to effectively integrate your systems to maximize efficiency.
Contact our team to learn more about how we can help you best integrate your systems.