Secrets to Successful Software Integration

As a hosted electronic data exchange company, SPS Commerce in Minneapolis, Minn., is in the business of connecting the software it creates to applications its customers use every day. When the company recently outgrew some of its own systems, it was in a unique position of living its own customers’ experience.

Previously, SPS Commerce relied on transferring information manually into Lotus Notes. But managers were concerned about accuracy and timeliness, and also felt that Lotus Notes by itself wasn’t an ideal platform for analyzing data. “Our decision was driven by velocity,” explains Troy Benesh, SPS Marketing Services manager. “[That is] reducing the amount of set-up time, eliminating manual entry, setting strict data standards and efficiently handing off information to various groups.” By integrating Lotus Notes and SPS’ Oracle database with Saleforce’s customer relationship management (CRM) application, SPS hoped to track users’ activities, ensure follow-up tasks were performed in a timely manner and spotlight accountability from one end of the customer chain to the other. Now it was about to find out whether those hopes would hold water.

Like SPS, many companies face a fundamental dilemma: They are organized vertically with each function using customized software applications and databases, but the customer experience extends throughout all business functions. “That’s where software integration can play the greatest role,” says Mike Childress, vice president of Applications Portfolio Development at EDS in Plano, Texas. “It cuts across those domains because that’s how the real world works.”

Unfortunately, in the real world, integration between disparate systems doesn’t always go smoothly. With so many elements involved, some key items may get overlooked.

A Failure to Communicate

Software integration is made up of five key components, says Childress. They include the underlying architecture or tools that will be used; governance, where IT and business discuss the scope and priority of requests; the rules put in place for workflow; the behavioral or cultural aspect and service management. IT departments tend to focus on the first three components when negotiating with integration enablers; the latter two, however, are equally important.

If you don’t have a culture that wants to and is incented to leverage the organization’s integrated business system, you’ll reintegrate the same business functions three or four times during various projects, notes Childress. This IT version of reinventing the wheel is exactly what application integration attempts to avoid.

Service management is the other piece companies often overlook. This component dictates how a company manages its business processes, applications and underlying infrastructure so systems can run 24/7 with zero downtime. Service management also addresses when an application can be taken down for maintenance and provides a solution if a piece of the infrastructure fails.

Also, when integrating the two systems, IT managers must make sure they understand the language of both the data and the event architecture. Otherwise, Childress warns, there may be a misunderstanding of basic terms like “employee.” (article continues)

Increased Connections, Enhanced Performance

Integrating software can improve business performance in several ways. Probably the clearest benefit of software integration is the reduction of manual processes — from the time savings in reducing the amount of data entry to the minimization of human errors.

Equally important, says Pat Backen, a software engineer at SPS Commerce, is the ability to leverage separate application strengths. “Every application has its plusses and minuses, but with integration methods, companies can fully capitalize on the strengths of each application while minimizing the downside.”
Business intelligence also increases when integrating data from separate data sources and applications. An overall view of the business can be developed to allow for better data mining and reporting; the resulting synthesis can be used to improve performance by delivering actionable information that was not available from either independent system before integration.

However, some of the most striking results SPS witnessed as a result of its own systems integration have been in increased levels of customer satisfaction. “Manual data entry had the potential to be a clog in the pipeline,” Backen says. “By automating this process, we have greatly reduced the time it takes for our customers to be up and running. This is a win-win-win: happy customers, happy salespeople, happy management.”

The bottom line: Before undertaking a systems integration project, address the crucial components: the enabling technology; the underlying architecture, the tools and the governance. Make sure there is a policy covering the scope and priority of requests about the data to be shared among the different business units. Last but not least, train employees to make the most of the integrated data. That’s the ultimate key to improved results.