Michael Coorey
By Michael Coorey on May 28, 2020 03:06 PM

Unlocking Competitive Advantage with System Integration

Integration is the key to unlocking profitability, differentiation, and separation from your competition. In fact, integration in today’s business world is far more important than any solitary application in your entire architecture.

The reason is very simple.

When you discover a new app or technology with a compelling feature set, one question looms immediately: will it work with my other systems? The answer decides whether this new piece of technology will make a difference to your business, or pass away as just another good idea. Worse still, will it enter the organisation as yet another point solution, and not become a part of the business in a holistic sense? When the latter happens, only two outcomes are ever possible:

  • You either pay for staff to be the manual interaction between this new product and your other critical systems (otherwise known as double-entry), or
  • People stop using it because it doesn’t contain all the business data necessary to add value to their work processes.

Gone are the days where we could purchase one complete, monolithic system and expect our businesses to run on it and remain competitive. Your very survival as a business depends on your ability to integrate.

Integration and your morning coffee

We can think of numerous instances where integration has allowed the world we live in to take a step forward. For example, how did you pay for your morning coffee?

This morning, I walked past my local cafe, and after a little chin-wag with the owner who happens to be my next-door neighbour, I tapped my smartphone on her POS terminal and went on my way. This simple transaction required integration between my phone manufacturer’s software; Apple’s payment platform; MasterCard’s platform; my bank; the cafe’s bank - and no doubt, plenty of other systems along the way that I am blissfully unaware of. I have APIs, integration platforms, and a myriad of cloud services to thank for the convenience of not even having to reach for my wallet. These innovations evolved over time and between many different businesses, each one contributing to the fold – and in the process keeping their business relevant and significant. None of them could have happened without those businesses making seamless integration (internally and externally) one of their highest priorities.

Wherever your business deals with high volume or velocity, integration has a part to play. It could be your CRM talking to your service desk software; in how you manage and cost projects; how you sign up new customers; all of these - or other use cases entirely. Pretty much every business on the face of today’s earth has some use for integration, and as time goes on, the truer this is for businesses of all sizes.

How Integration unlocks Innovation

We encourage innovation so we can outpace the competition, create new revenue streams for our partners and shareholders, and save money for our clients and us. In an ideal world, we will be proactive about identifying and implementing solutions that create this kind of value. Our quest for innovation takes us to one logical conclusion: the quicker we can implement new ideas, the faster we will give everyone the value they want.

Each time a business finds a new technology that saves money or creates value, it creates more cash for that organisation. The company can now invest more money in customer relationships, give employees a better quality of life, and invest in strategic partnerships and supplier relationships. These relationships then generate more cash for the company and its ecosystem to invest in more innovation. This is a ‘virtuous circle’ that increasingly separates your business from the competition over time, and provides a welcome shade for other entities that grow on your success.

In today’s day and age, the speed of innovation is directly linked to the speed of integration. Ideas, solutions and new technologies are springing up everywhere. There are likely to be thousands of great ideas, apps and systems your business can take on, where the limitation is not cost, or even time to switch on the next great cloud product you’ve discovered - it is your ability to integrate with other systems.

 

Subheading

 

Integrating your business at scale

We agree that integration is our first problem to solve so that we can unlock competitive advantage through innovation. So, enterprises need a new architecture that encourages rapid, cheap experimentation and rapid time to value.

The elements your integration-friendly architecture need to include:

Elastic Infrastructure

At Creative Folks, we depend on AWS Serverless technology for our underlying infrastructure. Whether you choose AWS or another provider, your elastic infrastructure allows you to run cost-efficiently, when you’re trying out new ideas, then scale quickly if the idea grows, or switch it off and stop paying for it (if the idea doesn’t work out).

Essentially, what we are saying is, in order to experiment faster and cheaper, elastic infrastructure is how you do it. This is the first piece in the puzzle of what modern consulting firms term ‘failing fast’.

Component Service-based Applications

Both microservices architecture and Service-oriented Architectures (SOA) are considered service-based architectures. Both are architecture patterns which heavily emphasise services as the primary architecture component for implementing and performing business and non-business functionality.

In this context, modularity is the practice of encapsulating portions of your applications into self-contained services. This is important to sustain integration: these portions of your application can be individually designed, developed, tested, and deployed without depending on other services or components in your architecture. Modularity supports the principle of favouring rewrite over maintenance, which cuts the cost of innovation by allowing architectures to be replaced in smaller pieces over time as the business grows - rather than disposing of an entire system, as was the case ten years ago (back when monolithic applications ruled).

Any Time, Anywhere, Any Device Access

Sometimes referred to as the Modern Workplace, your users should be able to access their data securely from any physical location, and any device. This means that IT must provide them with the tools they need to be secure, productive and collaborative in a consistent manner no matter where they are or how they choose to connect. The fact is, many existing IT systems are not able to meet these needs which brings us back to our original point: integration must always be the higher goal, as any of the solutions in our stack may well become irrelevant or out of date at any given point in time.

Unified Master Data Model

Most modern software systems have lists of data that are shared and used by several of the applications that make up the system. For example, a typical Enterprise Resource Planning system will have Account Master, Item Master, and Customer Master data lists. This kind of master data is often one of the key assets of a company. It is not unusual for a company to be acquired for access to its Customer Master data, as this data is a key source of competitive advantage. This takes on a different shape and form when thinking about integration and innovation. In some cases, you may invest in third-party apps that enable this kind of integration, such as Customer Data Platform (CDP) systems or build this kind of system yourself.

Integrated Analytics

Your business will demand an integrated analytics platform, even if they don’t use these specific words. Decision-makers need a solution that brings together the critical data from multiple core applications so that they have a holistic view of what is working and what is not. To provide that, the analytics team (which may even just be one person building reports) needs an integrated solution that brings together core business data, the business intelligence tools, performance management, and analytics in a single view or package.

If the business doesn’t have integrated analytics, then most likely someone is manually extracting data from systems A, B and C, and joining that together to create reports. This was the way of yesteryear, and no competitive business can afford to do this anymore because of two really big reasons:

1. Mistakes will be made because when humans perform the interactions between systems, there’s always a margin of error.

2. The information is not timely, and the adjustment of reports takes weeks or months, so every innovation doesn’t end up being included in the daily/weekly/monthly analytics reports because it’s just too hard to do.

An integrated analytics platform will deliver a consolidated view of business intelligence from multiple fronts. It should give your users a clear visual representation of their data, as well as providing services such as margin and revenue calculations; forecasting; and developing strategy models all on the same system, allowing for interoperability.

Data Integration Services

Data integration is often confused with application integration and ETL. While they are closely related, there are important distinctions between the three terms.

Data integration is a process where data from many sources goes to a single centralised location, which is often a data warehouse. The end location needs to be flexible enough to handle lots of different kinds of data at potentially large volumes. ETL stands for extract, transform, and load. This refers to the process of extracting data from source systems, transforming it into a different structure or format, and loading it into a destination. Data integration and application integration are two types of ETL.

To innovate faster, you need to move away from data warehousing and ETL processes where possible, and arrive at an architecture that supports application integration.

Application integration involves moving data back and forth between individual applications to keep them in sync. Typically, each application has a particular way it emits and accepts data, and this data moves in smaller volumes. Application integration is ideal for powering operational use cases. Going back to our morning coffee as an example of this:

  • When you tap your phone (or bank card) on the payment system, the payment system needs to confirm via multiple links in the chain (as mentioned earlier) as to whether or not you have enough money available in your account to make the transaction,
  • So, your bank needs to make sure that your account balance is made available instantly (not overnight or on a weekly basis) to their transaction interfaces, the MasterCard interface also needs to then receive this information, which in turn passes back to the POS system (which are all seamlessly interacting in real-time)
  • If your account status comes back good, you get the pleasant-sounding ding to know it’s been approved.

The wrap-up

Little do we all think about how long that two-second coffee transaction would take if each system in the process had a human behind it having to manually query individual systems before passing that information to the next. But let me ask you this: if there was a bank that still did these things manually, would you ever consider joining them?

Now think about all the manual processes that go on in your line of business. Are there companies who are already doing this automatically in real-time? If so, how long will it be before your customers are asking themselves the same question above?

Or from a more positive perspective, how would you innovate in order to keep ahead of the curve? And how integrated are your systems, in order to make this innovation happen?

Creative Folks iT provides a range of technical services to assist you in planning, designing and implementing System Integration between your business and content systems to deliver digital transformation.

Creative Folks integrate systems such as CRM (Salesforce), WebCMS (WordPress, Sitecore, Drupal), Project and Task management (Wrike, Accelo), eCommerce (Magento), Marketing Automation (Salesforce Marketing Cloud, Hubspot), Digital Asset Management and Content systems (WoodWing, Canto, Sitecore). Our highly experienced teamwork with a range of Integration platforms including Mulesoft, Jitterbit, Logic Apps and SiPHON powered by AWS Serverless.

 

 

Topics: Integration, competitive advantage, innovation

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