There is a trade-off in a world where modern business applications provide more usable, reliable systems than the traditional monolithic applications of ten years ago.
Modern business applications, of which many are cloud based, usually target specific functions that do not cover the breadth of processes you require across departments. You need multiple applications working in harmony to fill the gaps that a single platform does not cover. However, with more than 150,000 applications available, you cannot expect every system to talk with one another.
So, how do you solve this problem of connectivity?
You either need to choose systems that communicate seamlessly with each other (which is highly uncommon), or you select the platforms you want and find a way to connect them. Integration systems (and the integration services that configure and support these systems) answer this latter approach.
You should not waste time finding systems that seamlessly interact with each other because they might compromise functionality to achieve their connectivity requirement. Instead, you should choose the products you believe will suit your business needs, then work with an integration partner to connect these systems.
Types of systems integration
When attempting to discuss the types of systems integration available, I realised (whilst working on this piece) that context is essential. So, I will break it down into the contextual ways we can look at this topic. The three contexts I will discuss are architectural, operational and detailed technical.
From an architectural perspective, there are really only two key types of systems integration: Point to Point or Hub and Spoke. All others are essentially variations on the above.
- Point to Point: As the name states, this is where you create a connection between two systems (or two points), with little consideration for reusability outside of that. Point to Point is the fastest and cheapest way to connect two or three systems if that is all you have and all you will ever have.
- Hub and Spoke: Every middleware platform (such as iPaaS and ESB) effectively tries to leverage this model. The middleware is the Hub, and the Spokes are each system requiring integration. The primary objective is in having the ability to reuse the connectivity that you have established for each system that you integrate. It generally takes longer to set up but gives more flexibility once you get beyond the necessity to integrate three systems.
There are other integrations that people might raise, such as Star Integration, but really, they are just slight variations of the above concepts.
From a business operational perspective, there are two main types of systems integration:
- Vertical: Integrates all systems within a domain of responsibility (such as the finance department or the marketing department). This type of integration can sometimes be assisted by the vendors of the applications you are using because, in most cases, they see a strong need to interact with the other key players in their domain. It makes sense to give their product as much interoperability as possible. For example, many CRMs will facilitate out-of-band (OOB) integrations with marketing automation systems (this is why Salesforce bought Marketing Cloud). The trouble with this approach is that it can still create silos of information. Your marketing team may run their processes flawlessly, but all that data will not be readily available to the finance department. This concept meets the needs of the industry or department well but generally does not expand beyond that vertical.
- Horizontal: This type of integration facilitates communication across the subsystems of any vertical. It is more of a holistic approach to integration, as it reuses components (reuse of both the services and the data generated by them). Horizontal integration is the desired approach for any business implementing an ESB or iPaaS solution because it still facilitates vertical integration whilst considering the information flow required between departments.
From a detailed technical perspective, there are a couple of key standards:
- Application Programming Interfaces (APIs): APIs are how most systems interact these days. Many modern websites leverage APIs to communicate with their backend services. Most developers also prefer APIs for interacting with the 150,000+ services available on the internet. Several standards fit inside this, including SOAP (a solid standard for the last fifteen years), REST (the current standard for most businesses), and now many leverage GraphQL (which allows for more flexible functionality than SOAP and REST).
- Electronic Data Interchange (EDI): An older standard of handling data interactions. Businesses with detailed and specific document needs (such as invoices, purchase orders or financial data) leverage EDI. Whilst generally slower, it facilitates document exchange but does not work for real-time functions such as maps (think Google Maps) or data streaming (think YouTube or SoundCloud).
Common use cases for systems integration
Integrating Customer Relationship Management (CRM) and Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems reduces duplicate customer information. The result:
- A holistic view of customers and prospects
- Efficient business processes
- Improved customer support
- Better interactions with existing or potential customers
CRM software helps companies gain a proper understanding of where there are opportunities for engagement, such as sales enablement. The ERP system handles transactions needed to deliver on those engagements on time. Companies that integrate CRM and ERP systems can better manage their customers’ overall experiences with the business by understanding their lifecycle from initial interaction to long-term engagement.
Integrating CRM and ERP software also enables employees across different departments to access information about prospects and customers wherever they may need it. For example, in an email conversation or on a website form. CRMs are also linked to customer service systems to improve CRM implementation for customers. Here, CRMs automate routine processes and interact directly with customers, reducing support costs while improving customer satisfaction.
Business benefits of systems integration
- Increased profitability: Machines are almost 100% accurate when it comes to data entry and transferring information. They do not make mistakes when the data is correct. I have worked on projects where businesses went from dozens of ‘apologies per year’ to none. This was a significant factor in retaining profit and not wasting it on fixing accidents.
- Vendor independence: You no longer need to be tied to a single vendor and be at the mercy of their roadmap and limitations. Systems integration done right reduces complications in adding or removing platforms as your business does not rely on a single system.
- Lower cost: When you are choosing products specifically because they meet your needs, then connecting them to communicate across business functions, you get:
- Efficient processes
- Improved system utilisation
- Faster communication between systems (which reduces time to complete tasks)
- Reduced software costs by removing systems that were previously providing little outcome or where you were paying for features you did not use
- Efficiency in adjusting integrations, automation and communication between systems as your business requirements change
- Improved customer loyalty: Fast and accurate processes influence customer loyalty. I am sure you have experienced the difference between a business where all functionality is connected seamlessly through integrations (think Uber) versus disconnected business systems. The latter, for example, might put you on hold while they log in to a different system to locate your missing order. I am sure you know which business you would rather interact with.
- Easy access to data: When the critical systems in a process talk to each other, you can find data easily and reduce the risk of unsynchronised information between systems.
- Consistent communications: When your systems share the same ‘source of truth’, you do not have different information across systems. For example, customers become frustrated when they have provided you with new information, but your customer service team references their old details.
- Improved insights into your business opportunities and performance: When you have key data available, your ability to report on key business metrics (for internal use and customer visibility) improves your decision making and makes you look like a champion to your customers.
Systems Integration with Creative Folks
We offer consulting and application integration services as well as full-service solutions. We work closely with you to understand your current ecosystem, discuss solutions, implement these solutions and maintain them for you. Visit our Systems Integration page to learn more about our capabilities and read our customer stories.