How to integrate your systems
One of the questions that is most commonly asked by our customers and partners is, “How do we connect [System A] with [System B]?”
Regardless of which applications you are using, application integration is the automation of manual processes that pass data between applications, departments, and organizations. The challenging part of this process is defining the human interactions with the information that is exchanged.
To most organizations, connecting two systems is perceived as a solved problem that is simple to implement with little monetary value associated.
However, the success of many projects is dependent upon an integrated system of systems. Integrations (or lack thereof) often reduce both financial and organizational risk that is not captured in the business case for systems acquisitions.
What happens to your data when a new application is installed?
The biggest misconception among organizations who purchase new software is the assumption that your new software application is plug-and-play with other systems. You may be unaware of potential problems you will encounter once the new system is implemented.
Just like building a bridge, application integration requires communication, coordination, and effort (work) between organizations to design the data mappings, incorporate business rules, and decode jargon to enable a system-to-system interface. The presence of a published API does not mean that the application is integrated - the bridge still needs to be built.
If a software vendor does not address the prospect of potential problems that may arise with your business processes, you may be left to discover problems after the installation. Many software vendors are unable to support the integration of the application to an organization’s existing systems.
The main source of the problems that arise when you install a new system, is the continuity in your organization’s business processes.
In short, application integration is a technical solution to a non-technical problem.
What are some benefits of integrating your systems?
Choosing to integrate your systems will provide your users with access to data in their application of choice. Integration also increases clarity, communication, and understanding across your departments. Risk of data inaccuracies and inconsistencies is reduced by eliminating human intervention through re-entry of data.
As your organization scales, you’ll be adding, removing, and replacing applications based on your then-current needs. Your integrations need to evolve in order to join multiple incompatible systems into a comprehensive system-of-systems.
Some key benefits of application integration include:
- Less Mundane Work: reduce copy-paste, export-import, or re-entry of data from one application to the next.
- Better Data Integrity: data is accurate and current across all systems. Automating data entry reduces human input errors.
- Easier Access to Data: eliminate data silos and increase transparency across your organization.
- More Flexible Infrastructure: as business needs change, it is crucial that you can replace your applications in a modular fashion without impacting the entire enterprise.
What needs to be done to integrate your systems?
Your challenge is that expectations for digital experiences are based on consumer applications. Integrating your applications allows you to:
- Automate business processes within a department by updating line-of-business applications to simplify the user experience
- Connect data from line-of-business applications into cross-departmental workflows to automate work (digital transformation)
- Transform inefficiency into innovation by empowering trams with data to analyze, decide, and innovate
Your implementer’s challenge is to automate and simplify your user experience and connect into cross-departmental workflows. Issues they may encounter include:
- Your organization may have high expectations and vague requirements
- Your use cases to connect systems may be undefined or unclear
- Risk is associated with lack of clarity, incomplete or unpublished APIs, and expectations vs requirements
Behind the scenes, integrating your data between applications is actually more about facilitating communication between departments, and understanding how each department or group uses the data. In order to be integrated, the data must be simplified and translated in a manner that all departments can understand and agree upon.
There is typically a misalignment of business jargon used across systems. The same information in each system may be structured differently or have different meanings, labels, names, fields, and data formats, in different systems and departments.
The technical part of connecting the systems takes very little time. Where most of the time is spent, and what makes the integration actually function, is decoding business jargon across the organization, so that it can be used and translated properly across systems.
As an example, a misalignment of information may look like this. System A may have a field in a business object called “Status” with 3 available options: Started, In Progress, and Complete. System B may also have a field in or business object called “Status” with 6 available options: Started, Assigned, Inspected, In Progress, Complete, Closed). So, how do we align the “Status” categories in System A versus System B?
What is involved in the integration process?
There are six steps in the Application Integration Process:
Review Business Processes: High-level view of the processes used to execute a business function. Ask: Where is the data created and/or updated? Where is the data stored as part of each process step?
Outline the Content Catalog: Create a catalog of the major business objects underpinning line-of-business applications. You may also need to note ancillary objects that are children of major business objects. For example, there may be many comments against a case in a CRM or work management system.
Diagram Data Flows: using the business processes and content catalog, identify the flow of data across applications. This is really useful to represent in a diagram showing the direction of data flow for each major business object between systems.
Capture Business Rules: define the constraints to apply prior to moving data into a system, validations to confirm, or potentially default values to set so that actions can be triggered when the data is added to a system through an integration.
Leverage Reference Data: use third-system lookups to validate messages (data) in-flight between applications against a reference source or to enrich a message with new content.
Deploy Integration Technology: connect to system interfaces, build integration workflows, test and deploy to your operations IT.
What happens if you don’t integrate?
If you don't have an automated integration, users often end up adapting their workflow at the cost of extra steps and time. Steps and time add up to efficiency, and efficiency translates to money.
For example, users may be exporting data from one system, importing it into Excel to manipulate the data, and then exporting it from Excel, and importing it into another system. Tasks like this can be automated with integration, eliminating a lot of steps and time.
Some of the risks include:
Financial Risk: Your financial departments require access to timely, high-quality, accurate information for reporting and compliance activities. Without integrating your systems, reporting data may be incomplete or out-of-date.
Operations Risk: Paper-based approval processes are relied on for operations, which can result in delays to complete activities in the field.
Reputation Risk: If information is not shared between applications to reflect current status of items such as requests or work completed, your organization appears unresponsive or disorganized.
We really like the following quote from Suhail Doshi, CEO of MixPanel:
“Most of the world will make decisions by either guessing or using their gut. They will be either lucky or wrong.”
When you buy a new software system, you may need to have it integrated with your existing system(s) to facilitate efficient processes and eliminate steps.
You want to make sure that when your new software is implemented, you have the data you need to make the most of your new software. This way, there are no expensive or time-consuming surprises, and your software - well, works. Integration is a process that involves business and technical users to capture their understanding and outline their requirements in a way that technical people can understand and implement.
The integration process largely consists of making decisions about how to restructure your data so that users in your organization can easily access the data they need. It ensures that your users have the necessary data at their fingertips in their applications of choice, so that they can analyze options and make decisions.
Integration combines incompatible systems into a holistic system that reduces mundane work, improves data quality and access, and creates a more flexible infrastructure of systems.
Now that you have an understanding of what may need to be done in order to get your systems connected, what can you do about it?
- To determine whether your organization should seek an application integration solution, read our article: How to determine if your organization needs application integration
- Book a free consultation with us to discuss your requirements.
We offer an Integration Design Agreement - a low-cost way to complete the integration process described above. We provide a system-agnostic set of requirements to ensure you get the best solution from your software vendor - or to engage us to deliver your application integration solution.