Integration Isn’t Enough: The Business Case for Integration-as-a-Service

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Organizations use a variety of applications to handle business tasks, and at the center of many point solutions is the enterprise resource planning (ERP) system. In an ideal state, data from various solutions, such as the ecommerce system, CRM instance, collaboration tools, analytics solutions, payroll systems, etc., would flow seamlessly across the tech stack, with the ERP at the center.  In such an environment, Claus Jepsen, CTO at Unit4, discusses the value of having an integration-as-a-service approach.

Thanks to consolidation in the business systems space, most customers use the same set of systems, so companies can use the same integrations to facilitate data transfer across the enterprise and other systems internally. But traditionally, bespoke integration solutions have powered data flow, with vendors or consultants creating integration points between applications.

The problem with this approach is when customers need to make changes to their own system, adding attributes or building out some other type of configuration, they’ll need a consultant or vendor to make the changes so alterations don’t break existing dataflows. This is typically expensive and time-consuming – which is why companies should consider an integration-as-a-service approach instead.

Connecting Data Is a Starting Point, Not the Endpoint

The goal of using an ERP system as a data hub is to automate tasks to save time and money, but also to ensure data gets into the hands of users who can apply it to create value. In this scenario, connecting data via integration is the starting point, but mapping data — understanding the model, attributes, semantics, etc., of the various types of content — is the key to creating value.

An integration-as-a-service approach takes care of the basic data connectivity issue, connecting system A to systems B, C, D, and so on, but that’s just the starting point. The integration-as-a-service vendor also maps data across systems so that, for example, data for a customer in a CRM instance is linked to data for an order on an ecommerce platform and data in an invoice on an accounts payable solution. Mapping is where the true value lies.

In other words, the data connections need to work, but they don’t represent a unique selling point or advantage for the business. As an analogy, think of the connections needed to get water to plants in a garden. It’s essential to find a way to connect the hose to the faucet, but that’s just the underlying mechanics. The real purpose is to get water to the plants, which is the value being created. 

See More: Three Ways Enterprise Architecture is Driving Digital Transformation 

Modern Organizations Need Stable Dataflows

Just as plants need a reliable source of water, converting data into value requires the stable, sustainable and secure flow of data across systems, but the use of disparate applications means data will change. If the CRM or ecommerce platform vendor makes a change, the organization that uses those tools will need to adjust and get their data flowing again as quickly as possible.

Currently, business users create manual workarounds to handle changes. For example, if a user updates a customer address in the CRM instance and that data doesn’t automatically flow to the ERP, the user may copy and paste the new address information into the ERP, a process that requires the employee’s valuable time while also creating an opportunity for an error that results in inaccurate data.

In this scenario, even if the pasted data accurately reflects the new address, there’s also the possibility the data that is pasted into one system manually doesn’t flow to other systems where it can be used to create value, such as a fulfillment center system or billing software. This can result in orders or invoices being misdirected, causing issues downstream with customer satisfaction and cashflow.

An Integration-as-a-Service Approach Offloads Stability and Security Issues

Scenarios like the above play out in organizations of all sizes, and addressing data connectivity with a simple integration fix won’t address the problem in the long run because the data between different systems has to be mapped to ensure that changes flow across the ecosystem. An integration-as-a-service approach creates stability by ensuring that an update at the source can flow to multiple systems and applications.

An integration-as-a-service approach also addresses security and privacy concerns by offloading them to the provider. Integration-as-a-service vendors typically run in a secure environment, either hosted or run from a hyperscale system with industry-standard security protections in place, such as Microsoft or Amazon. That said, it’s a good idea for companies that seek to use integration-as-a-service to also ask about protection against tenant leakage issues in a multitenant environment, etc., as part of their due diligence.

Organizations contemplating an integration-as-a-service model should also inquire about how the vendor handles privacy issues to ensure compliance with regulations like the general data protection regulation (GDPR). Typically, that’s more of a concern on the application side, and the integration-as-a-service vendor is obligated to ensure compliance. So, with an integration-as-a-service vendor taking on that responsibility, the customer can focus on its core competencies instead.

A Next-level Integration Strategy

The business case for an integration-as-a-service approach is compelling because it takes the organization’s integration strategy to the next level. Integration-as-a-service takes care of the basic blocking and tackling associated with integration, providing greater efficiency and streamlined processes. But it goes beyond that to encompass business strategy, mapping data details to help the company create value from content. 

Because this takes specialized knowledge, it’s important for organizations to work with an integration-as-a-service vendor that understands their vertical. Modern tooling is also essential, including traceability, so users can understand where updates were made that flow through the system without calling in consultants. It’s also a good idea to look for drag-and-drop features and low-code or preferably no-code functionality so the business analyst or owner can make changes to the mapping as necessary, not just the data.  

ERPs can be an effective data hub at an organization by driving automation, enabling better decision-making and informing strategy development. But to fully realize the promise of centralized data, companies need to solve integration challenges, not just with simple connections but with full mapping capabilities. An integration-as-a-service approach can help them reach this goal.

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