Written by Jesper Hauge, CTO
If you’ve ever worked in a medium-sized company with a small IT-department and few or no developers, you might recognise the increasing demand for making digital services available to your customers and partners.
It could be anything from the need to provide customers with product data and possibilities for online ordering; to the need for integrating and synchronizing internal system data whenever an order is created or a new batch of products is ready for sale.
These demands can be seen as processes concerned with creating, moving and synchronizing information between your internal systems and outgoing channels. Or among internal systems alone even.
In a sense, most of these demands were never really addressed by existing digital systems, since they are mostly concerned with creating and keeping data related to a single business area. Sounds familiar?
Exchange of data between a channel or system to another is referred to as integrations. Integrations are mostly built to replace some kind of manual process of moving data from one system to another. An example could be an integration that makes it possible to pick up order data from a document and insert it in your ERP system.
As the number of your systems and channels increases, the number integrations also tends to grow. A typical modern company relies on 4-10 systems communicating across 2-6 channels. With these numbers, the number of possible integration points skyrockets to unmanageable numbers as you’ll see in the illustration below.
Consequences of your current digital process
If your company lacks an integrated approach to handling these types of integration projects, we often see the following consequences:
- Individual projects are executed without being part of an overall plan: Projects are being owned and executed inside the company’s departments, meaning that the CMO handles marketing projects, the CFO handles ERP related projects and so forth. But the relation between projects is not incorporated into any plan.
- Integration re-use is not possible: Project-based point-to-point integrations are not created in a way that makes it possible to re-use and extend these integrations to other projects. When approaching projects this way, each project needs to start over with its own integrations.
If you do not have a central program owner, who manages a backlog of projects and the documentation setup, you will tend to end up in a deadlock where new projects are painful. Changing existing systems might break integrations from other projects, and knowledge about the projects might have been lost due to staff or vendor changes. With a digital environment like this, you will often see the project implementation velocity drop over time.
Ultimately, this setup will fail in harvesting the possible productivity benefits in digitalisation. It will not be able to support your customers’ demand for digital services, and it will use too many resources on IT-projects that just maintain the status quo.
The ideal digital process
An ideal digital process requires the right platform. What would an ideal digital platform do for you?
Apart from the direct benefits of having your data available in digital form, we believe that a good digital platform enables and supports:
- Stable, secure and operable data management systems
- Vendor cooperation, when integrating data across systems
- Integrated data views for employees and customers with updated data across systems
- Innovation and execution in digital projects
The classic approach to company IT-systems falls short on all but the first item on this list.
We see a lot of companies, where resources are spent on setting up and adapting classical data management systems for ERP, content management, product information management etc. - but very little effort has been spent on creating a platform aimed at supporting the data integration, vendor cooperation, innovation and execution.
Clearly something is missing...
Decoupling with an integration platform
The task at hand is to build a number of integrations between systems and channels to streamline the business processes as much as possible - maybe even innovate on top of the platform as a whole - but every integration added to the setup increases complexity and dependencies between systems. The consequence is that later changes might be blocked by existing integrations since changing one system might involve changing the integration from this system into a number of other systems and channels.
What is needed to optimise for change between systems and channels is an independent integration platform. We also refer to this as a decoupled architecture. The integration platform enables digital projects to be implemented as independently as possible from other systems and channels. For instance, changing your CMS should not involve your ERP system vendor, but often it does, because of integrations between the current CMS and the ERP system.
In order to achieve this decoupling, modern IT-architecture usually introduces a new layer into the systems/channel mix - an integration platform.
The purpose of an integration platform is to function as an intermediary layer with a dual purpose
- Decoupling the fast-paced external channel projects from the conservative internal systems and exposes a unified view reflecting the business meaning of data (instead of atomic views of data from diverse systems).
- Allowing systems and channels to solve their integration needs through a single system (the integration platform).
How to make it happen
As important as the right technical approach to system integrations can be, it cannot be achieved without proper handling of the projects by your company. What we see is that most larger projects and implementations are handled by external (consulting) vendors hired for atomic projects as defined by c-level managers.
Most places you will not find a c-level manager with responsibility and budget for creating and maintaining an integration platform, nor a person with the responsibility for coordinating and prioritising IT-projects. This needs to change if you want to move faster ahead into the digital future!
Setting a digital steering committee
Since medium-sized businesses often do not have the means or need for a full-time CIO/CTO, it can be beneficial for you to set up a steering committee run by an internal stakeholder, maybe even the CEO of your company. The committee involves and draws on the talent and experience available from key technology vendors as well as internal c-level vendors.
The responsibility of the steering committee is to set the vision and goals for the digital process and to create and maintain a prioritised backlog of (integration) IT-projects. The steering committee is responsible for appointing people to coordinate projects and following up on progress and direction.
The work proceeds as follows:
- When the steering committee initiates a project in the backlog, a project group is assigned. One of its members reports to or are part of the steering committee, and a number of other members fill individual roles while implementing the project.
- The project group scopes and estimates the project, and the steering committee member continually ensures backup and coordination with the steering committee.
- When the project has run its course, the steering committee receives a report and makes sure that the existing documentation and the project backlog is updated.
Let us assist you
We would be happy to help your business towards a more agile and modern digital reality. We can assist you in the following areas:
- Get your platform reviewed
- Hire us for your steering committee
- Use us in one of your projects