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Applications cannot thrive alone in today's hyper-connected world. Nearly every modern business process requires information from multiple sources. If a company’s applications are not working together the business loses enormous opportunities for synergy and automation. Instead of finding streamlined and efficient new ways to automate business processes, the company becomes mired in manual and redundant tasks, with multiple versions of the same data being created across the organization.

The days when CIOs could hope to standardize across a single platform or vendor and expect applications to automatically work together are now just a memory.

Trends in the Making

While gorilla vendors like SAP, Oracle and Microsoft tried to consolidate the market by buying hundreds of smaller companies, the new wave of cloud vendors, including Salesforce and Workday, disrupted that process and brought back the idea that best-of-breed solutions were more valuable than standardizing on a single suite from one vendor.

In the end, the giants never integrated their acquisitions and the new cloud applications remained siloed services. The result has been an explosion of endpoints and an end to the hope that customers could buy fully integrated suites. As a consequence, most business applications have become isolated within the enterprise.

In simpler times, businesses didn’t lose much by keeping their applications separate. The sales department had its solutions, the marketing department had its, and customer service and order fulfillment could each adopt the system that best served its needs while ignoring what the others were doing. Each aspect of the business ran separately, and as long as marketing continued to bring in customers, sales continued to close deals and the fulfillment department kept shipping orders, everything was good.

Today’s business world is different. Dozens of new enterprise APIs and cloud services get released daily, promising to deliver faster results, bigger returns and greater efficiency to every part of the enterprise. The total number of APIs crossed 10,000 in 2014, and is expected to reach 60,000 by 2016, according to a report by the Cutter Consortium. Entirely new markets and channels have sprung up through the digital gateways companies are creating and opening up to each other. In order to stay ahead of the competition, companies must react quickly to adapt to this trend and bring new technologies into play.

But how does a company unlock the full potential of all these new solutions? Just as a single musical note cannot achieve harmony on its own, individual applications can only improve one part of a business. Only by orchestrating all of these applications to work together does a company realize the true value of its technological investments.

Why Apps Need to Talk to Each Other

Companies recognize the value of new applications, and adoption is rapidly increasing, whether from a top-down initiative or from an individual department. For example, a company’s sales department might adopt a sales force automation application, and the same business’s support department could choose a call center application from a different provider to prioritize incoming calls. The shipping department may select an entirely separate application to manage its inventory. These discrete solutions help each individual department to work more efficiently, but they don’t work together to support more mature business processes.

When the sales department needs its reps to check product pricing and inventory, the isolated sales force automation system probably won’t contain this information. Or if the company’s marketing department wants to use any of the popular marketing automation tools -- like Marketo, ExactTarget or SilverPop -- those applications will have to connect to multiple applications across the company, including data warehouses, CRM and ERP systems to collect the right information about its customers.

Failing to integrate these different applications means the business loses critical agility, as well as the opportunity to streamline its various business processes. Think of it this way: nobody would think of hiring an employee without giving her an email account. So why should companies bring in a new application without integrating it with the company’s existing solutions?

The Time for Rapid Integration Is Now

In the past, companies may have chosen not to integrate most of their applications because the task was simply too hard. On-premises systems by tech giants like Oracle and SAP were built with entirely different architectures -- and translating between the two solutions was a painstaking and difficult process.

But most applications being created today speak a common language (based on SOAP or REST architectures) making it much easier for businesses to send data back and forth between the different applications. The increasingly unified architectures of these programs have revolutionized the way that businesses can make their applications work in harmony.

The change is akin to what happened in the shipping industry when transporters started to adopt the standard shipping container. Rather than unloading and repacking an infinitely diverse variety of boxes and crates, the same containers that are stacked on the ocean liner get loaded right onto the train and fit perfectly on the back of a tractor trailer.

The adoption of this universal shipping method meant dramatic increases in speed and efficiency for the transportation industry. A similar change in application architecture has enabled this type of shift in speed and efficiency in the way that information from applications is shared across the organization. Forrester Research reports that one in four companies have already begun to implement integrated business processes that run partly on-premises and partly in the cloud.

Embracing ‘Adaptive Integration’ to Keep Pace with Expanding Solutions

Because it has become so much easier for companies to integrate solutions quickly, leaving applications on an island is no longer a viable option for businesses that want to maintain their competitive edge. To keep pace, the technology research firm Gartner recommends an “adaptive approach to integration” in a new report published in March.

This “adaptive integration” philosophy advises that companies forego the lengthy cycles of custom integration that have often been the traditional strategic approach to aligning business processes. Instead, Gartner advises companies to embrace integration platforms that can be deployed quickly, provide comprehensive functionality and quality of service, and have a short learning curve. This way, businesses can easily adopt new solutions and immediately start to see substantial return on their investments.

With so many opportunities today for companies to harmonize their business processes, it no longer makes sense to leave any application on an island. As enterprises adopt more applications to handle day-to-day operations, and the number of endpoints providing data continues to increase exponentially, the value of having applications work together will only escalate. It’s not a question of whether companies should integrate their applications: it’s a matter of how and how soon.

Title image by Philip Bird / Shutterstock.com