As organizations around the world seek to “do more with less,” they are increasingly looking to integrate IT systems to eliminate redundancy and improve efficiency. Although point-to-point integration projects are sometimes necessary, putting a holistic integration strategy in place ensures that you are building a platform that can serve as a true foundation for future growth.

It goes without saying that different types of projects require different integration technologies. This is fine. An integration tool is very different from an integration strategy.

The foundation of an effective integration strategy is to standardize systems wherever possible. If every department within your organization has free reign to develop its own solutions with any technology it chooses, your organization will soon find itself awash in duplicate functionality -- not to mention an unwieldy number of systems that each require attention from IT experts.

To build an overarching integration strategy, therefore, you must first uncover enterprise-wide and multi-departmental needs, and then select the enterprise systems and integration tools that will best enable different departments to customize solutions for their specific needs.

I have seen many organizations do this successfully by following these three steps:

#1. Map Your Processes

Understanding business processes is an important first step in crafting your integration strategy. According to Bob Larrivee, Director and Industry Advisor with AIIM, “Most business processes are created serendipitously. They were never well thought out to begin with.”

Business analysts often play an important role in mapping existing processes and analyzing whether they are as simple, logical and consistent as possible. Of course, this step cannot be taken in a vacuum; whoever does the modeling must take the time to understand the needs of the departments that own and execute various activities.

For example, in order to define a standard methodology for content management, business analysts at Ramsey County, MN, conducted interviews with 500 county employees; reviewed document inventories created by every department; and reviewed each department’s network shared folder directory structures.

Organizations that want to effectively map a process should take their cues from Ramsey County and strive to determine needs, desired outcomes, start and end points, activities that are performed (and their correct order), the people that perform the activities and the documents/forms used and exchanged between functions upfront.

In addition, when it comes to the modeling phase, I recommend focusing on cause and effect rather than trying to force a fixed sequence into the process. While sequencing is important, large scale systems contain related systems for which a sequence is not necessarily predictable (like resource management or hiring temp workers), which is why it is necessary to focus on cause and effect.

Finally, remember to build flexibility into your approach. According to an Economist Intelligence Unit survey to uncover how organizations balance the need for the centralized control required to run an efficient business with the autonomy knowledge workers desire, 61 percent of respondents said that established processes occasionally or frequently interfere with the ability of colleagues elsewhere in the organization to respond to their requests.

By staging your process in a series of builds, you can ensure that processes map to the way employees think the job should be done and adjust as necessary when conditions change.

#2. Map Your Technology Stack

During Ramsey County’s planning phase, its business analysts took an inventory of the software applications used by each department, mapping the county’s technology stack alongside its processes to better understand how existing resources were being used -- and how they would interact with future IT investments.

Mapping your current infrastructure allows you to understand, process-wise, what it can support. For example, before Gaston County, NC, rolled out an Enterprise CMS used to digitize and automate business processes in multiple departments, it undertook a massive data center modernization project.

According to Gaston County CIO Brandon Jackson,

We implemented ECM in conjunction with our new virtualized data center because we knew our new infrastructure could support this kind of sophisticated technology.”

Some organizations still view ECM as a repository. To create a truly effective integration strategy, it’s important to think of ECM as a unified delivery tool -- one that can easily and efficiently distribute content through a variety of line-of-business applications.

Of course, it’s also important to remember that a tool is just the means to an end. If one of your tools doesn’t enable a certain function that makes sense as part of your overall strategy (e.g. SharePoint is unable to accommodate capture of paper forms), look for other tools to supplement or replace it. Don’t let tools dictate your strategy. Decide what you want to achieve first, and then look for the tools that will get you there.

#3. Map Human Interaction with Information

As you examine your processes and existing technology systems, it’s particularly important not to forget about the human element. If you approach modeling solely from a systems and steps perspective, your desire to maximize efficiency can blind you to the needs of your staff.

Happy employees are productive employees. When staff members have a voice in the way they are required to perform their jobs, they are more likely to embrace changes that will result in business process improvement.

You add sustainable value for your customers when you add value for your staff. Solicit employee feedback when examining existing processes so that employees are invested in any process reengineering that occurs as you build and execute your integration strategy.

Beyond the Three Steps

In addition to building an understanding of your people, processes and IT portfolio into your integration strategy, plan for change. We all know that the market changes, technology changes and business strategy changes, so use agile integration tools that will enable your organization to adapt quickly to a changing world.

Even if you only need to integrate ECM with your finance system today, with the right integration strategy and tools in place, you’ll be able to respond quickly when your CEO tells you to add CRM into the mix.

Leadership expert Marshall Goldsmith tells us that one of the most important qualities for the future success of an individual or an organization is agility. When it comes to integration, plan, standardize and make it easy for your organization to combine all the tools you have in new and exciting ways.

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