office worker looking at the clock
You can save time with the right API integrations to enhance back office operations. PHOTO: Alan Cleaver

Today’s back office teams depend on apps for everything. The average company uses more than 30 applications for day-to-day operations, although tech-heavy organizations could use literally hundreds of different apps.

While these software programs are useful on their own, the silos separating the data from other parts of the company results in significant inefficiency.

One way that businesses address this is by using an Application Programming Interface (API) to connect apps to share information and create an interconnected digital ecosystem that empowers better business intelligence management and smarter business operations.

But, not all APIs are equal. Here’s what you need to know.

First Thing’s First: What Is API Integration?

An API allows other programs to connect to the application. These third-party requests must follow certain standards and use a specific language for valid communication.

The API limits how much access other programs have to its data and functionality. You may have heard of a particular type of API called “REST API” which is commonly used for networking software together. While the concept seems simple, these connectors form the foundation for a highly productive back office and enable data transformation.

Ready for Digitization: Back Office System Integration Use Cases

From its annual global survey of more than 2,500 CIOs, Gartner recently found that enterprises from all industries are increasingly finding themselves part of a digital ecosystem as digitalization matures. This ecosystem, as Gartner describes it, is “a grouping of enterprises, competitors, customers, regulators and other stakeholders that exchange information and interact electronically.”

The report found that business spending on digital tools is on the rise, as companies invest in response to the digital age.

Today, the average CIO is putting 18 percent of the budget in support of this, while at business where digitalization is “fully baked” into their systems are spending 34 percent of their IT budget on digital (this is predicted to increase to 44 percent by 2018).

This and other reports point to one thing: Business must strategically invest in technologies that allow them to master prior inefficiencies and transform how they manage internal operations. APIs are the epitome of the saying “work smarter, not harder.”

In this vein, integrations are the keys to modernizing different back office tasks, like:

  • Content Management System: Your CMS is an important part of your company's workflows, and you can tie it into your other systems with APIs. For example, you can set up your email so you can attach content directly from the application, allow project management software to share files directly to it and link a publishing calendar so everyone on your team can see content availability.
  • Accounting: Human error in accounting often leads to nightmare situations. You can avoid many of these by tying critical accounting systems together and reducing the data entry required. Many processes can be partially or entirely automated to mitigate risks further.
  • Process Improvement: Digital transformation needs a massive overhaul of your existing processes, but it’s hard to pinpoint the exact spots that require the most attention. When BI is integrated with your back-office systems, you can see changes in productivity in real time and optimize processes throughout your organization.
  • Talent Development: Many companies struggle with recruiting talent with in-demand skills, but you can often find employees within your organization capable of becoming experts. BI integration shows you performance reports on employees and identifies likely candidates for further training.

API Integration Back Office Patterns

APIs are available in all shapes and sizes, but there are a few specific integration patterns that prove that not all APIs are created equally when it comes to optimizing back end efficiencies and business intelligence.

For one, when evaluating an app for back office operations, one thing it should do is support custom data and transformations.

You have a lot of data moving around in your organization, but you get limited use out of it when each application has its own set of information, especially if each application allows you to create custom data objects.

If you can’t transform your data from one app to another, you end up with poor data quality, repeated efforts and other inefficiencies in this type of system. You want APIs that let you integrate data sources between applications, so they all have the same version of the truth. Synchronization also cuts down on a lot of repetitive work, such as data entry.

To know whether or not the app supports data transformations, ask if their integrations have a UI for data mapping. Here’s a look at data mapping within the marketing automation platform, HubSpot.

hubspot API

It’s also important for the app you choose to have an open, REST API. That’s because you don't always get a full picture when you have a single view in an application.

API integration with other programs allows you to create better context to the tasks the back office is working on. If the app is built on a REST API, not only will it be easier for your IT developers to work with for customization, but also there is a higher likelihood for a community of third party developers supporting add-ons and customizations. Shopify is a great example of a deep developer community of app add-ons.

And, last but certainly not least, does the app you’re considering support webhooks?

“Webhooks” is likely a new term to many, but in technical terms a webhook is an HTTP callback that occurs when an event happens within a data source. In other words, a webhook triggers to tell you when a change or an update is made to your data and then synchronizes your data. Triggers enable you to automate event-based workflows. For example, a webhook trigger could be sending an email notification out of a messaging app when a new contact is created in a CRM.

The Back Office of the Future Runs on APIs

In a digital world where times equals money, the single greatest benefit of implementing API integrations to enhance back office operations in the digital ecosystem is the timesaving factor.

Teams can spend up to 15 hours a week on basic administrative tasks, like entering employee schedules or timesheets.

When you integrate with the systems tracking this information, you get all that time back. Even saving a few minutes a day per employee by reducing the amount of applications they need to access to do their job can add up big time over the year.

Back office workflows of the future are defined by event-driven SaaS apps, connected with APIs. Tomasz Tunguz, venture capitalist at Redpoint, discussed this and how the burden of updating new databases can be lifted off your teams with effective APIs, illustrated here:

SaaS

Tunguz detailed how event-driven SaaS products consume events from data sources – social media, news, analytics data, marketing data, customer support data and sales data – all of which are events that can be ingested via API and committed to the database: “Day one, these new systems of record are filling themselves with data.”

Chances are, your business will turn to more applications to manage your data and intelligence. The bottom line: Invest in the right APIs now to future-proof your back office operations in the digital economy.