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Does this conversation sound familiar:

“We need to integrate our Enterprise Everything Management system with our Latest Flavor System.”
“That sounds interesting. How would you like them to integrate?”
“You know. Together.”

When I hear this, my head figuratively hits the table. 

It's clear the client bought the "integration" concept without understanding what problem they're solving. If left untreated, this situation can lead to an expensive money pit which leaves everyone angry. 

Many organizations face this problem — which is why they hire consultants to help. Before starting an integration initiative, define and understand the problem, processes and information flow.

Define the Problem

Why is there a need to integrate the systems? This problem can be mapped out in a short session by putting the people that use both systems in the same room.

  • Why are you switching back and forth between systems?
  • What information do you need in the one system for you to take action in another system?
  • What actions in one system automatically spur actions in other systems?

Defining the problem is an important first step. Most organizations can handle this step on their own — take the time to define the problem and quantify the impact to productivity. I highly recommend doing this before paying anyone for related work.

Map the Processes

This step typically requires more experience and skill. While most organizations can map a process as it stands today, it often takes an outside perspective to boil the process down to the essentials and identify what has to be done versus what people already do. Most processes include steps for reasons that no longer apply.

One classic example was a process that had to be completed every Monday by 3 p.m. After digging, we found that the deadline was Tuesday at noon, but the original person doing the final approval left work at 4 p.m. on Monday and was typically held in meetings on Tuesday morning. Hence the approval window was from 3 to 4 p.m. This artificial deadline was still in place years after the original person moved on, leaving behind a business rule that people blindly followed.

Once the business process is mapped, determine where each actor performs their task. What systems do they use? Which system do they spend most of their time in? How often, and why, do they shift around? Companies that can successfully integrate information into a single interface improve productivity and ease frustration.

Define the Information Flow

This is where the real work happens. You must identify and map the sources of all the information that each system captures. Then determine which systems will be the sources of truth for each set of information.

For example, take a CRM system interacting with a website and a marketing automation system. If the CRM is the source of truth, the information that the website needs to perform transactions needs to be available. Will the systems talk on-demand or use replicated information? Are updates pushed to the website or pulled from the CRM? Once a transaction takes place, how is that information put back into the CRM?

Add a marketing automation system into the mix. Do all three systems talk to each other? Are marketing scores kept in the marketing system while only actions that lead to a transaction go into the CRM?

There are a lot of questions to answer. A whiteboard, fresh markers and facilitators that know what questions to ask will come in handy here. By taking the time to map what information is needed in each system at every stage of the user journey or internal process, the integration points and priorities can be determined.

Discover Yourself

Before beginning the process of determining if systems can be integrated, learn about how you work. An understanding of this will help you focus on what you are trying to accomplish. Without this focus, you'll end up spending a lot of money building a solution that helps no one, and gives employees a fresh source for complaints. 

If you ever hear someone talking about integrating systems, ask them “How?” If they don’t answer, ask them “Why?” If they still don’t have an answer, point them to a whiteboard and ask them to draw an answer to “What?”

Answering those questions will give your project a chance to succeed.

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License Title image by  torbakhopper