Dealing with IT is complex. It’s not helped when buzzwords are used that might mean different things in different contexts. One such phrase is “system integration.” So, what is system integration, do you need to worry about it, and can it help your company?
What is System Integration?
In plain English, system integration is making different systems work well together. Ideally, they should appear to be one overarching system. One example is having your vendor database integrate with your accounting system to allow for the rapid creation of invoices.
Ideally, system integration also adds new features by connecting existing functions in a useful way.
Why Does System Integration Matter?
Most new companies put together their IT systems in an ad hoc way. They may upgrade to commercial versions of software they are familiar with for personal use, buy utilities recommended by others in the industry, etc. Often, they won’t have everyone on the same version of the operating system; or even on the same operating system.
This results in a lot of disparate systems being used, and can cause a number of problems:
- Data needs to be manually transferred from one system to another. Generally, employees will copy and paste information, but this is prone to mistakes. For example, information might be copied into the wrong field in a database, causing confusion. Or information might simply be mixed.
- A lot of time is wasted transferring and checking data.
- Information might be stored in multiple locations, wasting IT resources.
- Employees may not be sure which system to use to look for information, wasting even more time.
- Credentials for different systems might be lost or forgotten.
- Training and onboarding takes more time when different systems have to be explained.
- Deprovisioning is hard when an employee leaves, which might result in security problems. It’s very likely that at least one platform will be forgotten.
The Benefits of System Integration
System integration, while it might be costly up front, solves all of these problems by bringing all of the information together in one place. If your employees are wasting time hunting for, for example, a customer address in three or four different places, then you should consider system integration.
Here are some ways system integration can help your business.
- Improves communication between employees.
- Helps you solve customer problems quickly, improving your reputation.
- Allows increased automation. Data can propagate automatically across the integrated systems. For example, invoices can be generated automatically for regular purchases. Customers can create an account on your website and their information can be propagated directly into your customer database.
- Reduces data input errors by eliminating manual transfer of information.
- Allows for a common look across all of your interfaces, which often makes it easier for employees.
- Helps you obtain better data about how your business is doing. System integration allows you to better track cash flow, improves communication between sales and marketing to smooth out the buyer journey, and helps you better determine which products have the best ROI.
- It is often cheaper to maintain one integrated system than multiple legacy systems.
Other than the direct benefits mentioned above, it’s easier to add new features when you integrate systems. Once basic integration has been done, you can look for other benefits depending on your needs and the specific details of your industry.
The largest benefit, though, is the improvement in productivity and revenue that comes when people don’t have to “fish around” for information.
Risks of System Integration
While system integration comes with many benefits, it can also bring some risks. Here are some of the points to consider.
- Automated transfer of information can propagate mistakes into multiple locations. This can be a particular concern with financial data and in some cases you may want interrupts to ensure human checking. However, this can be mitigated by adding the checks necessary to ensure the information is correct.
- If one system is hacked into, the thief potentially gains access to all of the data. One particular concern is e-commerce and the access customers have to their own accounts. This can be a considerable security issue, but it can be mitigated by following good cybersecurity practices.
- The up front cost of system integration is substantial, especially if you are unable to use an off-the-shelf solution. Customization takes time and costs money, and may also tie you in to a particular vendor, causing issues if the relationship fails. However, the cost of a successful system integration will surely pay off in the long run if you plan on your business to grow.
While these are serious risks, they can be mitigated by using good practices. However, if a vendor cannot properly explain how they’ll address these risks, you should probably select a different vendor.
How to do System Integration
System integration is not something you can just do yourself. There are a number of challenges, depending on what software you already use and what processes you have in place.
You need to allocate a lot of resources, but you also need to work with a systems integration consultant. Look for a vendor who has a clear plan of action, is up front about what you need, asks lots of questions, and thinks long term.
The vendor will work with you to identify what you need. A business which sells almost entirely online to other businesses may have very different needs from a brick and mortar fashion boutique, and different needs again from a plumber. They will look at what you are already doing and how to smoothly transfer data from one system to the other. They may recommend different methods of structural integration, such as horizontal integration (where a central system interfaces with the others) or star integration (where each subsystem connects to multiple subsystems).
You should also talk to the vendor about any systems that should not be integrated for security or data sensitivity reasons.
Ultimately, systems integration brings together all of the disparate software you are using into one overarching system. To the end user it should appear that everything is in the same place, using the same user interface, and protected by the same credentials. The amount of time saved, that can then be spent on more important things, is substantial. Key to the process is finding the right vendor and partner who can help you design the right integrated systems for your specific needs.