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Integration: What Does It Really Mean?

by Scott Lewis

Integration. What does it really mean when it comes to the selection of software? Interestingly enough, I could not find a definition in the dictionary that related to software integration, but Wikipedia defines system integration as the process of linking together different computing systems and software applications physically or functionally to act in a coordinated role. That is an accurate definition in the manner in which we typically define it but, it is also very broad in the reality of how that integration actually happens.

The term has become clouded in its meaning and usage throughout the industry. An example of this would be if a software package can export an Excel file and that file can be imported into another software package, is that considered integration? If the term “integration” is used loosely enough, the answer would be yes, but if that process is manual, is it still considered integration? Again, depending on how you and the software vendor apply the term, the answer is still yes. When I work with clients or software vendors on integration projects, one of the very first things I do is to come up with a definition of what integration actually means to both parties and clearly define the expectation of the client in how we are going to apply the term “integration.” An example of that would be: The software must have an automatic, bidirectional interface between the selected areas.

Software integration is an important aspect of selecting and using software, but it is only one aspect that must be considered. In today’s business world, especially with cloud-based computing, many companies have a CRM, then accounting software, and there may be other software such as time keeping or specialized software for your particular industry. All these software packages may be cloud-based software or in-house systems or a combination of both; this can really complicate the overall work processes for employees and integration of the software can become very difficult.

In order to accomplish integration of these packages, many companies turn to custom software developers, assign the project of integration to an employee or pay one of the vendors to write an interface between the multitude of software packages, and all these options have hidden pitfalls and costs. I also coach our customers that once you take on a custom software package, whatever business you are in, you are now also in the software development business, so make sure you allocate budget money for continued development of these specialized interfaces.

If you are looking for software, taking the time to talk with your software vendors about integration is worthy of your time. I have seen some very slick software presentations that give the appearance that their software will integrate with just about anything and everything. In reality it won’t, so it is very important to make sure you define integration and understand the manner in which they actually and functionally integrate with other software packages.

Actual integration is primarily based on whether or not the software packages are written in a common and similar language (such as Microsoft SQL, C++). If they are dissimilar, writing an interface could be difficult. Functionality basically means: Will the software packages automatically move the data back and forth between them, or does it take some kind of human intervention? If it does, then this could be a work process issue for your employees. If you are buying a particular piece of software to support one area of the business but you are increasing the burden on another department by introducing a workflow that is going to take time and reduce productivity, then you might want to rethink your strategy because your cost savings model may be out of alignment.

Other items to consider and variables that need to be accounted for when integrating two systems together include which system is going to be the master system. There needs to be a system that has data continuity control to ensure that the data that is shared is validated and consistent throughout the entire system. Without this data validation, you run the risk of having conflicting data within your system, which invalidates the whole process of integration. Error correction processes need to be in place so that errors are reported and can be corrected. Integration processes that don’t validate data and generate a report can be problematic, so this is another key process to ensure that these systems are sharing data in a consistent standardized manner and that data entry errors, synchronization errors, data conflicts and missing data reporting are generated throughout the entire process.  

As business owners, we are always chasing that elusive software package that is fully integrated, gives our employees one-time data entry and lets everyone see and use the data. We all want something that puts us into a workflow process that increases our data reliability and reduces errors.

In my business, which is obviously technology, I know of only one package that does that across an enterprise, so integration is going to continue to be something that most companies are faced with in order to streamline data flow and increase productivity. With that in mind, we have to continue to make sure we understand that the term “integration” is a widely used and widely defined process that means many things to many people. The process of integration can be limited, or it can greatly increase the overall flow of data within your business.
Simply selecting the right packages that can and will work together is the key. Don’t be blinded by the bells and whistles and fancy sales processes because the dollars lay in the overall functionality, not in how pretty it is.        

Scott Lewis is the president and CEO of Winning Technologies Group of Companies, an international technology management company. Scott has more than 30 years of experience in the technology industry and is a nationally recognized speaker on technology subjects such as collocation, security, CIO-level management, data and voice communications, and best practices related to the management of technology resources. For more information, visit or call 877-379-8279.     
Submitted 8 years 125 days ago
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