Gartner recently published an informative research note titled Create a Future-Proof Integration Strategy for Your ERP, which we highly recommend. The note raises a number of important issues that are worth considering if you’re either planning on an Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) software upgrade or trying to figure out the best way to use ERP to grow your business. In particular, it looks at how application integration issues can constrain agility and growth if they are not handled the right way. The authors offer suggestions on how to avoid this trap.
ERP and traditional application integration challenges
Application integration, the process of connecting two pieces of software so they can inter-operate, has been part of the IT world for decades. Going back to the 1960s, what were then called Management Information Systems (MIS) managers realized that no single application could do everything. For example, ERP could do supply chain stuff, but if you wanted to do sales order management in tandem with ERP, you had to connect your ERP with your order management solution. The ERP system had to do its part and then send data or procedure calls to the order management system, and vice versa.
The integration solutions that emerged over the years were quite inventive. They included standardized messaging formats and a variety of proprietary application-to-application connectors. It was always possible to write custom code to link applications as well. The problems with these approaches came from their rigidity and the attendant expense in making changes. Further difficulties came from application connectors aging and losing support—or, in a variant of this scenario, the applications themselves not being able to be updated without breaking the connector.
Integration and the future
“Tightly coupled” applications are so hard to modify they affect a company’s ability to adapt to changing circumstances. If you can’t even upgrade a system because you’re worried you’ll ruin the application integration connector, you won’t be making much progress toward new business processes. As businesses move toward innovative digital transformation strategies, it can be painful to feel constrained by obsolete integration technologies. For instance, you may want to connect an e-commerce front end to your ERP. That way, customer orders flow directly into the operational “system of record.” Realizing this goal, however, requires having flexible integration capabilities.
The use of APIs
As the Gartner note suggests, it is now possible to create a “future-proof” integration strategy. Such a strategy will be based on the new generation of RESTful application programming interfaces (APIs). These enable, finally, nearly universal and low-friction integration. Modern, cloud-based ERP solutions like Acumatica are built with RESTful APIs as a standard feature. This way, Acumatica can be connected to virtually any other piece of software in the world without the need for proprietary application connectors or custom code. The integrations are flexible, with the ability to adapt to new requirements.
The need for an integration strategy
Gartner recommends devising an integration strategy before embarking on any particular integration project. This is wise, as the tendency to dive directly into the application-layer details can prove to be short-sighted. Instead, their suggestion is to break down systems according to their current and expected future use cases. Then, it’s necessary to define and align user personas and business processes with these systems. Out of this process comes a coherent picture of what needs to be integrated, in what way and at what time.
The rise of the “integrator citizen”
The other interesting suggestion in the Gartner note relates to the idea of the “Integrator citizen.” This is a non-expert person who is able to integrate systems using simple tools. The advantage of this approach comes from putting integration as close to the business user as possible. This person likely knows more about the business processes being integrated than someone in the IT department. However, while there low- and no-code integration options today, in reality the integrator citizen is going to have to be someone with some software skills.
We have worked with companies on creating, and then implementing, integration strategies for ERP. It’s an iterative process that involves a lot of listening. If you want to explore how integration can benefit your ERP solution, contact us for a free consultation.