Ongoing Q&As with IT and business leaders focused on best practices, thinking, and tips for data integration success
Vivian is CEO and President at Luxent, a cloud services provider, solutions developer, and systems integrator that implements and integrates leading cloud platforms like Salesforce for manufacturers. With 25+ years of experience in software, manufacturing, and consulting, Vivian has shown users how to get real value from their ERP, cloud, manufacturing, and other technologies. She shepherded her company’s growth, so that now, Luxent is a nationwide services and solutions machine helping manufacturers, distributors, and companies expand their abilities to implement, leverage, and scale cloud technology. In the following discussion, Vivian points out key ways companies can get value from technology and the cloud through data integration and how to get the expected results.
Vivian Keena • CEO & President • Luxent
“A well-done integration will not only technically link systems (including cloud and on-premise systems), it will empower users to get to the right data when they need it without tedious, manual work.”
Q: What key items should leaders understand and focus on to do integration right?
A: The first key item comes down to the user experience. A well-done integration will not only technically link systems (including cloud and on-premise systems), it will empower users to get to the right data when they need it without tedious, manual work. We work with many customers who use ERP as a core information hub. Sadly, an ERP platform is unlikely to be an e-commerce platform or best-ofbreed CRM. This is where an integration can be a game changer if leaders take the time to go beyond simply fitting the puzzle pieces and look at where productivity and efficiency can be gained, not just by integrating the right systems, but by giving users a single experience for accessing up-to-date information.
A second key item is the data and the business processes that complement it. While an integration project in and of itself gives you a reason to clean and standardize data, leaders should take the opportunity to elevate the data discussion to think about all data processes and the business processes that affect data. It goes without saying that a data integration project will only be as successful as the data that goes into it, but the most successful data integration projects take the time to assess who enters data, how it gets changed, where automated standardization can come into play, etc. Making data consistent across all platforms is just the beginning— optimizing business processes to support ongoing data consistency can be transformational.
Q: What else trips up IT teams when doing integrations?
A: There is a lot more to integration than mapping together tables, objects, and fields. IT teams struggle the most with data transformation and ensuring integrations are solid and performing to expectations. Because a data integration project isn’t something most IT teams handle every day, it’s easy to distill it to its most technical: Get the old data mapped over to the new system. To get beyond this view, we have to think about how the data will be used, who’s using it, and what the strategic goals are for the integration project. A smart IT team is one that’s looking for tools to help it transform its data and test its integrations so that it supports the greater vision for the integration. Further, an empowered IT team is one that can work across people and platform silos to integrate better data with better processes going forward.
Q: Can you give us an example of a difficult integration and what made it so tough?
A: For manufacturers, a prime integration opportunity is an ERP integration; specifically, ERP integration to Salesforce. Because ERP is the backbone of many manufacturers’ businesses, it’s natural to connect it to a CRM platform so that everyone has a clear view of every customer’s history and activity. But you have to understand the nuances between platforms. Organizations that jump in without understanding this usually run into the natural learning curve that comes with integrating ERP platforms to Salesforce and other business-critical platforms such as e-commercey.
In one example, we had a customer whose ERP system was hosted and managed by a third party. Our team had performed dozens of integrations with this same ERP system without an issue. In this case, however, the customer’s system configuration and security setup was much different, and there was little flexibility to make changes. We were not able to use the standard mechanisms to track data changes or easily access the system. On top of that, this customer had a very high volume of data transactions, which required us to get creative to come up with a solution that worked for their environment. For example, to ensure there’s no interference with the customer’s production system, a nightly system backup is performed to refresh the integrated data. This introduced some challenges with tracking deletions and we had to introduce processes to compare the current backup data against the previous backup. As you might imagine, this required processing large amounts of data during off-hours, so special attention is paid to ensure efficient processing.
“Upfront planning with the right team and partners can reduce issues or help when issues arise.”
Q: Why do integrations cause some teams such heartburn?
A: Many organizations start integrations having no experience with the applications, vendors, and tools they’re using, as if it was just another IT project. That is where the problems begin, as integration tends to have new and different variables most teams don’t deal with on a frequent basis. Anyone with deep experience can tell you that each application, data set, data source, and tool is different by business and even by business unit. In almost every project, you have to integrate multiple types of data, differing formats (that may or may not be clean), work across various sources, as well as use new tools that all add a level of complexity. This brings integration to a level most teams have not experienced; not to mention, the teams are often under time and cost pressures to get the project done. You can see how the heartburn can start to add up. Upfront planning with the right team and partners can reduce issues or help when issues arise. The team has to map out the process and manage project expectations, otherwise any issue could lead to pain for the team and the people counting on them.
Q: What are the biggest misconceptions people have about integrating data?
A: Teams and leaders often view it as extremely costly and painful, which is usually a function of bad past experiences. Also, people tend to believe that once you integrate your data, you’re done —which isn’t true. In both cases, having success, handling issues, and showing results go a long way to prove not only the value of integration, but also the key role IT can and should play. Once you start integrating data and people see results, they want more. Internal and external stakeholders begin to see the power of the integration and then want more information at their fingertips. The desire for information grows within a company and rarely ends with the first integration. But, you have to start small, have the right team, and deliver in order to knock down those misconceptions and start on the right path moving forward.
Q: Have there been processes or activities you had to advise the client to do differently to obtain a repeatable process that guaranteed a smooth integration?
A: We constantly are looking at how people store their customer or contact files, as well as how individual systems handle specific key data fields. One of the first things we recommend is that teams look across data sets for consistency in order to improve overall integrity. The best integration companies analyze their customer’s data and processes, see how they use their data, and triple-check the data cleanliness. Once done, they can see a clear path to improve, fix, or clean up the data and processes. Companies that have issues often try to integrate too much data at the beginning, which isn’t ideal. We recommend getting the integration going in order to see what we’re really working with; let’s get the two systems talking and then let’s expand that out. We feel that integration projects that go on too long never get done. In general, it is best to plan first, get a good solid feel for the integration and what is working or not, and then continue to expand the scope once you are getting what you expect.
Q: As a business leader, what do you see are the biggest learnings IT colleagues should know about integration and data?
A: Integration is a part of every business’s future and the need for it will only grow. I think companies are moving to either put their toe in or jump completely into the cloud to gain or sustain a competitive advantage. That results in numerous different systems talking to each other.
The teams and/or companies that continue to strive to bring these systems together in the right ways will always find value and set themselves up to win. If leaders think about it in those terms and empower their IT teams, they will open up a lot of avenues they may not have thought about.
Q: How have the attitudes of employees or customers changed after a project?
A: Integration increases user adoption and enhances user experience. It gives users more power and ability to be effective in their roles. When companies integrate and see the power they can unlock, they always come back for more because it so effectively drives efficiency. Integration makes users into power users and more independent. When companies get those integrations in place, they gain more power. Customers also want information now. If you can’t give them the information they want, when they want it, someone else will. On the whole, we see much happier employees and customers when a data integration is done well. Everyone wants information at their fingertips and that’s exactly what an integration gives you.
Q: What makes you happiest about solving integration challenges?
A: I love finding new ways to overcome challenges in order to help an organization gain a greater return on the investment they’ve made in their business systems. Once businesses start integrating systems, they set themselves up for increased returns on their investment and the ability to drive more efficiency and scalability, all while empowering their users. Integrations help everyone to communicate more effectively and be in agreement about business goals and priorities. Having the right data, right now helps each member of the team to be more effective in their role and see how it contributes to furthering the goals of the organization.