Ongoing Q&As with IT and business leaders focused on best practices, thinking, and tips for data integration success
Brian Helwig is responsible for driving innovation and strategy in finance, operations and customer service for Netwrix, an IT auditing company, which provides software that maximizes visibility into who changed what, when, where and who has access to what. With 19 years of experience, he has prided himself on getting his “hands dirty” while being a transformational change agent that focuses on best-practice processes that improve revenue, organizational output, capacity and efficiency. At Netwrix, Brian and his teams help over 6,000 customers worldwide to handle IT infrastructure changes, pass compliance audits and increase the efficiency of IT operations. In the following interview, Brian discusses the key steps to be successful in starting and using data integrations, now and in the future.
Q: How should companies view integration to be successful?
A: We think of integration as efficiency and enablement. If done correctly, you become more efficient and more effective as data moves between the different platforms. It also empowers and enables your end users to really communicate more efficiently. Businesses that do it right ultimately end up with their overall business interactions being more effective as information and orders move from one department to another or improve the lead-to-cash lifecycle. That integration really helps facilitate consistency, collaboration, and communication across every platform and people. That’s how we see successful businesses view and use integrations.
Brian Helwig • Chief Financial Officer, Netwrix
“Businesses that do it right ultimately end up with their overall business interactions being more effective as information and orders move from one department to another or improve the lead-to-cash lifecycle.”
Q: What kind of challenges should leaders be thinking about now and in the future with their integration projects?
A: The challenges that are really going to come about are going to be wrapped around security and enablement; and actually, disablement as well. The closer that information moves to the end user and the more complex processes become, the easier it is to expose information that should be private. In fact, today, much of this information is locked into systems that make it hard to expose it in the first place. A simple example would be, years ago, you probably received your bank statements in the mail. Now, you receive your statements on your phone, email and web where you can see all the transactions. So information and access to information is at your fingertips. Banks are realizing they have millions of customers out there running around on a live connection to their accounts and have the ability to transfer funds and move information around. If a phone is lost, they have to find ways to not only mitigate the fraud and the cost, but also ways that they can change the outcome of someone getting a hold of the information. This is one of the biggest challenges in integration. While it’s making things more effective and efficient for end users and cheaper for the banks to provide service, integration needs to be seen as having a big part in security.
Q: What are the key things that people miss when doing integrations?
A: One of the biggest ones is sole source. You almost always have to fight over and have really tough discussions about where customers, financial and inventory data live. Sometimes they’re all in the same system with NetSuite, while Salesforce focuses on the customer piece. So until you figure out where the sole source is going to be, everybody is going to have very different opinions about how important their information is and where their processes begin and end. If you can’t get that worked out in the beginning, the integration will never happen. The second biggest pitfall is custom fields and custom elements. They are, in my opinion, the biggest death of a business integration there could ever be. Worst of all, when you dig into these, they exist for reporting or business intelligence purposes, not to move an order from lead to cash. Data fields, such as “type of customer,” don’t really matter if all you need to understand is how much we sold, what we sold and what the fulfillment time will be. These custom fields are hard to map and resolve which leads to longer and more problematic integrations.
Another big one is, organizations over complicate the integration in the beginning and try to boil the ocean. Most of the time when I’ve done integrations, I’ve seen conflicts resolved by almost saying, “Hey, let’s just throw the element out and see what happens.” Many begin with trying to get system A to talk to system B to talk to system C and then try to tweak the rest of it which is painful to watch and fix. Finally, people often forget integration is not about them, it’s about the customer—from the time they provision to the time they receive the invoice. Any other focus tends to get things connected but not better the business or help the customer experience.
“To be successful, the number one thing you need to do is have a solid understanding of the process from beginning to end and make sure it is well documented.”
Q: What can businesses do to ensure great integrations?
A: There are three things:
1. To be successful, the number one thing is to have a solid understanding of the process from beginning to end and make sure it is well documented. Someone who “knows the process” is not the same.
2. You need to have a systems requirements document that lays out and understands how users work and use the information from the integration. This allows you to have discussions with stakeholders, build the integration once, and keep evolving to get more value over time while layering on best practices.
3. Pick the right technology for the systems you’re working on. It doesn’t matter if a system at the beginning or end is not working. If you’re doing an on-premise integration versus a cloud integration, you have to worry about things like security— especially depending on the types of data you’re passing back and forth. But in either case, the technology and who controls it matters when things go wrong. Internal employees, partners, vendors and others all need to work together, without passing blame. Doing a little homework here goes a long way to identify and understand where issues may lie and who will handle them if something goes wrong.
Q: Where should organizations spend more time to get the results they seek?
A: In my experience, spending more time with the order takers is the largest missed opportunity in the beginning of an infant integration. People rely alot on perception and emotion when they should be focusing on what the team needs and uses. Usually when people hear things like, “We’re going to integrate these two systems,” the first thing that comes to their mind is, “Are we going to be reducing the workforce?” First, giving anyone this feeling makes it much more difficult to get information out of them. Second, if you don’t truly understand what it is they’re doing, it is really hard to get the level of efficiency you’re expecting and the ROI if the integration falls short. Once you experience that once or twice in your life, you realize that understanding why and how order takers function in the organization is critical. Also, you appreciate how much wasted time is spent fighting over the little things, like small customized fields and things that really aren’t relevant to getting real results with the integration.
“So outside of the day-to-day integration and the operational efficiencies, you should have happier employees and customers, and you should observe some downstream residual effects that are usually not accounted for in the ROI and other parts of the business.”
Q: Great. What are the things people should expect from an integration?
A: First, it’s more than just connecting systems. The whole point of integration is to become more operationally effective. You expect to see data integrity and quality go up as well as see access to the right information in the right place at the right time. When done right, sales, payment, supply, shipping, accounting and other information is automatically where your organization can use it to create happy customers. It allows you to get ahead and deliver what customers want—either the second they would like it or having it waiting when they realize they need it. So outside of the day-to-day integration and the operational efficiencies, you should have happier employees and customers, and you should observe some downstream residual effects that are usually not accounted for in the ROI and other parts of the business.
Q: What are the key things leaders should know or do before they even start?
A: There are five key questions to ask:
1. Why are you doing it? That’s the first question. If the person on the other end cannot articulate to you why they’re doing it, then they don’t understand what the benefits are or where they are going to come from.
2. Do you understand the technologies that you’re working with, the types of data, and the general industry requirements around each? People often don’t spend enough time considereing PCI compliance, healthcare and other data requirements. Then once you understand the types, the systems, technology and industry standards, you need to follow-up and make sure your company is safe, secure and risk is averted. As I mentioned, having the data right where it needs to be has benefits, but also opens the door to threats.
3. Do you have a really solid team that has the right stakeholders? It’s one thing to have the Vice President, C-level executive or a Director on the phone, saying, “I’m a stakeholder in this part of the business.”But when you’re integrating, there are a lot of details and, whether we like to admit it or not, these are not always the best people to have as stakeholders in the room. Executives are absolutely needed, but to start out, you need the people who use and work on the systems and data. Those are the people you need to have a good fundamental relationship with as you start to gather the information.
4. What are your testing procedures to make sure that you can get everything from end to end? You need to have all the reports in place to continue to measure the business as it was before and add in new touchpoints to ensure you are getting value moving forward.
5. How are you going to measure success? Ideally, you would focus around measuring customer satisfaction. Because ultimately, if you integrate everything and your customers are frustrated on the website or on the phone, it’s not working, no matter what anyone or anything else tells you.
Q: What are the behaviors and attitudes you see with integrations done right?
A: The hardest thing to overcome is, people don’t like change. And when you integrate, you’re making substantial changes. Integration alters their work, their lifestyle, and even their roles and responsibilities. So in resisting change, they point out all the flaws in the implementation stage since they don’t view it as a necessity or something that’s better for them and improves their processes. To get around this, you need to partner with IT to build those connections before the team starts resisting. It is essential to have three to five people that go get feedback up front. Whether you take it, completely internalize it, or turn it into a part of the process is irrelevant. They need to know that they have a voice, they have a champion, and they have somebody there talking to them. As you build these relationships, you start to hear how they’re using the application. It becomes very valuable feedback and tempers their criticisms so that they adopt the change naturally. Even though you delivered the same thing you were going to deliver all along, they just feel like they had more buy-in to the process and it makes things a lot easier.
Q: Where do you see integration going both now and in the future?
A: Over the last 15 years, it has been about just getting data from one system to another and eliminating the copy and paste. Now, it has completely evolved to facilitate real-time events and business functions. Companies can now show and see every facet of an order from email to order to delivery. This information is available both internally and externally, as well as being displayed via mobile, websites and systems through integration. As businesses evolve and their processes become more efficient, you’re going see integrations becoming more complex. This will lead to moving the integration closer, including personal devices. The “bring your own device” element and leaps in mobile capabilities are giving people access with a couple taps of a finger to any and all business processes. This means the days of needing to be in front of an ERP system at your desk are numbered.
Q: How should companies plan to be ready as they move ahead with more and more integration?
A: Businesses need to move past the two-factor authentication and push to understand that the individual who has access to specific types of data is really that person through patterns. In the event it is not, they need to build in much lower thresholds than they use today to control access. Also, integration is going to have to start to decipher or make general decisions about where data goes and stops. Integration needs to help identify patterns and behaviors and help understand whether or not it should allow the data or the action to continue on, or if it should start a workflow to ask somebody if it is normal. A very simple example of this is with the new phishing schemes that look like wire requests coming from finance departments. Many people get hit with these two or three times a year. If there wasn’t a human involved in actually reviewing the request, the information and funds might be sent. Integration plays a role in being able to compare things like a check image, list of your accounts payable and other information to see if it matches. With increased automation and integration, this is going to become more and more important as time goes on, not only to deliver the efficiency and enablement, but also to prevent issues that arise from greater access.