A Concise Introduction to Integration Problems Part II: How to Solve Them
(This is the second of our two-part series on integration problems.
Click to read Part I: How to Spot Them.)
So, you have identified that your company has integration problems. Morale is affected, reporting is overly complicated, you can’t plan for the future, and customer service is suffering. So, what can you do about it?
Look Before You Leap
When looking to fix integration problems, you have a spectrum of options: at one end is a long series of fixes to individual issues; at the other end is a major, transformational project.
Either way, strategise first! Before you do anything, your Board should consider these questions:
- What is your ambition for growth? Meaning, how much do you intend to grow and change the business in the coming years? Do you need a platform for growth and acquisition, or can you continue to cope?
- What resources are available? Are you prepared to invest significant resources in projects, or would you rather tackle problems piecemeal?
- How serious are the problems? How much are they really affecting — or in danger of affecting — the business?
- Is there a major opportunity to reinvent your business, or just an opportunity to remove some irritations?
Be aware that this discussion can reveal personal tensions in your organisation. In most cases, when systems aren’t integrated, it means that departments aren’t communicating with each other — so this kind of discussion can be quite stormy, as departments may blame each other for your company’s struggles.
Avoid the blame-game. Aim for a dispassionate acceptance of the current realities and the need for change. Then figure out who will have ownership of the solution.
Putting Together Your Integration Dream Team
You need focus to solve integration problems. So, start with a competent team that has resources and authority. Appoint a Director to be accountable and give them a twelve-week time frame within which solving integration problems is their priority.
Why twelve weeks? Because the time period needs to be long enough to actually make a difference, but short enough that business-as-usual issues can wait, so this project can genuinely be a priority.
The initial focus should be on creating a list of issues with (a) estimates of the three-year business impact of each, and (b) an assessment of how readily solvable the problem. From this list you can select, say, the top three or four problems with a commitment to solve or substantially reduce them in twelve weeks.
How to Take Small Steps Forward
Remember that integration solutions are on the spectrum between individual fixes and a big, transformational project. It may be tempting to think big — but it may not be necessary! For each issue, consider the following:
- Can processes be changed to eliminate the problem? Perhaps small process and system amendments can streamline activities.
- Are personnel issues contributing? You may need to improve your training programs or take a hard look at incentives (e.g. sales commissions) that influence behaviour. Are there individuals whose roles need to be changed?
- If workarounds are necessary, can they be automated? For example, using Excel macros or templates, small bespoke programs, or other data processing or reporting tools.
- Are there incompatible or obsolete technologies that must be upgraded or replaced?
More Serious Redesign Projects
If it turns out that more serious redesigns are necessary, you’ll need an even more strategic approach. Go back to the beginning and consider how to reorganise your business to suit the needs of your customers. For example, automate manual activities wherever possible, unless it makes commercial sense or provides enhanced service that your customers value.
Then start thinking through the main processes, key performance indicators, and options for back-end systems. (Naturally, if you reduce the number of back-end systems, there will be fewer technical integrations, so there should be fewer sources of potential problems.)
A word of warning: some vendors market their solutions as a single brand, when, under the bonnet, they actually provide multiple products which are not fully integrated. So, one “product” may actually be composed of many partly integrated pieces of software.
The solution may then lie in Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP). Basically, ERP takes all of the core processes you need to run your company — finance, HR, manufacturing, supply chain, services, procurement, and others — and integrates them into a single system.
The goal is to provide all the separate aspects of your business with the same information in real-time. And the result can a huge springboard to scalability and growth.
You can read Part I: How to Spot Them here.
Freeman Clarke is the largest and most experienced team of part-time, or fractional, IT leaders. We work exclusively with organisations looking to use IT to grow their business. For an informal conversation, contact us and we’ll be in touch.