Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Smoothing Out the Systems Integration Process

Whether one is talking about a rock band, a sports team, a marriage or

getting dressed in the morning, it is not the quality of the individual

pieces, but how well they work together.

Mick Jagger and Celine Dion? Nope. Shaq and Kobe? Even Phil Jackson had

trouble making that one work. Polka dots and stripes? Only if you work

for the Ringling Brothers Circus.

When designing enterprise systems, you also need to pay close attention

to how the pieces work together. Anyone can buy cutting-edge software,

but that doesn’t guarantee either a successful deployment or competitive

advantage.

”The applications themselves are not the differentiator,” says John

Schmidt, president of the Integration Consortium, a professional

association headquartered in Calgary, Canada. ”It is how well you can

glue them all together and connect with customers and suppliers.”

We have all seen examples that didn’t quite fit the bill. The more

spectacular failures wind up in bankruptcy court. More commonly, it is

only an irate boss or customer who knows that the overdue project still

can’t do what you initially promised.

The good news is that neither outcome is necessary. According to industry

experts — people who have been involved in countless integration

projects on multiple platforms — the difference between success and

failure often boils down to knowledge. Knowledge not just of the

applications, but of the technology and procedures of the integration

discipline itself.

”There are always problems that will crop up in any implementation,”

says Liz Mann, managing director of the identity and security management

firm Mycroft Inc, based in New York City. ”The question is, ‘Do you want

to learn you lessons the hard way or the easy way?’ ”

Adding Something New

Bringing a new application on board, or giving a renewed zest to an aging

application, follows many of the same rules.

Early in the integration project, it is necessary to assemble a team

representing the different areas of knowledge and business needs within

the company. It is up to these individuals to then hammer out the exact

needs and scope of the project.

”The most critical phase happens right at the start — really

understanding the project’s purpose before it starts and interviewing all

stakeholders to find out their definition of what will make the project

successful,” says Bob Woodruff, special assistant to the CEO of

Robbins-Gioia, LLC in Alexandria, Va. ”Sometimes it’s tough for the

organization to be patient enough to go through this process, but the

pain it will save you further down the road is definitely worth it.”

Unless you have an extremely large skill set within the organization, it

is likely that some outside expertise will have to be imported. Make

sure, however, that outsiders supplement rather than replace existing

in-house IT staff.

Mann explains how consultants, veteran IT staff and vendors bring

complementary levels of expertise to any given project. Each has its

place.

”They can find expertise within their organization, which is very

valuable because they know about the processes and the way things have

been done up to that point,” says Mann. ”There is also the expertise of

the vendors relating to their specific products. Then there is the

expertise from companies that are technology and subject matter experts

as opposed to vendor-specific experts.”

Hiring outside experts, though, is not enough.

Integration is an ongoing process as software is updated and business

processes change. Unless the integration firm is going to set up a

permanent desk in your data center, that knowledge must be passed over to

the in-house staff.

The approach Mann recommends is to do a phased integration project. In

the beginning, the contractor works alongside the organization’s

employees, trains them, and gradually turns over the project. Not only

does this eliminate common mistakes and expand available expertise, it

also is less expensive.

”The best use of funding is to front load the expertise at the beginning

so not a lot of time is spent making mistakes others have already made,”

she says. ”Then, after the systems integrator has, for example,

established ID management or protected some of the applications, the

in-house team can then extend the infrastructure.”

Application Life Support

Another major way to save costs is to continue using legacy (and fully

paid for) applications rather than purchasing the latest software and the

high-end servers they need to run properly.

”Many legacy systems provide an adequate level of functionality and do

not have a good justification to upgrade or replace them — yet they need

to be integrated with newer systems based on incompatible technologies,”

says Schmidt. ”The ICC [Integration Competency Center] masks the

differences and extends the value of legacy investments.”

An ICC is based on the idea that integration is an ongoing process,

rather than losing the experience gained when each integration piece is

treated strictly as a discrete project.

”Integration is its own discipline and you need a group in the company

to do it,” Schmidt continues. ”The way to build that competence is to

centralize it.”

Schmidt has overseen major integration projects for the past 15 years and

this year published a book entitled, Integration Competency Center: An

Implementation Methodology, which summarizes his experience in this

field.

Building an ICC is not a one-step action, but a gradual increase in

competence and resources. Rather, Schmidt describes five levels, based on

the Capability Maturity Model for Software (Initial, Repeatable, Defined,

Managed and Optimizing) an ICC can pass through before it is a fully

self-sustaining entity that continually improves processes. But an

organization doesn’t need to wait for it to be fully established before

seeing results.

At the second level, the organization already has a repeatable process in

place so it doesn’t have to start each project from scratch. By the time

it reaches the third level, the ICC should have standardized its

integration architectures and application interfaces, making it easier to

rapidly adapt applications to meet new challenges.

”By standardizing the middleware infrastructures and providing

technologies to loosely couple systems and integrate data, the ability

for any component in the enterprise to change rapidly is enhanced,” says

Schmidt. ”This may seem counterintuitive, but adaptability and agility

in fact arise from structure.”

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