How important is (tech) integration?
A basic understanding of integration and what it really means is the start of the answer
Today’s market conditions demand a multitude of aspects from employees for a business to stay relevant and competitive in a highly volatile and changing world, and so, the adage ‘adapt or die’ has never rung truer. This makes traditional ways of planning all but redundant. Instead, structures must be created to allow high levels of flexibility. Old, rigid building technologies were abandoned because of their inability to survive intense and sharp change shocks earthquakes bring, in favour of skyscrapers that are flexible and can bend and sway to avoid ride out shocks instead of simply rigidly resisting them and crumbling as a result.
Aero-technology had the same insight: counter-intuitively, the mass of weight of a large Boeing 747 can ride out the most severe shocks of storms and harsh atmospheric onslaughts, because it has great flexibility in its critical components – the wings are strong because they can flex and bend.
Organisations really are no different. Old ways of rigid structures which promised predictability and immortal ‘right ways’ of doing things, where deviation was easy to see and punish with authority are from, and for, a different world with an entirely different cultural orientation at its core; that is a sure way to crumble under shocks and the quickest route to go the way of the dinosaurs. It is critical to avoid being stuck when rapid adaptation new is needed. When a business needs to move, it needs to do so rapidly. This is the way to remain competitive. One key factor that could enable or hinder a business to be nimble is its level of integration maturity.
We consider five (often overlooked or disregarded) points to think about, to get to grips with the character of integration in your business.
The shortest distance between two points is a straight line
Integration is usually complex. A simple way to think of the of it is remembering the shortest distance between two points, is a straight line. This is the solution where the least energy and effort (i.e. organisational time and resource) is expended. IT must mirror this. Think of things such as:
- Current processes – are these still needed, relevant, and optimised?
- The number of inputs (including people) needed into a process, (data, users, skills, maintenance of application resources, third party dependencies) – is everything still relevant and optimised if so?
- Risk: is there high complexity, old technology in use (failures and reliability, and ability to repair and fix in your business talent pool), outdated maintenance requirements (skills needed, integration possibility of old generation data and application structures). What is the likely shelf life left, if any? Are any regulatory breaches resulting of old technology gaps and limitations?
Assessing items like these yield opportunities for improvement by uncovering redundancy and duplication, gaps, and limitations and risks. It also opens up consideration for the use of automation where this was never designed for in the original process and technology. This will bring the connection between the two dots – the line – into focus to try and get it as short and straight as possible between all the system and human interactions and processes. Through integration of all these factors and the use of appropriate technology to assist where possible. Without an ‘as-is’ assessment and baseline understanding, moving forward will remain uncertain and not pinned to solid fact and defined, measurable improvements and expected business benefits.
Integration must equally include people, processes and technology… but most importantly people!
This point follows on from the first one and is a specific risk in integration efforts that must be well understood in order to mitigate or avoid it. To craft a meaningful integration plan for a business the people-element must be one of the key considerations, both internal and external to the business. Most integration road-maps focus heavily on the digital or technology component and fail to adequately consider the people factor as critical to success; any Digital Transformation strategy failing to consider this must be warned: here be dragons!
Firstly, from an external viewpoint: if integration is only a technology endeavour, the business might not understand its basic purpose: value creation. People – in the form of clients and consumers – are the purchasers of the value. This is in the end the single reason why a business exists. If value is not increased by integration efforts, integration drivers are not aligned to the true business goals (point 4 gives more on integration).
Sadly familiar are the scenario where organisations eventually buckle under immense pressure to deliver profits to owners or shareholders – and so abandon their core business of value to consumers. Being generators of shareholder profits as an end goal – mostly done through aggressive cost-cutting (which ends up cutting critical skills when advancing) to increase profit margins. Such practices have no hope for (see point 5, around leadership) resulting, in time, in the disintegration of market value and brand image.
The worst corporate scandals and disasters all share this common thread: Volkswagen’s emissions scandal, Goldman Sach’s fabrications of new clients acquired, the collapse of Enron and WorldCom; and on South African soil, there is Africa Bank, Steinhoff… the point is that business drivers of integration efforts has to be a positive impact on consumer value, especially because of the scale, complexity, and investment that often is made into it.
Secondly, looking internally, it is as important to understand that the core of any business is – yes, people! The consensus in reputable business research is clear that people are the heart of a business – and ultimately the biggest resource to create and sustain a competitive offering or product. If people in an organisation are not regarded a toxic culture is likely to develop and loss of market position and value to consumers soon follow.
Considering points 1 and 2 provide a good frame of the remit of integration and how to start thinking about it as a business owner or key leader. The next point then will look at the part technology plays in integration efforts.
Integration isn’t just about technology, but impossible to achieve without it
To future-proof means designing integration between old and target state technology where a design achieves maximum flexibility for the future, whilst requiring minimum investment and new acquisition to achieve, for the maximum shelf life it can give. Simply: sweat your assets and make sure they can keep meeting requirements as these evolve.
Only once a good understanding of the inter-relatedness of an organisation and the critical role people play is in place, will the right critical drivers for integration as a functional digital aspect be in focus and ready to align and advance the business value proposition. Any gaps are the requirements of the integration solution design, using the foundation of people and process to plan technology requirements and solutions from (and applies to the whole stack, from foundational / core, to middle-ware and to the front-end applications). A design must achieve optimisation across people and process requirements through defining technical requirements to address these. In this way it becomes easier to see where automation or new technologies could bring benefits.
In a previous blog, we explored the role of consultants and touched on the value that a specialist skill can bring to a business. This area could benefit significantly from expert inputs, given the high complexity and technical expertise needed. An experienced and well-rounded enterprise architect will make good use of – and probably have requested – your business architectures in the form of at least processes that are published or mapped in one way or another on top of which to start the work of designing an integration plan.
The way forward will depend on many factors, including the role and reliance on technology to bring services or offerings to market such as banks or financial service providers, where there is very high (almost exclusively) complexity and reliance on technology to create and deliver consumer offerings and play all the various roles to all the various stakeholders in such organisation’s value proposition ecosystems, across borders and regions in many instances. Typically, there are vast technology estates, across business units and conglomerated acquisitions of different kinds, with core technologies being old, and multiple layers of various legacy systems exist, some of which are all but black box because of the age and lack of skills left to work with these.
The more there is to consider, the higher the complexity, cost, time and risk will become for integration road maps. Such organisations often give rise to new approaches because of their ability to invest and run research and development work within their large corporate environments.
The nature of your business and the anticipated growth trajectory create the context against which a technology integration design must be created to achieve good commercial business benefits.
The following principles will help guide the overall thinking and areas for consideration:
- Scalability – This is a big-ticket item. Ensure it is fully leveraged in a way that allows for maximum flexibility. A business might see rapid expansion or contraction (seasonal factors often cause this) and might find that they are paying for tech not needed (as a fixed cost) or cannot upscale fast enough to cater for demand spikes.
The advent of cloud solutions made scaling much more achievable allowing effortless scaling with variable cost benefits (pay for use). The bottom line for cloud technology, byte for byte, is that it’s much cheaper than physical ware and doesn’t require the maintenance efforts or carry the risks of physical technology. It also stays up to date with technology changes and passes benefits on directly, without complex and costly physical ware replacement programmes.
If you do nothing else, make sure you plan for cloud solutions if this is not already in place.
- Security and Reliability – some businesses will have much higher stringency for this requirement, but it is nonetheless very important even for small businesses to ensure that business critical systems have backups to guard against loss of information in the event of failure. Any business also will want minimal downtime. Security and audit features will help prevent loss through digital fraud (externally or internally) and assist in legal matters where audit trail or similar data can be evidence. These features must be a base capability of your technology (mostly in the data base structures or adequately contracted if cloud-based) and as broadly available to your front-end applications as possible. It is advisable to have records for auditing for as much of your process data points as possible.
Integrated system monitoring is invaluable making diagnostics and earlier reaction to possible or existing technology errors and problems easier, as well as speeding up time to repair if used appropriately to the technology used.
- Support, guarantees, and error handling – Choose your vendor carefully. Adequately support is always critical when there are challenges and your system’s ability to continue operating is impacted in some way. Reliability, speed and cost are the obvious considerations that must be in place for technology support.
A common perception is that big industry technology names are the ones to go with. Whilst they certainly have the reputation to give solid re-assurance and support, you must also consider that they are well resourced and a smaller business with an urgent need for support or experiencing some form of solution quality issues or failures might find themselves with very limited resources, and up against a very formidable entity that is very well resourced and powerful. Consider the cost and the features and benefits of the standalone solution, and then the additional support you are likely to have access to for the tech. Be satisfied that you are getting value. Large multi-nationals can be expensive, and a large part of the cost is for the guarantee and brand backing, but ultimately simply handsome profit margins. When using the enterprise names for solutions, small businesses might lose out to the priority, influence and cost benefits a large corporate client will get.
Also keep in mind that large tech firms have efficiencies of scale – achieved through standardisation of their solutions. Changes or customisation to their systems are possible, but the cost can be very high and timelines long to build for this. Make sure that flexibility is not an unaffordable or theoretical possibility because it is more than likely going to be required, given the flux of the world we do business in.
A small, newer software development provider might be very eager to establish themselves and give incredibly good value, features and benefits at significantly lower costs to purchase and maintain. Front end applications that are low-code and highly configurable provide incredible benefits and value to a business because it encapsulates most of the critical technology requirements and can flex and change rapidly and at low or no cost for your business to stay adaptable and nimble to changing demands, and often the small providers are driven by ex-corporates with deep skills and knowledge, eager to make career changes away a full time worker in a large corporate culture.
- Usability and simplicity – it might seem obvious but is often a serious contributor to adoption failure and benefit realisation. Complex systems which require high user skills are time consuming, frustrating, and generally not up to speed with user interface expectations in a contemporary sense. Such solutions simply should not be on your shortlist! Systems that lack user-focused design, are likely to suffer from the same unsympathetic ease of integration characteristics. There is much available to technology consumers, at low cost: as it stands, there is no reason to compromise on ease of use.
Related to ease of use, it is critical that users must be involved to contribute to evaluation and requirement clarification for new technology designs, specifically front-end solutions. They are the key to unlocking expected business benefits – or can block it with resistance to fully adopt new solutions. The days where managers or purse holders, removed from the intricacies of the end user and front line, made the most critical determinations around the procurement of technology solutions, are outdated and seen as a way of work which must remain in the past because of its serious limitations and negative impact on business agility and adaptation.
- General considerations – Ownership and costs are important to fully understand. Smaller tech providers are more open to using open source code to build their solutions, which gives the consumer much higher degrees of ownership and control to change the system they own. This is not yet widespread on large tech platforms, where essentially there is a complex hire purchase model in place, and seldom full ownership or control.
It is helpful to use a maturity model in the preliminary integration solution design. Rating your current technology maturity will help pitch the right needs and priorities to meet to grow to the next level, instead of having unrealistic expectations and ending up with an integration design which is not practical or aligned. There are many methodologies and recommendations but to start, a useful rating model is the The Open Group Service Integration Maturity Model (OSIMM) which provides a technology maturity view from very isolated siloed technology elements with low or no integration, to highly integrated technology estates. For an alternative summary in the TOGAF frame, Architecture Maturity Models provides concise information to consider.
Clearly it is critical that the technology is understood in tandem with the business change capacity and resourcing to plan the correct implementation approach – especially in large integration projects. Starting from foundations and then working progressively up through the middle-ware and finally the front-end solutions as a road map for digital integration will have very different implications and impacts on your business than doing it the other way around. The rollout approach must form part of the overall integration design, aligned to your business context.
There’s strength in alignment – ensure this is achieved
This point draws on previous blogs on Systems Theory. Using those principles make sure that all the components of all the various elements and factors making up a system are aligned in the target solution. This must be achieved from the overall business strategy, down to the technology strategy and road-maps, and include alignment of all the various functional and divisional plans and strategies. Alignment between marketing and production / operations is a very pertinent area to focus on for solid alignment. And then, align down to lower level business objectives and tactical plans at the operational process level.
It is critical to remain focused and sensitive to align to the market in which the business operates because this is the place where the consumers are defined. Equally essential is aligning the business and people culture and the solution design and change effort, so that the value that employees bring to your business, is entirely included and passed to the consumers in the final instance.
The best glue for integration? LEADERSHIP
Leadership is the thing that brings it all together, fosters it, contains and directs it and harmonises until the change shifts have been made. Mature and capable leadership can overcome adversity and challenge by leveraging the system’s own strengths and energy, and fostering the conditions needed for the business to continue in the right direction. In such conditions, people are seen as the most valuable, and valued, component.
Lack of leadership will lead to confusion, misalignment and frustrated and directionless efforts, irrespective of the level of brilliance of the technical components of an integration plan. In the most basic sense, good leadership will know the capacity and culture of the business and its people, will create conditions that support the adaptation process, and will guide and continue to steer for strong alignment of all elements and components.
There is a very serious warning here: business goals touted and sold by leadership as grandiose and noble, but really are shareholder or ownership greed disguised in vague PowerPoint jargon and expensive corporate leadership shows and fanfare to introduce the message to the employees are usually noticed and recognised for what it is by employees. A thinly veiled (or, not veiled at all) focus on relentless profit growth as the ultimate goal will be seen as the greed that it is, lacking any moral or ethical centre. Employees will react to the rejection of the true business purpose of increasing value to consumers, and the business transformation journey will get stale and eventually sour. Both consumer and employee support will dwindle, and a toxic environment will soon be flourishing. And no solution integration that faces this challenge will rescue the damage to the business that results from such circumstances. As the custodians of the business, including its ethics and standing in the market, senior and top leaders are entirely accountable for ensuring the direction of this is the right one. The importance of the character of leadership in a business cannot be understated – it is a make or break. And if it’s a make, then solution integration will bring the expected benefits to the business.