People talk about the world getting smaller all the time, whether it be the speed of information getting to us or the ‘6 degrees of separation’ becoming even more real with the help of social networking sites like LinkedIn and Facebook. That’s all well and good, but in our world of regulated environments, I often am asked how can technology advances help companies achieve greater efficiencies and compliance in their operations and quality management systems? Two words – system integrations. For years we’ve all talked about the business benefit of sharing data between systems but relatively few companies have been able to implement the integrations - for a host of reasons, but primarily due to:
- Cost – let’s face it, money isn’t exactly overflowing these days and every expense is scrutinized
- Technology – historically, building integrations was difficult and required point-to-point integrations. Not only did it take time and money, system upgrades became more challenging ($$$) than ever before
- History – the system you want to integrate to is actually more than one, commonly due to mergers and acquisitions
- Organizational Alignment – even after you passed the other hurdles you still had to coordinate with another system where frequently their priorities don’t include your proposal in the next 2-3 years
While challenges are inherent to every business, many are becoming less daunting due to improvements in technology.
Technology has evolved considerably to provide companies more tools than ever before to make integration dreams a reality. In the ‘old’ model systems would be directly linked to share data; while this met the immediate need companies struggled to maintain this link over time and it weighed-down innovation – companies were reluctant to add even more integrations when the initial ones were so difficult to maintain.
With the adoption of Services Oriented Architecture (SOA) companies are overcoming many of the traditional barriers to integration success. Rather than a direct linkage, SOA is more like a handshake of reusable pieces – systems ‘meet in the middle’ to share information and the same set of data can be used by multiple systems, a great example being a master product list out of ERP pushed to 10 different systems. This technology reduces validation costs and more importantly, enables systems to continue to be upgraded without the large overhead of traditional point-to-point integrations. Just as importantly, SOA is an industry trend and not something that is being driven by any one software company alone.
SOA also bridges additional organizational challenges, namely history. It is not uncommon for companies to have multiple ERP systems and SOA can overcome that challenge by bridging the gaps between systems. The more basic example is having a consolidated product list (sounds simple, but many companies simply don’t have this) but the real value is in things like automating the product hold process for nonconformances, such that if the nonconformance is on product X go to ERP ABC and product Y go to ERP 123. Over time as the ERPs are consolidated SOA can evolve with your organization to truly support your business evolution, rather than hinder it.
This all sounds well and good, but what limitations are in place? Like any technology there are strengths and weaknesses in the technology itself, not to mention any additional limitations in place when integrating to a specific application based on how the vendor actually interacts with SOA. In my experience software vendors take one of two approaches to supporting SOA:
Build it once and productize it, thereby making future integrations follow a similar model
Positives – in theory it reduces time to implement at future customer sites and there is perceived value in using a ‘product’
Negatives – there is a trade-off in functionality if your business process doesn’t meet the original business model ‘standard’. What happens next, do you change your business requirements or customize the solution? Inevitably the non-supported use cases must be either re-engineered, customized, or taken out altogether, thereby reducing the benefit of the integration in the first place. Frequently these scenarios result in diluted business benefits and more cost and time than originally planned
See SOA as a tool-kit and constantly enhance the product to meet different business cases
Positives – flexibility to meet a company’s unique business needs; if the functionality doesn’t exist often the feature is added to the base-product, thereby increasing the tool-kit and also ensuring support from the vendor
Negatives – in theory this model takes longer to implement, although in practice that’s not necessarily the case as the concept of re-usable parts is truly realized from one implementation to the next
As you can see, innovation continues to break down barriers and helps companies achieve more with less. As the world becomes smaller around us, let’s continue to use technology to our advantage so we can make better products in a more efficient manner, and spend less time cutting and pasting from one system to another!