Data, from customer information to vendor performance, is increasingly seen as a business asset and a key factor when making business decisions.
Effective data integration of all systems in use across the business is crucial to provide the needed analytical information that informs strategic planning, including where and how organizations can improve operations.
Without integration, departments are siloed, which means the customer journey is fractured and leadership can't make informed decisions.
The Need for an Enterprise Integration Strategy
A recent report from Digibee, conducted with research firm CensusWide and based on a survey of more than 1,000 U.S.-based CIOs, found while having an enterprise integration strategy is a top priority, few such strategies are in place.
The survey revealed that most business leaders (57%) believe an enterprise integration strategy is critical to their organization.
In addition, 61% of CIOs and more than half of system architects and developers said a standardized, enterprise integration strategy is a top priority.
However, just 7% of respondents said they have succeeded in implementing an enterprise integration strategy, and the vast majority — 93% of decision-makers — said they have no formal integration strategy in place.
According to Digibee's North America Field CTO Tam Ayers, planning and execution are the key challenges facing organizations trying to achieve enterprise integration
"A few integration platforms will enable your team to learn the platform — if you've selected the right platform, learning the platform is easily accomplished," he said. "I encourage IT leaders to ask business leaders what their major objectives are so that they can align IT needs with business needs."
Execution of an integration strategy can be difficult if commercial needs come in fast and furious, Ayers added.
His recommendation is to plan the strategy, select the right partner to implement — or sometimes help build — the strategy, and then execute on the business needs.
"IT teams are incredibly powerful — an integration strategy should enable them to do their best work," Ayers said. "If the wrong partner is selected by the business users, IT teams can be brought in at the last minute, and roadmap initiatives can be interrupted or delayed."
Mike Anderson, CTO and founder of Tealium, points to siloed data, unidentified data, or the lack of or too much data as all challenges organizations face today.
To ensure all business functions are working together to unify customer data, it's important to enforce cross-functional collaboration across the enterprise, he said.
"Breaking down data silos also means breaking down business silos across all business units," Anderson explained. "Historically, development, marketing, IT, and sales operations teams have been the ones responsible for utilizing data."
Today, however, every business unit is dependent on data to be successful, and data has become critical for the offices of the CFO and CIO — for example, in making enterprisewide, executive financial decisions.
Legal and security teams particularly benefit from data to enforce trust and compliance in today's highly regulated world, Anderson said.
"Connecting business units is the biggest challenge organizations face today, but the sooner these functions align, the sooner an organization will be able to accelerate innovation," he said.
Establish Integration Leaders Across Departments
Once the need for an integration strategy has been identified, the first step is to establish a governance committee comprising the CIO/IT director, senior operational leaders, and at least one IT business analyst and documentation specialist, according to Olivia Montgomery, associate principal analyst at GetApp.
"Each business will need to right-size the committee based on their level of complexity and IT architecture maturity," she explained. "Then, communicate the committee's existence and purpose to all managers, instructing that all inquiries for a new software tool be directed to this committee."
This avoids the scenario in which a department lead buys a new software tool and only then engages IT for help with implementation.
From there, Montgomery said it's important to assign a technical project manager to come up with a project plan for the creation and execution of the new integration strategy.
"An integration strategy effort only gets more complicated the longer you wait," she said. "As the business grows, the amount of data gathered exponentially increases, junk data can be inadvertently stored and cost money, and inevitably, new software tools will increase the complexity of data management."
From Ayers' perspective, there are three key stakeholders:
- integration architect
- business leader
- senior technology leader, either the CIO or the CTO
"If an integration strategy is left to the IT department, there is a mismatch between what IT is building and what the business needs," he said. "Without a senior leader, there's no one to help ensure that the migrations stay on track, and visibility across the organization might be limited."
Building a Future-Proof Blueprint
Implementing a data-first integration strategy shouldn't be a one-time initiative — it's a future-proof blueprint in remaining competitive in a world where customers are taking in thousands of ads and messages every single day, according to Anderson.
"Think of an integration strategy as the way in which your business, as a whole, uses technology to create experiences for customers no matter when, where, or how they interact with your business," he said.
Taking a center of excellence approach in partnership with marketing, analytics and business intelligence, IT, product, and engineering will allow organizations to create cross-functional teams of champions.
Partnering with a customer data platform (CDP), for example, can provide the right guidance to help organizations work better together and develop an integration strategy for all data sources.
Dennis Monner, chief commercial officer for Aryaka, said to truly maximize your assets, you need everything to be working together, in concert, to ensure you're not duplicating efforts.
"With shrinking budgets, CIOs and IT leaders need access to as many resources as possible, so if you're spending money on nearly identical products, it's only going to make things more challenging," he said. "Speed is another key reason why system and data integration are so critical."
Those that are using multiple point solutions, as opposed to those going with a platform approach, will encounter more latency issues as information moves through the network, Monner said.
A system that's stitched together with several applications from different corners of the world is naturally going to cause more delays, and in a digital-first world, that has a significant impact on business production.
Security a Critical Integration Factor
Security is another area that continues to grow in importance in our digital-first world, Monner said.
"As we've seen with demands for solutions like SASE, more businesses see the value in adopting smarter, born-in the-cloud security solutions to protect the places where networking and security converge," he said.
Security solutions today need to account for data, devices, networks, and all other infrastructure as businesses move to the edge.
Having applications and data that are not integrated properly can create security vulnerabilities, especially if the organization is moving applications and data from private networks to the cloud, and manually creating a security policy for the new environment, Monner said.
"This is where a zero trust network approach, which enables you to manage security policies centrally, can help bolster security, while speeding things up," he added.
Plan for Enterprise Integration Now, or Run Risks Later
Montgomery warns that waiting to come up with a data management plan can also leave businesses at higher risk for data breaches, information privacy issues, and even regulatory compliance challenges.
"Without a good grasp on what type and where the data is stored, businesses are susceptible to bad actors, externally and internally," Montgomery said.
This is an "extremely compelling" time to make sure you get things right, with technology constantly changing and today's tough regulatory landscape, Anderson added.
"Regardless, the customer should be at the heart of what you do," he said. "Staying agile amid these major shifts is critical."
With third-party cookie deprecation changing the way businesses engage with customers via intelligence and a host of new technologies on the horizon, such as Web 3.0 and the metaverse, the time for a future-proof strategy is now, he said.
"The businesses who do this the quickest will reap the biggest benefits in the near term and be set for utmost success over the next decade and beyond," Anderson said.
Monner agrees that the organizations relying on the status quo now are the ones that are going to suffer later.
"If IT leaders haven't begun planning their integration strategies already, there's no better time than today because the next disaster is right around the corner," he said. "We've entered a new paradigm in business where constant evolution is par for the course and standing still is no longer an option."
About the authorNathan Eddy is a freelance writer for ITPro Today. He has written for Popular Mechanics, Sales & Marketing Management Magazine, FierceMarkets, and CRN, among others. In 2012 he made his first documentary film, The Absent Column. He currently lives in Berlin.