Integration and information go hand in hand. More than ever before, customers are demanding information;about their accounts, their balances, their recent purchases and deposits, their bills, their products—from every branch of your company. They want it over the phone, over the internet or with the help of EDI or XML, and they want it now. Getting that information means accessing data from various systems, and that means integration. Unfortunately, cobbling systems together isn't enough. The question to ask isn't, "Are we integrating our systems?" That answer is yes for every company that needs to compete in today’s market, your existence depends on remaining competetive..

The right question now is, "Can we get information from anywhere in our company to anywhere in our value chain?" The answer to that question is mostly a resounding no, and the vision for getting there—for becoming a truly integrated enterprise—is the real responsibility before writing another API or buying another web/host integration package.

The vision for your integrated enterprise has to incorporate your company's infrastructure and logical connectivity to move data, any data, from anywhere to anywhere in the value chain, at any time: It's a tall order, but customer demands and competition from the shrinking world markets will push you to it. If you don't deliver, customers will eventually look elsewhere. And organizational inertia is also an obstacle. Large companies are structurally built to prevent wholesale integration, small companies don’t have the internal expertise.

But it is clearly the direction in which today's businesses must go. The current practice of business is increasingly networked and interconnected. The benefits are numerous, and at the same time the retribution for those who fail to move with the current will likely be swift. The first benefit of the integrated enterprise is the ability to deliver consolidated information about the customers and to the customers.

But the potential benefits run deeper than cutting technology costs. When connections to business partners are built into the integration plan, a higher order of efficiencies can be reached. Starting simply with electronic procurement, companies can move to disciplines such as collaborative demand forecasting and lifecycle product design and development. Intertwining systems with suppliers and business customers allows companies to make dramatic improvements in their business processes. And those processes and technology links can lock in profitable relationships for a long time to come.

Logically enough, end-to-end integration are easier to achieve, cheaper and more reliable if the interconnections are put in place with a view to the whole. The integrated enterprise is a complex puzzle with many pieces, legacy data, reporting, bandwidth and processing power. A robust and connective infrastructure is an absolute must, and the volume of data to be stored, transported and processed will continue to grow. What will be stored online, nearline and offline, and in what formats? What data will be mirrored? How will integrity be ensured?

Installation of an Enterprise Management System does not create an integrated enterprise. It may be a huge building block, but it isn't the whole story. Other crucial integrated functionality includes Supply Management, shop floor systems, stakeholder-facing systems and Customer and Market Management. If applications for each of these functions can be bought off-the-shelf, and particularly if they have ready-made Application Interfaces that work with each other and with a central mangment system, then some of the integration challenge is reduced. Unfortunately, even vendors' solutions are notoriously difficult to integrate with each other. Also, most of today's packages are quite broad in their scope, so that challenge bears great scrutiny.

No single solution fits every need, and users commonly face a trade-off between flexibility, speed and feature creep.. A coherent approach to middleware selections is a crucial element, with an emphasis on flexibility and standardization where possible.

Still, the benefits of a holistic and careful integration plan are too powerful to ignore. Those who do not take enough time to develop such a plan will see the pain associated with integration grow with increasing data demand and application proliferation, since every new integration project will require starting from scratch again.

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