With its connotation of lengthy timelines and massive expense, "integration" is a word that sends chills down the spines of many manufacturers' IT managers. And it's a word that comes up often in the context of a business integration (BI) implementation. Unless a BI integration connects that tool with the core systems -- namely, ERP -- it will be difficult to access the data to gain the insights needed to improve business performance.
Traditional systems integration generally involves the use of a middleware layer situated between the systems to be integrated -- here, BI -- and the target system, such as ERP. Middleware was often complex and costly, usually requiring the assistance of a systems integrator to do the heavy lifting. Happily, thanks to Web services and lightweight connectors, today's integration task can be considerably lighter, according to experts.
Rachael Narel, engagement manager for SWC Technology Partners Inc. in Chicago, calls data integration "one of the biggest challenges" of a BI project. "The ability to integrate data from all these sources is usually where the challenge comes in," Narel explained.
For example, she said, SWC has worked with manufacturers that needed to connect data from their pipeline management application, as well as supply chain management, customer relationship management and ERP.
Starting the BI integration process
Many smaller manufacturers begin with departmental deployments of BI so that they can get a view into how shipping is performing, Narel said. "They build some basic dashboards and out-of-the-box reports, but those are usually restricted to that department. They want to get a bigger business picture," she said. To achieve this, manufacturers need to bring all of the relevant data together in an operational data store or data warehouse that they can query to reveal latent trends and brewing problems.
Today, there are lightweight dashboarding tools that go across data sources and bring insights to light without multi-year integration efforts, according to Ashwin Patil, analytics and information management leader with Deloitte Development LLC's Consumer and Industrial Products practice in Dallas.
"A lot of these tools help you do a quick visualization of your data with a flexible back end to connect data," said Patil. "[It will] show what your data looks like very quickly without you having to spend much effort to integrate it."
Fewer vendors mean less complicated BI integration
For manufacturers that need deeper connections between BI and their other systems, the BI integration effort is eased considerably by sticking with one vendor across systems.
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"It does make sense to follow the technology," said Jeff Seabloom, managing director at Alsbridge Inc., an advisory services company with offices in Dallas and London. In other words, manufacturers should use a BI module or add-on from one of the core vendors. This is an especially useful strategy when matching a BI tool to an ERP system, since it is critical that these systems share information.
The ability of systems to speak the same language and share data was a major concern for Bobby Hull when his company, BGF Industries Inc., was selecting a BI tool. Finding a package that would interoperate with the ERP was a big part of the selection process, said Hull, corporate quality assurance manager for BGF, in Greensboro, N.C.
"That was the most critical thing. If they can't talk to each other, there is no point," said Hull. Simply asking the vendor if the BI tool will interoperate with the other systems is not enough, he added. "You have to probe. Sometimes you get down the road with something that you think is going to work, but it won't," he said.
Manufacturers should ensure that the data from the core system is readable by the BI software to be implemented, added Hull. "Sometimes you have to have another piece of software to do the translation. Most tools perform better when the data is in their native data format," he said. Knowing all this ahead of time will make the BI integration project a smooth, painless -- a profitable -- venture.
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