Taming the ERP Integration Beast: A Work in Progress

Here are just a few of the technical and non-technical challenges that are facing enterprises and CIOs today

CIOs have been talking about enterprise application integration for as long as they've been talking about business-IT alignment or proving the value of the IT function. That is to say, for decades.

And, according to a new Forrester Research report, it seems that CIOs have had about as much success solving the former as they have the latter two tasks.

In other words: Since there's still no Integration Pixie Dust on the market, there's much more work to be done.

The new Forrester report, It's Time to Tame the ERP Integration Beast, by analysts Ken Vollmer, George Lawrie and Mike Gilpin, offers a grim picture of both the technical hurdles and business obstacles CIOs encounter when trying to "tame the beast." The analysts describe IT's burden:

Enterprise apps are born free and self-contained, yet everywhere they are in chains. They are in chains that bind them to the complementary apps in an enterprise, they are harnessed to apps and processes shared by members of a value-chain community, and they are connected to outsourced processes or cloud services such as Salesforce.com. IT designs these chains to bring greater value to the enterprise from its applications and in many cases has spent the past decade working to integrate these applications, but integration issues often limit the actual value apps can deliver.

Here are just a few of the technical and non-technical challenges that are facing enterprises and CIOs today, as described in the report:

* Limited Interoperability Outside the Suite. Most of the time, note the analysts, ERP apps are able to integrate with other packaged applications (CRM, BI, HR) from the same vendor.

"But reaching out beyond the suite is often problematic," states the report. "Connections to applications from other vendors, homegrown applications and other legacy assets typically require the use or creation of custom interfaces."

* Middleware Choices Made by ERP Providers Promote Lock-in. "ERP vendors have long been committed to middleware solutions to help them manage their own broadening footprint and the galaxy of partners with which they engage," write the analysts. "The dilemma for the application development and delivery professional is the extent to which the firm's choice of ERP vendor should bind future choices about integration middleware."

* A Bewildering Range of Integration Strategies. Choice is, for the most part, a good thing. But not when it comes to ERP integration and each new SOA and BPM application innovation.

"The range of integration tools and approaches for harmonizing data processes and information services is more complex than ever, with multiple solution categories providing overlapping features," the analysts say. "Successive generations of innovation in middleware and application architecture have disrupted the status quo, adding to the complexity with the evolution of application platforms, the application suites built on them, and the integration infrastructure designed to bind them."

* Data Synchronization in Supplier and Partner Networks. Global companies that run massive, extended value chains "must provide ubiquitous access to application services for their own and their partners' employees," note the analysts. "However, providing access to a service-like sales pipeline status may require rules to determine how to reconcile customer data for salespeople using cloud apps such as Salesforce.com with customer data used by credit controllers in the on-premise ERP." No easy task.

* Business Users Want Greater Application Flexibility. The consumerization of IT has proven that users are no longer content to "get by" with rigid, non-intuitive applications that are slow (or unable) to respond to intense business change. In turn, leading application vendors have spent the past several years "updating their application platforms and application architecture to enable much greater flexibility, using approaches such as SOA, BPM and event technology," write the analysts.

However, "implementing and integrating these dynamic business applications often requires IT to configure many more aspects of application behavior, business process flow, and user experience," notes the report, "which further increases the complexity of the integration challenge."

* Users Want Much Broader App Access. The analysts write that a decade or so ago, user experience options included Microsoft Windows clients and Web browsers--and that's about it. "Today's applications are exposed through a much wider range of interaction channels, including not only desktops and Web but also employee- and consumer-facing mobile apps, retail point-of-sale, fully instrumented real-time supply chains and warehouses, and Web services interfaces that expose application capabilities to the extended enterprise."

In turn, a more robust and flexible integration strategy is required that can deliver on a "cohesive approach to multichannel and cross-channel support."

As most IT shops know all too well, "integration challenges are often the foremost obstacle to getting the full value from packaged ERP solutions," as the Forrester report notes. If CIOs can actually overcome today's integration challenges, just think how easy it'll be demonstrate IT's value and align IT's efforts with the business once and for all.

Do you Tweet? Follow me on Twitter @twailgum. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline.

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Thomas Wailgum

CIO (US)
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