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The Integration Barrier Is Costing Money

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David Sim

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User since: 26 Jun 2002

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Virtual Organisations? Well, virtually.

Are we crazy? Through the genius of our technological innovators we have

been presented with unprecedented operational and strategic opportunities.

The Internet... instant messaging...

title="Opens in a new window">XML... web services... broadband...

mobile communications... all offering new ways of fundamentally improving

the way in which we work and communicate. Yet - and I know you'll have

your own examples - there remains a gulf between what technology could

deliver and what we actually get.

Why? For reasons that I will cover, we business people unintentionally

squander opportunities through superficial implementations dealing only

with immediate issues. Become aware and deal with The Integration

every time you deal with technology or users of


The What?

E-business web sites and systems are there to make money, by delivering

services more effectively and more efficiently. Integration is the process

of coming together and combining to better deliver a goal. Without it, we

cannot come close to effective e-business.

In e-business, integration must come in four discrete areas:

Integration with Internal Systems

It is pretty obvious why an e-business system must share information with

the rest of the organisation's systems. Key benefits include reduction of

manual data entry and consequent reduction in administrative costs, error

rates and improvement in quality of management information.

This area is usually considered high priority and is good news for

technology implementers being a readily understandable and documentable

exercise with clear boundaries. The benefits are easily calculated. Once a

system is talking to the in-house systems, it is usually considered to be

integrated. Big mistake.

Integration with The Way Customers Work

Thankfully some companies are beginning to recognise that it might be a

great idea to actually make systems work in a way that customers feel

comfortable with. In the past developers and users seem to have existed in

parallel universes, one developing

title="Opens in a new window">flashy, graphical sites, the other crying

out for easy access to information. Splash screens, animations and bizarre

navigation systems have stood in the way of users gathering information or

doing business.

This will sound familiar: a web site I (unfortunately) have to use regularly

has an animation of a bird as a starting point (complete with sound - always

fun in an office). The web site has nothing to do with birds, of course, and

the animation says nothing about the organisation. Except perhaps, they

don't mind wasting my time.

At last the usability of web sites for customers is king. And not before

time - even today seven out of every ten e-commerce transactions are aborted

part way through. Retaining just three of those customers could double

sales. Macromedia has

target="_blank" title="Opens in a new window">joined forces with

usability specialists title="Opens in a new window">The Nielsen Norman Group and is adopting consistent,

more user-friendly standards for its much derided Flash technology.

Developers now have access to a range of excellent sources of usability

knowledge - title="Opens in a new window"> and

target="_blank" title="Opens in a new window">IBM being the best - and

are becoming more aware of what they need to do to actually make their sites

a pleasure to use. There is a long road ahead undoing bad sites and

replacing them with ones in which users actually know what they are doing.

More usable systems have also been shown to increase referral business by

30% and repeat business by 23%.

Integration with The Way Employees Work

While customers are getting the benefit from increased usability, our

research has shown that employees are not. Amazingly, in 2002, employees in

many large organisations still work with systems where obtaining a simple

print-out is a complex event, often involving painful minutes of

"screen dumping." Because the system works, albeit inefficiently,

little cognisance is taken of how much time and effort could be saved within

the organisation by making the systems reflect the way employees on the

ground actually do their work.

This has much to do with finance - how systems are paid for. Very little

money is set aside for usability testing by end users prior to purchase and

during implementation - the best place and time to fix such problems. After

implementation the budget dries up completely, meaning that managers have to

battle for cash - and admit their systems aren't perfect to their peers - in

order to make changes.

Unsurprisingly, employees are left to a daily fight with systems. Research

has shown that companies with systems that help rather than hinder have

lower staff turnover. Consider the cost of that. And the cost of mistakes.

And the cost of training.

Still not convinced? title="Opens in a new window">AT&T saved 2 million euro in training

costs alone though introducing more usable systems.

Integration with Customers' Systems

Customers, usually, have computer systems and will always their own ways of

working. So why not make life easier for them by directly integrating?

Offering access to your products and services through a web portal only goes

a small way towards increasing convenience and, being essentially manual,

rarely increases efficiency at the customer's end.

There are ground-breaking shifts - for example

target="_blank" title="Opens in a new window">eProcurement Scotland

is offering the public sector access to hundreds of suppliers through a

single interface. Here, critically, they are also considering the back end

integration for the participating organisations which will automate much of

the processing.

Elsewhere, organisations must concentrate on developing and integrating XML,

SOAP, J2EE and Microsoft�s .net standards for easy and consistent data

transfer. These standards - in particular XML - need to develop making

adoption and ongoing change easier.

But what about consumers? On the web, consumers predominantly use search

engines. While not expressed in these terms, companies have been placing

great effort to integrate with the way search engines work and therefore

with the primary system currently used by consumers to find information.

Whatever the motivation, providing keywords and descriptors that make search

engines more accurate and efficient is now the norm.

As yet, consumers don't generally operate financial and procurement systems.

But surely this should be a logical next step.

Google already offers its excellent target="_blank" title="Opens in a new window">toolbar that integrates

searching with discussion and research. This is relevant, because it is a

one step application that integrates with a web browser and provides

effective, consistent access to services.

For consumers, buying online involves working with dozens of different web

site designs and payment methods. Online shopping malls tend to be

relatively unsophisticated.

Why can't a common application be developed for consumer procurement? A

single search and navigation method. Single payment mechanism. A single

interface, regardless of which supplier I am buying from. Why can't I buy

from three suppliers in a single transaction? The system in turn would

integrate with my bank account or credit card, and with my financial

package. And in time - if technology gurus would have us believe them - our

larder. Price comparison would become a breeze. Only then will consumer

eProcurement be genuinely easier and more effective than a trip to the high


I'm not even suggesting one size fits all here: with open standards a number

of applications could become available, all providing access to the same

services but with their own distinctive look and feel.

Of course it would mean agreed, open, achievable standards. Technically it's

feasible. But is it really too difficult to achieve?

And Finally

Integration costs money - but can you really afford not to get over the

Integration Barrier? Start calculating the money that can be saved through

improving usability and integration.

David Sim is a director of European e-business consultancy Strategic Integration with responsibility for technology research and development. Thanks to technology, he is able to work from home in the picturesque Highlands of Scotland. He has been creating, developing (and occasionally fighting with) internet based technology as a business tool since 1994, working across the private and public sectors. David provides expert help to clients, identifying opportunities where technology can be used to contribute in the delivery of business objectives. He speaks English, French and Business.

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