By Nathan Camp, Liaison Technologies
When I first started working with customers on data integration projects fifteen years ago, the work was hard. We had to convert structured B2B/EDI transactions into a specific format the ERP vendor made available. I looked forward to the day when standardization would sweep the landscape and make these connections much more simple and widely available.
I was half wrong. I got the widely available connection access part right, but integration work is now much more complex. Businesses of all sizes are working with an ever-broadening host of systems and services, rippling away from the core, all-in-one hole left by what used to be promised as a single vendor ERP presence. Examples of the systems that must be connected today include:
- Marketing and Sales
- CRM systems, like Sales Force, are now the center of new business leads and deals
- Marketing Automation systems, like HubSpot, Infusionsoft, and Pardot, tie prospect and client interactions into measurable reporting and nurturing processes
- Shopping cart/eCommerce packages process new client data through both CRM and Marketing Automation systems for cross and upsell promotion activities
- Enterprise Resource Planning
- Financial and general ledger details may be populated from either the shopping cart or from the CRM system or even EDI
- Sensitive data, like credit cards, personally identifiable information (PII) like social security or client account numbers, now need to be made safe-to-share before it can be used by customer service and support representatives
- Geo-coded tax details may be provided by software systems like Avalara
- Warehouse management software will be used for pick and pack processes and bills of lading. This may be tied to an internal warehouse system, or it could be used to keep track of fulfillment handled by a 3PL provider
- Shipping/tracking services can be called to complete GS1-128 barcodes and to provide shipment details back to the shopping cart system
- Inventory systems will be vital for current stock on-hand details to be sent to any other distribution or dot com (Amazon, Wayfair) platform
- Web site design and shopping cart synchronization
- While most of this development falls under Sales/Marketing, it’s also vital to keep catalog syndication and inventory details updated so only in-stock, current products are displayed for sale
- Payment gateways for credit card processing need to be tied to ERP and PCI systems for data security and financial transaction processing
Consider how many of these systems you currently have in your organization, and if they are tied together. Evaluate your expertise around each of these sub-systems. How many different solutions exist for each broad category? Remember how rapidly the number of new system introductions is growing. As recent trends in ERP system sales suggest, there is a shift from on-premise, big 10 ERP systems towards Cloud delivery. Further erosion of processes which used to be securely attached as modules to the big ERP systems are also rapidly being replaced by agile competitors with faster speed to solution delivery and lower price points. As the shift away from centralized ERP systems and modules escalates, there will be a growing disconnect between business IT system purchases and the knowledge base to support them.
Cloud and SaaS-delivered software options are rapidly decreasing barriers for the entry of new products and services to the market. And with on-demand service licensing, it’s now even easier to add new systems and services as-needed. Now, businesses of all sizes are sharing real-time inventory feeds for just in time supply chains and for drop-ship fulfillment. They are also adding data integration between CRM systems and marketing automation tools to win new business and reward loyal customers. As information becomes a shared resource across internal systems, these businesses are analyzing their data to uncover hidden trends to either avoid or exploit.
With so many new and creative technologies being introduced each year, and the rise of APIs allowing data to flow back and forth from system to system, the greatest challenge for every system integrator is keeping up with this expansion of integration touch points. Going quickly are the days where expertise in a few EDI transaction sets and ERP integration formats was enough to run a professional consulting business. Today, clients are so rapidly expanding their integration touch points, it’s harder for any single company to dwell deep enough in any given technology to gain expertise. What is really required today is for channel partner programs to be built with a collaborative nature in mind.
Channel partner management has always been focused on finding the most efficient ways to get a vendor’s product or service into the hands of a client (it still is). The client dictates how they purchase and consume these products and services. It has been up to the technology vendor to find and train their partners that filled special roles and capabilities that were complementary to the vendors direct delivery capabilities. This ensured that they had partners and paths to get the product to the client as quickly as possible in the desired manner. Today’s channel programs are metamorphosing in response to the myriad options of integration necessities.
The biggest challenge and change I have witnessed recently is the adoption of partner-to-partner collaboration. Liaison Technologies, Inc. has risen to this challenge and has an excellent track record of working in tandem with multiple partners to solve very complex needs together. Next, I have assembled a few examples that showcase how Liaison and its partners are combining their unique expertise to create innovative solutions.
(1) Partner to Partner Talent Sharing
The Aurora EDI Alliance is by nature an example of a collaborative group of individual companies working together to solve client needs. Their clients are in retail, fashion, automotive, manufacturing, services, food, logistics, and medical supply/devices. But, they recently engaged with a new client that had very specific knowledge needs around HIPAA transactions. This company provides medical transportation services from a patient’s home to a hospital or care facility for scheduled appointments, with billings going to the insurance companies instead of the care providers. The Aurora EDI Alliance is a team of integration experts, but when it came to working with HIPAA payer/provider data interactions, they needed to enlist the help of another data solution provider with hands-on experience. Early in the discussions with the medical transportation service provider, Liaison Technologies encouraged The Aurora EDI Alliance to enlist the help of a fellow Liaison partner, and that is when Hughes Systems Group became a vital, contributing member to the solution design team. Hughes Systems Group’s services team has been involved with dozens of HIPAA implementations over the years for medical insurance companies, private and public provider agencies, and medical supply and device manufacturers. It was precisely this blend of technical know-how and experience, and the joint solution support of both partners that made selecting the new HIPAA project to be led by Aurora Technologies so easy.
(2) Building It Better
When integration through the “tried and true” proves to be too expensive, cumbersome because existing modules are running on ancient technologies, or is simply no longer supported, it becomes necessary to build a new approach.
When offered the opportunity to help clients evaluate their existing EDI integration solutions for MS Dynamics GP (aka Great Plains), Liaison combined the expertise of two different partners and have co-created a new and unique solution. Copeland Buhl is a full service tax and accounting practice that also specializes in MS Dynamics GP services. Their financial process expertise is matched with their deep GP system knowledge. Liaison also brought Virtual Logistics Inc. to the design process as well. Virtual Logistics Inc. has provided EDI integration for over 450 clients in their years of service to well over 40 different ERP systems. They are also deeply involved in extending their clients’ data integration connections to marketing automation systems, business intelligence, and eCommerce.
Working through client design discussions, I kept thinking to myself how the combination of Copeland Buhl and Virtual Logistics Inc. was like being at a rock concert. You can have a pretty good concert with a set of drums, a guitar, and two talented artists hard at work (an example is the band White Stripes). The ability to walk EDI into the system, build in safety checks, use future-proofing design elements, and talk through outflow response documents end-to-end is magical, and only possible with deep skill sets and experience.
With the need to redesign from scratch, but based upon years of combined knowledge of what works best, can easily be reproduced, and streamlines common data processing issues for existing GP users (double entry, warehouse management software module requirements for ship notices and barcode creation), the three organizations have created a new system and delivery process that will enable GP clients to work with new data extensions they never were able to consider before.
(3) Creating New Capabilities
One of my favorite definitions of “genius” is simply “seeing what is not yet there.” Often, these moments of epiphany are based upon built up combinations of events, discussions, past training, and inquisitiveness. Robin Smith of Virtual Logistics Inc. studied anthropology while at university. Deeply pressed into his psyche at a younger age was a tactical way to collect, view and make sense of evidence (data). Robin has been talking about the three dimension viewing of data for years as an important stepping stone in making information meaningful for more people.
As Liaison expanded its software and services’ capabilities to receive, manipulate and respond to various data formats, Robin seized on the concepts, and found another solution provider to combine data into something very new and unique for his clients. Below is an example where Virtual Logistics Inc. can now take order details collected over time and processed through the Liaison Delta and ECS software, run another data translation process to collect and present the important details over to the mapping overlay system to generate the exquisitely functional and rich reporting.
Liaison is quite proud of the amazing things our partners are doing by working together. With the increasing use of hybrid solutions where both on-premise and in-the-cloud models are being used to access, use and store data, it is becoming even more important for software/SaaS vendors to work closely with their partners and their clients to identify and implement the best matching Web services and servers, database options, Internet services, encryption technology and security protocols that will best serve our clients’ requirements and needs.