It’s not too long ago that most companies had no systems, and everything was a manual process. People, binders, and papers were the system. Long running processes, errors in data capture, and lack of visibility where the norm. A resource’s area of expertise was to a large degree the silo then, and as long as they spoke the same language the challenges of “integration” mostly involved data capture through paper and pen. Then came the Digital Revolution, the beginning of the Information Age, and solutions began to emerge targeting all sort of repeatable processes that could be easily automated. Economies of scale broadened the reach and accessibility of these focused solutions or offerings, and economies of scope bundled them together into the silos we’ve been working with over the last couple of decades.
Take just about any company’s IT operation today, and you’ll find a series of silos across their critical systems: HR, Finance, Customer Management, Supply Chain, Opps… But companies don’t operate on silos, and many (if not most) critical business processes rely on data and interactions that span across several of these systems; and so we fall back on manual processes, and/or custom scripts and modules, written in various programming languages to provide some level of integration. The manual processes; error prone, with little insights to improve upon. The scripts and custom modules; with few people (if anyone) able to update them, and just enough familiarity to keep them running.
Now as companies begin to move their systems to the cloud, and the ability to integrate these systems starts shifting to the service providers; what was once a burden to IT begins to take shape into an opportunity. For service/solution providers, an opportunity to stand out from the competition by offering more and better integration options; for businesses consuming those services, an opportunity to offload some of the burdens, and improve upon existing processes that lack and so desperately need more integration.
We can already see a lot of this taking shape. With Office 365, the burden of integrating Exchange, SharePoint, and Skype, has virtually been eliminated. Integrating these wasn’t always an easy matter; now with Office 365, giving our users the ability to attach a file from OneDrive to an email via OWA (Outlook Web Access) requires no configuration, Skype presence, and Office Web Applications just work. These benefits aren’t limited to the staple Office 365 products; they also extend to Project Online, and CRM Online which recently announced, Immersive Excel, OneNote Integration, and folder based email tracking.
But it’s unrealistic to assume that any company’s critical systems and services will all be hosted by a single provider. And even for the services that are, integration can still be a challenge. This becomes quickly apparent when looking to build apps or automate processes that are closer to the core of your business; those unique enough that they cannot be built for the masses; and every business has them.
Enter the world of solutions that offer BPM (Business Process Management) with forms, line-of-business (LOB) systems integration, and workflows. This isn’t a particularly new breed of solutions, with many of the vendors having been around for many years. But it is evolving, and at a very rapid pace. LOB systems integration has always been at the core of the best of these offerings; unfortunately, inconsistent implementations of the various systems along with several other factors were always a challenge. Now, the move to cloud and Software as a Service offer a level of consistency that’s completely changing the landscape. There aren’t many varying factors (if any) across one customers implementation of SharePoint Online from another’s; except how they use it and organize information. The same goes for Exchange Online, CRM, Salesforce, Box, DropBox. For BPM solution providers, this presents an opportunity to develop and offer levels of integration that simply weren’t possible or cost effective before. If it works for one customer, chances are it’ll work for them all.
But not all BPM solution providers are leveraging this opportunity, and some continue to rely heavily on requiring customers to configure web services and leverage assemblies for integration. Which means that if a customer wants to integrate with another system or service, they often must research, go through complex web service configurations, and sometimes develop the various integration points themselves. When evaluating solutions that offer BPM, Forms, and Workflow; look for vendors that are investing in building connectors, and offer a strong community of partners and developers that are extending them. These should not only reduce the effort involved in connecting to other systems, but also provide consistent experiences and reduction in errors; both of which should be core principles of any company offering solutions for BPM, Forms, and Workflows.