When I first started working in IT as a fresh-faced graduate back in 1998, we didn’t really think about integration. We’d put in sales automation or a customer service platform. Even with large corporates, there was often a lack of a bigger picture – how did the software sit within the whole context of the organisation? Sure, we’d often roll a system out to other areas, and there were sometimes difficult ‘legacy’ systems we had to talk to.
When I started Nuvola in late 2003 and began working in the SME market, there were rarely any systems in place. This gave us an opportunity to build a single piece of software which could be expanded out to encompass the whole business.
So fast forward to 2017 and how have things changed? Of course, everything has moved from a box in the corner of the office, requiring lots of maintenance, to ‘the cloud’. But in some ways things haven’t really changed – businesses still need to track customers and customer interactions, manage projects, produce invoices, do marketing and the like, even if the tools to do this have become slicker and more cost-effective.
But the biggest change has been an awareness of the need for integration. I spent a couple of days last week with a consulting client, a membership organisation, where one of the most important project requirements is the integration of the website, CRM and accounts systems. And I had a recent conversation with a networking contact, a very small business, about how he could automate webinar registrations from his website sales.
So the awareness is there in businesses and organisations of all sizes. Luckily, the tools to do it are far better as well. I remember back in 2000 having to write code that would pretend to type on an old green-screen terminal to talk to a mainframe system, but now most software worth its salt has a good and open API, or application programming interface. What these do is enable different systems to talk to each other without having to worry about the internals.
Writing an interface between systems is now easier, but what’s even better is that there are tools which will do that translation for you. A popular one is Zapier – it is yet another cloud service, but the difference is that it has pre-built connectors for hundreds of different cloud systems, and ways a developer can build their own quite simply. It costs if you use it with any volume, but it’s not an unreasonable cost and you don’t necessarily need to be a techie to get it up and running.
Of course like any off-the-shelf tool Zapier has limitations – like if you want to combine different data sources into a dashboard or feed analytics back from one system to another it probably won’t do the job, and some systems and sets of data require more custom work.
But the point is that there are tools, and there are means to make most systems talk to each other. What businesses need to do is really have a look at where they have information in ‘silos’ and put some sort of strategy in place about how to link things up better.