Any business incorporating a new application into its IT environment has to figure out a way to make it work with other applications and other data sources. One of the most common ways to do this is to code a custom solution that connects one application to the others. The problem with this approach is that it requires overall system stability to remain viable over time. But, as IT Analyst and ZDNet contributor Joe McKendrick explains, “There’s no longer such a thing as a huge, stable business with fixed departments, steady product lines, and fixed revenues.”
Not only are businesses constantly evolving, but they’re also working with an increasingly diverse array of applications and devices internally, along with an increasing number of partners externally. McKendrick points out that businesses have become “structured sets of services either created and maintained in-house or brokered through outside service providers.”
Perhaps nowhere is this as true as in the healthcare industry. A single trip to any medical services provider sets in motion a cascade of information transfers, from the provider to other specialists, from the provider to insurance companies, and so on. And all this data shuffling has to be accomplished in compliance with privacy regulations like HIPAA.
So, first, there’s the need to ensure interoperability among diverse, rapidly evolving applications. And, second, there’s the need to facilitate legally compliant, industry-standard communications among various companies in extended business networks. But integration technology is also important for another reason—because business leaders are coming to rely more and more on data to guide their strategies and inform their decisions.
“Without effective data integration tools and strategies,” writes Itamar Ankorian, Vice President of Attunity, “firms simply cannot utilize their information stores effectively, which greatly undermines the organization’s overall ability to achieve its goals.” This is because, “For a firm to remain competitive and meet growing customer demands, it must have access to a tremendous amount of data, as well as the means of leveraging that information to great effect.”
Richard Spice, an Integration and Business Intelligence specialist here at Aptera, says that, while quite a few companies are starting to ask about their integration technology options, there are still a lot more businesses out there that could really benefit from these tools—if only they knew they existed. According to Spice, the appeal of integration technologies boils down to three main advantages:
One of the things you can do is store data in one central repository (like a SQL Database) and push it out to all the departments that use it. Each department may have its own front-end interface, but they all share the same back-end sources. This is opposed to having each department store and access all the data it needs separately, even though much of what they routinely generate and use overlaps.
Reducing these kinds of redundancies is just one way integration tools streamline business processes. Another type of integration tool, Microsoft’s BizTalk for instance, can save countless hours by adapting data from one application into a format that can be used by other applications. BizTalk can also be used to map information from one EDI form onto another. That means you only have to enter the information in each field once and it automatically populates the corresponding fields on other forms. The potential efficiency gains for B2B communications are immense.
As McKendrick points out, industries never stand still. You can create hand-made solutions for a lot of integration projects, but that usually means starting from scratch every time you have to start using a new form, every time you bring on a new line of business, or every time you start working with a new partner. The advantage of working with a technology like BizTalk is that, out of the box, it comes equipped with schemas for something like 10,000 industry-standard forms. And using it to integrate applications is far easier than creating hand-coded connectors.
Spice gives the example of a large healthcare administration business he’s currently working with. Now that a BizTalk solution has been put in place, he says, “Configuring a pipeline for a new outbound claim takes about two hours, and configuring one for inbound claims only takes about 10 minutes.” For this particular company, which processes well over a million claims as EDIs annually, this level of flexibility is extremely valuable.
Instead of having multiple employees generating and managing separate data sources, you can set up one source where all your employees can go for the data they need. By assigning responsibility more narrowly, you’ll be giving ownership to that individual or group, thus avoiding a situation where you have competing versions of everything all over the organization. This added consistency is especially important when the data is getting channeled to Business Intelligence tools. If you’re making decisions based on your data, you’ll want to do everything you can to make sure that data is reliable.
One final factor that may be fueling interest in integration tools is the increasing use of the cloud and the growing demand for anywhere-anytime access to business data. It’s more important than ever that information coming in from multiple sources gets stored both securely and in a way that makes it as useful as possible. Most of us are starting to feel like either accessing or sharing data should be a relatively quick and painless endeavor, no matter what the original source is, and no matter where the information is currently stored.
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