There is an interesting article over at InfoWorld discussing the ins and outs of integration in the SaaS world. Mr. Linthicum makes some excellent observations which make this worth a read. Since I know you are interested, I’ll share my thoughts on it as well!

Original article:

One distinction the author makes clear right up front is that while CRM On Demand (and other SaaS CRM applications) may be simple to initialize and setup, integration needs are often overlooked. And if these aren’t addressed early on, data issues can grow and cause significant disruption and cost.

What kind of issues? Think about all the places in your back office where a customer is represented. Of course they are in CRM – what about an order management system? Accounts receivable? Marketing database? Perhaps some other cloud applications?

So while it is great that you can simply import your data into CRMOD on day one and get your sales folks up and running quickly, you run the risk of that data immediately getting out of sync with all those other applications and data stores. The longer the need is ignored, the worse the situation gets.

As we’ve mentioned on previous podcasts, this is where IT expertise is really needed in the SaaS world. The business can spin up CRM On Demand to suit their needs, but IT knows how all those other critical business systems are wired and has the skills needed to link them together. So number one lesson here, which Mr. Linthicum alludes to, is that you need to bring IT into your SaaS deployment if you want to avoid creating a silo of data.

What’s wrong with silos?

Hey, I’m from Kentucky and we have plenty of them. Great for storing… whatever they store in silos, I’m sure. But not so great in an information technology context!

I’ve seen it so many times. The sales organization decides that the big corporate CRM isn’t flexible enough or is too complex or isn’t tailored quite right to meet the needs of the business. Without consulting IT, the head of sales shops around for one of those slick web-based CRM packages, signs up for a few licenses and is instantly up and running. With a little help from some web-savvy sales staff, the application gets configured, some data gets loaded, and suddenly the head of sales has pipeline and performance reports he never got from the corporate system.

Which is great – and definitely a key benefit of Saas. Fast up-time, fast results. So what’s wrong with this picture? Well, the sales organization is just a part of a larger environment. They’ve got a marketing team that relies on the “big corporate CRM” for generating campaigns and building leads. The support team relies on it to know what a customer owns when they call in for help. And the accounting department needs to track orders and payables due from those same customers.

Clearly there is a data sync problem here. Changes in one system – such as an updated customer address or contact list – will not be reflected in another.

But perhaps the bigger problem is the lack of process synchronization. After all, sales is one part of a continuum of customer interactions that include marketing, support, accounting, and possibly more. So when the data is in a silo, it’s much harder to orchestrate a cohesive customer experience as you traverse these different functions.

SaaS Integration – Choosing the right solution

The article spends a lot of time on the various approaches to integration and gets a little more detailed than necessary. IT guys know all this and all the business guys really need to know is that they need help from IT. But I do think the author lays out some of the options available in an understandable manner.

What it comes down to is that there are a range of options, with a corresponding range of costs, to consider. The most basic integration starts with Data Sync. For a super simple approach, you can use CRM On Demand’s built in import / export tools. Of course, that’s a manual process (no scheduling) and limited in flexibility (pulling data from multiple objects into a single extract, for example).

Moving to a more automated solution means using the web services API and building it yourself. The author doesn’t paint a favorable picture of this – stating the “results are almost always ineffective and inefficient.” We’re talking about point-to-point integration here, where a custom developed piece of code makes a request to CRM On Demand to directly insert or retrieve records. Then it does something with those records, like putting them into another system.

For many businesses, this is an acceptable approach. I agree with the author that it can quickly reach a limit in terms of the ability to deal with complex business rules (such as conditional data transformations) and maintenance can add up. That’s because any change to the systems may mean re-writing the application!

This type of custom integration can be part of a process-driven solution, but admittedly it is not as well suited for this as even a basic middleware offering. With a middleware solution you typically get a toolset that allows you to plot the flow of data and the transformations required along a business process. The software handles the dirty parts of making and handling connections at either end and eliminates the need to do any actual coding. So updates can be done quickly within the tool by a solution architect rather than a coder.

Within the world of middleware there are a broad range of solutions – Oracle’s Fusion Middleware is one I run into a lot, natch – and as you’d expect there are a range of prices. Again, it’s important to engage IT in these discussions as they are in the best position to help evaluate the best fit for the corporate environment.

Wrapping it up

Overall, a nice article that covers the nuts and bolts pretty well. I think more should be written on this topic, especially on the need for a more comprehensive and inclusive view of SaaS in the enterprise. They look great in the Kentucky hills, but silos have no place in the modern IT landscape. Whatever quick gain you get from CRM On Demand will be multiplied downstream if it is coupled with a smart, forward-looking integration strategy.

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