Real-world enterprise application integration solutions
The following article was the cover story for the April Edition of EAI Journal, recently renamed Business Integration Journal.
It has been 22 centuries since Archimedes claimed, "Give me a lever long enough and a place to stand and I will move the Earth." Leverage, that most elegant, most desirable concept; if Archimedes had a drachma for every dot.com marketing whiz who's claimed that some new product or partnership was about leverage, he'd be a rich man. He'd still be dead, but he'd be rich (unlike the VCs who invested in the marketing hype).
The real beauty of Archimedes' boast isn't in the spectacle of a small man moving a very large object, it's in the clarity of his perspective and his ability to see the thing whole. We need to do this, too. All of us in IT get caught up in the day-to-day effort of wrestling unwieldy, large objects. In our cases, it's often about aligning disparate applications to work together. Today, let's spend a few minutes standing with Archimedes, thinking about shifting the orbits of our planets.
Let's start with the premise that everybody talks the talk. Every Fortune 1000 company has a set of Guidelines or Operating Principles or, as Jerry Maguire would put it, a Mission Statement. Many of you have a laminated copy of it posted at your desk. Something along the lines of:
I. Know Your Customer
II. Meet, Then Exceed Their Expectations
III. Continually Improve
Pretty familiar? So what does it say when a new Hurwitz study of over 600 enterprise organizations finds that only 10% of enterprises have fully integrated their most mission-critical business processes and that 45% are yet to even begin execution of an integration strategy? And what does it mean when nearly 50% of companies in the survey rate ROI metrics as the most important evaluation method for e-BPI solutions?
Perhaps the fault lies closer to home than we'd like to think. Perhaps we've been so wrapped up in the complexities and challenges of the technology that we haven't provided our management with a platform from which to see things whole. Perhaps we have to make a more forceful argument that measuring IT ROI has to include some linkage to the noble sentiments expressed in the Mission Statement.
The former ad agency, Benton & Bowles, used to say, "It's not creative unless it sells." This infuriated any number of people in the creative community, but endeared them to the clients who paid the bills. We, too, need to remember who pays the bills, because whether we call it enterprise application integration or business process management or synergy or electronic commerce or business activity monitoring or customer relationship management, none of it means anything unless, ultimately, a consumer buys something.
Our job isn't 'integrating our enterprise', or making it more efficient. Our job is making it more convenient for our customers to do business with us. You don't have to be The Amazing Kreskin to see the incredible transformation of our society over the past 50 years; to see that no one ever went broke overestimating the American appetite for convenience.
Casual meals have gone from the diner to fast-food to drive-thru fast-food. Not to mention the billions of dollars spent each year on frozen or pre-cooked meals. Seven Eleven has become Always Open. Banking has gone from 'you come to us, on your time' to limited capability at an ATM at any time, to 'access any of our services 24 / 7, by phone or Internet'.
Speaking of the telephone, some of us are old enough to remember the crank model, on a party line, with a live operator 24 / 7 to connect the call - right out of Green Acres. Look at what telephony has evolved to, driven by our demand for convenience. Millions of PBX's, slowly but inexorably being replaced by Voice over IP. You don't even need the "phone" anymore, except for the cell you keep in your pocket. Tommy Teenager (ours or theirs) used to mow the lawns, but he kept going off to soccer camp and to college so, instead of doing it ourselves, we all got a lawn service and 'mow, blow and go' turned into a $15 billion industry.
Our most important entertainment sources were the three networks on a big wood-console television and the local movie theatres and drive-ins. Convenience in music was the ability to stack several LPs on the turntable. Transistor radios. Portable TVs. VCRs. Walkman. Watchman. Compact Disc (which was actually about convenience, not quality - remember Betamax). Mini Disc. Cable and Satellite TV, with hundreds of channels. DVD. Laptops and SUVs with DVD, for movies anywhere, anytime. MP3, with almost every song ever recorded available for download off the Internet. iPod, for a thousand songs on a player that will fit in your pocket. Soon, your dryer will sing to you and your refrigerator will advise you the milk's going sour.
All this convenience has come, however, at a certain price. We don't buy a quarter-pounder in the drive-thru and eat it as we drive to our next meeting because we don't like diners anymore. Juliet B. Schor, an economist at Harvard University, has put a number to the time stress so many Americans experience. She claimed, in The Overworked American (1991), that by 1987 Americans were putting in much longer hours at work than they had a generation earlier, in 1969. The average increase, she argues, amounted to an extra 163 hours per worker every year - the equivalent of an extra month of work. Certainly, nothing any of us has seen first hand leads us to believe that the trend she reported has reversed during the past 15 years of down-sizing, right-sizing, consolidation and re-engineering, as desperate corporations, reluctant to hire more workers, "have just demanded more from their existing workforces. They have sped up the pace of work and lengthened time on the job."
Schor also notes the other enormous factor in the increased stress load: the flood of women into the workforce and the rise of dual-income families, often by economic necessity. Between 1960 and 1997, the percentage of married women with children under six working outside the home skyrocketed from 19% to 65%!
And what has happened to those dwindling leisure hours? Who else remembers when Saturday morning meant kids watching a couple of their favorite cartoons - because that was the only time they were on - and then roaming the neighborhood for hours of unsupervised tree climbing, unhelmeted bike riding and pick-up ball games? Now frazzled soccer-moms and dads spend their non-working hours shuttling their children to an endless succession of ball games, traveling squad outings, dance recitals, art classes and school pageants. But non-working hours is a misnomer, isn't it? Now we have 'multi-tasking', so that even while we videotape each precious memory, work trails around after us, like the chains and lockboxes on Jacob Marley's ghost: pagers are beeping and blinking, all around us hushed conversations are taking place on cell phones and someone (there's always someone!) is tapping furtively on a laptop, with their other eye on the action.
Is it any wonder that we all feel more and more stressed? Are any of us really surprised anymore when we read about the latest incident of road rage, or (before 9.11) air rage, or witness someone screaming at a salesclerk or, even, an out-of-order vending machine? How many of us have 'told off' the telemarketer interrupting our dinner to see if we'd like to switch long-distance carriers? We are all consumers. Consumers are customers. I'm talking about your customers. As frustrating as IT can sometimes be, would you apply for a transfer to Customer Service?
A Direct Marketing Association survey of 150 senior marketing executives from companies with revenues of $100 million or higher found that both customer satisfaction and customer loyalty, across all industries, is declining. Some would call that a 'blinding glimpse of the obvious'. No wonder AMR Research, a Boston firm specializing in enterprise applications, related trends and technologies, predicted that customer relationship management software sales would increase from $1.9 billion in 1998 to $11.5 billion by the end of this year.
Of the nearly 200 predictions for 2002 that Gartner Group solicited from their analysts, 10 were chosen as having critical importance to Gartner's clients and published as "Gartner Predicts 2002: Top 10 Predictions." Two of the predictions are particularly germane to our discussion:
- Through 2004, businesses will continue to view the discipline of CRM as a critical component of corporate strategy.
- During 2002, leading-edge businesses will exploit application integration to generate business innovation.
Gartner goes on to say, "Many businesses enter 2002 having lived through CRM implementations that failed to meet expectations. In 2002, CRM will be the business application area that demands considerable attention from CIOs, many of whom will have to balance inflated expectations with more-realistic benefits.", and, "Application Integration Will Generate Business Innovation: Few enterprises can escape the need to integrate internal applications if they want to develop new business processes or exploit business-to-business trading-partner management. Yet many have failed to invest seriously in developing an application-level network that provides unifying connectivity among people, application systems and devices across locations and business units."
Now it's time to stand on Archimedes' platform with your management and pull all these strands together. It's time to talk about what we call Interaction Integration, and show them that truly seamless integration across the enterprise, with access from any point and over any device, resulting in quick, accurate, real-time communication back and forth between your customer and every bit of data they need is what it's going to take to grow your business.
Whether the user is your employee, your customer, your supplier or your partner, every interaction with them is an invaluable opportunity to meet, and then exceed their expectations. In today's world, that "user interface" providing access to specific functions could be a PC or terminal keyboard, a land or cell phone keypad, a PDA, or any number of other devices, including TV.
The interaction itself is driven by user need from a myriad of possible transactions options, including inquiries, data updates and other sophisticated real-time transactions that the user requires. Yet, the function itself is not a full or complete application. Many times, it's only a small, but critical, portion of the total functionality provided. Often, these interactions must be performed against different "systems" to complete the cycle. A solid case for increased value and ROI can be made based on the number of heterogeneous interactions that are combined. As the demands for increasing levels of service grow (and become the key competitive differentiator) the value of combining critical interactions from multiple systems also grows. In the systems environment of the future, not only will these interactions be completed on different systems, but many of those systems may not be yours. While access to disparate systems increases value, it also adds substantial complexity. The concept of Interaction Integration takes this into account, by utilizing the only standard access mechanism that can provide consistency - the User Interface.
In the online, connected world, more and more of the interactions to obtain information are available on the web. In the future, much of the required critical data will be owned by someone else or provided by someone else, or both. Yet, a browser and a couple of key URLs (with appropriate password and ID) may be the only technical requirement. While the value of obtaining critical information will continue to grow, there is even more value delivered through updated data. Let's face it, all sales transactions result in multiple updates. And, there is already tremendous value in automating all of these interactions, which will only increase as time goes on!
Three specific examples will help illustrate this point. Take the case of customer self-service - a classic and growing value opportunity. In today's environment of the web - and universal browser access - allowing customers to choose their own level of service has many benefits. In the satellite TV business, customers accessing a simple, user-friendly web site can "interact" and update everything themselves, from selecting Platinum rather than their current Gold programming, to selecting specific (and very profitable) movies or pay-per-view events, etc. In the utopian-networked world of the future (ready or not, it's coming) the underlying access to detailed data may be "passed through" functionality, i.e. interactions provided by a third party or another part of your organization. In this example, dramatically increased value (and more high-margin impulse sales) occurs when a user can "drill down" on a specific option before completing his final targeted "buying" interaction. Using the example above, imagine the value to the end user as they click-through to the studio producing/distributing a pay-per-view movie, to obtain additional background information, before deciding to order.
By automating these interactions, and integrating them with both the Provisioning and Billing systems, the customer not only gets an improved level of service, immediately, but the actual allocation of resource and subsequent billing (self-verified) is completed without error. Expand this same process to all customers for all changes to service, and a multi-million dollar Call Center can be postponed or even eliminated. The return on investment can be massive. What started as that very valuable consumer feature, convenience, turns into extremely valuable customer satisfaction.
Another powerful example is in data aggregation. Some pundits and analysts refer to this as the composite app. Imagine a legal service whose function is to provide their customers with case law examples from any court in the US. Specific interactions would probably include interactive inquiries against potentially N-number of applications. Those applications could be green screen or web applications hosted by every federal, state, district and county court in the land. This scenario represents a classic research exercise that could take days or weeks. Automate those interactions programmatically, while aggregating them behind a superior user interface from whatever device, and powerful results occur in minutes! The timesaving alone is ample justification.
The methods of access to computer application functionality are limited by the way the original application was built. Any IT staff can provide tools to directly access the data (bypassing the application logic), or they can provide direct exposure to the transaction (whether on a mainframe, client/server system or web server), or they can provide access via the user interface. Surprisingly, this latter method has become preferable by virtue of being totally non-invasive and because today's tools enable open, standard, relatively easy (vs. other two methods), fast, efficient and scalable integration access. In many situations, when the interaction is part of an application owned and provided by some other entity, this becomes the only viable option available. Finally, this method of integration access provides the same level of granularity as the others; allowing either a single interaction to be captured and automated or any number of interactions can be concatenated, providing a value multiplier to the user.
In fact, the value of this technology grows in direct proportion to four separate factors:
- the actual number of interactions
- the number of systems where the interactions exist
- the different operating environments for these systems
- the owners of these systems.
With all factors minimized, the benefits may still be considerable, but the return won't be optimized. If only a small number of interactions are required and they exist on a single mainframe, owned and maintained by you, the benefits still accrue, but impact on the bottom line could be minimal. However, if the interactions are sophisticated and numerous, are found on multiple hosts - from IBM mainframe or AS/400 to Unix or Digital systems to web servers - and some or all of these are not under your direct control (for access), then Interaction Integration technologies could be the only realistic solution. When requirements cross all four factors, Interaction Integration is the only viable means of providing functionality at all.
Plus, once an application interaction has been programmatically automated, it can be "published" and re-used across the enterprise. In some cases, this could be represented as a grouping of programming components with catalogued functionality. In other cases, it might take the form of Web Services available to all.
Another example would be an insurance company that wants to provide its best customers, its Annuitants, with automated and instant access to their balances via telephone. Balance inquiry and policy payment interactions can be captured and integrated with an Integrated Voice Recognition system. Customers can get their account information easily, without intervention by the insurance company staff. Given the same granularity referred to above, additional functionality can easily be added to these interactions so that the overall performance of the new system can be tracked and measured in real time for quality and responsiveness. Additional programming extensions can be created and integrated with the interactions that perform system quality assurance functions, such as automated retries in case of initial failure, as well as automatically sending system alert and tracking messages to the Help Desk system / staff when errors are occurring. The ability to fully integrate the interaction into your standard operating environment, when and where required, provides you with great flexibility. The result, once again, is that service levels improve and savings accrue to the company. Once these interactions are captured programmatically, it becomes very easy to reuse them by integrating with a different user interface, such as an Internet application, in addition to the IVR system.
By providing multiple ways for your customer, employee, vendor or partner to access these interactions, the value of the multiplier goes into effect, and interaction reuse delivers substantial savings to the company. If implemented in the form of a Web Service, these interactions can be published and made available for use by all, with support for all device interfaces, including wireless, supported by this growing standard.
The technologies needed to deliver on the promise of Interaction Integration have been perfected over many years, to the point where Gartner suggests they should be employed by all IT organizations today. They have matured to the point where results are easily demonstrated, with a prototype developed or a proof of concept delivered, in a matter of days. In addition, there are many successful customer references, some of which have been in production for years.
Yet, these are still state-of-the-art technologies, which maximize the advantages of utilizing existing functionality across all types of applications. By integrating multiple interactions from various systems, the promise of a new breed of composite applications can be realized.
Finally, Interaction Integration technology is fully complementary to the many infrastructure technologies being used today, including application servers, message brokers, wireless access systems, etc. and takes full advantage of the security and performance functionality they deliver. There's no doubt, Interaction Integration should be explored for its many potential benefits within your organization.
Because when your customer gives you some of their time, to buy something, to pay for something, or to just ask a question, they're giving you something precious; they will be merciless if you waste it. If the Hurwitz survey is right, and more than 50% of the companies in their survey rate ROI metrics as the most important evaluation method for e-BPI solutions, it's time to insure that these ROI analyses factor-in the value of your customers' time. True ROI measurement has to encompass the entire enterprise and tie back to the Mission Statement. Sales and Marketing have to provide accurate estimates of customer acquisition costs and the lifetime retention value of a customer. Research should be supplying metrics that place a value on improving customer satisfaction scores. By taking an enterprise-wide, long-term view of ROI, you'll be able to show your management how the lever of Interaction Integration can move your company's planet.
George Cummings is president of Red Oak Software (www.redoaksw.com), an application integration software company providing Java systems for interaction integration. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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