Ten hard questions about "integrated" business software
iConexx’s Matt Brown tells you what you need to know before you spend your money.
“Your system is only as strong as the weakest link, and if the weakest link is poor integration, then your system is not very strong.”
But when shopping for an integrated system, the uninformed run the risk of being deceived. A vendor might tell them that a product is “integrated”, but a customer needs to know just what they mean by that word (see glossary). A truly integrated system will have all the functions the customer wants in its core structure, with those functions sharing data in real-time.
The customer who accepts the vendor’s word, without getting them to demonstrate just what’s under the bonnet, may find that the “integrated” system they’ve bought is actually just various components bolted together.
“There are all sorts of stumbling blocks with non-integrated systems,” says Matt Brown, Director of Greentree UK Partner, iConexx. “The vendor is unlikely to volunteer information that could affect his chances of making a sale. If the customer finds out after purchase that some parts of the new system don’t interact fully, they can be faced with lower staff productivity, duplicated data entry, and a fragile, breakdown-prone system. What’s worse: throwing money at it won’t fix it.”
To help avoid such an outcome, Matt has prepared a list:
10 questions to ask your potential integrated solution provider
1. What is the level of integration?
“If the data is only being updated across the modules using extract and import routines, then it’s not an integrated system. A truly integrated system updates data immediately throughout the application as it happens.”
2. How many technologies are involved in the solution?
“The more disparate technologies that are involved, the more likely you are to have a complex implementation, increased costs, eg: training, and ongoing maintenance nightmares.”
3. Have you clearly seen the add-ons working with the core system?
“Too often you get shown these add-ons in isolation without doing integration testing. You need to be assured that they will work together, before you buy.”
4. If third parties are involved, is there one support point of contact?
“I recall a business reported a problem that had already been fixed in an update release, but when the vendor went to install that release for them, it found there was a third-party add-on involved that wasn’t supported in the release. The client decided to live with the problem rather than getting the update and risking the interface breaking, which could have shut down their warehouse.”
5. Do all the modules and functions look and feel the same?
“A system with different-looking modules and functions puts an extra burden on the operator if they have to enter information in a different way, depending on where they’re putting it.”
6. Is training and configuration carried out by the main vendor/developer’s consultants?
“I recall that a third-party consultant once set up a cost centre code in the payroll module that didn’t fit with the base system. As a result, some journals weren’t being processed properly. It could have been resolved by proper communication between the consultant and the main vendor/developer.”
7. Will I receive a single invoice for support?
“Third-party application support costs can be quite expensive and can potentially increase with little notice. If an add-on company is struggling, one of the first things you find is that their support costs go up, because they’re not selling new names or licences.”
8. What happens if a chosen third-party vendor goes bust?
“Often third-party applications are developed by specialist firms, which are not as financially robust as the major software house. Should the company cease trading, who holds the source code, and who will support it going forward? You need to be sure about the stability of third-party products and vendors.”
9. Does the add-on developer follow a strict upgrade road-map linked to the main system?
“A business I know constantly has to wait longer than needed for new functionality in the main system, as the add-on is not supported at the new version. This means the third-party vendor dictates the upgrade process, rather than the customer.”
10. What happens when the main vendor introduces similar functionality to an already purchased add-on?
“If there’s a multitude of add-on modules in an immature system, new features are bound to be introduced that overlap add-on functionality. Do the two co-exist or does the add-on have to be turned off? If so, what happens to the data accumulated in the add-on?”
That last point is best resolved by the main vendor having a very close relationship with its development partners, and developing functional road maps that put the customer first.
“In the bigger channel partnerships, the smaller software developers don’t have a say in the direction of the product,” Matt says. “It’s completely the reverse with Greentree – we have a very tight-knit developer family; they consult with the partners that they’re going in the right direction. That’s a refreshing notion, really.
“With Greentree, we’re able to demonstrate its depth of functionality and configurability to prospects, and that they’re far less likely to need add-ons. What’s more, if any specialised functions are required, Greentree’s architecture is such that they’re fully integrated.
“This is critical, because your system is only as strong as the weakest link, and if the weakest link is poor integration, then your system is not very strong.”
About Matt Brown
Having completed a degree in Manufacturing Systems Engineering, Matt worked in the automotive and metal industries, before moving into information systems, first as a business analyst and then as an implementation consultant. He has worked on 60+ installations and has competed 40+ successful installations as the lead consultant. Matt is a lover of all things aeronautical, having gained his private pilot’s licence at the age of 17 (courtesy of an RAF flying scholarship). He is a self-confessed “meddler” in all things technical and loves a good gadget.
An integrated system functionally combines software applications to act as a single entity.
An interfaced system connects different software applications, usually by transferring data in various ways.
Add-on / Bolt-on / Extension
These are software components that add specific custom abilities to a larger software application.
NB: these components can be properly integrated, but are most commonly interfaced.
Customised software (also known as bespoke software or tailor-made software) is software that is specially developed for some specific organisation or other user. As such, it can be contrasted with the use of software packages developed for a broader market, such as commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) software. NB: Customised software can be either properly integrated or just interfaced.
In computer programming, a third-party software component is a reusable software component developed by an entity other than the original vendor. NB: Third-party software can be either properly integrated or just interfaced.
In computing terms, configuration refers to the built-in capability of a system to be adjusted according to a user’s specific functional requirements, without reprogramming.
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