Supply Chain

Integration, The Quagmire the World Runs On

It may be messy and unfun, but it makes businesses work.

Integration is often seen as messy and unfun. And it’s hard to get right. Regardless, to get any real value from a large scale software system, it’s necessary.

A system that facilitates all a business’ processes is a holy grail of sorts. Though it sounds straightforward, making technology products work together when they’re not designed to is a common sticking point.

Integration is as important in supply chain as in any other industry: The technology is fairly fragmented, and companies can even benefit from connecting with their parters’ IT systems to improve planning.

Marketing pitches for ERP systems — huge packages of software that can do almost anything, albeit rather painfully — sometimes point out that you need an end-to-end system to implement cutting edge practices like machine learning and demand-driven planning. Such capabilities, it’s emphasized, depend on visibility and real-time access to data from different parts of the business.

They’re right, but they downplay a more mundane point: Your systems need to be integrated if your business is going to work at all.

Most business processes are inescapably horizontal because they stretch across functional boundaries. A canonical example is online retail, in which online shopping, purchasing, fulfillment, warehouse picking, transportation and delivery all have to work in concert. This brief and highly incomplete sketch makes one thing clear: It’s not enough to implement these individual tasks with software. The pieces have to work together seamlessly to enable end-to-end scenarios.

So while integration can often seem bizarely expensive, slow to implement, and generally distasteful, it’s also indispensible. It’s the glue that takes several perfectly good bits of software that each do one thing well and combines them into a strange assortment that you probably wouldn’t design from scratch, but that actually makes businesses work.