Marc Olin, EFI
Integration is the Holy Grail of the software and hardware world—the ability to tie together and automate all parts of your organization. It’s called seamless integration, touchless automation, and a host of other phrases filled with the promise of cutting-edge technology. In the printing and publishing industry it signifies the creation of one unified system, from prepress through MIS.
But does the promise live up to the hype? The reality is that true integration is hard, time consuming, and expensive. Even to the most committed of organizations, it can seem like an elusive goal. So why does anyone even bother? Because the benefits can be substantial—picture data flowing intelligently between your order entry, production management, and financial systems, giving you a complete view of your organization and automating your most complex business processes.
Many companies and consultants promise integration, but the term is often spoken in a broad sense, overused, and misunderstood. There is a significant gap between the very beginning of integration (a simple one-way manual data exchange) and its true meaning in technology circles (a bi-directional, real-time, intelligent connection between two systems).
How well do you understand technology integration and, most importantly, its impact on your business? Are your current and future IT projects really sending you down the path towards one inter-connected system? To help you sort through the jargon and understand the difference between the hype and the reality, here are three common misconceptions of integration:
Integration, like leather seats, is a luxury, not a necessity.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Not only is integration a necessity, it’s essential to business survival. Think of the considerable time and money you have already spent investing in multiple technology systems to help run your business, such as Web-to-print, prepress management, production workflow, MIS, and financial systems. Without integrating these together, it’s like you’ve bought a car with all the various options you want, but left out the seats entirely, making it difficult to get in and move it where you need to go.
In an ideal world, all business applications would look alike, work alike, and “speak” to each other right out of the box. But in the real world most do not. In fact, some are so isolated they create their own data silos where information is held only in that system, never reaching any other applications. By integrating your systems, you let the data flow seamlessly from one application to another and get instant visibility into all areas of your business. Productivity improves, cycle times are reduced, and, in the end, you’re able to make decisions easier, faster, and more effectively.
Integration is like learning how to ride a bike—easy after you’ve done it once.
If this is true, then imagine trying to learn how to ride this bike: 20 wheels of all shapes and sizes, three handlebars, and capable of traveling in five directions simultaneously! The truth is that integration is never easy and it’s never done. To be successful, all software tools must continuously evolve to meet the needs of the end user. And, as integration implies a relationship between two or more systems (each evolving at different speeds and in different directions), the process to support and advance the integration is complex and critical to ongoing success. With technology integrations, there are important milestones along the way, but no final sprint across the finish line to the end of the race.
Both internally and through your various software vendors, the extended team you rely on to develop and support your technology is a critical, ongoing resource. In fact, the size and expertise of the development and support team is directly proportional to the depth and success of the integration. No matter which vendor(s) you are working with, it’s important to ask plenty of questions and make sure you are both clear on the short- and long-term goals of your technology road map.
Integration is a synonym for interface.
This is a common myth, but not all that surprising. We’ve already covered the challenges in defining integration, and too many organizations think just having a simple data transfer between two systems means they are integrated. The truth is that when you’re talking “integration” and “interface,” it’s the proverbial apples to oranges. There’s no comparison.
Integration requires a level of exchange and system intelligence that isn’t even a consideration in an interface. When interfacing a product, you map fields from one system to the next. You’re populating fields and it’s essentially a dumb, one-way process. Integration of two systems requires mapping supported by validation and a dynamic two-way exchange. And, in many instances, one or both systems must be able to interpret the exchanged data and respond based on what they have learned.
It’s important to mention here JDF (the Job Definition Format), which is commonly referred to as an integration of processes and applications within the graphic arts industry. It is actually a foundation language for interfacing two or more processes. And, while JDF is designed for two-way communication, the intelligence required to make JDF successful is dependent on the ability of the participating systems to leverage the information exchanged in the performance of their individual tasks. In other words, when it comes to JDF, the higher the level of intelligence and automation, the bigger the return.
Are You Ready for the Challenge?
Now that we’ve debunked the myths, it’s time to stick to the facts. Technology integration is all about optimizing your business to maximize its process and profit potential. Beyond the foundation products that make your business work, there is an important piece that is often missing: a solution that provides intelligent, automated workflow. This type of end-to-end integration can increase the productivity of both your staff and print devices and eliminate manual handling and prep work.
If you’re in the process of selecting software tools, make sure you consider whether the vendors offer true integration, automation, and software intelligence. The market leader is often the leader because it has the resources necessary to develop and support the high levels of integration necessary for long-term success.
Finally, as you move forward, remember there are two statements that can cripple your process improvement efforts: “That’s the way we’ve always done it!” and “If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it!” Any successful entrepreneur will tell you it’s your job—your responsibility—to constantly evaluate and challenge the status quo. When armed with the right tools, accurate information, and a small band of dedicated experts, the quest for business intelligence is more doable than it is daunting.
Marc Olin is an EFI senior vice president and the general manager of the company’s Advanced Professional Printing Software (APPS) business, “the operating system for print,” which includes MIS/ERP and Web-to-print business automation software. For more information visit www.myprintresource.com/10005156.