Business transactions between independent business entities require the thoughtful integration of it systems, for example, as well as between a company and its customers, suppliers, or other business partners, such as co-producers and banks (Luftman). Consequently, effective system integration is important for both economic and strategic business reasons. In this regard, Luftman reports that, "External systems integration involves many technologies and business arrangements with different pros and cons, but they can be grouped in two broad categories: one-to-one or one-to-many approaches that link an individual company with its business partners and hub-and-spoke approaches that provide the possibility of many-to-many connections" (Luftman, p. 252).
Since the introduction of computers several decades ago, the increasing computerization of business organizations has experienced a sequence of transformations as a result of the rapid development in information technology and increasingly complex business needs (Yang & Lu, 2005). As these authors point out, "The continuous e-revolution of business processes has encountered a number of challenging technological issues, but none more critical than the incompatibility and importability which currently exist between information systems and applications" (Yang & Lu, p. 3). Well-managed information systems integration is desirable for several reasons:
It provides timely and accurate information for analysis and decision making by both management (e.g., data warehousing applications) and customers (e.g., product catalogs);
It provides a single authoritative source of information for use in performance measurement and the audit process; and,
It facilitates interaction between software programs in order to achieve program and business process integration (Luftman).
According to Yang and Lu, notwithstanding the desirability of effectively managed system integration, there are a number of obstacles and constraints to the process that will affect a significant percentage of businesses today. As these authors point out, "Enterprises must incessantly upgrade and integrate their e-infrastructures in order to maintain their competitive advantage" (Yang & Lu, p. 4). Clearly, keeping up with such rapid rates of change in technology has represented an enormous challenge for most businesses, as well as accounting for a great deal of investment in time and resources. In this regard, Yang and Lu emphasize, "One major roadblock to integration is that there is usually an inherent heterogeneity of system platforms and software applications existing within the same enterprise and among collaborative partners. Thus, it is common that enterprises must spend an astronomical amount of time and money to link the new and legacy systems in order to exchange data, information and knowledge" (p. 4). No savvy business manager wants to spend "an astronomical amount of time and money" to achieve these goals, though, but there are some guidelines and best practices available to help companies of all types better manage this integration.
In their book, the Business of Systems Integration, Prencipe, Davies and Hobday (2003) identify five skills that underlie effective systems integration as follows:
Understanding of underlying technological disciplines and therefore ability to integrate them;
Technological understanding of the entire system behavior in terms of relevant parameters;
Ability to design the entire system;
Ability to design most key components of the system; and,
Ability to assemble components interface (p. 374).
If these skills do not exist in-house, careful consideration should be given to either training personnel for this purpose or outsourcing this function so that integration is accomplished in a seamless fashion rather than in bits and spurts while the company's it function founders. Depending on the size and type of business involved, this can be a challenging endeavor or a fairly straightforward one, but there are some common issues involved in the process that are discussed further below.
Managing Information Resources and Technologies for Developing Systems
Thinking outside the box" has become a popular catchphrase in recent years, but in the case of managing information resources and technologies for developing systems, it is highly appropriate because of the dynamic nature of the enterprise. For example, according to Earl (2003), "Whether firms choose to integrate their formal business and it strategies or not, they certainly need to integrate their business and it thinking. As the theory and practice of strategy making, in both the business and it domains have evolved, it is perhaps useful to consider it and business working together to assess portfolios of opportunities" (p. 51). For example, in his recent study, "Integrating Instructional Technology with Information Technology and Its Implications for Designing Electronic Learning Systems," Abdelraheem (2005) reports that, "By examining today's technologies in different aspects, one can observe a growing interest in introducing new disciplines. Among these new disciplines: food technology, biotechnology, engineering technology, computer technology, instructional technology and information technology and many more. The common factor in all these disciplines is technology application" (p. 125). This common factor is the core of managing information resources and technologies for rapidly developing computer- and Internet-based systems. Today, there are a number of structured approaches that can be used for developing information systems that typically begin with the planning phase and work toward a successfully implemented information system (Murray & Crandall).
Indeed, in the Age of Information, information is clearly the key, but businesses and consumers alike now have a wide range of peripherals available to them that have introduced new challenges in how to best manage these applications as well. In this regard, Abdelraheem also emphasizes, "Technology application makes a big shift in all aspects of our life. It manipulates and handles information in every conceivable form, whether it is music, video, graphics, speech, data, or text. It also embraces an increasing range of technologies" (p. 126). The author adds that, "Smart cards, computer animations, interactive compact discs, computer-based training, computer integrated manufacturing, virtual reality systems; the list is endless. There is also an increasing impact of technology on how individuals access, process, store and use information" (Abdelraheem, p. 126). This increasing impact of technology on how people use information in the workplace and their reaction to changes in their it routine is discussed further below.
Managing Organizational it Change
Change, of course, scares many people because it represents both an unknown as well as yet something else they are going to have to learn in order to remain competitive. Once people become familiar and comfortable with a given application, they may vigorously resist any changes unless the "what's-in-it-for-them" issues can be adequately sold and the relevant aspects of the change initiative communicated appropriately throughout the organization. This can be more difficult than it sounds, but there are some different techniques available that can be used to communicate relevant aspects of the change initiative to affected members of an organization, including the following:
Spray and pray": This simply means providing all of the available information concerning the change to employees and hoping for the best;
Tell and sell": This approach involves using more discretion in what is communicated to employees and requires convincing stakeholders of the its need and supporting rationale;
Underscore and explore": This approach involves management concentrating on the core issues needed to effect the change and allows employees some flexibility in exploring various possibilities;
Identify and reply": In this approach, employees provide feedback concerning the change and management responds;
Withhold and uphold": This approach involves providing employees with as little information as possible and remaining adamant when questioned about the change initiative (Miller, p. 225).
Whatever approach is used, it is vitally important for top management support for the it initiative to be clearly evident from start to finish, and for the lines of communication (for whichever approach is used) to remain open so that employees can voice their concerns and learn the "what's-in-it-for-them" aspects as soon as possible. This will help "grease the it skids" and promote better acceptance of the change initiative.
Perhaps the overriding consideration that emerged from the review of the relevant peer-reviewed and scholarly literature above was the need for the effective management of it processes by companies of all sizes and types in order to survive in an increasingly globalized marketplace. Some companies may benefit from developing this expertise in-house, while others may need to rely on third-party providers to achieve their organizational it management goals, but the good news is that there are also an increasing number of such providers available that can provide these services in a cost-effective fashion. A representative sampling of these third-party providers and their capabilities is provided in Table 1 below.
Capabilities of integrated solutions providers.
Designs and builds trains and signaling systems, using equipment developed in-house or externally. Acts as prime contractor in large turnkey projects
Consultancy-based approach to meet customer needs
Vendor financing and asset management
Designs, manufactures, and integrates mobile phone systems, using equipment developed in-house or externally (e.g. 'multi-vendor' systems)
Maintains, supports, upgrades, and operates mobile networks
Two business consultancy organizations to meet needs of Ericsson and external customers…