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Data integration success requires business process optimization

Speakers and attendees of Forrester Research's Emerging Technology Showcase say the key to customer and product data integration lies in optimizing business processes.

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- The key to gaining a holistic view of customer and product data has more to do with optimizing existing business processes and changing traditional ways of thinking about information than it has to with the implementation of sweeping new technologies, according to speakers and attendees at Forrester Research Inc.'s Emerging Technology Showcase.

Technologies are emerging all the time that are designed to provide customers with a central view of all types of information, and several vendors demonstrated their products. But, as attendees, analysts and vendors pointed out, those tools are basically useless when different branches of a business refuse to give up their stranglehold on data.

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"A lot of what is going on here with customer and data integration and product information management is people- and process-related," said Erica Rugullies, a senior analyst at Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester. "It has nothing to do with technology."

Enterprises are realizing they need to integrate once-siloed information about products and customers across different lines of business, Forrester said. In some cases, this need is driven by the mandates of powerful supply chain associates that want real-time global information synchronization.

But other enterprises are seeking to integrate customer and product data because it brings to light cross-selling and up-selling opportunities that were once obscured, due to stove-piped data warehouses.

Whatever the reason, Rugullies said, there's no doubt that being able to instantly find the right information about customers and products leads to greater customer retention and, ultimately, higher revenues.

Data integration a lot tougher than it sounds

A recent Forrester survey of 100 customer relationship management managers found that more than 75% did not have an integrated view of customer information across different lines of business. Much the same was true when it came to internal product information.

And while the secret that data integration leads to increased revenue may be out, many companies are finding that achieving such integration is much easier said than accomplished. That is certainly the case at Hallmark Cards Inc.

A lot of what is going on here with customer and data integration and product information management is people- and process-related. It has nothing
to do with technology. 

Erica Rugullies
senior analystForrester Research Inc.
In 2003, Hallmark initiated an effort called the product item data strategy, where the $4.3 billion greeting card giant laid out a roadmap for making product data more readily accessible by the different lines of business. Half a year later, it did the same thing with its customer data strategy.

"We are trying to get a handle on products and on customers, and our next initiative is in the financial arena," said Kim Jackson Clevenger, a data architecture specialist at the Kansas City, Mo.-based company. "As far as integrating across the board, I'd say we're just not there yet."

One of the biggest barriers to data integration has to do with cultural differences that exist within companies, said John Eckman, a principal consultant at Molecular, a Watertown, Mass.-based technology consulting firm that helps businesses with their data integration needs.

"In terms of what I've seen our customers deal with, it's interesting to me how much product information management sounds like a replay of enterprise content management from about five years ago -- in the sense that the real problem is business process engineering, understanding who owns the data when and for what purpose," Eckman said.

Another problem standing in the way of data integration has to do with accessing data that is currently housed in legacy systems, said Les Bish, an IT researcher at USAA, a San Antonio-based company that provides insurance and financial services to the military and their families.

"Most of the companies that I've worked for, including the current one, have a lot of legacy data," Bish said. "Information gets put in formats that were current at the time, and so being able to integrate that data into a current platform like client/server can be a real difficult problem. The same thing happens with customer data."

Getting started

Eckman and others at the conference pointed out that many companies that have been successful with data integration started out by appointing a "data czar," who ensures that internal data isn't fragmented or otherwise inaccessible across business lines.

The data czar is also responsible for working with business folks to determine how business processes can be realigned or optimized to promote data synchronization, and to provide different departments with the information they need. Once those requirements are determined, it's then prudent to start looking at different technologies that can be of assistance.

Once the technology is chosen, analysts, and even vendors at the conference, said it's extremely important to start out small. Determine one or two small areas of information that can be integrated, realize a quick return on investment, then begin growing the project from there, they said.

"Don't try to boil the ocean," Eckman said.

Vendors standing by

Several vendors demonstrated data integration tools at the conference. FullTilt Solutions Inc. and i2 Technologies Inc. both got fair to moderate audience reviews for their demos, in terms of innovation and perceived business value.

But the audience gave a third vendor, N-Tara Inc., the highest marks all around for its presentation.

Based in Johnson City, Tenn., N-Tara sells a product called N-Vision, a guided selling and visual configuration tool that allows users to pull in information from different databases and configure data views based on customer needs and other requirements such as cost.

Jeff Morris, vice president of technology at N-Tara, did not offer specific prices for the tool, but said the pricing model is CPU based.

"The neat thing about the product is it is browser based, and it comes in the form of a rich Internet application," Morris said.

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