Bob here. This week we share a conversation about one of IT’s critical success factors – integration. The past couple of weeks Greg has focused on this as one of IT’s central challenges, so much so that he proposed changing the CIO acronym to stand for “Chief Integration Officer.”

Now I’ve been involved in IT integration since the ancient days of Electronic Data Interchange service bureaus. Call it 1980 or thereabouts, and even back then we ran into the problem of conflicting semantics, where the sender’s definition of a data field didn’t match the receiver’s definition. The more integration projects I’ve been involved in, the more I came to the conclusion that the technological solutions to simplifying and streamlining integration did a terrific job of making the easy aspects of integration even easier while doing little or nothing to solve the hard problems, like resolving semantic mis-matches.

What do you think, Greg? Am I overstating the challenge? Or am I just out of date and it was solved a long time ago?

Greg says:  I wouldn’t say you’re out of date, although, in my opinion at least, semantic matching has gotten easier. But Integrations are as hard as they have ever been.  The problem has just shifted, a bit like squeezing a tube of refrigerated cookie dough.

Bob says: Now we know what Greg snacks on.

Greg says: Ahem. As I was sayin’, integration is as hard as it ever was. The problems are still in familiar places – especially, volume, performance and speed.  In some ways, a lot of integration projects now feel like near-real-time Extract-Transform-Load problems. The expectations are really high, such as thinking we can make a 1 MB payload of multiple features move between systems instantaneously.

Then there’s security and trust. Can we ensure that the payload we are moving is trustworthy?  Passing bounds testing is simple, but are we sure that it is data that we want to be committed to another system?

Bob: So it’s just as hard, just differently hard. Okay. Then a follow-up: I’ve often wondered if pre-built integration might be the dominant reason IT shops find ERP solutions attractive.

Somewhere or other I read a piece of advice for deciding when to use an ERP module vs a best-of-breed application. The advice: If the ERP module provides even 50% of the functionality the business needs, choose it over integrating the best of breed. My question: do you agree? And to the extent you agree, do you think pre-built integration is a driving force behind ERP? Maybe on a 1 to 5 scale, where 5 says it’s the main driver and everything else is pretext; 1 means it’s nice, but not all that important.

Greg: Prebuilt integrations do help CIOs! Especially if you call them Chief Integration Officers (of course).

ERPs do still have a long way to go, but have made improvements.  Using your scale, I think ERP prebuilt integrations probably are at a solid 2, making it so that as a CIO, you can focus on some of the more value-oriented challenges of an implementation.

CRM systems lead the way.  I am constantly amazed at the creativity of certain CRM brands and the prebuilt integrations offered to make them more enticing.  I also notice that these same brands don’t market themselves to tech leadership – they spend their marketing money talking to Sales leaders about the ease of implementation. At the risk of being controversial, my guess is that they are giving Sales leaders talking points to deflect any concerns IT might raise about the true cost and complexity of the implementation effort.

Bob: Interesting bit (to me, at least). In the early cloud days, AWS and Azure started as Infrastructure as a Service providers (IaaS) and then moved up the stack to become Platform as a Service (PaaS) providers. But while nobody was looking, Salesforce, which started life as a Software as Service (SaaS), grew down the stack with its Force development environment (now Salesforce Platform), turning itself into a PaaS provider from the opposite direction.

Which gets me to the world of integration tools like enterprise service buses (ESB), enterprise application integration (EAI) tools, APIs, and Integration as a Service vendors. My question: Do these work better than custom interfaces and integrations? Do they, that is, succeed at simplifying inter-application integration?


That is a great question, and like a friend of mine often says, “It depends!”

ESBs, Integration as a Service, and EAI tools make a lot of sense when we are facing-

Lots of systems that all need to talk to each other (less so when all the systems need to talk to just one system).

Older platforms need to talk to newer platform. I tip my hat to the remaining RPG and COBOL programmers who figure out integrations everyday.

A need for a “Clean” architecture. The initial efforts need to be worth the outcome of orderliness and stability (And they usually are).

The biggest drawback that we face are the initial upfront costs, as well as the ongoing costs.  Business Leaders may face a bit of sticker shock with this approach.  This conversation is likely to require a lot of explanation into the gnarly bits of Tech.

Bob: I think we’ll have to hold off on the gnarly bits. Greg, it’s been a pleasure figuring out if and where we agree and disagree. Everyone who’s read this far – add your agreements and disagreements in the Comments.

Dear Member of the Keep the Joint Running Community

I’m delighted to introduce my good friend, colleague, and the new proprietor of Keep the Joint Running, Greg Mader.

Greg Mader is the President and Founder of Open Source Integrators (OSI), an ERP systems implementer and integrator.

Well, not exactly. Under Greg’s guidance, OSI’s teams don’t think of their job as implementing ERP Suites or any other type of software. They figure they’re helping clients achieve intentional business change.

Greg insists KJR has had something to do with this. I’m happy to take credit where I can find it.

In my 28 years of publishing KJR, the best compliments it’s received were that its advice has been pragmatic, real-world, and concrete.

Which is a big reason I’m delighted to introduce you to Greg – he’s an excellent person to continue this tradition. At OSI his clients range from Fortune 50, publicly traded companies, to small, multigenerational family businesses. And he lives where real stuff happens, in his multiple roles – as leader of a successful organization, consulting “guidance counselor” for his clients’ executive suite teams, and, prior to that, having done the day-to-day work of making technology-enabled change happen in other real-world organizations.

His career spans more than 25 years and his credentials give me a bad case of Imposter Syndrome, seeing as how they include experience in business, operations, manufacturing, and leadership, along with two master’s degrees.

Not to mention 21 years in the Army National Guard, Army Reserve, and Active Duty, where he retired at the rank of Major, serving in several deployments.

Most important, he grew up on the least successful farming operation in North Dakota, was involved in FFA and won a dairy cow weight guessing competition, and at one point was a certified septic system installer in South Dakota.

I’m not sure how Greg’s septic system installation credentials will help shape his approach to KJR, but I’m sure he’s up to the challenge.

Today, Greg lives happily in Arizona, on a small hobby farm with his wife and daughters. During the winter months he lords Arizona’s balmy climate to me as I shiver in my Minnesota misery. During the summer months we reverse our climatological one-ups-personship.

Please welcome Greg to the community, or, more accurately, to his new role in the community. As you can see he brings a lot to the party. I think you’ll like KJR’s future with him at the helm.

– Bob