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Getting it all together

Blending applications is far from painless. In fact, for many, it is one of the most painful parts of their technology strategies.

The first e-mail I received from the woman (call her Martina) sounded, to say the least, distressed. She had just paid thousands of dollars to have a company integrate her customer data and sales database with her sales forecasting software, and it didn’t work. That is, the software ran, but the data didn’t synchronize correctly–or something; she wasn’t yet sure what was wrong. All she really knew was that the forecasting software made less accurate forecasts than when she was entering customer data manually.

Martina works very hard at keeping her business together, and that includes her business software applications. She doesn’t run a big business, so she doesn’t need (and can’t afford) an IT department, but she owns several stores and a raft of software that helps her run her business. The problem is, she’s built her company over the last 10 or 12 years, which means she purchased the software over that period more as less as needed, and with little or no consideration for integrating the information that the applications generate. Now she wants to start comparing and analyzing the data–and the ugly beast of application integration rears its head.

I call it that because Martina has encountered one of the most serious and enduring problems in computing. According to a study last year by The Standish Group International Inc. in West Yarmouth, Mass., 95 percent of all application integration projects fail. That figure sounds outlandish, even though a similarly gloomy figure puts the number of successful application development projects at one in six. Still, a 95 percent failure rate is a strong indicator that it is commonplace to suffer blown budgets, shattered schedules, and delivery (if any) of software that fails to live up to expectations.

When it comes to computing, Martina is no quivering quail; she has a background in computer science and spent several years working in the computer industry. She knows better than most small businesspeople what’s involved in making her applications work together, but it was no less shocking to see the project fail–and have to deal with the situation–including a pending lawsuit she instigated against the software development company.

Perhaps Martina is climbing into the cage with the beast a bit earlier than many small businesspeople. It’s only a little more than 20 years since the personal computer revolution brought computing to businesses of all sizes. For many businesses, that continues to mean installing computers, networks, and using basic software like spreadsheets and word processing applications. Integrating applications, an issue that generally hit large corporations early and hard, has been more sporadic for small businesses. To a certain extent there is satisfaction with the way computing has made accounting, inventory management, and other basics of business management more tractable. However, as the demands of modern business increase and businesspeople become more sophisticated about computing, the desire increases to have existing applications work together. In Martina’s case, she saw a potential competitive advantage to using her carefully acquired customer data in new ways, especially more timely integration of her sales figures and forecasting. She wanted to be more responsive to trends in her business.

What she didn’t expect was how difficult it can be to integrate her software. In her second e-mail, in which she outlined her case, she expressed surprise that after “all these years” the computer industry still couldn’t deliver consistent results for application integration. I replied, somewhat flippantly, that it was a condition of too many kinds of software meeting too many ill-defined requirements, abetted by too many “solutions” and the lack of standards.

Quite rightly, she objected: “What you describe is not a natural landscape. It’s been shaped by vendor competition, polluted by deception and ignorance, and allowed by too many people to continue. Application integration may be difficult, but it’s not quantum mechanics.” Martina comes down on the action side of her convictions; she began to research the subject of application integration to see if there were other small businesspeople who suffered from the pandemic incompetence of the software industry.

As she put it, “That search required a single Google.” The search also revealed to her the name of the Integration Consortium >

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