In much the same way that our expectations concerning integration have been changing, the tools and techniques at our disposal to address the integration challenge have also evolved. As a result, integration technology is moving away from the black art it once was.
At the most abstract level, integration is about sharing knowledge between planning, execution and analytic systems, whilst bridging the gaps that stand in the way of seamless information and process flow.
Some time ago, it was enough to have your accounts payable modules share information with your general ledger. Expectations today are much higher and more demanding, though. For example, as consumers, the ability for our suppliers to be able to give accurate, timely and reliable information about pricing, availability or lead times is almost seen as a given.
But the complex web of information flow to make that a reality means that there are several hurdles to clear.
This evolution of expectations and the demands it places on the system landscape have had a significant impact on the landscape of the people delivering solutions in that space. The emergence of industry-standard (or commonly accepted) technologies has allowed us to begin to consider some of the low-level "technical" integration pieces as pretty much a commodity.
We should no longer require specialist interface programmers to ensure that our new applications can fit into our corporate landscape. XML (Extensible Markup Language) has been a key part of solving the data integration problem, but certainly not enough on its own to win the information Olympics.
Thus, those organisations delivering solutions in the integration space have to work harder than almost any other group to keep their solutions in tune and, better still, ahead of the standards game. What was a value proposition 12 months ago comes bundled with today's business.
This battle for fleeting leadership (or even parity) translates into expensive research and development. Tight margins in the current economy put even more pressure on the smaller players and, inevitably, they will struggle and are likely to face extinction or assimilation by a larger organisation that can fund the necessary effort.
The realisation that XML alone isn't the be-all and end-all (Who defines routing? Who defines meta data that means something to two parties, let alone a community?) has resulted in a raft of "standards" organisations.
Now, which XML standard do you want to use? Many industry-specific and horizontal marketplaces have dictated the formats and schemas for their participants, but what happens when two marketplaces want to talk to each other? Consulting heaven! We're back to the days of custom mapping and development to marry different systems in an opportunistic way.
To be fair, a number of emerging standards look very promising, technologies like SOAP, WSDL and UDDI hold real potential for taking away a lot of the pain around some of the core layers of getting systems to talk to each other. What's more, these sorts of technologies are destined to be commodities, and are likely to become a standard capability of new applications as they filter into the market.
Our integration tool vendors are now either back to the drawing board or back to the wall. It's a tough market. However, all is not lost for them. The opportunities for tools and services survive.
All of the technologies that we see in the market today, at face value, offer some real solutions to making integration easier. The promised land, however, is still largely uncharted: genuine process management that reflects real business. Real business changes over time, real business has a different perspective from each participant, real business is not always understood by even those who manage it.
This is where services organisations can bring significant value. It's not just a case of knowledge, it's a case of experience and judgement. Sometimes you just have to make the call on which way you'll go. It's also about bringing in experience on things you have little experience about.
The key role of technology providers now is to provide a common framework for capturing, storing and sharing integration information when it's needed. Once you've got your own systems sorted out, maybe you're ready to start integrating with your key customers or suppliers.
Standards provide the foundation for commoditisation, but they can always provide a nice springboard for a little imagination. As time marches on, as our expectations rise, as our demands become more challenging, the weak will stumble and fall, perhaps gathered up by some lumbering giants looming behind, gathering speed. It's a fascinating space to watch.