Achieving seamless e-business integration

John Orcutt, CEO of Mountain View, Calif.-based Actional Corp., an integration architecture provider, explains the best ways to achieve the seamless integration of e-business initiatives

Q: What skills should individuals working on an integration project possess?

A: The necessary skills can be broken into two categories: business and technical. On the business side, you need individuals who understand your business applications, business processes and the overall business problems associated with them. We call them Domain Experts. On the technical side, it is essential that the individuals understand the infrastructure, available integration solutions and overall B2B processes.

Q: Clearly, a company’s overall e-business strategy is directed by its business strategy rather than a specific technology. Therefore strategies can vary widely. What are the first things to consider when examining e-business needs for an organization with little or no existing e-business infrastructure or strategy?

A: I think it’s extraordinary that many of the questions posed to me have been related to how a company should evaluate its e-business strategy. That’s an extremely telling question. It indicates that many companies have spent the past year taking a “wait and see” approach, which in hindsight may have been smart. But it’s definitely time to begin formulating and implementing your e-business strategies. When considering a particular strategy, ask yourself what you are trying to accomplish. If the goal is somewhat nebulous, such as increasing sales revenue, then you may find it difficult to accurately assess the success and feasibility of this e-business deployment. However, cost reduction is a goal that can easily be measured and justified by an e-business implementation. As an example, consider Covisint LLC. This B2B automotive trading exchange calculates an almost immediate ROI by implementing Commerce One Inc. to connect automakers with a network of more than 30,000 suppliers, thus increasing supply chain efficiency and drastically lowering production costs. If you’re in that industry, that’s an easy decision to make.

Q: It’s amazing to learn how many large organizations are late to the Internet and are just now planning e-business initiatives. Fortune 500 companies tend to put together an e-business committee comprising a variety of people with a variety of disciplines, and it’s my experience that these huge undertakings usually get off on the wrong foot. The e-team is handed the keys to the Holy Internet Grail and told to “go do it” typically without having the benefit of any real experience. From that perspective, where would you advise a company to begin for the greatest chance of speedy success?

A: One of the biggest mistakes businesses can make when adopting an e-business strategy is to go for a “blue sky” or “big picture” view of what they’re looking for. Narrow that view down by looking at business processes in specific departments of your organization, and use these to assess and gauge the problems that need to be solved. Do you need real-time communication with your suppliers online? Do you need speedier response time to technical support cases submitted over the Web? Apply a solution to the pending issues in your test-case environments, then measure the success of this implementation. Only after you have gathered metrics and assessed the success rate should you role out a broader companywide e-business solution.

Consider three key areas that will significantly minimize your risk: performance, cost and hands-on experience.

A big performance pitfall is choosing a solution that tops out in capacity after only a few months. Avoid this by choosing solutions that allow you to control scalability and latency. And because your company no matter what your business has customers to please, consider the integration’s latency needs before you worry about throughput. On the cost side, make sure you determine the true cost of the solution. Will you have to staff up or retrain? Don’t underestimate the cost of retraining and implementing a new infrastructure. And throw out any vendor that suggests its software is the tool on which you build your business processes. You need to leverage your existing IT infrastructure instead of starting from scratch. While starting from scratch might seem the cleaner solution, it’s totally impractical.

Q: My company is a Fortune 100 multinational, and I am in charge of e-business. We have had varying levels of success with third-party vendors, but I never felt that any of them “got” our industry or company direction. What criteria should I be looking for when I evaluate e-business integrators?

A: The best way to measure the track record of e-business integrators is to probe. Ask them what their success rate is in your field. Ask them to identify successful projects similar to yours. Insist on talking to references for those projects. If they can show a high success rate, then chances are they have the capability of understanding your business critical processes and can provide a solution to your integration challenges. The old clich