September 8, 2016 | Written by: Rod Gifford
Categorized: B2B Integration
B2B integration is vital to most companies’ operations regardless of industry. B2B integration processes range from completely manual (e.g., receiving a fax or phone call with orders and manually inputting them into an order application) to completely automated, where only the exceptions stop the process (built on trust, an adherence to data standards/formats, and synchronized processes).
However, not all companies view B2B integration the same. Some don’t operate a complex business, so B2B integration is not critical to their day-to-day business. For others, B2B integration may be critical to their operation, but the organization still views it as just IT Infrastructure, so it doesn’t get the budget or recognition it deserves. Or they get complacent with their technology. Whereas in best-in-breed companies, both IT and LOB understand its value and view it as a competitive differentiator (see infographic below; click to enlarge):
At IBM, we believe there are six essential elements of a modern B2B integration architecture that companies need to deploy to ensure their B2B integration capabilities support the business’s operational requirements.
Essential #1: A single, scalable, and secure B2B integration gateway
Many companies have multiple point-solution gateways deployed, which impact budget, staffing, and architectural strategy and complicate integration across back-end applications. Running on an out-of-date technology stack and risking end-of-support doesn’t help. Also, IT can find itself operating islands of integration where managed file transfer (MFT) runs separate from B2B integration. Or one server is deployed for “SWIFT and another for “EBICS.” What a mess.
Why not consolidate on a single integration gateway? Wouldn’t it be nice to support almost every communications protocol a partner wants to leverage without saying “no” to the request? Worried about scalability and being able to support the operational volumes your business generates? It’s possible to deploy a single integration gateway that satisfies most of your operational requirements, so why not take advantage of it? The gateway is the foundation of business operations – don’t underestimate its importance.
Essential #2: Simplified onboarding and partner management
Onboarding and maintaining the underlying trading partner/customer data is one of the most time-consuming activities IT has to deal with. And it can have a significant impact on your business. There’s pressure from the LOB to reduce onboarding times, so the business can quickly start leveraging the value of the relationship. IT has to support both growth in the number of partners and a constantly changing mix of partners, not to mention myriad technical requirements.
The end result is IT struggles to deal with redundant, manual efforts to onboard across multiple applications while keeping contact data and certificates up-to-date. And then there’s the question of data storage: Where do you house this underlying data? On-premises, a local cloud behind your firewall, or on a public or private cloud? The choices are complex, and you need a strategy to guide your efforts.
Essential #3: High availability
Consider the business impact when a key technology is unavailable due to a planned or unplanned outage. In many industries like banking, healthcare, automotive, supply chain, and retail, B2B integration capabilities are the life blood of your business – and an outage can essentially halt your operations. Companies go to great lengths to build disaster recovery redundancy in their data center operations. The intent is to minimize operational downtime, avoid disruptions to trading partner communications, and preserve documents should an incident occur. But even the best approaches incur some latency before you’re operational again.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Technology is available to help you achieve near-zero downtime in the event of an outage or to keep your B2B communications operational when back-end processing goes down.
Essential #4: Adaptable capabilities
Let’s face it: Your business operations are constantly changing, but your B2B integration capabilities aren’t up to the task. They’re outdated and limit your ability to support the business, while a lack of configuration options makes it difficult to adapt to changing operational requirements. Integration processes still require manual interaction and redundant data entry. And it’s tough to stay current with the industry data standards you have to adhere to.
One option is to remain complacent, and many companies do, as they still view B2B integration as IT infrastructure. Another option is to start modernizing your capabilities to stay competitive. Investment in B2B integration can lead to faster cycle times, improved customer service, and reduced operational costs.
Essential #5: Visibility and analytics
Unfortunately, when companies struggle to address the B2B integration challenges highlighted in the other “essentials,” hand-in-hand is a lack of visibility over these operational processes. Or what visibility you do get is the result of some disruption somewhere, which finally gets the attention of IT and the line of business.
SLAs and governance over key business processes is an important audit requirement these days. It’s hard to avoid the requirement to conform; it’s more a matter of how difficult it is to pull all the reporting and measurement requirements into a cohesive view and make it available to the appropriate stakeholders. If that’s not enough, your best-in-class competitors are embracing analytics – and in a big way. A wealth of data flows through a company’s B2B integration platform, and they’re not afraid to leverage it.
So think beyond operational reporting and SLAs. Yes, you need a good foundation to monitor your business operations, but you should consider taking it to the next level to stay competitive.
Essential #6: Hybrid deployment models
These days, who hasn’t heard of the cloud – and the dilemma companies face in embracing it as part of an IT applications and business operations strategy? Some companies adopt an on-premises only strategy when deploying applications, due to data security concerns or as a matter of principle. Plus, it’s not a free ride. There’s always integration to consider between the cloud-based applications you leverage and the on-premises ones you’ve deployed. Also, you have to be careful about where in the world your data is being stored and who is actually hosting the vendor’s cloud IT operations. Remember it may be your vendor, but it could be a third party they contract with.
So coming up with an IT strategy that integrates on-premises and cloud-hosted applications is a necessity, and it doesn’t have to be an either/or situation. But you need to give it some thought.
Interested in taking a closer look at these six essentials? Get The Essential Elements of a Modernized B2B Architecture ebook.