Why is it still hard to automate business processes after so many years of ERP, MIS, CRM, and MES systems? Why is it still so difficult to integrate business systems when there are so many integration standards around — ISA-95, JDF, SOAP, OPC?
Businesses are processes. They engage with Customers, take in orders, plan how to fulfill those orders, execute the plan and then deliver back to the Customers. Other processes feed in: procuring and managing materials, maintaining the business, its equipment and its people, finding new Customers, creating new offerings, managing the money and so on. These processes knit together, like a piece of clothing. One process feeds into another: any line between one process and another is arbitrary.
Business software vendors carve chunks out of these processes around a function they hope will be seen as high value and package these chunks as products. They cannot provide an “end-to-end” solution:
- The scope of expertise required is too broad;
- The variation in Customer requirements is too vast, even within a single function, let alone across a whole business;
- Customers know they cannot articulate the needs for their entire business, nor can they take the risk of replacing everything at once, so they buy software in chunks to solve specific business problems, not to outfit their whole business.
So there will always be the situation where to automate across a business, you will have multiple software systems, from multiple vendors. Each vendor has its own interpretation of where the boundaries between one function and the next lie; each has its own interpretation of the best compromise between the unique business processes and requirements of hundreds of Customers.
None of these vendors are focused on how to integrate with other systems — because they are not being paid for it; because it is too difficult, given the multiplicity of possible combinations; and because typically providers regard the vendors of adjacent systems as a threat who will encroach on their turf if they are allowed easy access. As a result, solutions overlap, or don’t quite meet each other; they support standards only to the extent that they support their own system’s functions, but not those around them; and their communications are typically incomprehensible to each other: not willfully, but simply because they were developed in isolation.
The problem is not going to go away, but can you manage it? Yes, if you approach buying business software and integrating business processes from a systems point of view. In next week’s blog we will discuss more on this topic, and how you use Systems Thinking to assist you with it.