In today’s digital world of technology and smart, data-driven business decisions, information integration is essential. For many, many years, we’ve lived and worked in a world where technology has enabled organizations to collect and analyze vast amounts of data. Customer data, transactional data, data from CRM systems, ERP systems, on-premise systems, off-premise systems, the cloud, apps, email systems, voice, text, video, Internet of Things – you name it – from the very first moment an organization started collecting data, that data has been mounting up (and up and up). However, quantity isn’t everything – and the fact is that this data won’t usually have been collected in one centralized location. Rather, it exists in separate, departmental containers which are siloed, isolated, and serve only the individual business needs of individual departments.
When data is siloed like this, its potential can never be fully unleashed to the benefit of the business as a whole – even if those separate piles provide meaningful and actionable business intelligence to the separate (i.e. isolated) departments they belong to. Think about marketing, for example. A marketing team may use data to better understand the success (or failure) of a particular campaign, determine the types or quantity of content they’ll need in the future, or gain a clearer view of the buyer’s journey. But that data isn’t only useful to marketing. Sales, for instance, could make great use of that same data to improve its own operations – from making better pricing decisions to improving strategies for increasing conversion rates, revenue, and customer lifetime value.
This, of course, is just one example – there are countless others like it. As such, in more recent times, the name of the game has been to move beyond siloed data collection and analysis and head towards meaningful data and information integration – i.e. bringing data from different sources together into a single, unified view. In fact, information integration has become the flagship of many IT projects run by various organizations around the world over recent years. As companies have realized the need to improve data accessibility to enhance cross-departmental teamwork and collaboration, so too have they realized the need for information integration – and technology is key to making it happen.
As Keith Moore, CEO of insurance price comparison site CoverHound, puts it, “Every person in the company should be the most informed person in the company.” To make this a reality, CoverHound relies on an information integration system to aggregate hundreds of reports pulled from multiple sources in real time each day. As a result, this cross-functional accessibility to data enables CoverHound to become more predictive and responsive, regardless of the data source or type.
The Problem with Data Silos
And it’s not just insurance companies that stand to benefit from information integration. In fact, it’s the same story no matter the industry. A recent article in Trend Micro reveals that the average medium- to large-size organization uses anywhere between 300 and 500 applications. Without information integration strategies and tools in place, the data these applications generate remains scattered amongst the disparate and disconnected systems. This results in poor communication between departments, people, systems and processes, leading to an inability to meet both customers’ needs and business goals. What’s more, when data exists in silos, important decisions are based on incomplete or misinformation, which can have sub-optimal if not disastrous business consequences.
Information integration allows businesses to amalgamate data from different sources to provide users with a single, real-time view of business processes and performance. As such, information integration is the first step toward transforming data into meaningful, actionable and valuable business insights.
Yet, according to Experian, 66% of companies lack a centralized approach to data – and data silos are reported as being one of the most common issues. The research reveals that, in many current approaches, business data from these different silos is sequenced through many different platforms, from data lakes to data warehouses – a process which can be time consuming and expensive. In addition, the research found that data engineers spend about 60%-70% of their time simply prepping and bringing data together.
The problem here is that as data is being transferred through the different platforms, it can often be prone to errors, and can sometimes take many hours to arrive at its final destination in this erroneous state. When such failures exist, corrupt data ends up feeding through into analytics applications, which results in bad decision making.
The Benefits of Information Integration
Remaining competitive means finding ways to not only aggregate data, but to do so in an efficient, error-free way that enables organizations to unlock the full extent of the data’s value.
But what precisely is the value that can be unlocked through robust, technology-enabled information integration? Let’s consider some of the key benefits:
- Improved Customer Experience – When data is siloed, it prevents organizations from forming a complete view of customers, which can impact marketing functions, sales, and ultimately revenue. Only when organizations have access to real-time customer information can customers be targeted with the right message at the right time on the right channel. Information integration tools give organizations the real-time, 360-degree view of the customer they need, enabling them to improve customer experience, loyalty, and increase revenue.
- Increased Productivity – Even when organizations are collecting and analyzing data, if they have to constantly move between many different systems to garner insight, productivity is naturally – and significantly – reduced. When a technology-enabled information integration strategy is enabled, on the other hand, the organization’s data from all its different sources is pooled together into a single view, allowing productivity to be improved.
- Streamlined Processes and Operations – Be it product management, manufacturing, supply chains or procurement, enabling company-wide real-time access to key information improves processes, increases production, and lowers costs across departments, including sales, production, distribution, and more.
- Improved Decision Making – Information integration technologies present real-time data in an easy-to-digest format, often via customizable data dashboards. This helps departments become more proactive, uncover opportunities for process improvements, identify problems before they occur, and run with up-to-the-minute information to make fast, high-quality decisions.
- Better Business Intelligence – Information integration technologies supply the business intelligence tools an organization is already using with the data streams teams need to make strategic decisions, and uncover inefficiencies, gaps in processes, and missed revenue opportunities. In addition, having the ability to combine historical data with current sales pipeline information enables organizations to make informed forecasts and anticipate customer demands.
How Much Data Should Organizations Connect?
The benefits of information integration are many and clear – but where should companies start, and are there any pitfalls to be aware of before beginning on an information integration journey?
Well, the short answer is yes. The more data sources a company has – and for most modern organizations going through digital transformation, that number is growing all the time – the harder it is to determine which of it is the most important.
Improving access to data – a key goal of an information integration strategy – is undoubtedly a good thing, as it leads to better business decisions and all the other benefits outlined above. However, when data from all departments across the whole organization is brought together, the potential exists for overwhelming various members of the workforce with information that may not be relevant to their specific jobs or business goals. In many cases, improving access to data across departments – such as between marketing sales – will result in better business outcomes. But that’s not to say that this is always the case. In some situations, bad decisions can end up being made based on too much data – and indeed, bombarding employees with too much data also runs the risk of them tuning out altogether. As such, data must not only be put into context, it must also be customized for individual lines of business, and made available only to the right people at the right time.
And there’s another question hanging over organizations about to embark on an information integration journey – What data should be connected?
To answer this question, organizations need to have a plan in place. They need to assess their information integration needs, determine what data sources they have, and what systems they reside in – on-premise, cloud, hybrid environments, etc. Just because an organization decides it can connect everything, doesn’t mean it should – or at least not all at once.
Much like digital transformation, information integration is a journey – and every journey has to start somewhere. Complete integration of all data may be an organization’s ultimate goal, but it’s important to prioritize what gets integrated first on the road to achieving it.
Information Integration Technology
Integration platform provider Actian recommends beginning with a foundation of what it calls “core data”. Every company, Actian says, has a core set of master data that is used throughout the organization. Customer records, product records, and employee records are all great examples of master data that companies use in many different places throughout the organization. In addition to these, there is usually a number of core transactional platforms – such as sales, customer service, manufacturing, and finance systems – which are critical to operational decision making.
Actian says that focusing on master data and core platforms is a great first step towards building a foundation of connected data to support digital business processes. And with this first step completed, one of the most important goals of information integration can be achieved – gaining a 360-degree view of the customer.
“A true 360-degree view of your customers can’t be sourced from a single system, it must be aggregated from many different sources,” writes Actian. “Traditional CRM and data warehouse systems just couldn’t handle all the data sources available, and developing a complex set of integrations was both costly and time consuming.”
To combat these issues, what’s required is an information integration solution that collects and aggregates data in one place, and provides the tools necessary to convert raw data into actionable insights. Such platforms enable organizations to develop a more complete and accurate profile of their customers, including insights into purchasing habits and preferences. They do so by mining all available sources of data in any format – structured or unstructured – from any location, and on any channel.
Information integration platforms like Actian DataConnect combine data from things like sales transactions, mobile apps, and websites with public information about customers found online in places such as social media posts and product reviews. Integrating all this information on a single platform enables organizations to better understand their customers, and better target their marketing efforts in accordance with individual customers’ unique needs. It also enables organizations to garner better business intelligence – such as assessing what causes customer churn – and identify the best methods to personalize the whole customer experience.
Moving beyond marketing and sales benefits, a robust information integration platform will also be a boon to the broader organization’s operations and processes. A good system like Actian DataConnect has the ability to integrate data from components built on different technologies. For example, if an organization’s manufacturing system is already connected, data from logistics-related IoT devices can be integrated to provide visibility into the end-to-end supply chain. In addition, third-party systems – such as those belonging to cloud service providers, facilities services, and transportation companies – can also be connected to the information integration platform, allowing organizations to view what’s happening throughout the larger business ecosystem, regardless of who’s actually doing the work.
Machine Learning and AI
Emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence and machine learning, of course, are also driving demand for real-time information integration and harmonization. Those operating in the legal industry, for instance, where details from multiple sources are used in evidence-based situations, need to be able to form a full picture of an incident or charge. Without a robust information integration strategy – and the necessary technology to power it – law firms struggle to record, document and pull all the evidence together into one complete picture.
Digital media capture company VIQ Solutions has developed a solution for firms operating in the legal sector (amongst others, including government, healthcare and insurance) in which digital recording technology is deployed to capture and preserve a court’s record verbatim. All records are then transcribed using VIQ Solutions’ AI-powered cloud-based speech recognition software and stored in a database. Firms can then access and manage the entire history of a case file from a centralized and searchable location with a user-friendly interface. What’s more, this interface can also be used to collaborate with authorized third parties, ultimately saving enterprises time, resources and money by eliminating the need to update, store, and manually search through huge audio and video records.
Today, the majority of organizations rely on large numbers of systems and applications which reside across cloud, on-premise, and hybrid platforms. While these systems remain disjointed, so too does the data that resides within them, stunting an organization’s ability to unlock the key insights the data contains.
Information integration technology solutions are designed to gather both structured and unstructured data in one place. By consolidating data in a centralized repository, separate teams across the organization are able to not only improve performance measurement, but also gain deeper business and process insights, achieve a 360-degree view of customers, and make more informed decisions to support organizational objectives.
However, information integration is a process – a journey that takes a lot of strategizing to complete. It’s something that will evolve over time, and may include a number of different approaches to bring together disparate data sources into one unified view. As such, the important thing to remember as you begin your information integration journey is to prioritize which data your organization would most benefit from integrating first, and start there. You will then need to select the right technology solution to aggregate that data in one place, ensuring it has the tools to convert that raw data into actionable insights. Once you have these elements in place, you will be able to break down your data silos, gain a clearer 40,000-foot view of your customers and processes, and start generating the insights you need to improve business performance.