Expert Interview with Robin Smith on Data Integration

Data integrationManaging all incoming data is becoming an increasingly unwieldy task for businesses today.

In the past five years, everything from the ongoing use of limited legacy systems and the advent of cloud-based applications with REST-based APIs to more complex interfaces and the explosion of big data has made integration a critical element to securing a business's competitive advantage.

"It is becoming absolutely crucial for businesses to integrate their systems to get the most value out of their applications, and data," says Robin H. Smith, Co-founder and General Manager of Sales & Marketing for Virtual Logistics. "Put simply, integration saves time, money and errors, freeing up decision makers to focus on business development and staying on the cutting edge of their industry."

Rather than using a one-size-fits-all approach, Virtual Logistics helps clients by providing a 360-degree solution design in both on-premise and cloud-based formats in order to give its clients the best possible integration solution to meet their needs and goals. Here, Robin talks more about what Virtual Logistics has to offer and helps us navigate the ins and outs of integration. Read on:

Tell us about Virtual Logistics. What services do you offer?

At Virtual Logistics Inc., we specialize in developing customized supply chain data integration solutions that work for our clients. Our solutions are customized for each client to help their data flow so they spend less time, money and resources handling their data; thereby freeing them to spend their time on what matters most to them: running and growing their business. We specialize in eCommerce integration, marketing automation integration, logistics integration, ERP Integration and EDI across a number of verticals.

Can you describe your ideal client?

Virtual Logistics Inc.'s ideal client is a larger small- to mid-sized business that is looking to be on or near the cutting edge of technological business trends. They are looking to make their company more efficient and effective, and realize that this can be achieved through improving their data flow both inter- and intra-business.

Our ideal client is passionate about improving their efficiency, and sees spending money achieving this end as an investment in their business and not a blind expenditure. They are open and willing to listen and learn from industry experts and other thought leadership sources. They are invested in their business in all the right ways.

What are your clients' biggest frustrations or pain points? How do you help them?

The biggest frustration our clients come to us with are existing integration solutions that are performing poorly or are instead creating more work because the company has outgrown the solution. This includes superfluous solutions clients have been talked into without fully understanding the product or solution; plug-and-play integrations that are not suitable for the size and volume of business the company deals with; solutions that come as add-ons to other products, applications, or services; or do-it-yourself (DIY) integration code the IT department implemented that eventually breaks down.

Another area of frustration for our clients is employing out-of-date legacy systems that are way beyond their best-before dates. These systems eventually fail, and to bring the business up to speed with the technology and support applications of today becomes a daunting task.

We help our clients who come to us with these pain points first via an intensive consultation process, wherein we discover their needs and goals for their new integration solution. We map out all the data touch points as well as the flow of the data with the client as a partner in designing their integration. From there, we design the solution and implement it either on-site or on the cloud. But it's not hands-off at this point: VL prides itself in ongoing customer care and support over the lifetime of our partnership with our clients, which on average is 10 years or longer.

What is supply chain data integration?

Data integration is the process of connecting transactional flow and applications together through either on-premise or cloud-hosted solutions, allowing data to flow in a free and automated manner. Data becomes standardized between the platforms, reducing errors and increasing savings in both time and money.

Supply chain data integration is applying this general definition to the broader supply chain network. This can include integrating a business' systems with external partners' systems or integrating applications within the business to standardize the data before integrating with partners.

In either case, supply chain data integration allows you to convert, standardize, export and import data between applications and partners. Some file types that VL's integration services regularly work with in converting and exporting/importing are XML, JSON, CSV, EDI, spreadsheets and PDFs. The data is pulled down off of the source application(s) using a variety of communications methodologies, translated into the appropriate form(s), and automatically sent to the target destination, removing the need for manual data entry and virtually eliminating human error from the system.

What do you think are the biggest mistakes or oversights companies make in this area?

Underinvestment in integration is a mistake a large number of companies make early on in the growth of their business. Underinvestment stems from a fundamental lack of knowledge regarding the integration strategies available, the types of solutions available and the types of partners out there.

There is also a fundamental misunderstanding when it comes to integration products versus integration services. Integration products are generally plug-and-play options that have a low threshold of functionality, integration options and scalability. Integration service providers, in contrast, map out and customize the integration for each client. These solutions using off the shelf software are more robust and long-lived and are able to scale as a business grows.

Finally, a partially integrated system or business is not an integrated business at all. If you're implementing an integration solution but you find that you are still manually inputting data, your business is not integrated.

What are some of your favorite tools or resources for brands when it comes to better managing data?

Some of the best resources surrounding integration opportunities are vetted industry experts and thought leadership platforms. Lack of education and misinformation are the biggest threats to achieving proper integration in any business, and lots of people take the first salesperson they meet with as the epitome of integration knowledge. We often also see a reliance on internal IT staff who have limited integration expertise.

If you're willing to look, there are some great resources out there for those looking to arm themselves with an understanding of integration services and their options for providers before sitting down with a salesperson. For one, Virtual Logistics Inc. has a wealth of resources on our website, including eBooks, podcasts, infographics, Slideshare presentations, and thought leader interview series - something to suit everyone at every level of understanding. Our blog is where we keep current with new trends and up-to-date industry information.

Peers, partners and trusted friends are also a great resource. If you know of a company that's gone through the integration process, lean on them for advice and recommendations. But it's always best to get a good breadth of knowledge and recommendations; don't base all your conclusions on a single source.

Our overall recommendation for integration resources is to commit to learning more by finding a source(s) you trust, but always trust your gut and do your research before you commit to any one product, service or partner. Looking for case studies or asking for testimonials is always a good bet.

What can businesses do to ensure smooth integration?

First, find an integration partner that is willing to work out your ideal solution over the long term. Anyone who's looking to lock you into an off-the-shelf integration product doesn't usually have your business' best interests in mind. Find a partner who cares about your business, including its success and growth over the long term. Good integration partners will be with your business for years to come.

Second, make sure you have your goals and strategies for your integration in mind, and that the customized integration solution is being designed to help you achieve these. Plan for tomorrow, next year and five years down the road.

Third, ensure that your integration partner will be there for you during the integration process and after. Integration solutions are for the long term, and you need a reliable partner who can help should anything change with your business, your needs or anything else. Reach out to your partner any time you have questions, comments or feedback. They should be there to answer you if they're worth their salt.

What are the biggest headlines or trends you're following in the realm of Big Data today?

There is a lot of buzz around the term Big Data, and it's being thrown about in discussions more and more often. Big Data is most certainly going to be more important as we progress, but we at VL find that there are some fundamental misconceptions around "Big Data." The ability to capture the reams of data being produced every day - some sources cite that we've produced 90 percent of all the data in the world in the last few years - is one thing, but making this data usable is something completely different. Much of the data produced every day is unstructured; that is to say, useless to businesses trying to leverage Big Data to their advantage without concrete data strategies for their businesses.

Big Data is becoming all about usability, like generating profiles for customers in order to predict when and where their next purchase will be, for example. The challenge is converting the heaps of raw data into something that can benefit a business and their customers. Data integration services have a huge role to play in this, as they essentially act as the virtual bridge between data producing/gathering/storing sources, amalgamating and norming the data into something that can useful.

For example, without integration, your data exists on disparate systems, or "islands of technology." You might have the phone number and email address for Jane Doe on your CRM, her mailing address and phone number in your accounting software, and her purchase history and mailing address on your webstore. Between these three systems, there is duplicate data and disparate data. Integration helps you bring all of this information into a single profile for Jane Doe.

What companies do you follow when it comes to how they manage data? What can we learn from them?

Any of the Fortune 500 companies are the ones to watch for learning about how the big guys are thinking about and managing their data. One prominent company on the cutting edge is Amazon, which consistently sets the bar and creates trends for all others to follow in how they treat and use their data. Other examples are to look at what is going on in the healthcare space.

One element that we are all likely familiar with is Amazon's recommendation list. This is data that has been compiled from numerous sources, including but not limited to your buying history, what other people in your area have bought, related products, and much, much more. This model has proven greatly successful for Amazon as it allows them the chance to increase the size of your shopping cart. And we all know that Amazon is doing very, very well. Increasingly this type of functionality is moving downstream to small- and medium-sized businesses.

What we can learn from companies like Amazon is a number of things: invest in systems and solutions that will benefit your company. Don't shy away from cutting-edge trends, but do your research. Some of your data projects may produce results, others may not; but in the long run, don't be afraid to experiment. Manage your customer data wisely; leverage it to your advantage. The digital world is growing, and it most certainly is the future.

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