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How to select an ERP integration partner

Integrating ERP with outside applications is key to a successful implementation. Here are a few things you should do to ensure success -- and what you'll want to avoid.

ERP systems are intended to address all information management needs in one integrated application package. But that ideal is seldom, if ever, realized. ERP always coexists with other third-party applications and it is often desirable to tie ERP and these outside applications together to share information or interact on a transactional basis. That's why a quality integration partner is a must.

There are several approaches to integrating ERP with outside applications. In some cases, the third-party supplier may have built interfaces for the most popular ERP systems, such as SAP and Oracle. When prepackaged integration is not available, companies must choose the level and nature of integration desired, and how to create and maintain the integration.

Avoid modifying packaged software

To ease your integration plans, be sure that any custom integration between packaged software applications is done outside the packaged software with no modifications to the packaged programs. Modifying packaged software is a bad idea. Modifications tend to be expensive and difficult to accomplish and maintain, and they can compromise the integrity of the packaged application. Furthermore, companies with modified applications face a challenging and expensive maintenance situation because each upgrade from the software supplier must be evaluated for compatibility with the modifications, which likely will have to be redone before the upgrade can be implemented. To avoid these challenges, a distressing number of companies delay installing upgrades, regularly skip releases or lock their systems (no upgrades). Each of these strategies prevents a company and its users from taking advantage of fixes and enhancements to the system.

When you look for an integration partner, first consider the service providers that you already know -- and that already know you and your systems.

When you look for an integration partner first consider the service providers that you already know -- and that already know you and your systems. The ERP system supplier or its local representative who implemented your system would be the most obvious candidate to integrate your ERP system with third-party applications. An equally fine choice would be the third-party package developer or its representatives. Both of these are likely to have had experience developing integrations for their packages and perhaps even between the systems in question.

Choose an integration partner that knows your applications

The most important factor in selecting an integration partner to help with your ERP integration is to choose a company that knows your applications -- both your ERP system and whatever third-party applications you will be interfacing. Have the proposed integration partner explain their approach and the type of middleware they will be using. Middleware, widely available from many sources, provides functional, flexible and secure information interchange at a fraction of the cost of custom-developed hard-coded interconnections.

Do your research and become familiar with the approach to integration embodied in the middleware. Be sure that you are comfortable and that the tools will handle the interface in the way you want, will be flexible enough to allow you to grow your information technology as requirements and capabilities change, and is from a reputable source with good customer experiences. The middleware supplier likely will have a number of case studies that you can research.

You may have a preference for middleware either marketed or endorsed by your ERP supplier, or developed by your hardware, database or operating system supplier (e.g., IBM, Microsoft, Oracle). Otherwise, rely on the integration partner to explain why the chosen middleware approach offers the best alternative for your needs.

Check your integration partner's references

Once you have made a preliminary integration partner selection or narrowed your choice to a few prime candidates, check their references and look for successful experience, preferably with the software packages they will be integrating for you. Talk to their existing and prior customers and ask about their performance, the quality and utility of the resulting integration, and how easy they are to work with. Do they meet their deadlines? Is the work completed within the agreed-upon cost? Are they responsive to inquiries and requests during and after the project?

Finally, ask to meet the people who would be doing the work and probe their understanding of the systems you are using and the business requirement. Essentially, you are hiring these folks, albeit temporarily. Make sure that these are people you want on your team.

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