It’s easy to be sceptical about the notion of digital transformation, which admittedly sounds fresh off the production line of Silicon Valley’s hype factory. Yet transformation represents genuine value because it enables companies to improve profitability, elevate customer service and strengthen bonds with vendors and suppliers.
The principal challenge of digital transformation is integration — disentangling the technologies of databases, hardware, platforms, mobile devices and operating systems of wildly varying vintages and keeping them all talking to each other. Of course, any great business challenge exerts a magnetic pull on entrepreneurs, which is why there’s a specific software niche devoted to helping companies integrate their technologies for production, distribution, human resources, marketing, ecommerce and everything else.
That software is called middleware, which works behind the scenes to connect each source of data to the machines that can process it. Middleware lets your Windows PCs talk to your Linux servers and your iOS mobile devices. You can link up your ERP software to vendors’ purchasing software and automate your transactions, removing opportunities for human error.
David Masters, CEO of Flow Software, a middleware provider with clients across New Zealand and Australia, said integration helps companies keep older technologies that do certain jobs well while embracing innovative newcomers. “Technologies like middleware are designed to enable businesses to leverage existing investment in infrastructure and business applications to handle the challenge of legacy systems as well as bring on new best-of-breed technologies in a low-risk, rapid fashion.”
The key challenge of middleware is finding the right package and configuring it for optimum performance. That’s easier said than done.
What it takes to transform
Companies keen to embrace transformation need to put a lot of thought into how new technologies address their business challenges.
“It’s not enough to have awesome technologies,” said Craig Bennett, CTO of Fusion Factory, a Flow Software partner based in Sydney, Australia. “You need to think about your business process and the capabilities of your existing systems. The beautiful arrows on your architecture diagrams can turn into a lot of discussions and effort to manage data correctness and interfacing.”
Bennett cautioned companies about purchasing out-of-the-box integration connectors, which often prove problematic when they have not been configured to match business process exactly. Problems also can arise when new business applications are added in the future.
Middleware’s ability to bridge technology gaps with files, APIs and webservices has solved critical technical challenges over the past decade, Bennett says, but getting the most value today may require you to dig deeper.
“Tools which let you analyse and audit your overall business processes — not just throughput on a particular interface — allow for management and optimisation of the integrated systems,” Bennett said. “If you use a tool which just focusses on the technical layer, you might have happy developers, but you won’t have decision-useful information for management.”
The best path to integration
Digital transformation typically requires working with software integrators who use middleware and other technologies to solve specific challenges. middleware vendors and integration service providers need to be aware of factors that complicate successful software integration.
“Integration is as much about people and process as it is technical,” said Bennett, who noted that a process does not necessarily have to follow best-practices architecture as long as it helps businesses identify problems and find a clear path to fix them. “Vendors and systems which try to enforce best practices and ignore the need for a business to run and make things work become a blocker rather than a helper.”
Masters referenced a client which has created a “transformative ecosystem” that has made it an industry leader. “They’ve created an API which exposes a generic interface to suppliers and customers — so all can consume and expose data irrespective of technology limitations. This empowers trading partners to connect and reap the benefits of digitalisation.”
Making the case
If your company seems stuck with bulky technologies and change-averse leadership, it may help to recognise the threats of disruptions in the marketplace.
“Nothing achieves cut-through with executives more than the ‘uberisation’ of an industry,” Masters said.
Just be mindful that disruption doesn’t always come from of automobiles replacing horse-drawn carriages or digital photography turning film into a museum piece. It can arrive in the form of rapidly changing customer expectations, or a sudden explosion of demand if your products unexpectedly attract a global audience.
Whatever the source of disruption, deal with it by clearing a path to digital transformation — cutting through the jungle of devices, platforms, protocols and file formats to help your business reach its full potential.
Middleware and integration are among the tools and techniques to make it happen.